Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    ContemPLAY: Adventures in full-scale digital fabrication (interview with Sophie Wilkin from McGill)

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Jul 19, '12 1:53 PM EST

    Hi Archinect!

    M.Arch. students from my alma mater, McGill School of Architecture, have designed and built a steel and wood pavilion that they’re calling ContemPLAY, and I recently sat down with team member Sophie Wilkin (via text chat) to find out more. Here’s an edited version of our chat:

    me: Hi Sophie!

    sophie.wilkin: Hey!

    me: I wanted to start by asking about the setup of the project pedagogically within the school.

    sophie.wilkin: It started as a student initiative—we wanted to learn about parametric design from Maria Mingallon, as the Gerald Sheff teacher at McGill.

    me: from Arup, right?

    sophie.wilkin: Right. We hadn’t had the opportunity to learn and manipulate parametric models during undergrad and M1 [the first year of the M.Arch. program] and Maria’s presence at McGill encouraged us to propose something new for McGill architecture students: the transition from designing with computer tools to fabrication.

    me: The last year or two of my PhD at McGill (I guess 2008 or 2009) was when the school got the CNC router; so was this the first really big project using this and other digital fabrication techniques?

    sophie.wilkin: Yes, ContemPLAY is the largest project we’ve used the CNC router for up to now.

    me: Can you give me a sense of the design process?

    sophie.wilkin: The design process started with 3 teams of 5 students each, and 3 sets of concepts emerged based on the potential of parametric design, on how producing 3D models based on geometry and construction might be explored. After various group discussions, we decided to mix the 3 teams’ ideas to generate the pavilion:

    Team 1 gave us the moiré idea
    Team 2 gave us the möbius idea
    Team 3 gave us the triangular structure/space fame

    me: right

    sophie.wilkin: So the final concept puts together ideas from 15 people which works well!

    me: WOW, that's pretty cool. The result is quite elegant (congratulations by the way) so I wouldn't have guessed it was a compromise or design by committee. But you must have done some serious work figuring out which ideas from which teams and people would go well together!

    sophie.wilkin: yes!

    me: Was this contentious–was it difficult to agree on the design?

    sophie.wilkin: Not really, because once we decided on the directions for the concept, we split in other teams with specific elements to focus on…such as the general aesthetic/design, structure, details, materials constraints, money, etc.

    me: I see. So everyone had their area of responsibility and expertise—so that people weren't trying to claim authorship in the exact same areas?

    sophie.wilkin: yes!

    me: What was your responsibility?

    sophie.wilkin: My main responsibility was material supplying and feasibility! Because I speak French, I could easily deal with local materials companies for info on steel tubes, galvanization, plywood prices, bolts, etc. The local material suppliers taught me so much information about fabrication and assembly, the limits and constraints related to their products, and the precautions to take so that it works safely.

    me: that's great! Had you done this kind of work before?

    sophie.wilkin: No, I hadn't done that before. I really enjoyed the passion the fabricators have for their products.

    me: Can you give an example of one moment in particular when some advice that you got from the suppliers affected the design or construction process?

    sophie.wilkin: We had to do extra holes on the tubes because air has to go through the tube during the hot-dip galvanization process. Without 2 little holes at each extremity, it would have exploded.

    me: oh!

    sophie.wilkin: This is why we had to ask CANAM (steel supplier) to add those holes to our workshop drawings

    me: I think I can see some of the holes in the pictures. These are the holes that do not have any bolts in them?
    sophie.wilkin: Yes.

    me: ahhh—I see from the ContemPLAY site that you're doing an M.Eng. in construction management at the same time! Smart move.

    sophie.wilkin: Yes, it was an excellent way to connect my interests with my role in the pavilion! I also did a lot of work manually—wood lamination, sanding, assembling.

    me: Did everyone take part in the physical construction work?

    sophie.wilkin: Not everyone could, but we were assisted by other architecture friends, teachers, and family.

    me: Ah yes, from the video I can see that you worked long hours. What was Jason’s involvement on the project?

