Concept sketch and renderings for Ke Kinlani (big house), a spiritual space in my Navajo Nation project.
work by thomas grant macdonald, 2015, all rights reserved
Some work being done in our Gaborone, Botswana studio.
One of my PennDesign courses this semester is Building Product Design (BPD), a class that brings together a small but diverse group of students from the landscape, architecture, environmental building and product design disciplines to develop architecturally-relevant consumer products. The course is led by Jordan Goldstein, a managing director and principal of Gensler‘s Washington D.C. office, and is real-world oriented in the sense that it takes into account market forces, consumer needs, design and public relations partners, and manufacturing capabilities. The course partners with Alessi, an Italian design firm known for producing timeless, materially-beautiful consumer products. I have found the practical nature and shift in scale compared to most other Penn landscape courses a welcomed change, and would say that BPD has proven to be one of my favorite courses thus far at Penn.
In addition to the liberation enjoyed in designing a consumer product over a complex regional plan or city, the BPD course has offered many opportunities to move beyond the walls of Penn’s studios and collaborate with outside professionals. Our class has been hosted at Gensler’s offices in Philadelphia and D.C., as well as at Alessi’s showroom in New York City. Alessi representatives and major marketing firm personnel have been continually engaged with the course, helping to drive the design process by offering expertise and providing critiques on evolving concepts. As an added bonus, the culmination of the semester will see the six student teams judged by a panel of Alessi and Gensler professionals, with the winners selected to present their project at the Alessi facility – in Italy.
Photos by Thomas Grant MacDonald | 2014 | All rights reserved
Last week our LARP 701 class returned from our studio trip to Africa, which was both an informative exploration of another culture and an inspirational personal adventure. The focus of this semester’s studio is Botswana’s burgeoning capital city of Gaborone, an urban center of about 400,000 people. The city was established in the 1960s and grew rapidly in subsequent decades, spurred along by wealth extracted from Botswana’s prolific diamond mines. Subsequent rapid urban growth in Gaborone has taken an automobile-centric, garden-city-type form, which now calls for a rethinking of urban patterns to produce a more “livable” city in the future.
Unfortunately for this blog (and my own sanity) mid-reviews are quickly approaching, and sadly I don’t have time to do this post its proper justice. Suffice it to say, Gaborone and its proximate townships were dry and hot thanks to low annual precipitation levels and an unyielding overhead sun, and yet the region was genuinely beautiful in its own unique way. The landscape evoked memories of the U.S.’s southwestern states – reds and oranges baked into the landscape with mesas cropping up out of eternally flat expanses, punctuated occasionally by purple jacaranda trees. In Botswana we saw monkeys running loose (apparently about as common as feral cats in the U.S.) and met some very nice, warmhearted people.
After spending four days in and around Gaborone we hopped over to Cape Town, South Africa for a little R&R. Cape Town is easily one of the most stunningly beautiful cities I have ever visited, almost as if Africa crashed into Malibu. Besides its natural attractions, Cape Town featured an exchange rate of about 10:1 with the U.S. dollar, enabling a very good time at reasonable costs. I took advantage of this point by lodging with another classmate in exquisite AirB&B accommodations, joining a surfing instruction course, touring the city’s prominent Table Mountain, and… paragliding!
All-in-all it was an extremely fun trip, and reminded me that there is a big life to be lived outside of studio. In fact, I was so inspired by the lasting feeling of freedom bequeathed by our Cape Town adventure that I bought a motorcycle when I got back!(Post’s photos by Thomas MacDonald & Selina Chiu | 2014 | All rights reserved)
Last weekend I took advantage of the nice weather and embarked on a solo bike ride to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. It was a very cool ride that brought me up close and personal with a huge array of vehicle/building scales and grungy industrial materials, and being Sunday morning I pretty much had the whole place to myself. While cruising through the shadowy warehouses and under rusting loading cranes I suddenly had one of those moments in Philadelphia when you realize just how special this city is – Philly’s Navy Yard is the oldest in the United States, founded right around the time the country declared independence. The notion made me wonder how many of our American forefathers dreamt of one day being free to ride their single speed bikes while listening to NPR and snapping Instagram pics with their smartphones… probably all of them.
photos by Thomas Grant MacDonald | 2014 | all rights reserved
This summer I have had the great opportunity to work, travel, and study in Colombia, a country that lies in the extreme northwestern region of the South American continent and is home to over 45 million people. Through a school connection I was able to secure a job at a small architectural office in the capitol city of Bogotá, where I have picked up some useful skills and a perspective on the design professions that I expect will be of great value in the future. Over the summer I also participated in a study program organized by PennDesign, during which I met with leaders of prestigious design firms and explored the architectural landscapes Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena, with a particular focus on the ways in which design is responding to the challenges and potentials of informal settlement.
