• Facade details emerge in models for Troy Schaum’s Featherweight Form studio. - photo courtesy Rice Architecture and Park Books AG

Totalization: Speculative Practice in
Architectural Education

Totalization: Speculative Practice in Architectural Education
Troy Schaum (Editor)
Park Books AG, 2019

In the afterword of Troy Schaum’s recent book, “Totalization: Speculative Practice in Architectural Education,” former dean of the Rice School of Architecture Sarah Whiting compares the school’s vertical, comprehensive building studio to the process of cooking. “Every ingredient in the Totalization mix — a studio brief, a student’s thesis, a material, a form, a technique, a consultant’s evaluation — is something nutritious. The job of the Totalization studio is to see what happens when those ingredients are mixed together.” Of course, to learn the art of cooking, one cannot simply read the recipe. They must get in the kitchen and cook.

Therefore, Totalization is an application of Whiting’s core mission to “dissolve the divide between architecture as an intellectual endeavor and architecture as a form of engaged practice.” Led by Schaum, an associate professor at Rice who worked as the project architect for OMA’s Milstein Hall at Cornell University, the studio places each student in a simulation of the building process, with an emphasis on addressing the overlapping and constantly changing interests of consultants, clients, and the “shifting, complex relations of the world in which he or she works.” 

The book, edited by Schaum, could easily read as high-end marketing material for the school: It is a book about an ongoing course at a single school; however, it is that, and more: a useful account of an important pedagogical project, as well as serious dispatches from legendary practitioners. It includes an essay and discussion with structural engineer Nat Oppenheimer, an interview with facade consultant Robert Heintges, an essay by building systems engineer Mark Malekshahi, and an interview with Paris–based architects and Rice Architecture Paris studio leaders Linna Choi and Tarik Oualalou of OUALALOU + CHOI.

The studio is an extension of Rice’s history of asking very broad questions, most notably by Lars Lerup, who famously investigated the contemporary metropolis using Houston as a launchpad. This realist approach is translated to the building scale, where faculty practitioners and consultants — sourced from Schaum’s OMA Milstein days — give real-life feedback. 

If Gropius at the Bauhaus developed a method for working within industrial capital that positioned the architect at the center of the building trades, Totalization positions today’s late-capitalist architect at the center of a precarious but complex team of networked actors. Likewise, if Saarinen and Mies intimately collaborated, in the heroic sense, with their structural engineers, contemporary practice requires a multifaceted team of experts and stakeholders, problematizing our notion of the role of the architect-as-genius in the face of shifting and changing concerns throughout the building process. These intersecting demands on integrated systems provoke what Schaum calls “fits and starts” of architectural speculation, each an incomplete part of an incomplete process that, it is to be hoped, preserves architectural integrity through an intense design process. 

Five independent, themed studios — Material, Envelope, Structure, MEP, and Adaptive Reuse — operate in parallel with collective seminars and study trips to New York. Students naturally cross-pollinate ideas, allowing development of specific knowledge about parts: material logics, accessibility, fire safety, environmental controls, construction document delivery, and development financing. 

Schaum outlines three themes in the investigations. “Typological Testing” is the development of new assemblies, materials, and structural systems, which are deployed into the matrix of demands that arise through the design process. “Mass Negotiation” refers to simple techniques that are altered through new criteria throughout the semester. “Detailed Engagement” is a speculative investigation into how construction details can contribute to the larger ambitions of a project. 

The goal here is to guide students through the process of specialization in parts while maintaining a view of the whole of the project. Seeing the dynamics of integrated systems, and the design process around them, offers an opportunity to turn the poetic conceptual thesis — what Oppenheimer calls the “story” — into the pragmatic, detailed project. The theory, or the story, acts as a guide that can bend with the forces and demands introduced later; it is only possible to speculate toward a complete vision that can never be purely realized. 

While speculation is often considered to be in the realm of theory, the book outlines possibilities for translating speculative thinking into practice. “It always surprises me when people think that having a conceptual idea conflicts with learning how to make buildings,” Oualalou says. Totalization is an act of resistance against both ends of the spectrum. It helps, as Heintges notes, that students are not at risk of being sued, which allows them experimental freedom not found in the real world. 

Rice isn’t the only school with a studio that incorporates the range of building systems and stakeholders, but the rigorous engagement with consultants and a unified theory-practice approach appears quite successful under Schaum’s leadership. And they made a damn good book about it, too.  

Matt Shaw is a New York–based writer and curator, and on the faculty at SCI-Arc.

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