With a dozen years of work experience in the field of architecture, one question still continues to bother me: how much and what kind of knowledge it is necessary to acquire while studying architecture? Should real and practical things be taught at universities, which would be easily applicable in your job after graduation? Or the other way round? Maybe a university should be a place, where you can free your imagination and design cities of your dreams, because you never be able to do this later at your job? Seven years ago, just at the outset of my studies at the University of Technology in Delft (TU Delft), the Netherlands, I was on the side of reality and practicality. I analysed actual cities, their problems, sought for the real ways of solution. Then I first came across The Why Factory – a bright studio that thought differently and worked differently creating utopian cities, unrealizable and unrealistic future designs. Out of all other programs at the Faculty, The Why Factory was distinguished by its work space (an orange tribune is a symbol of the Faculty), substandard working methods (development of databases, software, games) and work results (thick books, impressive visualisations). Everyone at the Faculty knew (and still knows) about The Why Factory studio, but it is noteworthy that it has the same number of fans, as of critics.
The Why Factory work space – Orange Tribune (Photo by The Why Factory)
Back then, I wasn’t a fan of the The Why Factory, but I have become one within a few recent years. I got interested in the development, contents and results of the projects by this studio, when in autumn 2016, together with the Architecture Fund I was involved in organization of an exhibition of their project Vertical Village and lecture by Winy Maas, the professor and head of the architects’ studio MVRDV. So, by interviewing their teacher Adrien Ravon and former student Dalia Uogintė, I’m trying to find out, what kind of studio it is and what are their principles.
I first met Adrien Ravon in Delft, when he came to teach at The Why Factory. While working as a teacher and researcher with it for the recent six years, Adrien dealt with different projects, took part in different stages of their development. Being a permanent teacher, he is well-aware not only of the ideological vision of The Why Factory, but also of the entrails of generating themes, formulating methodologies, working with students and preparation of publications. Adrien is an architect, able to work interdisciplinary, match theoretical and technological knowledge. Majoring in architecture, he graduated from FADU-UBA in Buenos Aires and ENSAPM in Paris, also studied computer programing, multimedia and interactive games. At The Why Factory studio, Adrien led the course of the Future Models, during which students applied computer programming to their architectural design.
Dalia Uogintė is an architect, works with the Lithuanian architects’ studio Paleko archstudija and previously worked at the Shift Architecture Urbanism office in Rotterdam. In 2009, Dalia obtained the Bachelor degree in architecture at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU) and in 2013 graduated from the TU Delft with the master’s degree. Her works have received the awards of A. Dineika and E. Vitkus. I know Dalia not only as a gifted and creative architect, but also a very rational personality. Going straight to the heart of the matter, concreteness and logic are the words defining Dalia. This is why it came quite a surprise to me, when in 2011, while studying at the TU Delft, she selected a half-year Anarcity studies on the subject of anarchy, with The Why Factory.
As I was talking to Dalia Uogintė, I was eager to know about students’ motives for selecting this non-traditional studio and experience obtained in it. When I interviewed Adrien Ravon, I expected to hear from him about the methodology, goals and results of The Why Factory.
Dalia, why did you choose studies at The Why Factory and what have you obtained within this half-year at this experimental studio creating utopian cities? What lessons have you learned and how have you applied them in your further studies and present architect’s practice, or even just in your life?
When I went to the Netherlands, I had already quite strong technical foundation in architecture obtained though my studies at VGTU and also architectural practice. So, by these master degree studies, I expected to expand my theoretical knowledge, develop thinking. The Why Factory has been assessed quite ambiguously due to its visual (or rather “superficial”) works, as well as relevant and unexpected themes, and nonstandard study process. I found it interesting to try to start an architectural design from ideological and highly theoretical problems, rather than the location and design programme. I decided that I could regret later for failing to test myself in this studio curated by MVRDV.
And this was the right move. The experience obtained with The Why Factory was very valuable for my next year’s final master degree work. Such things as the fast pace of work, new abilities to work with different visualisation and modelling software and even knowledge on different ideologies were a great help to me. Looking from today’s perspective, the most valuable thing, in my opinion, was the possibility itself to see their architectural design project being implemented. It was untypical and unusual. It allowed me to understand that each problem might have not only different solutions, but also a bunch of different ways to look for such solutions. I believe, it expands your thinking and allows for a broader outlook on architectural or even ordinary life problems thus helping to find a bit different, maybe richer solutions.
Adrien, what is The Why Factory? How does it differ from other, traditional architecture schools, studios and courses?
The Why Factory is a global think-tank and research institute based in Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) and led by professor Winy Maas, co-founder of MVRDV. Winy Maas works with a team - a pool of teachers, researchers, scripters, editors, graphic designers and various others. We do both research and education in The Why Factory and they are merged together. We have workshops, master classes and graduation studios every semester at TU Delft. Although The Why Factory is based in TU Delft, the Netherlands, we are operating worldwide. We do studios and have partnerships with other universities, such as IIT Chicago, GSAPP New York, IAAC in Barcelona, ETH Zürich, RMIT Melbourne and Bezalel Academy Jerusalem.
