Making as Inquiry: Design / Build in Washington Heights

Amsterdam Avenue entrance to the Highbridge Pool and Recreation Center

Over the past forty years, “design / build” programs have established themselves as a valuable complement to traditional architectural education. Of the 123 accredited schools of architecture, almost 100 have a specific program that integrates construction experience into design studio assignments. Some of the most well-known of these programs – like the Yale Building Project, Studio 804 at the University of Kansas, or the Rural Studio at Auburn University – focus on projects in the public interest, producing affordable homes, applying sustainable building techniques, or meeting the architectural needs of underserved communities. Parsons The New School for Design has been exposing architecture students to the craft, materiality, and practice of building their designs since 1996. The Design Workshop provides pro bono architectural and construction services to nonprofit organizations. Past projects include Infowash, a laundromat and information center in Mississippi for a community devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and Bronxscape, a rooftop garden for Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, a young adult residence in the Bronx. The Design Workshop’s two most recent two projects emerge from a five year partnership with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the City Parks Foundation. In 2011, students created Splash House, a new pool pavilion for the Highbridge Pool and Recreation Center in Washington Heights, one of 11 city pools built in 1936, commissioned by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 2012, students expanded upon these improvements to the pool complex with In_Flux, a series of renovations to the recreation center’s interior.

Two years ago, Alfred Zollinger took over as director of the Design Workshop. In his teaching and his own design practice (he co-directs his firm Matter Practice with Sandra Wheeler), Zollinger emphasizes material innovation as well as architecture’s capacity to communicate social themes to the public. These twin priorities are evident in Peace & Quiet, a dialogue station encouraging veteran-civilian dialogue that will be installed in Times Square from November 11th through the 16th in Duffy Square. And they also speak to evolving questions about how best to integrate design / build programs into architectural education. In the interview below, Zollinger discusses the state and history of design / build, describes the Design Workshop’s recent projects at the Highbridge Pool, and reflects on how his own experiences as a designer and builder inform his belief that making is a mode of critical inquiry.

C. S.


Installing ply ribs at Splash House

Tell me about the Design Workshop at Parsons.
When the Design Workshop was getting started 15 years ago, students designed and built a number of smaller projects executed primarily here at the school. Over the years, it has grown into increasingly larger projects outside of the school, from interior renovations to free-standing buildings. Typically, what distinguishes the program is its emphasis on urban design-build projects, as compared to world-renowned programs like the Rural Studio at Auburn University. That said, we have done projects that aren’t in urban contexts, like in Margaretville, NY or in Mississippi, post-Katrina. The focus is to provide an opportunity for architecture students to engage in a project from the beginning to end, from design in the spring semester through construction over the course of the summer.

Tell me about the Splash House, the program and the site.
When I took over directing the program from David Lewis two years ago, he had already been making some forays into working with the Department of Parks and Recreation (Parks). Charles McKinney is principal urban designer for Parks, and he’d previously been involved with Highbridge Park. He brought this project to us. With the renovation of the Highbridge itself, there was a desire to improve the recreation center as well. And the precedent of the renovation of the McCarren Park Pool, which was a $50 million project, inspired thinking about taking some of those ideas and applying them to the facilities of the Highbridge Park Pool. This pool was built in 1936 as a WPA project. Within two years of Robert Moses becoming Parks commissioner, 11 of these pool complexes were constructed. And they were big enough to service almost 50,000 people a day. The primary purpose was, of course, to provide people a safe and sanitary place to swim in the summer months. And the rest of the year, the indoor facilities adjacent to the pools served as bathhouses, where people could take a wash. When public bathing facilities fell out of use, these buildings became recreation centers and were remodeled a number of times over the years. The Highbridge Park Pool facilities were last remodeled in 1982. But since the pools are still active and widely used during the summer, there has been a seasonal need to convert the recreation center’s gym into changing rooms for pool use. So it wasn’t able to accommodate year-long programs; it didn’t have adequate room for fitness equipment; it has lines going down the block in the summer. The design challenge for us was to take the pool-specific functions – including a secure, direct entrance that doesn’t make the user go through the building to access the pool – and move those onto the pool decks. That’s the idea of Splash House.


