For Alvin Huang, AIA, the founder of Synthesis Design + Architecture (SDA), his firm’s name aptly defines his approach to practice. An assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, Huang finds a significant overlap between his teaching and research at the school and the various explorations undertaken in his firm’s Los Angeles office. In his studios, Huang pushes students to research the ways in which technology informs the architectural process. At SDA, similar investigations are constrained by budgets and the limitations of materials. By repeatedly collapsing the boundary between applied research and exploratory practice, Huang has developed a symbiotic feedback loop between the two.
Huang spent his formative years in England. He attended the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA)—and will co-direct an L.A.-based visiting school program through the AA for 10 days in June—and worked at the London offices of Zaha Hadid Architects, Future Systems, and Amanda Levete Architects (which Levete founded after the death of her partner at Future Systems, Jan Kaplický). Huang embraced the international diversity of those practices and sought to create a similarly varied team after striking out on his own in 2011. Not only does SDA’s staff of five hail from Portugal, Taiwan, Canada, Jordan, and the U.S., but all of the firm’s built work has been abroad.
That will change, however, with SDA’s commission to design an exterior pedestrian footbridge over a freeway as part of a public art project at the Slauson metro station in L.A. “We took the [need for a] big stair as an opportunity to do a decorative rainscreen cladding that creates a sort of vector-field condition,” Huang says. Apertures at various points along the walkway will frame highlighted views, like the nearby Watts Towers, providing “a visual experience moving up and down the stairs that encourages you to make that journey.”
As Huang tells it, the Slauson project—scheduled to be completed in early 2015—reflects his interest in how overlapping, slightly non-parallel viewpoints and materials can generate provocative ideas in architecture. For CentralPlaza Lampang, a shopping center in Thailand, SDA designed a lattice-like façade that embraces the moiré effect. Comprised of folded metal sheets over extruded aluminum sill profiles, the façade relies on associative geometries for variation. “When we started the design, it was something like 2,000 to 3,000 unique parts,” Huang says. “Using associative geometries, we could make the same effect with just five different pre-fabricated panels flipped and rotated. For close to the same cost of producing just one type of panel, we were able to produce an exponentially more interesting result.”
With subtle shifts in the orientation of a façade element, Huang was able to reveal either views beyond the scrim or the substructure behind it. “The power of associative geometry is something that is inherently there in every architectural project I’ve ever done, even when I was drawing by hand with a Mayline,” he says. “But I think now, with the computer, you’re able to take it to a different dimension and use it in ways that you couldn’t previously.”
Just don’t call it parametric design. Huang insists that his office avoid the term, despite the fact that his former teacher (at the AA) and boss (at Zaha Hadid Architects), Patrik Schumacher, wrote the proverbial book on parametricism with his 2008 manifesto that celebrates it as the next great style after Modernism. “I don’t think that parametricism or associative geometry has to produce a formal result,” Huang says. He finds the stylistic or formal elements of parametricism less interesting than its potential as an adaptable set of tools: “With associative geometries, it’s about geometric relationships and building hierarchies, and how you can adjust them.”
For the Fuzhou Cross-Strait Cultural Art Center in China, SDA designed systems that wrap simple programmatic volumes with tensile membrane roof systems and skins of perforated fiber-reinforced concrete. Digital triangulations on the skin produced a network of lines and nodes, allowing SDA to produce the visual effect of a porous tree canopy by strategically cutting out voids in this network.
On a smaller scale, an early project like Chelsea Workspace—a 7-square-meter (75-square-foot) home office—merges geometric logic with digital craft. For Huang, this interior fit-out made with CNC-milled birch plywood ribs was only possible through intense collaboration with the fabricator. “I still believe very firmly in the notion of craft,” Huang says.
Taking a 3D model, reproducing it in 2D drawings, and then translating those drawings into 3D forms is no simple task. Sometimes there’s more fidelity in skipping the middle step; Huang found it easier to exchange digital 3D files that doubled as fabrication documents. But then, as Huang says, “the way of making the 3D file has to have a level of digital craft” that’s every bit as good as the builder’s handiwork.
With current commissions ranging from a temporary tensile pavilion in Calgary, Alberta, to the 861,000-square-foot cultural art center in Fuzhou, Huang and SDA are tackling new project types as varied as their geographic locations. “We are not a practice that is bound by expertise to a specific typology,” Huang says. “The main thing for us is trying to find different design problems that are willing to consider things from a different perspective and let us explore. Design really does span all scales; we’re just as interested in furniture as we are in towers. For us, it’s really about a way to find how design research and practice overlap and inform one another.”