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Yeoryia Manolopoulou, Niall McLaughlin, Michiko Sumi

Unit 17 designs contextual buildings that interplay with the social, political and material cultures of specific places. Each project is research-based, aiming to construct an architectural thesis that is explicitly manifested in the design proposition. We are interested in the student’s imagination and original voice, and seek diversity in the work produced by the unit as a whole: projects complement and sometimes intentionally contradict each other to form a multilayered dialogue about the nature of architectural thought and practice today. Design iteration through drawing and making is a constant activity that we encourage. Stimulating debates through open crits and tutorials, and a critical osmosis of ideas and techniques in the studio, are vital aspects of the unit’s culture. Fieldtrips play an important role in the development of the work and we invest substantial energy in designing itineraries which include experiencing extraordinary places and cultures.


This year we visited rural and urban Russia to experience at first how places that physically embody a deep history of the tensions that occur between ideology and building. Our intention was to focus on the complex physical and political role that materials play in the production of architecture.


Materials have shaped architectural ideas throughout history and cultures. They are practical as well as intellectual tools which communicate powerful messages. Specific materials represent unique human values and achievements, and have socio-political meaning. They determine the structural logic and environmental performance of a building but also the very essence of its space and its relation to experience.


Materials transform and dematerialize over time, creating ambivalences and paradoxes. We are interested both in the truth and fiction of materials: their ability to reveal and also to deceive. ‘To fabricate’ means to make by skill and labor, or by assembling parts or sections, but also to devise a legend or a lie, to fake or forge a document. We find the idea of material metamorphosis and the ironic potential of fabrication inspiring for architecture today. We explore the extent to which materials can continue to reflect the geography and socioeconomic position of a site and look for material innovation which can transcend the limits of a place responsibly.


In the digital and post-digital era our material consciousness has changed. Virtual media and simulation deny the experience of physicality, biotechnologies change our sense of scale and solidity, and digital manufacture is redefining the building process. Mixing the manual and the digital in hybrid materialities is now the new norm. But in this post-digital era what is the potential of materials beyond just geometric form?


In the beginning of the year the students produced compelling architectural environments that were experienced spatially at large scales and evoked the extreme political and environmental conditions that have shaped aspects of the Russian building stock over time. These works were research-based and asked questions that were further explored in the fieldtrip, where the students eventually found sites for their final building projects. Russia’s vast land, declining industrial monotowns, remote islands and ice-bound wildernesses offered us a wealth of experiences. Our journey began in Moscow through the prefabricated micro-districts, the workers’ clubs and experimental social housing schemes, the churches and heavily ornamented metro stations. From Moscow we took an overnight train through the winter Russian landscape to Petrozavodsk, flying to remote Kizhi Island in Lake Onega, where we explored the extraordinary seventeenth century timber churches of Karelia. Some of us ended our journey in St Petersburg, Russia’s grand ‘window to the west’, with its Baroque buildings, Soviet factories, the constructivist avant-garde neighborhoods, and the Tsars’ lavish summer palaces outside the city. Others made individual research fieldtrips to the suburban dacha settlements in the hinterland of Moscow, the fortified Kronstadt on Kotlin Island, the port city of Murmansk within the Arctic circle, and the two declining monotowns of Pikalevo and Magnitogorsk, the last one in the inhospitable location of the Ural River deep within the Siberian steppe. These unique fieldtrip experiences were crucial in determining this year’s work.

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