Saturday, September 12, 2009

Final Report

I’m currently back in my apartment in Boston, trying to mentally prepare myself for my final year of grad school ahead, wishing very much that I was still in Switzerland. My expectations were certainly met in terms of my experience in Zurich and elsewhere in Switzerland: I had a great time there, took lots of beautiful trips to the mountains, and made a handful of good friends I will stay in contact with from the U.S. The research side is a bit of a different story, as I was doing pretty wildly different things at the ETH than I was expecting to do, but in the end I am grateful for the experience and think that I learned more for having it go somewhat not according to plan than I would have otherwise.

One of the most positive parts of my research period was the time I had to work with Madelon Vriesendorp, the artist my institute collaborated with for the project I was assigned to in August, whose work I have studied and admired in the past. It was a somewhat absurd but highly enjoyable task to be negotiating between an eccentric painter and the highly engineered design and fabrication cell that comprised my research group. Another positive part of the final project I was involved with was the high level of responsibility I had in its coordination and execution. Acting more or less as our project’s manager, working with our team’s programmer, I was intimately involved with all parts of the process, from the conceptualization of the pieces to their programming and tooling to their eventual fabrication, and so I learned much in this short period.

milling process / late night with the robot...

The third, more general but perhaps most important factor contributing to how enjoyable the summer was for me was how relaxed the summer was paced. As some others have mentioned, there was almost none of the high levels of pressure, competition and stress that characterize the atmosphere in my university here, and the degree to which I was able to complete the tasks expected of me at the institute without having to sacrifice being able to see friends and enjoy Europe in the evenings and weekends was something I haven’t experienced in my professional or educational career so far.

There were a few challenges I encountered, one being that since my entire group was German or Swiss, most of the conversation during the day was in German unless I was being directly addressed, so I didn’t informally absorb very much in this way as I typically do in new offices, but this is of course my own fault for being linguistically impaired. Another challenge, also anticipated, was that it was difficult to be integrated into the operations of a group with such sophisticated and technically inaccessible working methods and tools in such a short period of time. Lastly, not to beat a dead horse, but the expense of living in Zurich as a foreigner was somewhat prohibitive to being able to experience or connect to the city in ways I have to other places I have lived, especially with not being able to afford to eat out (which I did once all summer).

I was lucky to work with such enthusiastic and supportive people who were willing to invest any amount of effort that I was willing to reciprocate in order to integrate me within the team, despite the technical challenges. I am satisfied with what I was able to accomplish in the time I had, and I know that if I were there for a few more months I would have gone even farther. As I already mentioned a bit, the main difference between my studio environment at home and that at the ETH is that it was significantly less stressful and more relaxed, but no doubt this had something to do with being summer term there. Expectations about what and how much was to be produced in a given period of time were similar, though. The biggest advantage the ETH has over the GSD is their facilities far outmatch ours, both in space and in equipment, as well as the breadth of their knowledge and capability in operating them, which is in the end why I was drawn to their group in the first place.

If I were to pursue an advanced degree or a teaching/research position related to digital fabrication in Architecture, then I would definitely consider trying to return to the ETH…and of course I would/will go back for leisure, for despite how relatively small the country is there are still many things I didn’t have the chance to do during the summer that I will likely try to incorporate into a future trip.

Thanks for a great summer!


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