The architectural history of Colombia and the complexities of informal settlement are beyond the scope of this blog post, however I would like to say a few words about life in Colombia and how it has altered my perceptions on civilization. Colombia is a developing nation that feels at times rich and exciting, and at other times uncomfortable, sad and risky. In every Colombian city one gets the sense that a bright future is emerging, yet it is clear that many are being left behind. Walking the streets you see an endless array of small independent shops and feel an air of excited entrepreneurship, yet it is unmistakable that this shining atmosphere lies juxtaposed against a shadow of extreme poverty and desperate criminality. It is as if a massive coin is balanced on end and spinning around in the street, flashing the dichotomous faces of the country’s nature as you bump your way past it.
During my short time here I have personally sampled a bit of this duality, as illustrated by the following anecdote. Upon my first arrival to Bogotá I had the good fortune to rent a room in the trendy neighborhood of Chapinero, where I resided comfortably in the company of two designers. For the first few days I explored this neighborhood exclusively, enjoying cafes and restaurants that would rival those of any middle-class American neighborhood. At this point I considered Colombia to be a developed nation, surely with its trouble spots, but clearly over-exaggerated in its reputation for danger and disorder.
Within a week I was enduring one of the worst illnesses of my life. I had contracted an intestinal parasite from drinking water at a bar, and after an unsuccessful week-long attempt at fighting off the infection I found myself in a state of agonizing pain and extreme dehydration. By this point I was certain that my initial judgement of the country was inaccurate and naive – Colombia was certainly not a developed nation on the level of the U.S., but an unhygienic and dangerous place I wished only to escape. As I walked to and from work gripping my aching stomach I was induced to lend greater recognition to the conditions of poverty and risk that I passed along every street.
Upon reaching the point of fearing for my life due to the illness, I grudgingly implored my boss to assist me to the hospital for treatment. At this point I expected nothing but a terrible experience from a Colombian hospital; surely this would prove to be a costly procedure coupled with limited medical competency and unhygienic conditions serving only to place me at further risk. Again my perceptions on the country were reversed; I received excellent professional medical care in a clean, modern facility that was far quicker and infinitely less expensive than anything I have experienced in the United States. Within a few days I was completely cured – though a thinner version of myself – and was once again enjoying the vibrant life of Bogota.
In the weeks following the incident I extended my exploration of the City, delving into skyscraper landscapes of downtown, the colorful historic district of La Candelaria, and the impoverished but surprisingly endearing outlying informal barrios. I travelled to other cities and observed consistent patterns, and in time came to a singular conclusion: the country of Colombia exists as a state in which multiple distinct social and architectural realities coincide alongside and against each other, bleeding back and forth, lurching forward in the throws of resolving one another unto themselves. Beginning to comprehend this condition through personal experience and critical architectural consideration has been a revelatory experience for me not only as a designer, but as a human being interested in understanding the concepts and trajectories of civilization.
My time in Colombia has felt as duplicitous as the country itself. While at times uncomfortable and uncertain, I have been moved by the surge of optimism and potential for upward mobility that accompanies limited government interference and loose business regulations. I have experienced the vibrance of evolving seaside cities and the beauties of tiny coffee towns tucked into misty green mountains. I have looked down upon sprawling informal cities from swinging gondolas and walked the corridors of massive underground temples. And I have enjoyed the culture of an easy-going people who dance salsa to the anthem of a rising country. At times I have considered that Colombia is to the U.S. as the jungle is to a farm: perhaps more uncertain, but far richer, wilder in an enabling sense, and full of hidden opportunities waiting to be discovered.
A few shots from a project I’m currently working on for construction documentation. The prompt is to redesign the exterior courtyard area at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Our instructor for this course is one of the OLIN team members who helped with the museum’s original design, which keeps things fun.