Top and bottom: Splash House changing rooms | Photos by Michael Moran

By moving the changing room and locker facilities out onto the pool deck and providing entrances on the side of the building, we were able to open the building up for other uses. So the second project we worked on at this site is called In_flux, which focuses on this entryway and on ways to connect what were formerly the men’s and women’s changing room. Previously, you had to exit the building and cross an open, exterior space to get between these two wings. We had identified in the master plan that enclosing that central space would create a number of opportunities to solve the circulation challenges and bring new programs of use. The former men’s wing is now the gym. And the former women’s wing has spaces for after-school programs, a dance floor, a game room, and a computer lab.

How have you found working with the Parks Department?
It’s been great. We’ve made an agreement with Parks to work with them on projects over the next five years. During the Splash House project, it quickly became apparent that working on it for only one year, with one cohort of students, wasn’t going to be sufficient. So the Design Workshop is shifting towards longer-term and therefore larger projects. One of the things about this project that students found really valuable was the ability to interface with the Parks Department’s in-house staff: whole units dedicated to recreation, planning, programming, facilities, engineering, architecture. Very often, Parks builds its own projects. So, from the beginning, students in the Design Workshop were able to meet with all kinds of experts with lots of experience in design and construction projects. Whereas in the past, when our client has been a non-profit organization, that expertise hasn’t been there on the client side. And exposing the students to city process has also been very valuable: securing the right approvals, presenting their plans to the Landmarks Preservation Commission since it’s a landmarked building, getting the building permits from the Department of Buildings. That’s an important part of learning how to get a building made, just like digging holes and pouring concrete for the foundation or making the laminated plywood beams on site.

Rendering of In_flux, the interior renovations to the Highbridge Recreation Center

So throughout the design phase, client representatives from the Parks Department respond to the design, helping to guide the project?
Yes. And that’s been pretty amazing. Department representatives have come here to Parsons to do design reviews in the academic context. And we’ve also taken our drawings and models up to a big conference room at the Parks Department’s offices at the Arsenal and presented them to the Manhattan Borough Park Commissioner, the Chief Architect, as well as officials from facilities, operations, programing, recreation, engineering. I think the most incredible part, of course, is that you get all these people into a room and they don’t necessarily agree. So, the fact that the students get to witness that is pretty special. And then they take all the information back to the studio and hash it out and figure out how to move the project forward.

Tell me about some other Design Workshop projects.
Some of the clients we have worked with have sought us out, others we have found through other channels. The town of Margaretville, NY, is one example of a recent project. The town is about two hours north of here. The site was a picnic area that hosted popular barbecues, but it was in a flood plain and town officials were looking for ways to rebuild it. Another Design Workshop project was in a part of Mississippi badly affected by Hurricane Katrina, and the idea was to open up a resource center that would provide job training and information in a building that also functions as a Laundromat. So that was an interesting pairing of dissimilar programs: designing and building a place where people could learn about local job opportunities while waiting for their laundry to get washed.

BronXscape, a rooftop environment for a new apartment building for young adults aging out of foster care developed by the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter. Bronx, 2008

InfoWash, a combination laundromat and information center designed and built by The Design Workshop at Parsons. DeLisle, Mississippi, 2006

I’ve read that, for you, “making is a mode of critical inquiry.” What does that mean to you?
Making offers a way of always testing, of applying your design ideas in a direct way that forces a balance between concepts and practical requirements.

What kind of design / build projects did you have access to while you were in school? Tell me a bit about your training and background.
I started out as a precision machinist at a watch factory in Switzerland. And the house I grew up in, in Switzerland, was basically my father’s ongoing, DIY project. So I’ve been making things for a very long time. I did my undergraduate architectural training at the Rhode Island School of Design and my graduate training at Cranbrook. At RISD I took a lot of shop classes and, during one summer, I was able to work on a project building a house. Cranbrook has an longstanding design / build tradition, and after I graduated I worked for a while designing and building projects on Cranbrook’s campus. When I first came to New York, I worked for a contractor for two years in order to understand that aspect of the process better. But generally speaking, I’d say the notion of design / build (and architecture in general) was narrower when I was in school. The thinking was that if you could swing a hammer at a nail and cut a 2×4, you’ve come to understand something about what it means to be an architect. But it’s not that simple. What I find most exciting about the Design Workshop is those moments when students, after weeks and months of working on and looking at a drawing, become increasingly aware that it’s not conceptual or hypothetical anymore. I think it’s empowering for them. Especially when architectural jobs dry up, these students have a different set of skills that they can bring to a wide range of opportunities.

