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Triangles, Anne Tyng, and Imagined Archives — My Penultimate Term in the Architecture Major

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Triangles, Anne Tyng, and Imagined Archives — My Penultimate Term in the Architecture Major

By Emma Pfeiffer.

I spent the fall semester of 2014 studying triangles. This endeavor, which sounds straightforward enough, was actually the focus of ARCH-401, the penultimate studio course in the Architecture major, and was in fact not straightforward at all. Led by Richard Wesley, the chair of the undergraduate program in Architecture, we thirteen seniors were tasked with channeling our study of triangulation into designs for a building to house the archives of the late architect Anne Tyng (1920–2011).
 

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    • Anne Tyng, 1/13/11, Institute of Contemporary Art. Photo credit: Garth Herrick

    • Inhabiting Geometry
    • View of Anne Tyng: Inhabiting Geometry at Institute of Comtemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania (2011).

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Tyng’s own career was fascinating and bears a strong connection to Philadelphia. Tyng is best known for her collaborations with Louis Kahn, but her life’s work can be understood as an exploration of the inhabitability of triangles. She was based in Philadelphia for much of her lifetime, and many of her most significant buildings, including the house she designed for herself, are nearby. In 2011, the Institute of Contemporary Art here at Penn staged a significant exhibition of Tyng’s work in collaboration with the Graham Foundation in Chicago. And most significantly for our class, the archival materials from her career are held by Penn’s Architectural Archives. It was there that we began our study and kick-started our designs. As a class, we visited the Archives and got to examine Tyng’s drawings in person. This was an eye-opening experience: I came to understand Tyng’s work through our discussion with the archivist, and to comprehend her design process by examining her hand drawings up close. The intense consideration of triangulation evident in Tyng’s designs gave ground to my own. I think my classmates would agree with me in saying that our visit to the Architectural Archives put our assignment in its critical context, and provided creative stimulus for our designs.

But the notion of the archive in itself was important to our task, since it was an archival building that it was our job to design. Our assignment bore within it the implication that Tyng’s archives deserve a purpose-built environment of their own, to afford them greater public access, more attention, and a more fitting architectural setting, an implication which I agree with. As such, it made sense that the site for our designs was right in the center of campus: the space adjacent to the Compass (at 37th and Locust), where there is currently an open terrace. It was exciting to me to be designing a building for a site I know so well. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked past that intersection, or eaten lunch on that terrace, and this semester gave me cause to really think about how I interact with that space, and with campus in general. To anyone who saw me last semester pausing on Locust (undoubtedly disrupting the flow of pedestrians) and staring into the middle distance, the archive is what I was envisioning. Also stirring was the potential associated with designing for such an important location: our proposed designs would have the power to change the face of Penn’s campus and to literally place Tyng’s work at its center.

My knowledge of and thoughts about the site strongly influenced my design. Over the course of the semester, I developed a design for an archive that incorporated a number of interior and exterior public spaces for informal use, which was a quality that I wanted to retain from the current use of the space. I proposed a lookout point over the Compass, and entrances on both Locust and 37th Streets, to take advantage of this intersection and its constituent paths of circulation. These are the types of site-based considerations that influenced my design and those of many of my peers. Of additional importance were the practical and programmatic concerns of an archive: how much light should there be in a place where historic documents are being preserved? What type of storage is required for architectural drawings from this period? Does an archive need an office? A seminar room? A kitchen? Most importantly, how should Tyng’s work best be displayed to the public? All of these questions needed to be negotiated within the context of our study of triangles. This constraint, of needing to create a design based on triangular forms, was much more of a help than a hindrance for the way that it gave our designs a starting point.  
 

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Our designs were developed through a semester of biweekly, four-and-a-half hour studio meetings. Once a week we would pin up our work to be critiqued by our professors and classmates, and once a week we would have desk critiques, which are working sessions during which we meet individually with the professors. These are the standard types of studio sessions that form the basis of Penn’s major in Architecture. There are six of these semester-long studios, most worth two credits, which are taken in a particular sequence, and form the core of the major. The studio sequence (and the consequent many hours spent together) fosters a strong sense of camaraderie among architecture students, particularly within one’s studio grade. This is one of my favorite things about Architecture at Penn, which is a community I am proud to be a part of. Last semester’s hours of drawing, cutting, and gluing would have been difficult without the help and companionship of the other twelve ARCH Seniors.

From its very conceptual initial studios, the Architecture major becomes much more closely based in the real world. For us, this means taking into account construction techniques, specificities of site, material properties, and more. Additionally, the projects increase in complexity and scale as we gain seniority. As such, our archives for Anne Tyng are our biggest design achievement to date. The major in Architecture does not have a thesis component, but the highly independent and long-form nature of our projects mean that a thesis is something to which our senior projects might be compared.

At our final critique on December 17, each student presented their design proposal for Anne Tyng’s archive to a panel of internal and visiting critics. We conveyed our ideas through drawings including plans, sections, exploded axonometrics, 3D renderings and conceptual diagrams, as well as meticulously crafted models that included the surrounding buildings. It was, for me, a valuable opportunity to look back on what I had produced that semester and articulate my work to an audience with fresh eyes. The event also served as a fitting celebration of our hard work. Our projects, hung side by side in the Addams Hall Gallery, struck me for their eclecticism, diversity, and complexity. From the same starting point came thirteen very different designs, which spoke of the considerable efforts of my impressive classmates, as well as those of our instructors. Despite (jesting) criticism of my model as “toothy” and the considerable battle against finals fatigue, I left the critique satisfied with my work and its feedback. I spent the semester studying triangles, but left with a body of work that is by no means two-dimensional.
 

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Emma Pfeiffer is a C’15 candidate for a BA in Architecture, with a minor in Art History. She is a member of ICA’s Student Board, where she also completed one of CURF’s Humanities Internships. She is among the directors of ARCHtank, Penn’s undergraduate architecture organization. Emma is from London, and spent a semester studying abroad in Hong Kong.


Edited by Kenna O'Rourke.