Design Manifestos: Joshua G. Stein of Radical Craft

Joshua G. Stein of Radical Craft (Photography by Donatella Cusma)

Joshua G. Stein is founder of the Los Angeles-based studio Radical Craft and the co-director of the Data Clay Network, a forum for the exploration of digital techniques applied to ceramic materials. Radical Craft is a Los Angeles-based studio that operates as a laboratory for testing how practices saturated in history (from archaeology to craft) can inflect the production of contemporary urban spaces and artifacts, evolving newly grounded approaches to the challenges posed by virtuality, velocity, and globalization. Recent projects engage earthen materials that resist easy manipulation, whether in raw or consolidated states. He has taught at the California College of the Arts, Cornell University, SCI-Arc, and the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. He was a 2010–11 Rome Prize Fellow in Architecture, and is currently Professor of Architecture at Woodbury University.

On becoming an architect
I knew from a young age that architecture was somewhere in my future (probably because of significant accomplishments in the world of Legos). This was reinforced in junior high school where guidance counselors assumed that if you were good at math and good at art, you’d be good at architecture. It’s certainly not that simple in the real world, but I admit that I enjoy architecture because I can oscillate between analytical and intuitive modes of production. I enrolled in a high school that had an architecture specialty and was already interning for a firm by my junior year. When I was debating undergraduate programs, everybody in the firm advised me to wait as long as possible before getting “sucked in” to architecture. I took their advice and studied everything but architecture in undergrad (French, studio art, architectural history), knowing that I would end up in a graduate program. After a couple years of research I found my way to UCLA.

“Tectonic Horizons” (Photography by Jason Kwong courtesy of Radical Craft)

On starting his own firm
After finishing my M.Arch at UCLA, I worked for a few firms in both Los Angeles and Paris. During that time I was regularly entering competitions on my own and then in collaboration with former classmates from UCLA. I wasn’t in a financial position to intern for an experimental office so I knew that in order to pursue work with a strong research agenda I would need to start my own office or work in collaboration with others. Three years out of grad school I was lucky enough to land a full-time teaching position which offered me the opportunity to develop my design agenda. Two years later I founded Radical Craft.

My graduate school education was one of the first waves of “paperless studios.” There was a lot of energy focused on leaving materiality behind and jumping head first into the virtual world of digital design. I embraced this whole-heartedly knowing that while it satisfied only half of my interests in architecture, it had enormous possibilities that were just starting to become apparent. When I finished my master’s degree, I felt I had another education that I needed to somehow obtain. This included more experimentation in the world of the craft and materiality, which hadn’t been a part of my architectural education, but which I pursued on my own afterwards. I enrolled in ceramics classes in community college and started to test how digital fabrication and craft might inform one another. This self-directed, “post-grad” research defined the trajectory and the agenda of my own studio which I named Radical Craft precisely because I was interested in exploring what craftsmanship, older technologies, and materiality might have to offer the virtual, the digital and the automated. The dominant assumption at the time was that information transfer really only operated in the opposite direction.

The practice seemed to find its rhythm in 2009 with a couple of international competition successes: 1st Place for the másTransit proposal for a new transit infrastructure for Los Angeles (with Aaron Whelton, Jacob M. Brostoff, Jaclyn Thomforde), 3rd Place for the Soms Atoll World Sustainability Centre in the Netherlands, and the Reef installation at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York.

“Reef” (Photography by Alan Tansey courtesy of Radical Craft and Urbana)

On his approach to design
I started teaching relatively early so I was able/forced to define a clear design approach through the exercises I gave to my students. This involved continually seeking to manifest ideas both digitally and physicality — and most importantly, that this process should allow materiality to offer more to a project than simply representation or even construction — that instead, materiality can offer a language of form and a link to historical and social content.

For my practice, this has become most evident in the work engaging ceramic materials, which offered a strong challenge to the facility and ease of form generation in digital applications. While there was already a short history of investigation into digital fabrication when I launched Radical Craft, it primarily followed a “press print” mentality in which material operated as an inert medium to receive form that had been generated elsewhere. Within the logic of ceramics that wasn’t possible; it simply doesn’t accept whatever form you ask of it. Clay and the ceramic processes of molding, drying, and firing make certain demands on the form that need to be reconciled or negotiated with any digitally conceived form. I felt thoroughly engaged by that back and forth as well as all of the cultural associations that working in clay provoked. In addition to sparking a continuing interest in ceramic applications, these early explorations established the core of Radical Craft’s agenda and methodology.

