Shaping Light Veil | Professor Nancy Yen-wen Cheng, Jeffrey Maas, Nicolaus Wright

Shaping Light Veil

Nancy Yen-wen Cheng, Professor |    Jeffrey Maas, M Arch ’11    |    Nicolaus Wright, M Arch ’11

Department of Architecture |  School of Architecture and Allied Arts |   Portland |  University of Oregon

Shaping Light Veil, 2010, drawing paper,  6′ x 15′.

Currently installed in the Atrium Commons of the

Event Room Lobby   |   White Stag Block   |   University of Oregon  |  Portland

70 NW Couch Street   |  Portland  Oregon  97209

Possessing an inquiring interest into how cutting, folding, and bending can potentially transform a flat sheet into a three-dimensional structure effectively bouncing and catching light, Professor Nancy Yen-wen Cheng and two University of Oregon architecture students, Jeffrey Maas and Nicolaus Wright created Shaping Light Veil, currently on view in the Atrium Commons of the White Stag Block.  This installation investigates how kinetically changeable surface areas can become light shields, light reflectors, and experimental devices to block sun and create interesting shade patterns of low-cost and high-performance.

In this piece, modules of the paper screen have been fastened to capture and cast light.  The pattern is variable and illustrates the principle of parametric modeling as applied to digital fabrication.  Upon close inspection, the modules differ in relation to the distance from an attractor line, the distance is the variable parameter.  Created using the Grasshopper plug-in for Rhino, the patterns of this piece were cut and scored with a laser engraver in the University of Oregon’s  Fab Lab, managed by UO instructor John Leahy and located in the basement of the Portland White Stag Block.  A detail of the installation reveals the farthest modules have square corners with small center openings, while the closest modules have the roundest corners with large round openings.  It is fabricated with incredible precision and attention to detail.  Initial studies done with student Sina Meier led to explorations of how surfaces can be digitally formed to influence and create enlivening light and shadow.  Ideas inspired by Erwin Hauer and Jeffrey Maas that originated during Professor Cheng’s UO AAA Summer Residency were also incorporated.  Student Nicolaus Wright created most of the Grasshopper script, down to exact detail that would specify individual length for each wire clip.

Commenting on the installation, Professor Nancy Yen-wen Cheng says

When I was guiding students to document the White Stag Block’s green building features prior to its opening, I felt that the atrium needed something vertical to dramatize the height of the space.  The maroon wall is a perfect setting for something big and bold.  If we installed a pulley system, (like a flagpole rope) at one end of the atrium skylight cross-beams, we could hang big banners or hanging sculptures from the top of the atrium.  The banner we installed reaches out into the space and makes it asymmetrical.  Chairs at the other end of the atrium become places to view, and the white paper sets off the rich red color of the wall.

While originally we thought of the banner as backlit overhead canopy, I found that viewing the screen in a more vertical position made it much easier to see the parametric variation and the red background worked much better than viewing the complexity of the atrium.  We hoped that the cascading position would help viewers see the motifs both backlit and sidelit.  I am interested in experimenting with how we light the paper, as trials with a glassine scrim reduces the harsh contrast and makes the bounced light more legible.

Walking into the White Stag atrium space, the graceful white curved form is abundantly visible and hangs banner-like with a strength and boldness not expected from the medium of paper.  Cheng expresses that this curvature was “found serendipitously” from working with the installation as a banner, it is a presence, she remarks that almost gives a “feeling of plenty” to the piece, of fullness in an expanse of white.  Commenting on the form, itself, Cheng found inspiration in two images, the Wordplay installation by Xu Bing in the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. which presented colored characters raining down from the ceiling onto a surface, changing from English letters to Chinese characters;  the second image, Cheng describes as “more prosaic”—a bridal train similiar to the one worn by Princess Diana for her 1980s wedding to Prince Charles.

Continuing with nods to Grasshopper experimentation and an interest in biomimicry, Cheng says she would like “the banner to look like a stream when a stick has been run through it:  a gentle wave that transforms the squares into blossoms.”

“I am interested in the ambiguity—how our eyes read patterns as either individual pieces or as fields.”

–Professor Nancy Yen-wen Cheng,  January 2010

Story | Photos  Sabina


Please click on this link to view the latest photos:  Photos by William Robert Taylor

Project 4 presents : DRIVE BY

Kim Beck
Martyn Blundell
Zlatko Cosic
Sarah McKenzie
Michael A. Salter
Gregory Thielker

February 5 –  March 5, 2011
Opening Reception: Saturday, February 5, 2011 –  6:30pm – 9:30pm

