|Sculptural Conduit Work at the Hinman Research Building, GaTech, Atlanta (Photo by Author)
||London Zoo Penguin Pool, Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton (with Ove Arup), 1934 (Photo by Author)|
Can conduit be controlled? Sort of.
As part of a recent renovation at Georgia Tech, our team was asked to replace all mechanical, plumbing, electrical (MEP) and telephone/data services, but without a budget for ceilings to conceal them. In response, we set an invisible plane at a comfortable nine feet above the floor throughout the building, and registered its intersection through walls using a paint line. We thought: below this line will be architecture, the stuff we control. Above it, anything goes—paint it and make it disappear. This simple act of zoning produced the intended results, but also coaxed some surprising work from the MEP trades in the process.
In an efficient building with no ceiling constraints, MEP systems would expand vertically, stacking to reduce costs associated with additional fittings, transitions and labor. However, our minimum height limit forced more things to coexist in plan, and exacerbated bottlenecks caused by low beams, congestion near points of entry, etc. This generated endless headaches, and required several weeks’ iterations of coordinated 3D modeling and clash detection by the trades. In the end, however, this mayhem yielded a pleasing ‘leftover spaghetti’ gestalt in many places, resembling a load of pasta crammed into clear tupperware. Leftover spaghetti requires many small jumps and hiccups where strands are forced to cross over each other. The most nimble pasta is almost certainly electrical/data conduit, since its twists and curls can be swiftly improvised on-site using manual bending tools.
The irony of our success in controlling MEP chaos was that it occasionally pointed out our own excesses. For example, the electricians’ effortless conduit work steals the show next to the occasional disparity between the design intent and build-ability of ‘architecture’ below. (Amusingly, they have achieved an automatic beauty that might be the envy of much academic parametricism). At a time when increased importance is being placed on ‘management’ (construction and otherwise) and project delivery models that demand consensus decision-making, how do we work with trades normally resistant to designers’ control? Or is a little bit of zoning all we need?
After nearly eighty years, Berthold Lubetkin’s London Zoo Penguin Pool still dazzles with its structural daring and elegance. It even harbors a social agenda of sorts with the project’s defining element—a pair of interweaving concrete ramps—thoughtfully designed to orchestrate endless penguin frolicking. And yet, when I visited the Zoo shortly before the penguins were moved to a new home in 2004, the pool’s inhabitants were completely indifferent to Lubetkin’s efforts. Much to my disappointment no penguins gathered on, waddled up or belly-slid down this seemingly-perfect bit of architecture. Most of them huddled together on level terrain alongside the water’s edge, while a lone penguin ventured up the more utilitarian (and direct) flight of stairs leading to freedom. Heartbreakingly, a well-placed piece of Plexiglas thwarted his escape.
Architecture’s ability to single-handedly engender new and exciting activities may well be questioned. Its ability to render certain activities impossible, however, is a fact beyond dispute.
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