Walk This Way: Architecture Professor Turns the Mundane into Art

Architecture Prof Turns a Construction Walkway into Urban Art

Richard Garber can make the most mundane object beautiful. What, for instance, is uglier than a construction walkway, a sidewalk bridge that shields pedestrians from whatever unheavenly hazards -- falling bricks, descending debris, footloose workers --could crash down upon them.  

But Garber, a young architecture professor, designed a walkway for a Manhattan construction site that is not only functional -- it protects passersby -- but aesthetically pleasing.

Garber recently entered a city-sponsored contest that asked architects to submit designs for walkways that would transform construction sites into “engaging public art and architecture.”

Out of 120 entrants, the city selected three architects, and Garber was one of them. He recruited a group of architecture students to help him build the walkway and the result – a stunningly vibrant walkway – now enlivens a lower Manhattan construction site.

In this Interview, Garber discusses the walkway, his teaching methods, his architecture firm and how that all comes together happily at the New Jersey School of Architecture.

Where is your walkway, and what does it look like?
The pedestrian walkway we designed and built covers a construction site on John Street -- two blocks west of the World Trade Center. The walkway, called a Best Pedestrian Route, is 27-foot-long and tilted and it covers the construction area. It is painted orange, blue and white -- the colors of the New York Mets -- and it has night lights that accent the scripted pattern of arrows we used in the panels.

How did you come up with your design for it?
We spent a few days thinking about the symbolism of construction sites, and the notion of instability that goes with them. We ultimately arrived at a leaning scheme to engage this notion, and we used Rhinoceros, a 3-D modeling program to work it through. While I was teaching one Monday in April, my partner in our firm, Nicole Robertson, wandered downtown near our office, mapping prospective sites for our design. We used a plug-in for Rhinoceros called Rhino-CAM to send data directly to the router in my lab.

How did your architecture students help you build the walkway?
We did not receive a contract to build it until October, and we were asked by the Department of Transportation to build a prototype in September. I realized that the deadlines would conflict with my fall teaching schedule, and that I needed to create an independent study, and work with students to realize both the prototype and final installation of the walkway in mid-November. Fortunately, a series of fifth year architectures students, nine of them to be exact, signed up to help me. We quickly drew up an ambitious schedule to work through the logistics of manufacturing the walkway and ultimately building it. This opportunity was rewarding for the students, in that it gave them a chance to work on a design that became a finished product -- right through the construction phase. That is rare in architecture school.

You worked on the walkway in an architecture school’s FABLAB. Can you describe that lab?
FABLAB is short for ‘Fabrication Laboratory.’ The lab exists in a few spaces within Weston Hall, including the industrial-sized basement space and it contains computer-numerically-controlled fabrication equipment. The lab, which we installed in 2004 and 2005, represents the future of architecture. Here, architecture and industrial design students are no longer limited to two-dimensional expressions of their ideas on paper or a computer screen. The FABLAB was the ideal place to work on the walkway. The students dove into the design and the construction of the project. The hardware in the FABLAB includes laser cutters for acrylic and heavy paper, three-dimensional printers that build objects from layers of plaster, and a computerized router that cuts wood, foam and metals. The tools allow students to translate designs into precise 3-D prototypes. It’s amazing. The old paradigm was that the architect did the drawings and passed them onto the contractor. This lab, though, allows students to do both design and build. No one can misinterpret their designs. The architecture school has for many years been known for its digital infrastructure - now it’s becoming known for the FABLAB.

How did you get the walkway to the construction site?
Once the students finished cutting the pieces of the walkway, about a week before the installation deadline, we used an NJIT pickup truck to drive the sections to Lower Manhattan, where the students worked with a contracting firm to assemble it. 

Does a project like this illustrate the design work that architects work on these days?
I think the limits of architecture are changing rapidly, and the New Jersey School of Architecture allows for design research on conventional projects, like houses, but also on non-conventional ones, such as our walkway. It seems clients are generally starting to understand that architects can add value to all sorts of designs. And Dean Urs Gauchat has supported the school’s working on various kinds of design work. Our students begin working on design projects as early as their second year, when they work on a hands-on design contest sponsored by the New Jersey Masonry Union.

You have your own architecture firm in NYC.  Do you ever hire NJIT students?
My partner Nicole and I started the firm, GRO Architects, five years ago. Nicole also teaches architecture, and we wanted a firm that would do the design research we also do in our teaching jobs. We now have three NJIT alums working in our practice, out of six employees, so that’s half our office. We have also used NJIT students to help us with shorter-term projects. All of the alums who have worked at our firm have been former students from my design studio class; and this has translated into a very good professional situation.  Our walkway demonstrated a fairly seamless translation between design research, which is largely academic, and fabrication, which is building. I think walkway project represented the best of both worlds.

You are architect and a professor of architecture. Do your students benefit from that?
Interestingly the school has a large proportion of adjunct faculty, who like me are also practicing architects. I think this is important for the university as there is a great deal of professional content that is being taught within a school concerned with design excellence; and a 21st century design school needs to be concerned with both contemporary discourse and pragmatics within the changing field of architecture.  Architecture is a far more seamless profession than many others in terms of the relation between the academy and the profession, and Dean Gauchat has been really tuned into this. The upper level studios taught at the New Jersey School of Architecture are very concerned with contemporary issues in architectural practice, and we are using the technology, including the FABLAB hardware, to give our students a cutting edge view of where the profession should be going.

How do you balance your architecture firm with your teaching?
I couldn’t do it without my partner Nicole, who also teaches from time to time, but is at our firm most days. I think the relationship of my design research interests with some of our projects makes it easier to balance, as there is a good deal of student interest in the work of the FABLAB and its relationship to professional work. Working with students, both former students in out firm, as well as current NJIT students, has also made the transition easier. I think I would give you a different answer with each day!

When or how did you first get interested in architecture?
I decided to be an architect once my musical aspirations didn’t work out! Seriously, I attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute during the advent of CAD and went on to graduate school at Columbia at a time when design computing was being introduced broadly to the profession. I think this speaks to my views of the field and the relation of the academy to practice, in that my initial introduction to the field was in a more traditional architectural program that was later augmented by a great deal of good speculation at Columbia in the late 1990s.

How do you like teaching architecture at NJIT?
I think NJIT is a great place to teach. We’ve been at the forefront of wonderful changes happening in the profession. And I think there is quite a buzz out there about what’s been going on at the New Jersey School of Architecture. We’ve been able to stay competitive in terms of the evolving content in our curriculum, which makes the architecture school a rewarding place to be for students and faculty alike. In the next few years, I assure you, you’ll see some really interesting things happening and emerging from the architecture school here. It’s a breeding ground of creativity. 

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)