Future100: Design Students Rethink the Commons

In the wake of the pressures of the pandemic and a crisis of social cohesion, students draw up concepts for more permeable urban futures.

An underground pavilion and Metro station, The Looking Glass links the subterranean and street levels by way of light wells and fritted glass that enables people in either realm to witness the other. Guy Lafôret also designed the station to reflect its site at the intersection of Little Tokyo and the Arts District in Los Angeles. Courtesy Guy Lafôret 

The past 12 months have, for many of us, been a time of confinement and profound social isolation. The world shrank, and our routines became even more circumscribed, with little time, if any, spent in public or communal spaces.

In a time of such forced retreat, what constitutes a commons? Where is it located? What is its shape? These are questions today’s design students are contemplating. Despite being developed, with some exceptions, before the pandemic, the work presented here interrogates and subverts the notion of the “threshold,” the permeable barrier that separates indoors from outside, public from private, and that has taken on new meanings in the context of an airborne plague and an epidemic of police violence.

Porosity can be deadly, and yet without it, we could die: The human body is inseparable from its environment, and this is equally true from a social perspective. In this moment, architecture students have a special understanding and appreciation of the role of permeability. Some design public libraries with atrium-like reading rooms, where transparency becomes a metaphor for universal accessibility and democratic ideals. Others conceive high-rise housing whose architecture is perforated not only by breeze-blocks but by spaces dedicated to social programs. Still others envision “amphibious” science centers where site, surface, and program are all porous. Rainwater seeps into the ground, and the public seeps into the building.

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Presciently predicting the rise of at-home entertainment due to the pandemic, Valeriya Velyka’s 2019 Volume VR music venue is a virtual reality space that takes into account scales, decibels, and circulation schemes in different venues so “you never have to miss a performance and avoid all the real-world negatives.” Courtesy Valeriya Velyka

The nature of this porosity is determined by the threshold. In The Looking Glass, Guy Lafôret, an undergraduate at the University of Southern California School of Architecture, was inspired by Japanese torii and the idea of a threshold “as a tether that connects the real world to the world of the nonphysical.” The concept visually connects the subterranean concourse of a Metro station serving Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood to the streetscape above through light wells fitted with fritted glass. In The Super Super Block, a scheme for Barcelona’s largely industrial Marina del Prat Vermell, Lafôret proposes building within, on top of, and through existing warehouses to preserve elements of the industrial fabric. That project takes its cues in part from Catalan sculptor Eduardo Chillida, whose concept of space, as Lafôret puts it, “revolves around the forced introduction of voids in a solid.”

Another meditation on connectivity, Valeriya Velyka’s design for a communal housing project in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, challenges traditional ideas about thresholds by dissolving the backyard fences between neighboring buildings. Multistory towers are instead arranged on a grid but rotated so that units look out onto communal courtyards. “There is a dialogue between the units, which gives the residents peace of mind in terms of the visual access created by the geometry,” says the California College of the Arts undergraduate architecture student.

Art & Illustration
Linking two sides of Westchester Creek in the Bronx, New York, Jacqueline Pileggi’s A Bridge Is Brewing proposal contains space for leisure, exhibitions, urban agriculture, and a brewery. Pileggi also designed for different modes and speeds of transportation. Courtesy Jacqueline Pileggi

Velyka carries this idea further in Backyard Nooks, which explores ways to create a temporary writers’ retreat in West Los Angeles. Two private residential lots separated by an alley are connected by a series of private pods, sleeping lofts, and communal spaces that serve four to six people at a time. Elevated and mostly open-air, the structures make use of a simple assembly of cross-laminated timber, steel, and plywood. “I was already working on the design and concept when the pandemic hit,” she says. “After a month of quarantine, I realized how relevant this idea was.”

Reciprocal Walls, whose origins also predate the pandemic, treads similar ground. Created by University at Buffalo graduate student Letícia Ávila, it is ostensibly a design for three houses and three detached studio spaces. But Ávila treats the wall as a typology in and of itself. While private living spaces are set back from the street, the studios are semiprivate, visible through openings in an outer wall that surrounds the complex and serves as a locus of activity, with a “bookshelf wall” that functions as a community lending library and a “garden wall” that creates a semipublic garden. The whole thing feels prescient. “Although the walls create a certain barrier, the openings still allow for distant human interaction,” Ávila says. “I see restaurants moving indoor dining spaces outdoors to comply with health and safety requirements or stores with curbside pickup, and I can see how the ‘garden wall’ and ‘library wall’ could fulfill the social-distancing necessity as the public could just grab and go.”

