Inside USD

Barney’s Curiosity Shapes Architecture Research

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Council on Undergraduate Research defines undergraduate research as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” The University of San Diego and its Office of Undergraduate Research support and encourage all undergrads to engage, explore and participate in this valuable activity, part of a strong liberal arts education. This Inside USD article is one in a series to highlight its impact.

Ryan Barney asked the question. It’s a simple one, really, but for a student who was very new to architecture, it was stated with the right kind of curiosity.

“What are you working on?” said Barney to fellow University of San Diego student Sou Fang when he was introduced to a research and design project on lightness in architecture led by USD Assistant Professor of Architecture Daniel Lopez-Perez.

Fang told Barney that if he was interested in getting involved, he should speak with Lopez-Perez as “there was still a mountain of work to be done.”

Two and a half years later, Ryan Barney, now a senior, sits in Lopez-Perez’s Camino Hall office to enthusiastically explain the “most important, most beneficial experience I’ve ever had” at USD.

In his hands and on his lap lay the latest manuscript version of From Spheres to Atmospheres: R. Buckminster Fuller’s Spherical Atlas (1944-1980). This architectural manual documents the formal, spatial and structural parameters that give shape to 30 geodesic spherical prototypes designed by Fuller.

For nearly five years, Lopez-Perez has been closely researching Fuller, an extremely innovative architect who passed away in 1983.

“He was always on the fringes of the historical narrative of modern architecture,” Lopez-Perez said.

The lightness aspect, Barney describes, “refers to strategies of doing ‘the most with the least,’ i.e. lighter building envelopes, less materially intensive manufacturing practices and, thus, more environmentally responsive spatial systems.”

While the manuscript’s tentative title pays homage to Fuller, the work within it is a fresh approach to contemporary architecture. Started in 2010, Lopez-Perez’s examination has, along with healthy student contributions from Barney, Fang, Jacob Bruce ’13 (now a Harvard grad student), and Paul Short, and research work funding for it through the Keck Foundation and USD’s SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research Experience) program, this project has been quite valuable.

“This manual is heavily rooted in research and it is a research project, but it goes far beyond that,” Barney said confidently. “It’s not about documenting what has already been done. This is truly a contemporary book, a contemporary manual that’s applicable only today because of these developments.”

The development he speaks of isn’t just the findings of the project, but rather, has as much to do with Barney’s curiosity scaling to levels even he didn’t expect.

Barney’s affinity for architecture developed from scratch. A creative type with experience in drawing, painting and music, Barney’s interest was sparked in an introductory architecture course at USD.

“It was a completely new medium,” he said. “The introductory class had fascinating material in it and I realized I could use my art skills and put them toward something truly lucrative. I didn’t understand a lot of the concepts early on and I really wrestled with them, but I view architecture now as one of the highest forms of the arts.”

That transformation started with two semesters of independent study work, and was maintained by Barney’s fierce dedication to long research hours alone, with a fellow research student and with guidance from Lopez-Perez. There were also challenges along the way, but Barney’s perseverance enhanced his technical proficiency and made him an appreciative expert on Fuller, and gave him graduate school-equivalent skills on the concept of parametric modeling.

“I taught myself the Grasshopper 3D software, which normally doesn’t enter the architecture studios until grad school,” Barney said. “I knew nothing about it when I started and I was able to apply it to models and learn how to write a script so that it could teach someone else to do it.”

Barney verified his work through Short, giving the USD McNair Scholar the script to learn the cutting-edge software and how to build the models. “The goal was for this knowledge to get passed on so that, hopefully, when I go to graduate school next year, this knowledge doesn’t leave with me,” Barney said.

If anything, Barney’s work, including definitions of the Geodesic grids via Grasshopper, should help anyone who examines it closely.

“I like to think of the atlas as a manual, a design resource tool for students and, equally, practitioners,” Barney said. “It takes the complex prototypes developed by R. Buckminster Fuller and describes how you arrive at these forms and makes them easier to understand.”

Making something that’s complex more digestible and to do it through original documentation is a celebration for undergraduate research at USD. It’s memorable for Lopez-Perez, each of his USD architecture student researchers and the manual will be important to future USD architecture students and architecture academics everywhere.

“These did not exist digitally until we drew them in a systematic, comparative way,” Lopez-Perez said. “The discipline of architecture has, throughout history, a knowledge base. What we’re doing is tapping into that knowledge base, tapping into all of the intelligence that Fuller concentrated on, the geodesic prototypes, and that’s geometrically, physically, politically and culturally. He’s an avatar for environmental design, contemporary design, and has become a real model for the contemporary condition. We’re tapping into the intelligence across multiple registers and we’re updating it, making it contemporary. Each prototype has variations that Ryan has designed and Jacob designed. With this new tool kit, new definitions and an understanding of the geometry, you’re able to transform it and bring contemporary design to the future.”

Barney’s contribution to it began with the question. A simple one, really.

“It’s always important to be willing to step out of your comfort zone,” Barney said. “It’s all about taking that first step and wanting to be that much more interested. It’s not just about doing the coursework and going through it. You have to be willing to go beyond what the university has to offer you because there is more you can get from the university and from your professors.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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