Strict Parameters Yield Sensitive Designs

Event: New Practices New York 2008, Urban A&O, The Agency of Constraints
Location: Hafele New York Showroom, 08.13.09
Speakers: Joe MacDonald — Principal & Founder, Urban A&O
Organizer: AIANY New Practices Committee


The Water Planet in the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

Urban A&O

Urban A&O is bringing a new set of parameters to the table by exploring designs through parametric modeling. Founded in 2002, the firm combines teaching, research, and practice, and recently received special honors from the New Practices New York jury. Urban A&O primarily uses CATIA, software typically used by the aerospace and automotive industries, and Gehry Technologies’ Digital Project. This 3-D modeling software allows them to design complex forms and manipulate interior and exterior skins in a variety of materials: glass, metal, titanium, and fiberglass.

“Bone Wall,” which was sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Design where MacDonald is an associate professor, was the project that launched the firm. It explores the relationship between surface and depth through pattern making, both intrinsically and multi-dimensionally. Beginning with a base cell comprised of six triangular “horns,” the form of the structure is manipulated through parametric modeling to examine the effects of light and surface.

For the Johnson & Johnson Pavilion at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Urban A&O used digital modeling to engage the human scale. Sited amid a bamboo forest on the Olympic Green, visitors first encountered a water garden before wandering through the building on a ramped “ribbon” on which the high-tech, interactive exhibition “The Caring World” was displayed. Light filtered in through a fritted glass skin. The experience culminated with a “cloud garden” on the roof, which incorporated water fountains, misting pools, bamboo, and wild grasses, as well as strip lighting along the floor for a multi-sensory experience.

Water Planet, an exhibition area within the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Science by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, is a “multimedia aquarium experiment,” according to MacDonald. Comprised of wall clusters and centerpiece elements, the exhibition invites visitor interaction in line with Piaget’s theory of Constructivism, which maintains that children learn through interaction with physical stimuli, MacDonald explained. Urban A&O developed a flowing wall plane inspired by the water it contains. Interestingly, the fish responded to the design as much as the visitors, clustering near the openings.

Always experimenting, Urban A&O is currently developing a composite material made from balsa wood, fiberglass, and polyurethane. Projects on the boards include a building design and landscape plan for Crosscurrents Park in Florida, and Club Stejarii, a spa and health club in Romania.