Inside Rensselaer
* Structural weave research

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Structural weave research in the “Changing Room” project by Easton + Combs.

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Combs Awarded “Rome Prize” Fellowship

Computer-aided design and analysis enables architects to generate limitless options for consideration. But the history of innovation in architecture—hampered by the need for painstaking calculations—has provided few guidelines for judging the relative merit of that bounty.

“With modern-day computation we can do thousands of design iterations, but we don’t necessarily know how to evaluate them,” said Lonn Combs, clinical associate professor of architecture.

Combs is the winner of the 2011 Rome Prize, awarded by the American Academy in Rome, a recognition that includes a fellowship to explore the architectural resources of Italy, Europe, and the Academy. The Rome Prize is awarded annually to approximately 30 individuals who represent the highest standard of excellence in the arts and humanities.

As part of his fellowship, Combs will study the work of Pier Luigi Nervi, a 20th-century Italian architect famed for his innovative application of reinforced concrete as the principal building material in fluid, nearly organic structures. Combs is interested in how the work of Nervi and his contemporaries might have varied had they had access to modern computing tools, and what lessons contemporary architects can learn from their choices.

“The work in general tended toward a kind of mathematical and physical perfection, a universal truth, and I think what the computer allows is for a much broader range of imperfection being considered as possibly valid. It could be described like the story in architecture of symmetry versus asymmetry on some level, one being a representation of a universal truth and the other being symbolically cast aside as inadequate,” Combs said. “Once you have the ability to run through all of these options, one may be able to discover efficient options that would be better in certain applications.”

Combs is the co-founder of Easton + Combs, a New York City-based design firm. Among other recent honors, Easton + Combs received Design Merit awards in the AIANY Design Awards 2010 and the 2011 awards programs. The firm was also awarded in the biannual New Practices New York 2010 competition the “highest honor” within a field of seven new offices recognized as important emerging and innovative practices in New York City. Combs received his post-professional degree at Columbia University and his first professional degree in architecture from the University of Kentucky. He joined the faculty of Rensselaer in 2010.

Combs will begin his fellowship in January 2012, following a semester as professor in the School of Architecture Rome Program. The fellowship will run from January through August 2012. The results of his work will be part of a 2012 installation at the American Academy of Rome. Combs will be publishing his research and designs in the United States in the fall of 2012.

By employing thin shells of reinforced concrete as the combined structural support and cladding of a building, Nervi was able to view architecture from a new perspective.

“Nervi really saw the ability of reinforced concrete to open a new holistic approach to structures,” Combs said. “He was working to introduce new concepts of structural logic and, in the process, he advanced the material and advanced an architectural dialogue.” Nervi’s iconic works include the Gatti Wool Mill, the Palazetto dello Sport in Rome, and the George Washington Bridge bus station in New York City.

Combs hopes that studying Nervi’s work, and alternative approaches made possible with computation, may reveal wisdom that can guide contemporary and future architects.

“Innovation was slower and more difficult to achieve throughout history. We have the potential for rapid innovation at our fingertips but there are no models for assessing this kind of potential from history that we can apply,” Combs said. “Let’s look at how innovation was pursued in a certain point in time and learn from that and ask questions about how to apply those principles today.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 11, June 17, 2011
©2011 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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