A space able to change and move, the project Barba – The Transformer (Photo by The Why Factory)
What do we do? Our global agenda is the future cities. We analyse, theorise and develop visions and models, of how would the future cities look like. However, we do it in a different way; we look at cities through different themes. The cities are super complex structures, therefore every time we focus only on one specific topic. We chop this complexity in order to develop more in-depth research about one aspect, to understand its challenges and potentials. We develop technical or theoretical projects.
What is really crucial and specific about The Why Factory is its methodology. Scenario based research is a crucial part of our methodology. We start every project by asking “what would happen if…?”. I can illustrate it with a project called Barba – The Transformer, where we asked what would happen if everything would be made of the material which could adapt, transform and reshape – room space could shrink, furniture could change constantly. How could that feel and look like? How would it be to live in constantly adaptable environment? A hypothetical scenario, which would not happen in one hundred, two hundred or five hundred years, was our point of departure in the Barba project. Sometimes we look at the near future and sometimes – at the very far future, like in this Barba project.
The Why Factory does many different projects with different themes. How do you choose the themes?
We always focus only on one topic per studio. We choose topics from something that we call “a cloud”, a cloud of themes. We have already analysed topics such as biodiversity, permeability, connectivity, automation, density, sustainability, freedom, self-sufficiency, flexibility, customization, leisure and inventions. All the topics are somehow interconnected and that helps us to move from project to project. However, if we see that we miss something, we add topics to the cloud. It might be something that we discussed in the team, topics based on our fascinations or based on what we researched before.
What is the study methodology at The Why Factory? What kind of courses there are and what do students learn from them?
The Why Factory is almost 10 years old. We have defined the methodology at the beginning and have been précising, stressing, and developing it over the past years. Every studio is an opportunity for us to revise this methodology and to challenge it. However, it is always based on the “what if” scenario research.
The Why Factory runs research projects, which are positioned in a so-called Triangle – a research tripod of models, views and software. We develop abstract, conceptualized future city models, based on one topic. Theoretical city models are developed based on data. Then there is the view – an application program. We take these abstract city models and test them on different situations in real cities. Third point of the triangle is the software. We develop our own tools and software to work with the information. For that, we have the Future Models seminar, which is a course next to the design studio. During this scripting seminar, students are taught specific computational tools like parametric modelling, interactive tools. It is very helpful for students to understand the logic of it and thus parametric approach becomes part of their design.
Lego towers in the project the Porous City (Photo by The Why Factory)
The other important aspects of the studies in The Why Factory is group work and a dialogue between analogue and digital approaches. A good example to illustrate that could be The Porous City project, where students had to design towers using Lego bricks within a predefined envelope, which is 50 cm width by 50 cm length and 250 cm height. They had to create a series of geometric transformation of the towers, learning step by step and trying to see how it impacts the porosity: number of terraces, balconies, views, etc. We noticed that everyone was defining very clear rules on how to transform these towers, therefore we decided to translate these rules into a parametric model. We did it with the support of the Future Models seminar. In the parametric model, we were changing one parameter and all designs were reshuffling. Then we came back to physical model to check if the structure was working. That actually became very interesting as you could see some cracks on the models. So, it means, that something working in the digital model was becoming problematic with the real, physical model. In the end, we had this field of towers that were very interesting to compare, as they all were built by using the same format. The following year we decided to continue The Porous City project, but this time to focus on the cost of the porosity on the structures. We were calculating and trying to see what are the benefits of the porosity and when it becomes too expensive based on the amount of steel needed. To get structural engineering and technology knowledge we collaborate with the Building Technology course at TU Delft. Their tutors join us in the graduation studio.
Lego towers in the project the Porous City, each 50 cm wide, 50 cm long and 250 cm high (Photo by The Why Factory)
How do students like this methodology?
The group work sometimes raises challenges. However, when students arrive at The Why Factory, we make it clear what the rules are and we ask them to play the game. If you really want to enjoy, you have to immerse yourself in this methodology. It is a rather strict format, but within it, students can develop their own designs and fascinations. Later we compare different designs and develop tools to analyse, evaluate them. Already after the first review everyone sees the value of the same format, collective work and its comparability. All studio research becomes everyone’s individual research.
Dalia, you have studied at The Why Factory studio Anarcity and with a group of other students analysed the reflections of anarchy in architecture and application of its principles in the development of the living environment. What was your experience? What was the principle of organization of studies at The Why Factory?
This half-year’s course started with the group work. While working in pairs, first, we analysed ideological and historical aspects of anarchy and other political systems, cases of anarchist states and other formations implemented and not implemented in practice, works and biographies by the most famous and influential anarchist thinkers and activists, and finally, the reflections of their ideas in the works of certain architects or entire urban structures. The last part of the analysis was the research of anarchy manifestations in the building code of the Manhattan region in New York.
