Nicholas Grimshaw’s Eden Project in Cornwall, England, featured on this month’s cover, both startles and instructs. The human form appears diminished above the 35-foot geometry of the geodesic dome, here covered in the air-filled, gossamerlike skin of ETFE, a space-age foil that was actually invented decades ago. The geodesic dome’s inventor, Buckminster Fuller, whose prodigiously fertile mind was devoted to architectural research, would not be surprised to see this marriage of materials by a British architect, transforming his structural ideas into light-as-air bubbles at the lunar scale.
Bucky was the tip (quite a tip!) of a tsunami. For the post–World War II generation, for whom Ronald Reagan (the spokesperson for General Electric) declared “Progress is our most important product,” research promised an ever-brighter future; space, our national challenge, lent a cosmic impetus to scientific pursuits. Tarnished, even perverted, by subsequent events such as the war in Vietnam, our national hunger for continually unfolding newness waned, as architects took up formal exploration, historicism, or theory: We left the heavy lifting, and the role of invention, to others.
Research did not disappear. Like monasteries that kept the world of ideas alive when the secular world seemed bent on upheaval, universities carried the torch. Institutions such as MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Georgia Tech, aided by corporate sponsorships, have continued to advance our understanding of productivity in the workplace, building materials, the feasibility of mass-produced housing, and the benefits of digital technology. Nor was research locked up in ivy. Engineers, always hungry for new applications and improved systems, have encouraged research within their firms.
As the millennium turned, however, architects rejoined the race. Today, research extends beyond pure science to engage social analysis, as Rem Koolhaas examines sprawling cities worldwide for clues to their messy vitality. Or, for architects like Santiago Calatrava, research may mean artistic discovery, in which drawings merge into kinetic sculpture. The gigantic moving roof at the Milwaukee Museum of Art owes its undulating form to smaller-scale investigations by Calatrava that blur the distinction between science and art.
Here is breaking news: Whether in building systems or in more esoteric pursuits, architectural research has a major new champion. As reported in this magazine in December, the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects recently inaugurated the Latrobe Fellowship. Initially funded by the executive committee of the College of Fellows with a $50,000 prize to “promote research to advance the profession,” the first award went to a Philadelphia firm, Kieran Timberlake Associates. Our current building-science story on technology transfer (see page 131) describes how the winning architects dedicated their grant to devising a new construction methodology. A stunning wall system with improved thermal characteristics under construction at the University of Pennsylvania resulted.
Encouraged by the program’s initial successes, the Fellows decided to up the ante to international prominence: AIA meets Pritzker Prize or the Premium Imperiale. By consolidating a welter of worthwhile but smaller stipends already offered by the Institute, the money fell automatically into place. In the future, the Latrobe will consist of a single biennial award of $100,000—twice the original amount. Because of the heft of the purse, this grant will bring strong focus to architectural research throughout the media and the profession, while the advances made will spin out their own benefits during the intervening months. In a single stroke, with vision, action, and cash, the College of Fellows has elevated the content of architecture to the same high plane as its form. No research is required to admire the decision.