“Trajan’s Hollow” (Photography by Michael J. Waters courtesy of Radical Craft)

On current projects that demonstrate his approach
Trajan’s Hollow, the research and installation project I produced through the Rome Prize, was an opportunity to address a complex set of issues I had been exploring through many separate projects. It directly engaged the relationship between digital and material formalism, between various scales of architectural production, and between models and copies. While it manifests a certain formalism from parametric modeling applications, there’s another strong aspect of the form that emerged directly from hand craftsmanship techniques. The project and its context (Rome) also demanded a clear response to the question of what we have to learn from ancient architecture and it examines not only a famous monument of Rome, Trajan’s Column, but all of its replicas and influences over the last two thousand years. On the surface, it is simply a reconstruction of that monument, but one that loses sight of its original and instead begins to privilege fidelity to the techniques of scaling up, scaling down, parametric modeling, hand casting, and digital fabrication. Trajan’s Hollow nicely synthesized a number of different, parallel interests of the studio and set a pattern for much of the work that has followed.

On his design style
I’m still thrilled by the fact that when I begin a project I can never anticipate what it might look like in the end. I think the studio operates with a clear methodology (most often: gather a wide range of research, test diagrammatic and typological options, explore materially, examine cultural implications) with aesthetics riding shotgun — present at every phase but rarely leading the design direction.

On his ideal projects
I haven’t found a project that’s uninteresting to me. More and more, my practice and research seem to move towards earthen issues. I find this offers a nice connection between scales that I had been operating at before, from ceramic objects or components to the much larger issues dealing with regional infrastructure and ecosystems. Slip Screen, a recent collaboration with Matthew Gillis, ties together several of these scales as it proposes a modular ceramic façade system that both skins a building (the Ceramic House) while mediating the changing thermal and meteorological contexts of its landscape. I would love to work on a project that allows the opportunity to trace the repercussions of earth, soil, clay, and ceramics across different scales.

“Ceramic House”(Rendering courtesy of Radical Craft and G!LL!S)

On software and collaboration
I often end up collaborating with smaller firms or craftspeople, but sometimes with larger offices as well. This demands that I’m not so tied to any one particular software package. The operative question is usually about finding the best way to move information back and forth between physical experimentation and digital precision. I try to remain critical of technology as it can often produce generations of similarly styled aesthetics. Even in tackling a project like Reef with Rob Ley, which was very much a project about dealing with emerging technologies (kinetic interactivity and Shape Memory Alloys), we consistently looked for ways to engage the technology without fetishizing it. A good collaboration often means a critical questioning of any particular technologies in the mix, whether new or old.

On being an educator and practicing architect
There can be an incredible feedback between practice/research and teaching. I’ve been fortunate that my institution, Woodbury University, has allowed me to bring into the academy many of the explorations that I had been researching through practice, even before these techniques had been recognized at other institutions. The courses I teach in digital fabrication, ceramics, and landscape infrastructure offer a great feedback loop between academic research and studio practice. In teaching, there are always amazing moments where you define an agenda for a studio or a seminar and you then support a range of responses from the students. Some of these responses are expected but others force you to question what you originally intended for the material, the technique, the agenda. When you bring a strong research agenda into the academy, it is amazing how it can be strengthened, subverted, or redirected by students, which is an incredibly healthy thing.

“Isochronic Mountain” (Photography by Eda Yetim courtesy of Radical Craft)

On the future of architecture
One thing that we’ve certainly come to confront — not only in architecture but in society in a larger way — is that the future benefits of “progress” are difficult to ascertain in the present moment. This means we end up spending significant time undoing former “advances.” Our over-dependency on the car is the most obvious example. So many of the experts of the time agreed that designing solely for the automobile was the best strategy for the future. The Isochronic Mountain project addresses this idea of questionable progress by documenting the rapid dismantling of transit networks in the 50s and 60s and the consequent impact on the city. We are confronted with the fact that it becomes difficult to predict what progress should look like. That’s going to be a continual question for us, especially inside of architecture, a discipline with a particular interest in novel technologies. We have to find ways to embrace experimentation with technology while cultivating a resistance to the assumed trajectories it often implies.

This post was previously published on on 10/26/15.