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Architecture

UCLA's New Campus for Experimental Architecture...With Robots

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Wed, Jan 22, 2014 at 5:13 PM

click to enlarge UCLA architecture students work with robots to prepare a project. - PHOTO COURTESY UCLA ARCHITECTURE AND URBAN DESIGN
  • PHOTO COURTESY UCLA ARCHITECTURE AND URBAN DESIGN
  • UCLA architecture students work with robots to prepare a project.

Also part of our spotlight on Playa Vista:
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On an afternoon in November, about halfway through the midterm review for Professor Greg Lynn's master's in architecture students, a top-operated Genie, which looks like a crane but with the driver up high, began rolling by outside. It was loud, so the 20-some students and faculty present had to strain to hear one another.

Valerie Leblond, director of the Ideas program of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design, waited a minute or two, then slipped out to address the problem. She had to yell up at the rig's driver. "Say that again, good-looking," he yelled back, taking off his headphones, powering down. It was hard to hear her reply, but she must have explained he'd interrupted a university class.

"Where's the school at?" he yelled down, beginning to sound apologetic. "I'm with the rigging company two doors down." He promised to try to get by as fast as he could. "I'm so sorry," he said.

When Leblond returned, Lynn was telling his colleagues about some rules he'd established for critiques: "We're not allowed to say 'basically,'0x2005" he said. " 'Basically' means I don't know what I'm talking about."

The noise continued a little longer.

Such are the perils of having an architecture school that's not on UCLA's Westwood campus but on the Hercules Campus in Playa Vista, where a rigging company might be moving equipment or a film crew might be shooting next door.


UCLA's three-year Master of Architecture I program is still based on the main campus. But its one-year Master of Architecture II program, for students who already have a bachelor's degree in architecture - called Suprastudio since 2008, when students started working in faculty-run studios with industry partners - moved to Playa Vista at the beginning of this school year. It now has a 6,000-square-foot workspace in a hangar built by Howard Hughes in the '40s. The space, with redwood walls and rafters, is where the mogul built his Spruce Goose, the massive, floating, birch plane he flew only once, in 1947.

The Ratkovich Company, a real estate developer with properties across L.A., owns the Hercules Campus now. The company wants innovators, development manager Milan Ratkovich says, "so when they talked about the study of how robotics can shape the future of architecture, it fit with our vision." Plus, Wayne Ratkovich, the company president, is on the board of UCLA's School of Arts and Architecture.

(The new UCLA facility is also where a team is exploring the possibilities of Elon Musk's Hyperloop, a technology that could propel people from L.A. to San Francisco in 30 minutes. See our story: Can Hyperloop Actually Be Built?)

In addition to the program's 3-D printer, laser cutting tools and typical woodshop, it has a caged area toward the eastern end of the space that houses blue and yellow robotic arms, one of which was donated by Toyota. Students can use them at any time, a perk no other architecture school and few working architects can claim. "It takes the exoticism off of them real fast," Lynn says. "You start thinking, 'Why am I not using a robot to do this?' "

The hope is that moving off campus will get the school more involved with what's happening in industries that its students are likely to enter. Lynn runs one of the Ideas program's studios; L.A.-based, internationally known architects Frank Gehry (also based in Playa Vista) and Thom Mayne (whose firm, Morphosis, is nearby in Culver City) run the other two. Mayne's students work with his UCLA-based Now Institute to develop new approaches to city planning; Gehry's work with his construction and engineering firm Gehry Technologies to explore building possibilities off the typical electrical, water and heating grid.

Lynn's studio will work with Boeing this semester to try to develop new moving parts for the aircraft company's workspaces. But he gave his students a few months to develop their own ideas before that. Confidence first, then collaboration.

In the weeks leading up to midterms, each of Lynn's students had to use the robotic arms to model a structure in which one part moved, changing the way the space as a whole functioned. They'd work on the design, then build a model and program the robots to move the appropriate parts.

The day of the review, a long line of dollhouse-sized models, some resembling spaceships, filled a table, as additional faculty started arriving from the main campus. Students presented videos of their models in action. After one circulating disc bumped into the sides of the shell that contained it, Lynn commented, "What I like about the robots is that they're really good bullshit detectors."

Later, a student presented a project in which a red, lozenge-like form somersaulted through wavy slits in a model's walls. It was impressive but perhaps, in its current stage, more dramatic than practical.

"We're absolute rank amateurs at building with robots," Lynn said soon after. "That's why this is an internal review."

Also part of our spotlight on Playa Vista:
YouTube's Playa Vista Space
Playa Vista Was Going to Be a Utopian Planned Community...
One of the Most Exciting Ad Agencies of L.A.'s Madison Avenue

Correction: A previous version of this story got the number of years wrong for UCLA's Master of Architecture I program - it's three years, not two.


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