An Inconvenient Studio
Ball State University
Ball State University
The authors propose that technologically empowered design innovations, able to confront the many global challenges
faced presently and in the future, require new pedagogical and organizational strategies in the design studio. The
paper describes a novel approach to conducting An Inconvenient Studio and the unique learning experience that led to
original active and reactive inventions. Situated technologies / physical computing played a central role in enabling An
Inconvenient Studio. Five projects that came out of the studio will be brieﬂy described: Legobotics, Bloom, Twist, Arcus
Animus, and Morpholuminescence.
The prospects of climate change loom over the horizon of our generation (Pachuari and Reisinger 2007). The daunting task
of reigning in risk factors for cataclysmic climate change requires that we think outside the silos of education, pedagogy, and
knowledge creation and embrace innovation through design (Mau 2007). In spring 2009, a studio was conducted at Ball
State University with an aim to innovate through active strategies in environmental design (in distinction to passive design),
digital technologies, robotics, interactive architecture, and collaborative design approaches that challenge conventional
models of studio education. Known by many names (interactive architecture, responsive architecture, smart environments,
intelligent buildings, situated technologies, and robotic architecture), these new technologies hold tremendous promise for
the future of architecture (Cook et al. 2005; Guin et al. 1986).
The studio was given an opportunity to self-organize and operate around a self-deﬁned mission and brand, as well as a set
of advanced technologies and design topics. Inconveniently, no preconceived design projects were given to the students.
No deadlines were provided. Instead, a vertical studio consisting of thirteen graduate and undergraduate students and
two instructors was turned into an entrepreneurial think tank (inconvenient studio 2009), with an organizational structure
that evolved through practical as well as academic needs. The students were asked to come up with projects and project
time lines through collective dialog, exploration, and consensus, as well as to develop and choose roles for themselves for
tasks such as direction, fundraising, archiving and recording work, and public relations. The studio needed to be an agile
and adaptive organization to maximize its reliance on the collective intelligence—identifying problems through research and
developing proposed solutions through design. As an organization, the studio was allowed to consider failure and conﬂict
as inherent conditions of any system. Instead of handling them top-down, the studio was permitted to go through the
natural cycles of learning from failure and conﬂict resolution as part of the learning process.
2 sELf-ORGANIzING sTUDIO WIThOUT BOUNDARIEs
The studio established no ﬁrm boundaries that would ﬁercely distinguish institutional interiority from non-institutional
exteriority. Hence, the studio has functioned as a network without boundaries, expanding the reach of the institution and
embracing the larger world into the fold of knowledge creation. In this sense, the group was seen as an organizational
structure as a collective possessing a “design intelligence,” which is enabled by communication, information, and design
technologies to innovate, not only architectural projects, but the architecture of ideas, processes, techniques, and
materials (Speaks 2002). Managing the complexities of a holistic process for designing that fosters team-oriented and
multidisciplinary design innovation in a complexly connected world requires that academia and design ﬁrms embrace new
ACADIA 09: reForm()
An Inconvenient Studio
288 ACADIA 09: reForm()
technologies and organizational experiments (Steele 2006; Erdman et al. 2006). All members of the think tank were
encouraged to leverage ideas, people, and learning from anywhere in the world through their individual networks. The
studio beneﬁted from many alignments with multidisciplinary and external collaborators, as portions of this “inconvenient”
studio were taught in collaboration with the BSU Institute for Digital Fabrication, CASE Design, University of Waterloo, and
Initial knowledge building began through structured play exercises—brief open-ended provocations were provided,
followed by making and testing, and ﬁnally, “playful” demonstrations of the “works-in-progress”—all in very quick fashion.
At the beginning, in the spirit of iterative prototyping, experimenting, and failing, the studio was tasked to explore the
creation of prototypes, or “Legobots,” that could behave according to a small set of stimuli and rules. LEGO NXT kits
were useful for developing these prototypes quickly—the kits have pre-designed connection systems and are easily
assembled, modular, re-conﬁgurable, and packaged with sensors, microcontrollers, and actuators that are all driven with
a visual programming interface. Failures were abundant as the students quickly found the limitations of these kits. For
instance, the sensing ranges for light, sound, and proximity had to ﬁrst be discovered, and then carefully controlled by
adjusting the physical location and direction of the sensors, as well as by calibrating and ﬁne-tuning the programming.
In these cases, physical prototyping proved to be the critical method driving the design and innovation process. Most, if not
all, of the design changes and development occurred through the building, testing, and modifying of full-working prototypes.
