‘Christine Jetten taught our students to get their hands dirty when designing’

Published by
Herwig Baumgartner / Garrett Santo
March 7, 2021
10 min

During the teaching programme that is organized every spring at the Southern Californian Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in Los Angeles, students are challenged to stretch their boundaries and, in doing so, expand their architectural scopes. The 2020 project ‘Gimme Shelter'  combined robot technology and the craft of working with glazed ceramics in order to find a solution for animals in need during wildfires. Studio Christine Jetten organized a lecture and workshops. Lecturers and architects Herwig Baumgartner and Garrett Santo found just the glazed ceramics pioneer they were looking for in Christine. Baumgartner: ‘Christine Jetten builds bridges between the architects and the ceramics industry. That is what we need in order to take material and technical innovations to the next level.’

Herwig Baumgartner, together with his partner Scott Uriu, owns the Los Angeles architectural firm B+U. Their approach is multidisciplinary and groundbreaking, whether they are involved in urban planning, designing buildings and spaces or experimenting with materials and techniques. Baumgartner incorporates that same mission in his work as a lecturer at SCI-Arc in LA. Every spring, he organizes a seminar during which students work on a multidisciplinary assignment. Last year, that assignment was ‘Gimme Shelter’. Colleague Garrett Santo led the module together with Baumgartner. Santo: ‘We combined advanced technologies from Artificial Intelligence and robotisation with, in this case, a traditionally crafted material: clay. We tried to challenge students to push their boundariesin the techniques they use, and at the same time do proper material research. In addition, the assignment itself contained an unexpected angle. We asked the students to design an animal shelter that could resist the wildfires that increasingly rage through California. We chose to shift the focus to animals, instead of people.’

Baumgartner explains that the choice for ceramics was based on sustainable considerations. Another reason was the desire to develop new ways of using the generally quite traditionally produced ceramics. ‘In a world of robotics and 3D printing, it is quite common to work with advanced plastics. We wanted to steer away from that’, said Baumgartner. He and his firm see a lot of potential in ceramics, not only for its aesthetic value or as a decorative application, but as a durable material with unique properties, especially in combination with various glazes.

‘The process as a part of the design’

Baumgartner: ‘Somehow,glazed ceramics have ended up on the fringes of craftsmanship, always at anarm's length from professional architecture. Everyone knows the material as ithas a long history in cladding and applied design, but it proves difficult forceramics to get away from that. Despite the fact that glazed ceramics can offerso much more, in both shaping and glazing. It is time to rethink ceramics as amaterial, but also to realize that the process of making and developingcontributes to the final result. This means that choosing ceramics directlyaffects the architect that works with it, right from the start of the designprocess. And that the design process can be tailored to create a powerful endresult. In addition, glazed ceramics allow you to achieve effects that are notpossible with any other material. The richness and depth of colour, as well asthe mattness and texture are specific qualities of glazed ceramics.’

This is where Studio Christine Jetten was able to truly shine.Baumgartner: ’We werespecifically looking for someone to help us with the glazing, someone with abackground in ceramics. A fellow architect from another office had seenChristine Jetten speak at the AIA Conference in Las Vegas. He put us in touchwith her.'  It was an immediate bull's-eye as the architectshad never met anyone with Jetten's knowledge and expertise before. ‘Christine was veryopen, she shared all her knowledge with us and showed our students how to workwith the material’, Santosays.


 ‘Glazedceramics are on the rise'

After the initial introduction to the material and the assignment, thestudents got to work. They designed structures made of glazed ceramics,half-open constructions consisting of panels or 3D tiles - extremelyfire-resistant and with an interesting texture. Because of the digitallyproduced reliefs in the ceramics and the use of colour, the shelters merge intoa special relationship with the landscape. They are man-made shelters, but theyalso exude something organic. Together with the students, Jetten developed awhole series of glazed trial tiles and glazing recipes on the spot, which couldbe used by the students as inspiration. That collection of samples is now partof the university's materials library, which was compiled at the same time. Theproject produced concepts, designs, tangible mock-ups and installations.

Santo and Baumgartner say the project was a huge success. ‘Students have not onlyventured into producing an end result, but also into designing the actualprocess. From digital pattern making, to firing the parts, to glazing them’, Santo says. ‘We were also able topluck them away from their computer screens’, Baumgartner adds. ‘Together with Christine, they literally rolledup their sleeves and got their hands dirty. The process is part of the productand that is an important insight that we have now been able to impart onstudents, also thanks to Christine's input and energy. The notion that an idealeads to a test, to an analysis of the results, to a new idea, to testingagain. That is the circular process during which technique and material comeinto their own.' Both B+U andSCI-Arc continue to focus on ceramics. New kilns have been purchased, as wellas a large robotic arm that extrudes clay. ‘We areconvinced that ceramics are making a comeback. And that by using modernproduction techniques, we can change the traditional image of ceramics. Ithelps if you are fearless and just dive right in. And that is exactly what wewant to do, and what Christine Jetten has encouraged our students to do. Sheknows how to build bridges between disciplines, materials and techniques. Thosebridges, and the practical results of projects such as Gimme Shelter, arenecessary to innovate, in this case with glazed ceramics.’  

Tekst Renske Schriemer / DesignPress

March 7, 2021
5 min

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