The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture

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fall 2008

ARC 696:
Mat-Systems, Material-Organizations: Silicon Hills Technology Park

William O'Brien, Jr.
Michael Kubo

In the contemporary office, emphasis on the geometric arrangement of objects has progressively given way to the furnishings that equip the space…. Objects, structure, service cores, partition walls, and work space have dissolved and disappeared…. The tools of geometric order (modular discipline, serial repetition, precision) that structured the accord between technology and architecture during the first stage of modernism have now exposed their inadequacy symbolically as well—their adherence to a logic of space that has been superseded by the evolution of the same systems of production that made these ideas possible in the first place.
Abalos and Herreros, Tower and Office


To regulate systems—existing and designed—is the role of the contemporary architect. Systems are governing practices, rule sets, manners of assembly, part-to-whole relationships, and networks. Increasingly, architectural design can be understood as the management of interrelations and degrees of correspondence between multiple systems—technical, structural, material, ecological, infrastructural, and sociocultural. 

The influence of abstract organizational principles on corporeal/material constructs will be a central point of examination for design research. The studio will frame the horizontal spatial planning practices of mat-building typologies and the vertical material constructs of thickened wall-surfaces as distinct but reciprocally related forms of material-organization—systems that exhibit a predisposition toward continuity and a potential for differentiation. We will invent novel systems of organization at the intersection of visual and spatial fields, with the promise of eliciting new formations capable of providing diverse social ecologies and alternative performative characteristics. 

Our investigation will depart from traditional modular organizations (uniform and repetitive) in favor of systems of complex repetition. Modernist architectural space sought to establish consistency between parts and wholes through modular logics made possible by the processes of industrialization; these methods relied on regulating systems and planning grids to organize space, particularly in plan organizations. While modules are stable or homogeneous systems of elements that can only be replicated or aggregated, complex repetition is an example of part-to-whole patterning that can become locally specific. While early attempts at complex patterning systems were still periodic (based on filling space with more varied yet still fixed parts), new tools allow us to explore aperiodic and non-recursive part-to-whole relationships, based on variable but specifiable parts and geometries. The studio will explore the possibility to organize flexible part-to-whole relationships that can grow and differentiate to produce complex material-organizations.

Organizations: Horizontal Plan, Vertical Surface

The corporate office landscape or mat-building will provide us with a fertile testing ground for such investigations. Historically, the organization of corporate spaces has been based on the evacuation of the vertical dimension—the wall—in favor of the extensive horizontal space of the plan.

The emergence of the open plan—the dominant typology of postwar (corporate) space up to the present day—was dependent on the evolution of building services and artificial conditioning technologies, and their compression into the two dominant horizontal surfaces of the building: the suspended ceiling and the raised floor. The evacuation of these functions to the ceiling above and the floor below allowed the office to be divided into uniform modules of pure, extensive horizontal space. These have either been stacked vertically to form towers (tethered to the vertical shaft of another artificial technology, the elevator core), or aggregated horizontally to form suburban office-scapes, occasionally punctured by courtyards to preserve a visual connection to the outdoors within the center of these otherwise extensive types. The even distribution of services and environmental qualities to all parts of the office, equally and without hierarchy, emphasized the supposed uniformity and equality of all workers (but also their conformity) in the social ecology of the office.

But the open plan was never completely open. The evacuation of fixed building services to the ceiling and floor permitted the proliferation of mobile, replaceable objects that assumed a dominant role in the function and character of the office landscape. This arsenal of devices—desktops, computer terminals, filing systems, partitions, servers, data banks—mediates the delivery of services to the individual, channeling the abstract flows and organizations of the workspace into a physical, tangible interface. Like the larger open plan systems that provide the freedom for these systems, such objects are defined for generic “users” for maximum freedom to be deployed anywhere and everywhere, without regard to the environmental qualities they produce. These equipments have traditionally been based on the model of object-elements situated in space, rather than on vertical organizational systems that define spatial characters, visibilities and performances.

Today, new “work modes” and transformations in the definition of contemporary workspace require us to rethink the neutral and homogeneous distribution of elements in corporate spaces. Particularly in high-tech companies, new, flexible models of “alternative officing” designed to unlock new creativities and productivities—benching, hoteling, flex zones, chillout spaces, mobile lounges—place a new emphasis on differentiation and the definition of varied, locally specific characters that can modulate our experience of work: a complex variation of environments that constitutes a social ecology rather than a homogenous space of labor. In this transformation, the traditional definition of office equipment and other discrete object-elements is inadequate to produce this level of complex differentiation in work environments. 

