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Contingencies of Design Northeastern University

How do you teach design? Good question! Here is how professor Ivan Rupnik teaches an introductory course to architecture majors in Northeastern University’s undergraduate program. “We use residential scale to teach architectural space,” Rupnik explained to me over coffee before I visited two review sessions of “Contingencies of Design,” the second half of Northeastern’s introductory requirement. “We teach free plan versus raumplan, and at the end we throw in some contingencies — say, halve the plot size or increase the lot grade — to see how the students react.”

I saw nine students each design a 2,500-square-foot house on a quarter-acre lot in a hypothetical residential development. The lots were unevenly configured, and the students were encouraged to work with the landscape contours rather than alter them.

John Davis, a doctoral candidate at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, oversaw their studio work. Classes met in Northeastern’s — shall we call them  sui generis architectural classrooms, built into the Ruggles T station. Every 10 minutes or so, the building shook like a leaf as a subway train passed by —  but none of the students’ houses buckled, I can attest. A’s for structural engineering all around!

The initial designs were, no pun intended, all over the lot. One student created a four-story vertical box. Another designed “two sheds kissing,” as one of the reviewers called it.

Jacqueline Diaz glossed Palladio’s famous Villa Rotunda design. “It’s bold of you to attack the Villa Rotunda,” was Davis’ careful reaction. Reviewer Marilyn Moedinger, founder of Runcible Studios, made an observation that applied to many of the models: “You need a more sophisticated understanding of symmetry. Symmetry doesn’t have to mean equal, it can also mean balance.”

The unexpected contingency for this class was that the client suddenly insisted that two homes be built on the lot, one for a small family, the other for a single working professional. So when I attended the final review for the eight-week class, a great deal had happened. Some of the students had clearly “hit Control-C,” as reviewer Jenny French, a partner (with her sister) at French 2Design, said. Faced with a tight deadline, a few students copied their initial designs and jammed them close together to fit on the lot.

Davis put the instinct in context. “You didn’t need a totally new concept for the second house,” he said. “A lot of what architects do is variations on a theme. You’re not reinventing the wheel every time you build a house.”

First-year student Joshua Soto received some of the most detailed and positive feedback for a set of structures he built on a hilltop, the highest point of the class’s hypothetical neighborhood. Before the assignment mandated a second house, Soto had built four freestanding towers grouped around an outdoor dining and social space. Moving among the bedrooms and living room meant going outside.

A view of Joshua Soto’s model. Photo: Joshua Soto

It occurred to me that he might live in Southern California or Hawaii, where outdoor spaces can meld nicely with the “built environment.” Soto does hail from the South — the southern portion of Norfolk County, Massachusetts, where outdoor living is possible only half the year, at most.

At the second review, his hilltop plan got rave reviews. “The bulldozers have been out!” Moedinger exclaimed, noting that Soto had done a lot more than just replicate his original idea. Two families were living in seven different buildings, with the homes separated by a change of elevation inside a central structure. From below, the project still looked like a hilltop fort or redoubt. “The outer perimeter of the buildings are like a bear cage,” is how Soto described his revised neighborhood of two.

“What you’ve done looks like a hill town in Italy or Spain,” Davis said. Moedinger offered some pointed criticism: “One of your bedrooms is really just a shipping container with a skylight over the bed. You walk up the stairway, and there’s a toilet stuck on the wall.” Then she trained her fire on one of Soto’s outbuildings: “This is more like an artillery emplacement, not a bedroom — but I like it!”

Wait, they’re not finished.

Moedinger, who taught at the University of Virginia (UVA), compared Soto’s layout to Thomas Jefferson’s famous campus plan, which slopes gently downhill from the famous Rotunda. “You and Thomas Jefferson are in the same boat,” Davis remarked. Given that Jefferson was in his mid-70s when he designed UVA and Soto is 20, not a bad boat at all.

View a PDF of Soto's site plans.