One such project, titled “Bloom,” sought to blur the distinction between canopy and enclosure with the opening and closing
of lightweight petals that hovered overhead (ﬁg. 1). Crafted from steam-bent wood and rice paper, the petals contracted
to deﬁne a small, intimate space within an otherwise open atrium by sensing human occupation, while interpreting sound
levels. As a prototype, it served its purpose well by engaging the academic audience (from architecture and related
disciplines) physically, but also engaging the audience’s imaginations. “Bloom” was critiqued by the studio and attending
academic audience not as a ﬁnal product, but rather as a snapshot within a larger work-in-progress.
figure 1 Bloom
Paul Konwinski, Brianna
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An Inconvenient Studio
A different project used custom-made drive belts to twist stretched-cloth panels in patterns (ﬁg. 2). This project attached
to a linear expanse of windows and sensed passers-by in an adjacent hallway, twisting and opening sequences of
panels to reveal sunlight and views to the surrounding campus. The project consisted of a modular, expandable
kit comprised of parts that were laser cut from acrylic. All connections were achieved without traditional hardware,
underscoring the importance of tolerances and details. This modular, “plug-in” design and assembly logic were key
to testing and improving the installation’s performance. Sets of components formed modular assembly systems such
as the framing systems, stretching systems, pivoting systems, twisting systems, etc. If one of these systems failed to
perform, particular system components could be redesigned and fabricated quickly, while ready-made to plug back
into the larger whole. This partitioning of functions and systems made it possible to adapt particular component designs
with minimal interference or a redesign of the entire prototype.
3.4 ARCUS ANIMUS
The next studio project, named “Arcus
Animus,” was a hanging installation composed
of several layered mesh works, consisting
of acrylic, bamboo, and mylar components
(ﬁg. 3). The installation reacted to human
occupation, as interpreted by arrayed proximity
sensors. These physical reactions consisted of
“shaking” movements, actuated pneumatically
using solenoid valves and custom air muscles.
The workshop accelerated the students’
learning and application of many technical skills
related to digital fabrication, electronics, and
microcontroller programming. Beyond this, the
students learned a great deal about teamwork
and group dynamics, particularly as all of the
work occurred over a short, accelerated time
line, necessitating the efﬁcient delegation of
many overlapping tasks. Philip Beesley from
the University of Waterloo led the workshop
and project, with most of the installation
designed and planned in advance.
Following the Arcus Animus workshop, a few small student teams developed entrepreneurial projects to apply their
new skills. One such project, titled Morpholuminescence, was developed as a submission to a student lighting-
design competition (ﬁg. 4). The competition brief asked for lighting proposals for retail ﬁtting rooms. The students
figure 2 Twist
Elizabeth Boone, Adam
Buente, Kyle Perry)
figure 3 Arcus Animus
Prototype, the physical
result of a workshop
led by Philip Beesley,
University of Waterloo
An Inconvenient Studio
290 ACADIA 09: reForm()
interpreted the lighting scheme from a traditional three-point studio photography lighting setup to highlight the subject
when modeling in front of a mirror. Proximity sensors track the posture of the human subject to control the hinged
triangular petals and variably tuned lighting. When the ﬁtting room is unoccupied, the petals drop, revealing variable
RGB LED lighting, highlighting the ﬁtting room area with bright colors. When activated, the petals begin to close to
form a faceted but continuous acrylic light surface, while the color and intensity of the ﬁtting room lighting changes—
brighter for the task of changing clothes, and then optimized for highlighting the human subject in front of a mirror.
THE AUTHORS WISH TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE STUDENTS FROM AN INCONVENIENT STUDIO: DEEPAK BANIYA, ELIZABETH
BOONE, ERIC BROCKMEYER, ADAM BUENTE, LUKE CHRISTEN, BRANDON HOOPINGARNER, BRAD HORN, PAUL KONWINSKI,
YEVGE MONAKHOV, BRIANNA NEWTON, KYLE PERRY, AND DAISY WINKLER. ADDITIONALLY, PHILIP BEESLEY (UNIVERSITY
OF WATERLOO / PBA), DAVID FANO (CASE DESIGN), BRAD ROTHENBERG (PRATT INSTITUTE), AND STEVE SANDERSON
(CASE DESIGN) FOR THEIR INVALUABLE CONTRIBUTIONS AND EFFORTS IN CONDUCTING WORKSHOPS.
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Boone, Adam Buente,