Rensselaer Professor of Architecture Awarded “Rome Prize” Fellowship
Fellowship Will Allow Clinical Associate
Professor Lonn Combs To Revisit Mid-20th Century Designs
Through the Prism of Advanced Computation
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, a clinical associate professor of
architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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 about 30 individuals who
represent the highest standard of excellence in the arts and
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
“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.”
School of Architecture Dean Evan Douglis congratulated
Combs on the award.
“Considering the impressive pool of architects throughout
the U.S. that compete every year for the prestigious Rome Prize
award, it’s really an extraordinary accomplishment on the part
of Professor Combs.” said Douglis. “Obviously the jury,
comprised of some of the most accomplished educators and
practitioners in the discipline of architecture today,
recognized Lonn’s innovative and authentic approach to design
and the importance of supporting his career trajectory.
“His contribution to the field of architecture lies in his
unique ability to pursue a more experimental approach to
design, yet at the same time take into account the full range
of pragmatic and technological challenges required to realize a
beautifully built building in the public realm,” said Douglis.
“Lonn’s appreciation of the art, science, and craft of
construction represents an enormous asset for an emerging
architect at the turn of the century. It’s a pleasure to have
him as part of our faculty and we wish him the best for his
research during his residency at the Rome Academy in the spring
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 American
Institute of Architects New York Chapter Design Awards 2010 and
the 2011 awards programs. The firm was also recognized in the
biannual New Practices New York 2010 competition with 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 Rensselaer
faculty in 2010.
Combs will begin his fellowship in January 2012, following a
semester as professor in the Rensselaer 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.
Nervi was among a group of prominent architects following a
similar line of thought in the decades following World War II.
Combs recalled that he once interviewed William Katavolos, an
industrial designer and teacher who collaborated with Nervi,
who said that at the time, “it was all about concinnity”
– a word describing the skillful and harmonious
arrangement or fitting together of different parts.
“They were looking to align multiple tendencies in the work
in order to produce something that was close to perfect in its
logic. They were looking at nature, the ideal of nature in
terms of guiding or directing the logic,” said Combs.
The approach was almost necessitated by the lack of
computation. Combs wonders how the architect’s designs may have
evolved had he had access to modern computation.
“The only hope that they had to innovate was to bring the
aesthetic, the social, and the rational together into a great
alignment,” Combs said. “With the computer, with the ability to
produce multiple variations, you can also look at the non-ideal
within nature, the mutations of nature. That’s something they
didn’t have easy access to.”
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 at a certain point in
time and learn from that and ask questions about how to apply
those principles today.”
Contact: Mary L. Martialay
Phone: (518) 276-2146