Wego project: Tailor-made housing (Photo by The Why Factory)
The research part took a half of semester. The second half - devoted to the project – was organized as a game. All of us, 25 students, working in pairs or individually, had to create residential structures which would allow the residents of the territory to live quality lives in the conditions of anarchy – without any preconceived rules.
The entire course of the process was distributed according to weeks: during the first week, each of us had to settle one resident in the common territory, on the second week – ten residents, on the third – a hundred residents, etc. On the seventh, last week, each student was able to house a million residents in the given territory.
One part of the project was architectural, visual – we had to answer the question, how the structure created by each of us looked like, how it could expand and adapt to the increasing number of residents, how the freedoms and rights of each such resident could be ensured. All this was modelled and placed on the common 3D model. The other part of the project involved negotiations for food, water, waste disposal and territory, an attempt to confirm the rules, which would allow to ensure certain survival conditions for the growing number of the city residents. All this took place in a separate Facebook group. By the end of each week, the entire process, new ideas, negotiations performed were filmed in short videos, which were presented for the teachers’ attention and received their comments and critique.
The final project was also quite unusual – besides a colossal 3D model encompassing 25 million of housing, 25 short videos (of 2 minute duration each) were prepared to introduce all those ideas collected and dramas experienced within that seven days.
Such a strange process, not even reminding of traditional architectural studies, required lots of new skills starting with operation of animation software to absolutely different approach to the team work. The process, which at first glance looked like a game, became a very real simulator of an architect’s work.
Every The Why Factory studio work develops into a publication. It must be very motivating for students to know that their work will be published. Adrien, why does The Why Factory publish books and how do students contribute to it?
Our idea is to spread and share our research findings with a broader audience. To achieve that, we make publications, organize exhibitions and discursive events. At the core of The Why Factory’s campaign is a series of books - the “Future Cities Series”, which are done in partnership with nai010 publishers in Rotterdam. Students are very involved in the book production. They work on the narrative, learn to tell the story, think ideas, develop different book chapters. However, students do not do the book, we do it. We add side research and material done by The Why factory researchers and collaborators. Our ambition is to publish one book per year, one book for one topic. Nine books are already published. Every time we publish a new book, we organize a panel discussion - a book launch, where we invite everyone involved in the book production and experts of the topic to discuss the theme.
The Why Factory publications – a series of books Future Cities (Photo by The Why Factory)
The other important output of The Why Factory is the exhibitions. Our work has been exhibited at various events, design weeks, museums. Very recently we opened an exhibition in Madrid, where we presented The Why Factory production during the last ten years, through models, videos and publications.
Dalia, can you compare how do the methods, work, pace and content of the The Why Factory studio differ from architectural studies at Lithuanian universities?
The studies are really different. The project content and working methods I witnessed at VGTU was quite settled, real and arranged according to the daily routines of an architect’s job: the task is given with a certain program, size and actual place of the building, then the territory foreseen for it is analysed, a few variants sketched and one of them is selected and further developed up to more detailed or abstract design project of the building. I believe, such a routine may be useful while introducing the very foundations of architecture and architect’s work principles, but surely is not aimed at further development of imagination and creative thinking.
Ego city, Anarcity project on the subject of anarchy (Photo by Dalia Uogintė)
Whereas the studies at The Why Factory, I think, have trained quite different parts of my mind. When you get into an unknown process and problem, of course, you get more exhausted, but also obtain a richer result. We didn’t have any program, nor a specific place. The boundaries for this project were set only by a frantic pace and game rules of one semester term.
Ego city, Anarcity project on the subject of anarchy (Photo by Dalia Uogintė)
Today, for a future architect, is no longer enough to learn at the university how to draw a line and develop spatial thinking. His or her ability to understand other disciplines, complexity of projects and problems, to know how to work in a team and search creatively for solutions are especially valuable competences. All of them are trained at The Why Factory. Although The Why Factory is often criticized for its utopian, economically irrational solutions, also for its ambitions to solve the global problems (such as poverty or shortage of food) with architectural means, the methodology applied and subjects analysed by this studio help to develop the qualities, which are valuable not only in the study process itself, but also in one’s professional practice. Strict project frameworks liberate one’s creativity, as they encourage for interpretation and search for answers. Finally, I think, it is important that The Why Factory analyses relevant issues and searches for solutions for future problems, very often forgotten by traditional schools of architecture with their too rarely updated and far from global problems and topicalities curricula.
Justina Muliuolytė is an architect, urban planner, founder of the strategic urbanism company Pupa – Strateginė urbanistika. The object of Justina’s research and projects is cities, urban structures and public spaces. In 2007, she graduated from VGTU, obtaining the bachelor’s degree in architecture, and in 2010, she defended her master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Technology in Delft, studied according to the students’ exchange programmes and worked in Italy, Argentina, Spain and the Netherlands. Since 2013, Justina works with Pupa – Strateginė urbanistika in Lithuania, consulting local municipalities, preparing projects on renovation of the existing city parts, sustainable city development and inclusion of communities in the urban planning procedures. Since 2013, she is also an active participant in different educational projects of the public body Architectural Fund.