The show Drive By at Project 4 Gallery features six artists whose drawings, paintings, collages, and video art offer unexpected insight into the common scenes we observe while moving through the structures of an urban and suburban landscape.  People play a periphery role in the artwork and are frequently absent altogether. The material objects that encapsulate our urban lifestyle take on subtle psychological, emotional, and spiritual characteristics. Mundane landscapes and ordinary object are transformed by the artist into quiet reflections of the intangible structures that form the individual experience in a Western culture.  The featured artists Kim Beck, Martyn Blundell, Zlatko Cosic, Sarah McKenzie, Michael A. Salter, and Gregory Thielker take different approaches to explore what we miss when driving by seemly unimportant landscapes, too trivial for our conscious recognition or attention. Kim Beck creates cut paper collages from silhouette drawings of ubiquitous tree island found in suburban parking lots, transforming islands into forests. Martyn Blundell weaves video of highways in Europe and the U.S. into stunning visual abstraction challenging the viewer’s sense of perspective, speed, and time. Zlatko Cosic touches on themes of freedom and privacy in a surveillance style video that using the politically charged Berlin Wall as the portal. Sarah McKenzie uses geometric abstraction in oil and acrylic paintings of suburban sprawl construction sites. Distinct moments of visual rupture reveal cracks in the suburban American dream. Michael A. Salter‘s digital drawings and animations use subtle humor to explore themes of isolation in suburbia by observing the daily activities of urban wildlife amongst seemingly unoccupied homes. Gregory Thielker‘s oil paintings distort the world observed through a car window. Water running down the windshield abstracts the viewpoint and creates a sense of tension between fixed orientation and implied mobility.

For additional information please contact: Brittany Lawrence Yam

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Project 4

Contact: 1353 U Street NW, 3rd floor, Washington, DC 20009
tel: 202 232 4340
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Posted in Art

Building for Local Production: Guangzhou, China and Portland, Oregon

How An International Collaboration is Being Integrated into the Teaching Environment

“The city needs to be a focus of production not just consumption…
Not just a place to buy things but a place to make things.”
–Professor Howard Davis, interview with the author, November 29, 2010.
Introduction Summary:  In the early Fall of 2010, Professor Howard Davis led a group of UO architecture students
on a research trip to Guangzhou, China to investigate how buildings and urban form can support small-scale economic enterprise. This trip and the subsequent background information obtained provided the essential project information and exact choice of a site in Guangzhou that enabled the studio design progression for the course Arch 4/584. While in China, Professor Davis and his students explored “the relationship between urban
buildings, urban design, and grassroots urban development.”  The following story is a brief glimpse into how this project began and continues to flourish.

The team.

The Guangzhou project, as instigated by Professor Howard Davis, Department of Architecture, successfully incorporates a continuing cross-cultural cooperative union.   A closer look at this academic research reveals how this international scope has synthesized into the teaching environment of Professor Davis’s studio courses and enabled his students to engage in a truly cross-cultural endeavor.  The project involves collaborative work  between Professor Davis’s studio Arch 4/584, fourteen Chinese students at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in Guangzhou, and a former student of Professor Davis, Matt Brown (living in London, UK) who together collected and analyzed information and data on the China location. Professor Davis also collaborated closely with the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts’s design professor, Kang Shen.

Student research.
Student research.

Brown who graduated from the UO Department of Architecture [B. Arch, 2006] has played a key role in the project from its inception. Professor Davis comments on Brown’s extensive background in the field of issues surrounding urbanization and how this experience contributes to the resulting success of the partnership. Having studied abroad under the faculty of architecture at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), Brown’s interest in problems arising from China’s urbanization was sparked in the early part of the 2000s. An advanced urban design studio course he took at HKU centered around an analysis and redevelopment of a site in the traditional urban core of Guangzhou.

The connection between Professor Davis and Matt Brown that eventually lead to the present collaboration, began in the winter of 2004. Having taken Professor Davis’s ‘Types and Typologies’ course while an undergraduate student in the UO Department of Architecture, Brown became aware of Howard’s interest in vernacular architecture, mixed-use building types and urban morphology. In May of 2005, Brown discussed with Davis the interesting urban conditions in Guangzhou and told Davis he would be interested in carrying out further investigation there.

The following is Brown’s own description of how the project evolved:

[In reply to Brown’s interest in the China location], Professor Davis responded by proposing they conduct some field work late in the summer and the Davis-Brown team proceeded to set up a small group of colleagues with some individuals at HKU and Chu Hai College of Higher Education in Hong Kong. A 10 day trip later yielded a pair of co-authored papers (by Davis and Brown), the first, presented at the IASTE conference in Bangkok in December 2006 and the second presented at the Int’l Conference on China’s Urban Transition, held at Cardiff University in June 2007. Both papers were based around a handful of detailed case studies comprised of building documentation and user interviews of mixed-use ‘shophouses’ in Guangzhou. The first was more of an exposition on the ways in which these buildings had been adapted and modified over time to maintain their usefulness. The second began to engage the question of the relationship between flexibility in buildings and social mobility, speculating that these traditional buildings may facilitate residents’ ambitions for upward mobility better than the prevailing typological alternatives. Thus was born a collaboration and research interest that has spawned more and more depth and concentration.

