The Adaptation of the Unit
Nevertheless, one very marked difference between the prototype brick and the Cooper-Hewitt brick spelled for us an imminent constructional problem – GL bricks are 1/2″ thicker than the bricks used for the January prototype, increasing the structural safety factor of the vault, but also very much increasing the difficulty of setting them into a doubly-curved surface with very tight tolerances for the turning radius of each brick.
Thus, in order to build this vault at the Cooper-Hewitt with Green Leaf bricks, a very strategic constructional logic had to be employed: Rather than the somewhat predictable but also relatively arbitrary custom-cutting method employed in the January vault, the custom-cutting for the Cooper-Hewitt vault had to be highly specific to the vault geometry and planned well so that we could still keep our (very tight!) 5 day construction schedule. It should be noted here that one of the most formative constraints for the design of this vault was that of time. The curvature of the vault is composed of splines which vary in profile but are fixed in length – all in order to keep an equal coursing pattern and to save in the time and labor-intensive process of custom-cutting bricks.
What I planned was the following: Each custom-cut brick would have the quality of one of three different brick modules, a primitive which could be chirally oriented for a left or a right, and combined with other primitives as necessary. A logic for the quantities required for each custom primitive was also very important, so there were always enough of the critically necessary variations as we began to brick the sections which required them. The results were very successful – Sam Kronick was our dedicated brick cutter, who spent a good deal of the construction cutting in the basement with the wet-saw and delivering our variants for their rough schedule in construction.
This is an example of what I would call constructional logics that are 1) learned from building (in this case, in January), 2) analyzed and abstracted as rules, and then 3) re-embedded into the design process. It could be said that this is merely the practice of good craft in building, but I would argue also that – by fundamentally altering the logic of the brick unit, from a regular and industrially produced module, to a taxonomic system of limited, customized module variations – the design of the brick is a creative proposition for challenging constructional constraints. Now – while this vault could not have been constructed with standard brick units, the project of my design thesis is to show what non-standardized and variable units can – as a system – be made to build. The altered brick unit, the system of aggregated units, and the method of assembly would in this case come to reciprocally generate each other.