    sophie.wilkin: It was Jason Crow who initiated us on the machines—how to work with it and how to find ways to resolve fabrication complexities of different parts—moirés vs. ribs vs. wood joints.

    sophie.wilkin: Having so many parts was part of the challenge! We initiated a labeling system—each part has a name based on its position and connections. The complexity of the structure was based on the potential of Grasshopper, the tool we were exploring. The 3D model allowed us to precisely simulate every material connection and it’s thickness, then adapt it and play with it depending on the structural pieces’ dimensions.

    me: Yes, that was something that amazed me! At the GSD in digital fabrication projects, it seems that people usually try to rationalize the geometry to get a smaller number of repeatable parts. That is not the way you went with this project! What was the thinking there—to test the capacities of CNC?

    sophie.wilkin: Not to test the capacities of the CNC, but to test our geometrical skills to resolve a structure and its components, something exploratory. Because it is a pavilion, we were looking at it more like an urban sculpture, than as a generic repeatable structure.

    me: Ah. Maximum beauty and badassery.

    sophie.wilkin: For sure! A real learning by doing! With some setbacks. It is a bit too ambitious and complicated. We didn't think it was going to take 21 months to built and raise money for this project, but our motivation and determination to do something to be proud of and for McGill push us to continue. (I guess we just have a great naïvité!)

    me: One other thing I wanted to ask about is the structure, in relation to this colored diagram. I'm going to embarrass myself by asking if the RED is...tension and the PURPLE is...compression?

    sophie.wilkin: Yes, it is a structural diagram from Maria.  Red is tension, purple is compression—yes.

    me: woot! :P

    sophie.wilkin: She put our models in an engineering software to size the required structural pieces to support the cantilivered part of the möbius—the tube dimensions that we then put in the Grasshopper code to make sure there was no interference.

    me: so the tube thicknesses change?

    sophie.wilkin: oh yes! Depending on the dimensions, availability and possibilities of tubes offered by our sponsor!

    me: Ah! So in retrospect would you have preferred to simplify it a bit?

    sophie.wilkin: We would all agree on that! Well, not to simplify the structure, but to reduce the scale of the pavilion. It is a huge structure!

    me: It’s a pretty impressive space. I guess the photos and drawings would look just as good at a smaller scale, but as a space it is impressive that it is so large!

    sophie.wilkin: Go big or go home, I know, but its scale was not that easy to manipulate and organize in term of space, storage, costs, our capacity in terms of assembling on site.

    me: Has most of the team has graduated now?

    sophie.wilkin: Every member has graduated now! Most in 2011, and one in June 2012.

    me: Congrats! What is your current job?

    sophie.wilkin: I work at MRA architecture + design, mainly with steel fabrication in relation with code, workshop tasks, budget, and site construction. And I do design, city meetings, construction drawings—an authentic M.Arch. intern!

    me: Sounds exciting. Learning lots I guess?

    sophie.wilkin: Oh yes! Big responsibility—I really love it!

    me: It sounds like you're putting your education to great use. Congratulations on that and to the whole team on the pavilion.

    sophie.wilkin: Thank you Lian!
    me: Thank you, Sophie! That was great—I enjoyed hearing more about the process. Have a good night!

    Thanks for reading!

    Credits: ContemPLAY is a student initiative at McGill School of Architecture, designed and built as part of the M.Arch. program’s Directed Research Studio (DRS) in collaboration with Maria Mingallon from Arup (Gerald Sheff Visiting Professor),  Jason Crow (PhD Candidate) and Michael Jemtrud (Associate Professor) from the school’s digital research lab--FARMM (Facility for Architectural Research and Media Mediation). All photos provided by ContemPLAY; video by Natali Film for ContemPLAY.


    • Amazing job!!

      Jul 23, 12 8:07 am  · 

      Beautifully conceived and executed!

      Jul 23, 12 5:55 pm  · 

      Really great work! 

      Good design. Good Form. Excellent Execution. Nice Video.

      Jul 24, 12 12:15 pm  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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