“If the interior ceases to be understood as simply the natural consequence of an envelope or if the exterior is no longer understood as the passive result of a building’s mass, interiors and exteriors can assume enough identity of their own that their reimplantation in building constitutes the electric move from one to two.” Sylvia Lavin, Kissing Architecture, Princeton University Press 2011.


Key Words: Architectural Objects, Architectural Qualities, Alteration, Public Housing, Massing, Structure

Objects and Object-hood are heavily debated, multi-dimensional subjects within the discipline of architecture which has seen reinvigorated interest among a number of designers and thinkers in the past two years. Some of the intention behind this renewed interest is to openly and frankly admit that architects are hired to design objects, that we are good at designing them and that we have expertise about them that other disciplines do not share. Within the context of this studio, the interest is also to re-define objects and understand them within a broader context of object-hood.

Objects are (by many architects) seen as a deficient, short-sighted and limited “state” of architecture. Obsessions with fields, voids and scales (particularly those that are presumed to exceed the “singular” object) would argue that objects are not what architects design; nor should they. However, defining the limits of objects may not be as simple as one presumes it to be and there may be a number of productive outcomes for both the profession and the discipline that results from an intensive re-examination of objects, object-hood and their related definitions. This position is what forms the launching point of Objects and Qualities. The studio will expose students to counter-intuitive understandings of architectural objects, understandings that emphasize objects and their fragmentary capacities and that emphasizes how objects may alter their contexts.

Public housing estates are the focus of the studio. Students will examine how to alter and re-define them. Housing estates are an important test case because they nicely encapsulate one of the primary contradictions surrounding the subject of object-hood: How can a collection of four to forty buildings be referred to as one thing (an estate)? Is it a single object or a collection/field of objects? The studio will experiment with aspects of object-hood principally by emphasizing material qualities as they relate to objects. Students will explore the limits of object-hood by altering the intrinsic and extrinsic qualities of housing blocks, their facades and the estates at large. Working with members of the HK Housing Authority (past and present), internationally renowned façade consultants and visiting Hong Kong, the students will be exposed to the discursive, socio-political, local, regional and international aspects of how to innovatively attack one small piece of the overall housing “problem” in Hong Kong as design architects.

The studio is modeling intensive. Physical models are seen as the primary “objects” we will use to design and that we can use to study the material qualities of what we design. There will be limited drawings required. The majority of the work will be done via study models and photographic montages. That said, the use of drawings for internal/analytical purposes will be vigorous and necessary to advance and study various design concepts.

Disciplinary Background

The idea of alteration has great potential in the future of architectural thinking and already begins to reconfigure and assert new conceptions and definitions of the architectural object or more specifically, qualities of architectural object-hood. One can locate conceptual and stylistic threads of thinking that relate to alteration in the discipline as recently as the late eighties and early nineties with books like “Architecture and Disjunction” by Bernard Tschumi. Largely theoretical in nature, his texts and theories made an effort to distinguish a disjunctive “language” of architecture from an architecture that was singular and/or whole. Until that moment in the late twentieth century, the mainstream of the history of architecture largely focused on how to design a more beautiful, integrated, whole building. The notion of infill architecture and/or parasitic architectures are certainly nothing new to the discourse and there have been some stunning projects in the past ten years that test the limits of these ideas. The studio builds upon this emerging platform of work and ideas as a means of pushing the envelop of alteration. It will challenge the students to negotiate and creatively alter existing architectural objects and their related qualities.

Object Oriented Ontology, a strain of philosophy spear headed by Graham Harman, is among one of the recent fascinations architectural designers have with the discipline and intellectual underpinnings of contemporary philosophy. Building upon ideas of Speculative Realism, and critiquing earlier philosophers understanding of different types of objects and how “subjects” receive/perceive them (like “objects of knowledge” – see Emanuel Kant), these philosophers believe that objects cannot be fully understood or designed. These philosophers see objects qualities as elusive and mysterious, resulting in deep levels of interaction and cognition between the human subject and the object.

A number of these current efforts by architects one could criticize as being nostalgic for the “pure object” or trying to “mystify” the design process and its outputs. In order to side-step some of the ways in which objects are currently being theorized the issue of alteration is central and the subject of object-hood even more critical. Building upon Michael Fried’s seminal article “Art and Object-hood” the studio takes the position that object-hood is a quality or affect of objects that necessarily involves the use of voids and fields. This specific understanding of objects and object-hood activates both fields and voids as alternative forms of objects, it yields opportunity to experiment with them through intensive, materially vivid qualities. This allows the studio to theorize the spaces between existing and new, between the building blocks of the estate itself and examine their fragmented and contradictory (yet collective) degrees of object-hood.

