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Rensselaer Professor of Architecture Awarded "Rome Prize" Fellowship

June 16, 2011

Rensselaer Professor of Architecture Awarded "Rome Prize" Fellowship

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Structural weave research in the


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 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.”

Rensselaer 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 of 2012.”

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


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