July 05, 2016

(Not) Designing in Dhaka

In his article "The Dhaka Studio," Pennsylvania Gazette writer Trey Popp explores the history of the Dhaka Design-Research Laboratory led by KieranTimberlake partners Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. 
Having taught at several universities, Kieran and Timberlake shared the observation that typical architectural studios focused too much on design outcomes and not enough on developing research skills and critical reflection on research findings. Rather than assign an isolated design problem and give students a few weeks to solve it, the two architects wanted to engage their students in deeper and more complex ways. This desire led them to abandon the traditional structure of a design studio in 2008 in order to place students' emphasis on research-based design in one of the most unique, dense, and challenging urban environments: Dhaka, Bangladesh. As Popp explains, Kieran and Timberlake "would challenge their students to do research – to focus intensely on an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar possibilities and constraints, and figure out what the real challenges were."

Now in its eighth year, the Dhaka Design-Research Laboratory has become a constantly evolving body of knowledge that grows with each passing year. The first seven years of this research and the designs it subsequently inspires can be found in Kieran and Timberlake's book Alluvium. The architects hope that the book, which is a combination of photography, essays, and data that has assembled into a collection of design observations, as well as the Design-Research Laboratory itself, will serve as a useful resource as well as a source of inspiration for other architects and designers. "For those who find themselves drawn to Bangladesh, and perhaps also for [those] trying to wring sense out of Dhaka's bewildering complexity," Popp writes, "Alluvium offers many insights worth heeding." 

The Dhaka Studio
By Trey Popp

In the spring of 2008, Stephen Kieran GAr'76 and James Timberlake GAr'77 led about a dozen Penn Design students into an elementary school in Dhaka to meet with a group of local architects. It had only been a matter of hours since they'd landed in Bangladesh's capital city, and many of them were already overwhelmed. 
To call Dhaka the most crowded city on earth is to understate both the extremity of its crowding and the tenuousness of the earth beneath and around it. To produce an equivalent population density in Philadelphia, which covers a similar land area, every resident of New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago would have to move there. Recreating Bangladesh's waterlogged conditions would be harder.  

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