Test Case Background

Hong Kong is among the most mature cities in Asia, among the most dense territories in the world and among the most expensive to build in due to its limited land supply. It also is a city that must urgently come to terms with its housing shortage. The Long Term Housing Strategy (LTHS) formulated in 2013(and updated in 2015) laid out a broad set of goals toward dealing with “the housing issue.” The concept of altering objects and specifically the alteration of housing estates, using suggestions directly from the LTHS report, will look at strategies to build atop existing PRH housing estates and comprehensively renovate existing facades. Using light weight advanced construction techniques, and a light weight composite (ceramic tile based) façade system, the goal of this studio is to maximize the mass and density of housing and minimize the impact on existing communal space, fresh air and day light. It will use as its site of experimentation the reinforced concrete, superstructures found in many PRH estates.

The Housing Authority (which oversees Hong Kong’s Public Housing estates) in 2013 developed LTHS report to deal with the limited supply of affordable Public Rental Housing (PRH) and the limited supply of land available to address those needs. Among the suggested items to look at, is the idea that architects might consider designing projects within the confines of existing public housing estates. Three factors underpin this studio; the LTHS, the history of construction practices for PRH projects of a certain period and the broader implications of this study on how architects may come to re-define objects and their qualities.

Specifically, the LTHS document suggests that a study be conducted seeking out those estates where the GFA is low enough to permit building in-between the existing buildings. While this is an innovative way to address the limited supply of housing in Hong Kong, the solution comes at the hardship of existing residents where highly valuable day light, fresh air, viewing corridors and communal areas would be compromised and/or obstructed. The focus of the studio is to explore intensive architectural design and engineering methods of altering these estate-objects that will simultaneously increase the quantity of housing and minimize its impact on the existing resources of the site. Exploring innovative light weight construction methods the design of these projects will be sited directly atop existing towers.

The construction industry in Hong Kong is historically behind international standards for its use of sustainable materials, advanced engineering methods and fabrication. This is the most evident in the public housing sector, less so in private housing and even less so in commercial, infrastructural or civic projects. PRH projects are thus in dire need of being brought up to these construction standards and innovative practices. These buildings contain robust superstructures. In particular, the collection of PRH estates built in the eighties and nineties are resilient enough to take some additional weight; to subtract from and to add mass on top of. The towers comprising these estates are reinforced concrete construction, and use shear wall designs to form their superstructure requiring a minimum amount of new structure to be scabbed and stitched atop (or in front) of the existing building.

Studio Method and Organization

The studio is organized into two principle areas of research: Objects and Qualities. Existing superstructures of the case studies are understood as a new type of ground and site upon which students will excavate, alter and add new structures. Students will work from the interior (in the first half of the semester focusing more on the definition of objects) to the exterior (in the second half focusing more on those object’s qualities and relationships). They will begin the semester working individually. Following this brief period they will work as teams of two and hone options for individual “block types.” In the third part of the semester the team will focus collectively on how to cultivate both the fragmentary and object-like qualities of estates at large.

The semester will foreground the development of geometrical systems that establish innovative relationships with the existing structure. This is an open-ended, somewhat abstract experiment with a focus on emphasizing semi-autonomous relationships between existing and new. As the semester progresses, students will focus on structure and organization. Using a fixed primary construction system of pre-fabricated light weight steel in conjunction with a secondary pre-fabricated enclosure system of glass fiber reinforced concrete (GRC) cladding and ceramic tile, students will begin to test initial massing experiments. Teams will focus on how to develop efficient unit layouts within the new structure as well as investigating how to establish strong connections to the existing building. Circulation, structure and program will act on geometry and mass and will be studied in a reciprocal manner. The second half of the semester will be devoted to continuing to work with models and test initial studies and ideas from the first half of the semester in the context of a site.

Consultation with FRONT (NYC) will occur twice during the semester and assist in facilitating the structural, environmental and façade aspects of each team’s proposal. A Housing Workshop including visits to estates and discussions with various stake holders and experts will occur in Hong Kong including but not limited to: Stephen Yim (Chief Architect of Housing Department), John Ng (former Chief Architect of the Hong Kong Housing Department and Director of the Hong Kong Green Building Council), Michael Ra and Martin Reise (Principals FRONT HK), Andrew Mole (Associate Director and Senior Researcher Arup), Chrsitopher Webster (Dean of HKU Faculty of Architecture), Nasrine Saraji (Head of Department of Architecture HKU), Rabecca Chiu (Head Department of Planning HKU) and Steve Rowlinson (Professor Department of Real Estate Construction HKU).

