"10,000 Year Architecture" by Morgan Garrard
Michal Czerwonka/Courtesy SCI-Arc. "10,000 Year Architecture" by Morgan Garrard

Sometimes it’s OK to design a building. That was a difficult realization for the thesis jury at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). The hundred-odd projects presented at that school last weekend (Sept. 5–7) exhibited forms, images, and systems of a variety disconnected from any simple building proposal in a manner that would have been dizzying if they had not been presented with such finesse, but occasionally a student did actually propose a building—and found himself or herself criticized for that.

(Full disclosure: I was an on-and-off SCI-Arc faculty and staff member between 1988 and 1995).

Such was the case with one of the most beautiful projects I saw as a thesis juror (and I only reviewed a portion of the full array, though I tried to see all of the ones that filled the school’s seemingly endless corridors): a fire station for San Francisco’s piers designed by graduate Daniel Karas. A bundle of tubes sheltering inside an equally slick carapace, it opened up in snakes of rooms, stairs, and ramps that twisted out of its entrance into rooms so grand even Karas admitted it was a bit much for a place the public would never see. It didn’t make much sense, in other words: You would have a hard time justifying a structure of such a size and complexity for what is essentially a service facility. Perhaps only its prominent site at the edge of San Francisco’s downtown would argue for such an investment of both funds and creativity, but, as I noted before, that city’s citizens want less, not more design.

"M&N" by Daniel Karas
Aaron Betsky "M&N" by Daniel Karas

Then again, it was a thesis, and the beauty of such a relic of an educational tool is that it is a summation of a student’s learning and exploration. It is his or her last and most complete chance to experiment, to speculate, and to imagine. After that, the graduate has to work for a living, producing sellable and buildable projects if he or she wants to be a member of the architecture profession. There are, of course, alternative career paths, and I imagine some of the best students I saw at SCI-Arc will either wind up working for the film, television, or gaming industry, or will take a more theoretical track.

To make a building as a thesis, in other words, means that the structure has to itself be speculative and experimental, and has to represent what your aspirations for architecture are. It also should offer fellow students, faculty, and jurors a chance to speculate on what architecture might be. In that sense, Karas’s project was just a pleasant interlude that reminded the jury of basic building blocks.

"Glass House" by Jeffrey Halstead
Aaron Betsky "Glass House" by Jeffrey Halstead

Graduate Jeffrey Halstead pushed architecture further into an examination of itself. Taking as his cue a scene from a David Lynch film, he made a model whose scarred and twisted ground rose up to clasp a glass house (modeled on the Philip Johnson icon) whose straight horizontals and transparent verticals became deformed to the point that you could neither inhabit the space nor see through the glass. The project accomplished a nice reversal: Halstead revealed the ideal condition of the Glass House as a suppression and restriction, while lavishing care on a ground that evolved into a cocoon.

One of the most ambitious projects was graduate Morgan Wright Garrard’s proposal to house a version of the 10,000 Year Clock that is being built in Nevada’s desert. Consciously drawing on myth-making architects from Piranesi to Lebbeus Woods, Garrard drew us through his spirals with a combination of seductive drawings and an Oculus Rift presentation.

Other future architects mashed up Lloyd’s of London and the Battersea Power Station; developed algorithms to create a 23-mile walk through a block in the middle of Manhattan; and twisted office blocks so that they oozed public space and expressed a sense of the life within them.

These projects were not realizable, nor were they meant to be. SCI-Arc has long been one of this country’s best experimental labs in which designers speculate about the future of the human-made environment, and its thesis projects are its calling cards. The only question for me is whether, as always, the aesthetics of such images trump their investigations. As a stand-alone school without a cultural carapace of its own, and with leadership (now transitioning the director’s position from Eric Owen Moss, FAIA, to Hernan Diaz Alonso) that has always emphasized the beautifully tortured over the didactic, the extensive and expressive over the modest and socially responsible, and the section over the plan (I didn’t see a single good one of those), SCI-Arc remains in danger of being the punk that never grows up. They do it well, that head-banging and nose-thumbing, but what will it all mean?

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.