Crisis Fronts is the Degree Project studio and seminar run by Michael Chen and Jason Lee at Pratt Institute School of Architecture.

Crisis Fronts is an ongoing inquiry into contemporary global crises that suggest new demands and agendas for architecture, and the potential afforded by parametric and generative digital design tools to engage them.

Full Syllabus will be available shortly for download

Cognitive in the Bronx                                                                                                  

Crisis Fronts + Culture Now* Studio

Strange Networks. As with many aspects of contemporary life, the overwhelming wealth and availability of data pertaining to the attributes and function of the city has substantially transformed approaches to design. This abundance partly underscores the desire on the part of architects to influence the underlying phenomena and crises that are tracked by all of the data that we have access to, from climate change, to globalization, to the growth of the city and urban populations worldwide, not to mention the data that are generated by buildings themselves concerning performance and environmental contexts, and the new class of data that has emerged within digital design environments pertaining to components, geometries, parameters, and relationships within digital contexts.

This is not to suggest that the technical origins of data delimit the extent of its potential and utility, but rather the inverse. It is clear that the crises confronting the contemporary city can not be alleviated solely through architectural mechanisms, no matter how robust their technical performance or how large their scale. An alternative approach is desirable: one that sets aside the urge to partition the world into individual problems and solutions and that seeks out a more extensive set of contexts and relationships within which to operate, while acknowledging that the soft, improper, and opportunistic dimensions of a system may prove to be as important as its proper, technical ones.

The relationships between architecture and conditions that are more, if not vastly more extensive than buildings is consistent with those of infrastructure, which is commonly accepted to operate in relation to large-scale phenomena and to manifest its effects at large scales as well. Initiatives such as the Recovery Act of 2009 speak to the potential of infrastructure to act as an engine for large-scale social and economic change – infrastructure as the intersection of engineering and public policy. These are the soft effects of infrastructure – new social and cultural practices, new modes of leisure, economic stability, green jobs, and information technology proliferation – but while they are central to the political impetus for infrastructure, they are also secondary to technical performance in the design of systems for transportation, energy production and transmission, and the like. This mediation between technical and social agendas is an area where the agency of architecture might be extended to afford engagement with infrastructural scales and practices and where alternative protocols are instrumental.

Network thinking, and the development of new network protocols and logics will be a major component of the studio’s approach. The tendency to regard conventional infrastructures as networks is consistent with the urge to think of networks as static formations rather than dynamic multiplicities. Isolation within a network – a condition that Christopher Alexander famously associated with linear and hierarchical “tree” structures – engenders spatial and network diffusion as well as volatility and potential for decay. For Alexander, overlap within systems of organization is the key to complexity but also to vitality and heterogeneity. The fixity and firmness of most infrastructures stands in contrast to the fact that some of the fastest growing and most volatile regions of the world are also the most distant from centralized administrative control, out of reach of and the least serviced by conventional infrastructures. Absent an explicit or robust infrastructure, many regions are in need of new protocols for the exchange of bodies, energy, materials, and information. New modes of infrastructures might be evaluated on their capacity to enter into network organizations and to promote network exchange and communication.

Work in the studio will concentrate on developing models for network intelligence and cognition, conducted through computational research primarily using GIS, Grasshopper and related plug-ins including Firefly, as well as in physical computing and electronic prototyping in Arduino. The use of parametric design tools will be important as they afford the ability to work with live geometries and data. This working method has advantages over other platforms, since static data and geometries and live ones coexist within a single model, the capacity for feedback exists, as does the potential for relational protocols to generate new geometry in real time. At the same time, the comparative features of GIS that make it such a powerful tool for planners, but also of geographers and social scientists alike will be important and maintained. As a methodology, privileging the development of protocols governing the relationships between data within a parametric environment favors the incremental layering of relationships to acquire complexity. As in the case of parametric models in general, the ability to calibrate the weight given to different data within the model greatly dematerializes the demising line between visualization, simulation, and speculation. Just as protocol is as much a principle of political organization as a mechanism of network interrelation, design strategies and agendas will be cultivated through the correlation of hard and soft data, and the managing of technical as well as opportunistic potentials.

Research will be conducted primarily in small teams, with periodic collaborative work in larger groups dedicated to specific technical issues. The critics and invited guests will give weekly presentations at the beginning of the Fall semester, and will conduct a series of technical workshops and work-sessions devoted to specific issues of importance to the studio, to be held on Saturdays. Consult the studio schedule and the calendar at for more information.