Students will work with physical models throughout the semester. Photography and the development of those models will be favored over rendering. Models will be mixed media including 3D prints, laser cutting elements and hand cut elements. They will vary in scale and be used as study models requiring their development and redesign on a regular basis.

Detailed Studio Structure


Students will work individually over this two week period. Examining one of two possible block types suitable for alteration, each student will undertake a series of massing studies. Students will examine how to work from basic structural loading points and circulatory points in order to inform building mass. This initial experiment will be modeling intensive and seeks to develop a clear method of design as well as introduce the basic concepts of object-hood. Students will be asked to test different geometrical configurations, looking at profile lines and contour lines, in order to establish different types of relationships with the existing tower block. Students will produce structural, enclosure and diagrammatic models of the existing estate housing blocks.
Individual Work
1:1000 scale models + diagrammatic drawings
2 weeks
Review: Monday 02.06.17


Students will work in teams of two over this period and for the remaining part of the semester. Working with one of the selected block types students will begin looking at how to form intrinsic relationships -programmatic, structural and circulatory- between and within existing and new architectures. Students will be asked to test different geometrical configurations (looking at profile lines and contour lines) in order to revise previous relationships with the existing tower block. Students will produce physical models, drawings, diagrammatic models/drawings and montages of their proposals. Student-teams will work in an iterative and circular manner comparing how unit and floor layouts impact initial massing experiments. Student-teams will evaluate the degree to which these experiments support or reject their original massing tests and speculate on the impact of these organizations on the enclosure.
Team-based Work (Teams of 2 with individual assessment)
Scale 1:200 Models + plans/sections + diagrammatic models/drawings + montages
5.0 week
Review: Thursday 03.09.17 (TBC)/Follow Up Friday 03.10.17


Five days will be spent in Hong Kong. The purpose of the trip is to immerse students in the sites, socio-political and disciplinary issues at stake in the project.

Day one will be devoted to touring 3-5 sites in the New Territories that have desirable characteristics suitable for alteration. Students will photo document the ground situations, interior circulatory and common areas (to the extent they are accessible), roof tops (from related views as possible), facades and surrounding contexts. Students will document, photograph and discuss each site and its relevant characteristics inclusive of possible montage views.
Day two will encapsulate a series of presentations by an array of academic scholars, government officials and engineers involved with ongoing research related to estate alteration. The presentations will give students an opportunity to not only learn more about the technical, financial and sociopolitical eccentricities of this approach to housing but also have an opportunity to engage key stakeholders involved in formulating a pilot project with the Housing Authority.
Day Three will be a design workshop and sharing session with faculty and students from HKU (as well as other related parties where design feedback, brainstorming and discussion will ensue around the each team’s design proposals.
Day Four will be a working session at HKU following up on design progress and development.
Day Five include trips to several private housing estates/alteration projects and (time permitting) include walking tours in Central and/or Western HK.
Class-wide participation
5 Full Days + 2 Days Travel
Sunday 012.12.17 – Sunday 12.19.17


Two technical workshops will be held in the second half of the semester allowing an opportunity for students to receive feedback and suggestions from internationally leading expert consultants. Through these workshops students will explore and develop their designs in relation to structural innovation, experimental enclosures and the use of ceramic tile facades.
Class-wide participation
2 Studios
Monday 03.27.17 + Tuesday 04.17.17 (Both TBC)


Continuing to work in teams over this period students will begin examining the larger site relationships and impact of their proposals. They will focus on how environmental factors influence both materials and massing. Students will explore the latent potentials of ceramic tile, controlling and embracing aspects typically seen as environmental defects (staining, solar bleaching, moss growth, oxidation among others) as innovative assets and aesthetic opportunities. These will examined in parallel with solar and wind issues students that will impact the massing, allowing teams to study how these extrinsic aspects change their intrinsically based designs. Working in an iterative and circular manner students will adjust and reconfigure their proposals to maximize housing capacity while minimizing their impact on existing site resources. The focus of these studies will be interrogate and experiment with the extent to which the estate retains aspects of object-hood, aesthetically, formally and socio-politically.

Team Work (students evaluated as a single team)
7 weeks
Multiple Scale models + plans/sections + diagrammatic models + montages
Final Review: Thursday 05.04.17: TBC

All Semesters

Spring 2019
Advanced Design Studio
Todd Reisz
Spring 2018
Advanced Design Studio: Moule
Elizabeth Moule, George Knight
Spring 2016
Advanced Design Studio: Building Water
Wolf Prix, Abigail Coover Hume
Spring 2015
Advanced Design Studio: Diversification
Tatiana Bilbao, Andrei Harwell