In your opinion, what is the current state of design / build programs in architecture schools around the country? Are they peripheral? Central to the pedagogy? Has it become an expected part of an architectural education?
I think that as architectural practice moves more and more into the digital and virtual, students’ hunger to make physical things is growing. We see that tendency in other aspects of society and culture these days – with the increased interest in craft and making – and I think that plays into the interest in design / build programs. The popularity of these programs is clear. Projects like the Solar Decathlon demonstrate both a need and a place for design / build in the education of architects in this country. As I see it, there are two primary models. One is applied work for non-profits or public interest projects. The other is more research-based, the build-out of full-scale pavilions or structures to try out architectural concepts, test materials or modes of digital production. There are some programs that attempt to combine those two. In my experience over the past two years directing the Design Workshop, a recurring challenge is the timeframe. A design and construction schedule, start to finish, of only January to August really limits the scale and scope of the project. For us, moving into longer, two- or three-year processes makes a lot of sense.

Building Splash House

So is the purpose of teaching architects how to build a means to inform how they will design and manage construction projects in the future? Or is it to prepare them for changing models of practice?
Both. And I grappled with this question when I took on this role. A friend of mind who teaches at the Royal Academy in Denmark questioned why I wasn’t putting more priority on experimental projects. When I explained that the focus of the program is on exposing students to a real-world, start-to-finish process, his response was, “Aren’t they going to get that experience in an office?” To a certain extent, I agree that teaching things you’ll learn in the office environment anyway can be limited. But for the most part, young designers in most architecture firms don’t have the opportunity to work on all aspects of a project from masterplanning through design through construction, at least not at first. I’m interested to find ways to do both: to work on interesting, experimental projects while also giving students a chance to work on a project all the way through. My hope is that understanding the process – going to meetings with the Landmarks Commission, interpreting building codes, working as a team, coming up with one design, negotiating ideas, budgets, timelines, material properties – will expose students to all the variables. And the sooner they get a sense of those variables, the sooner they’ll understand that each variable presents opportunities. How do you understand community board meetings as part of making something? We usually understand “making” in terms of the physical, but it represents a mindset that can be applied to some of the less physical aspects of building something. Working through that with students opens up opportunities for them to think about other models of practice.

What have you observed in students of architecture, whether at Parsons or elsewhere, about how young designers want to practice? Do they want to work in offices in the same way that they have in the past? Or are there new modes of practice emerging that reflect some of the issues we’re discussing?
There are obviously some big questions about the future of the profession. And I think the gap between the kinds of projects that large firms do and what smaller firms do is growing wider, and we’re going to see less and less work by mid-sized firms. How do we continue to educate our students in a way that represents what’s happening out there in the professional world? Obviously we should be exposing them to as many things as possible. I think a critical piece is giving them agency as designers. I think that a lot of people are already practicing in new and different ways. That became quite clear right away with the Splash House project. For example, the students very quickly realized that funding was going to be an issue. So they took it upon themselves to put components of the project on Kickstarter and to call up manufacturers and ask for in-kind donations. Again, they understood the whole range of what it takes to get a project built in addition to how to build a project. When I look back on my own training, it was very different. And the Design Workshop definitely influences students’ decision-making after architectural school. Among the students who have graduated from our program, one started a restaurant with his brother that they built out themselves, and then got his foot in the door of getting design projects through working on building projects. We have one recent graduate who has taken a full-time job with the Parks Department. I would argue that once they’ve worked in the field and engaged with clients, their ambitions quickly expand well beyond the traditional route of getting a job at a big firm. These experiences can be really empowering.

Demonstrating the sliding enclosures of Splash House | Photos by Michael Moran

All images courtesy of The Design Workshop at Parsons, the New School for Design. For a list of students who worked on Splash House, click here. For a list of students who worked on In_flux, click here

Alfred Zollinger is co-principal of Matter Practice, an architecture and exhibition-design firm founded with Sandra Wheeler. Matter has completed a range of public projects, including exhibition designs for the National Building Museum; the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; and the International Center of Photography, as well as several residential designs. The practice maintains its own prototyping and custom-fabrication shop and is informed by Zollinger’s early training as a precision machinist and interest in making as a mode of critical inquiry. He studied architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design and completed his postprofessional studies at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he was designer and fabrication specialist on a number of widely published projects completed by the Cranbrook Architecture Office. He has taught at the ETH, in Zurich, RISD, and, since 2006, at Parsons.