Building the vertical surface back into the history of open-plan office typologies will provide spatial tools to explore these new possibilities for complex repetitions and environmental differentiations to evolve the type. Guided research will take into consideration the history of corporate organizations, office types and their social formations, as well as the development of the open plan, the origins and performance of the mat-building type. 

Case Study: Silicon Hills Technology Park

Our research will be focused on the expanding high-tech industry around Austin, known as “Silicon Hills.”  Uniquely among cities in Texas, Austin is home to one of the largest concentrations of high-tech companies in the country, and has increasingly emerged as a rival to the better-known tech concentrations of San Francisco (Silicon Valley) and Boston. Silicon Hills is home to many of the leading corporations that have defined the emergence of the information economy. Companies with operations here include Dell (founded in Austin), IBM, 3M, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, AMD, eBay, Google, Intel, Samsung, and Sun Microsystems. As a site for headquarters, research centers and manufacturing centers for advanced digital technologies, the site is already subject to preexistent latent fields and systems, both local and global: infrastructural and transportation networks, data and information flows, as well as developmental zoning, environmental codes, and urban logistics.

The specific program for the studio will be a part of the IBM Advanced Research Laboratories, one of the largest facilities currently operating in Silicon Hills. The IBM Corporation has had a deep relationship with modern architecture and design since the postwar period. Eliot Noyes (later a chair of the Harvard Graduate School of Design) was appointed the Director of Design at IBM in 1954, responsible for the total coordination of the company’s image, products, and architecture. Under his directorship, designers commissioned by IBM included Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, Charles Eames, Marcel Breuer, Gordon Bunshaft of SOM, Paul Rand, and Noyes himself. IBM’s offices and production facilities built in these decades stand among the most iconic examples of postwar corporate modernism. We will study this legacy in order to situate the studio topic within this discursive context, as a specific strand of the broader history of postwar office environments.


Methods of working will include, but not be limited to, parametric modeling techniques. While there are no formal prerequisites for the course, facility with and a sincere interest in digital techniques will be crucial to the studio research. 3D modeling software such as Rhino, 3D printing, and other CAD/CAM fabrication techniques will be important tools in pursuing your investigations.

Required Readings

Iñaki Abalos and Juan Herreros, “The Evolution of Space Planning in the Workplace” (177–216), in Tower and Office (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.)

Kazys Varnelis, “The Stimulus Progression: Muzak,” in Blue Monday: Stories of Absurd Realities and Natural Philosophies (Barcelona: Actar, 2006), 100–131.

Reinhold Martin and Kadambari Baxi, “From New York to Silicon Valley,” Multi-National City: Architectural Itineraries (Barcelona: Actar, 2007), 18–44

Rem Koolhaas, “Typical Plan”, in Koolhaas and Mau, S,M,L,XL (Rotterdam: 010, 1996),  

Sanford Kwinter, “The Complex and the Singular”, in Architectures of Time: Toward a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001).

Suggested Additional Readings

On office typologies and corporate space:

Donald Albrecht and Chrysanthe B. Broikos, eds., On The Job: Design and the American Office (National Building Museum, 2000)

Iñaki Abalos and Juan Herreros, Tower and Office (Cambridge: MIT Press)

Reinhold Martin, The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003).

Michael Kubo, Constructing the Cold War Environment: The Architecture of the RAND Corporation, 1950–2005 (M.Arch. thesis, Harvard GSD, 2006) 

Kazys Varnelis, “Programming After Program: Archizoom’s No-Stop City,” Praxis 8

Jade Chang, “Behind The Glass Curtain,” Metropolis, July 2006


Reinhold Martin, “Computer Architectures: Saarinen’s Patterns, IBM’s Brains,” in Sarah Goldhagen and Rejean Legault, eds., Anxious Modernisms: Experimentation in Postwar Culture

Scott G. Knowles and Stuart Leslie, “’Industrial Versailles’: Eero Saarinen’s Corporate Campuses for GM, IBM, and AT&T,” Isis, vol. 92 no. 1 (March 2001), 1–33.

John Harwood, “The White Room: Eliot Noyes and the Logic of the Information Age Interior,” Grey Room 12

On modernist modular systems:

Le Corbusier, The Modulor: A Harmonious Measure to the Human Scale Universally Applicable to Architecture and Mechanics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954).

Konrad Wachsmann, “Modular coordination,” in The Turning Point of Building: Structure and Design (New York: Reinhold, 1961).

Lawrence B. Anderson, “Module: Measure, Structure, Growth and Function,” in Gyorgy Kepes, ed., Module, Proportion, Symmetry, Rhythm (New York: George Braziller, 1966).

C. H. Waddington, "The Modular Principle and Biological Form", in Gyorgy Kepes, ed., Module, Proportion, Symmetry, Rhythm (New York: George Braziller, 1966).