The latest research project, which involved about a dozen UO grad and undergrad students joined by 15 grad students from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, sought to further test ideas that came out of the Cardiff paper and to expand the scope of buildings being investigated to include a broader set of prevalent types. To accomplish this the team chose two large study areas, each about 40 acres, which contained a broad variety of urban morphological fabric. One was at the center of the traditional city, anchored around an ancient commercial street that today forms a center of Guangzhou’s thriving wholesale trade. The second was in a newer area of the city and was anchored around a so-called ‘urban village’—a traditional rural village that was swallowed up by the rapidly expanding city. The field work carried out by the students involved two phases–the first a survey of use, building type and configuration of the 1600 or so buildings on the two sites, and the second the collection of detailed interviews with a broad range of economic actors on each site, from people selling things informally on the street to managers of buildings to entrepreneurs running small shops to delivery people riding bicycles fitted with carts to local residents. The idea was to more fully understand how people are using the fabric of the city to live, work, and develop and achieve their socioeconomic objectives.

Currently, the team is carrying out analysis of the data, mulling over 100+ interviews and correlating these with photos and sketches, and translating the survey data into a single GIS map with many layers of data. Students worked in teams of 2-4 during the two phases of research, and they managed to overcome language barriers by ensuring that each team had a bi- or trilingual member (Mandarin, Cantonese and English). About half the students from the UO who participated were fluent in either Mandarin or Cantonese. After the groups further analyze the data, they hope to find connections between patterns of use and building types and the stories–particularly socioeconomic trajectories–that are emerging from the interviews. By identifying the spatial and configurational characteristics in the building types and morphological structures of particular areas and associating those with behaviors and uses, we hope to be able to develop new urban and building prototypes which might better serve the broad spectrum of actors in China’s urban areas.

Matt Brown continues:

Simultaneous to the project in Guangzhou, [Professor Davis] and I, assisted by a team of graduate students at UO, are forming a research group to investigate the problem of reslience in urban fabric in cities generally. As the trend towards urbanization continues worldwide, we’re concerned about the longevity of usefulness of the built environment manifesting to accomodate the expansion. We feel broad lessons can be learned from places where existing fabric has been successfully re-used and adapted to serve previous waves of change and immigration without the need for mass demolition. We hope to carry out similar research elsewhere to that we’ve begun in Guangzhou to support our hypotheses. Cities on the agenda at the moment include London, Portland and possibly Tokyo.

Since 2005, when Brown was a student in Davis’s terminal studio, he describes his active participation in this research as a colleague of Professor Davis. In late 2007, following the Cardiff conference, Brown relocated to London to take a position at the architecture firm Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, where he works today. In addition to co-authoring the aforementioned papers with Professor Davis, Brown helped to organize and lead the latest venture and research.

Compiling research on-site.
Compiling research on-site.

Presently, Davis and Brown are reviewing much of the interview data and coordinating the GIS mapping activity with the UO’s Infographics Laboratory. While this project is intricately tied to the guidance and input of Professor Davis who continues to spearhead this research, the instructor enthusiastically indicates the importance of his cross-cultural and international research team of colleagues.

Upon return to Portland for the remainder of the autumn 2010 term and addressing this project as it would relate to the studio work of his students, Professor Davis conducted this course with themes that had been identified and expounded upon in China:

1. the development of new building types for local urban production;

2. the integration with the urban landscape/urban district;

3. the clear development of building design, emphasizing the creative

translation of building program/activity into building organization and


4. the role of structure, daylight, and construction/materials in the human

experience of the building.

The compilation of data that Professor Davis, his students, and the students who have been involved at the Guangzhou Academy have assembled will be key in formulating theories that relate to future research on the exploration of how building typology and design may help provide a medium for small-scale, local economic activity.

Professor Davis and Matt Brown are continuing to work together to gather and analyze data for an eventual international presentation. As added research for this course and to record findings, Professor Davis is currently working on the publication (slated for a 2011 release) of Living Over the Store. This will be Professor Davis’s most recent book in which he explores “one of the most common urban buildings, the shop/house, consisting of dwellings and work/retail space in one structure….” Fascinated by this “spatial manifestation of two common economic conditions of the city in one structure: it puts commerce on the street, and it lets people live where they work” (Intro., “A Quintessential Urban Building,” from Living Above the Store), Davis has forged ahead planning University of Oregon A&AA studio courses both this winter (2011) and spring (2011) that will continue to explore this “cross-cultural phenomenon” where the buildings themselves are “not definable as a singular architectural type—a building configuration that is clearly defined with respect to its function or geometry….[but do] exhibit common architectural and economic ideals.” He has invited the design Professor Shen of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts to travel to Oregon either in the spring or summer of 2011 for further collaboration and discussion with University of Oregon architecture students and community. Tentative plans suggest that this visit will, indeed, take place.

Professor Davis in partnership with Matt Brown will be releasing aspects of this research project in London, summer 2011.  As more information becomes available, this blog post will be updated.

Note: For the writing of this piece, the author is indebted Professor Howard Davis for an in-person interview and for the written information provided to her by Matt Brown.

All photos provided courtesy of Professor Howard Davis.

Story by Sabina Samiee

Professor Howard Davis (seated, left); Matt Brown (standing).
Research with the locals.
Local residents working.
Aerial view of Guangzhou, China.