To design Oblique Peak, a gondola tower in San Diego’s Children’s Park, Wing Man Chan began by skewing three structural elements in three different directions and then refined it structurally. The result is formally eclectic but structurally sound. Courtesy Wing Man Chan

Ávila’s vision recalls other informal architectures born of the pandemic that blur the line between public and private, interior and exterior. Not just the sidewalk cafés and outdoor classrooms but the fleets of “book bikes” created by public libraries or the homemade candy chutes that safely delivered sweets to trick-or-treaters in Brooklyn, New York. Prior to 2020, the notion of “the commons” might have conjured up images of a public plaza or town square. But in quarantine, it seems to find its most potent expression in the small, intimate spaces of daily life: the backyard, the garden, the local tool library.

Permeability makes us vulnerable. It is this vulnerability that we attempt to counter with our Plexiglas barriers and cloth masks. But permeability also connects us to the wider world, as these projects innately recognize. They may not use the word, but the future they imagine is nothing less than revolutionary.

Alessandra Shorten’s studied design for the Phoenix Public Library takes inspiration from Arizona’s “hot spots,” where diverse flora and fauna concentrate near natural springs. Three atrium-like spaces hold different native plant species near the reference and staff areas and the book stacks. Courtesy Alessandra Shorten

Visit metropolismag.com/future100 to see more groundbreaking student work.


University at Buffalo

Graduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Miquel Guitart, Assistant Professor

Ávila’s public institutional work translates ideals and themes into buildings, as in Poetry Square and Chimneys, which thoroughly conceive accessible institutions by exploring the ground level. Reciprocal Walls creates new commons in in-between spaces.


University of Idaho

Graduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Bruce Haglund, Distinguished Professor

Du utilizes local Idaho wood for market and housing projects, a consideration of sustainable factors that also shows up in a light-filled, biophilic design for a round-the-clock fire station in Boise, Idaho.


Cal Poly Pomona

Undergraduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Achille Michelizzi, Professor at the University of Florence, Founder of Achille Michelizzi Architects

Le uses a mix of meticulous drawings, blocky renderings, and models to represent projects focusing on preserving structures and framing views. The Alley examines the potential of Hollywood’s back alleys as a means of expanding density and connectivity and showcasing art.


Pratt Institute

Undergraduate Interior Design

NOMINATOR: Keena Suh, Associate Professor

Two projects by McGrath aim to revitalize bits of New York’s dense and unrelent-ing built environment: The Tool Shed transforms a closed park structure into a hub for material and information sharing, while a redesign of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Pacific Branch includes a textile recycling drop-off.


Harvard University

Graduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Eric Höweler, Associate Professor, Academic Adviser, Cofounder of Höweler + Yoon

Moqrane proposes three stations for a new Tube line in multicultural suburban London, which harness community context as well as local forms such as the roundabout. Other projects explore the unique housing settings and challenges in California, Japan, and Massachusetts.


New York Institute of Technology

Undergraduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Manuel Garza, Adjunct Instructor, Principal of Et Al. Collaborative

Pileggi advances an iterative style in devising mixed-use public spaces that combine ecological concerns and recreational needs. Waterfront designs demonstrate a desire to grapple with storm surges, recycling flows, and water filtration.


California College of the Arts

Undergraduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Antje Steinmuller, Associate Professor, Chair

Sharad’s work encompasses many scales, from product to neighborhood, all with an attention to the experience of light. A museum design maximizes light for different purposes, while several projects including a built parklet imagine a denser and more efficient San Francisco.


Pratt Institute

Graduate Interior Design

NOMINATOR: Jack Travis, Adjunct Professor

Tamanaha’s detailed studies and drawings communicate solutions to local problems, especially related to the food chain. Corridor transforms the urban grid into a patchwork of agricultural corridors, leisure paths, and gathering nodes as part of an accessible and efficient streetscape.


NewSchool of Architecture & Design

Undergraduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Daniela Deutsch, Associate Professor, Fourth-Year-Level Coordinator

From master plans to multifamily housing, Chan’s portfolio betrays a focus on questions of how we live relative to one another in the contemporary city. Model making, mass timber, and sight lines are other significant themes.


Rice University

Undergraduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Viola Ago, Wortham Fellow

Simple shapes are merged, stacked, and warped in Feuillet’s design for a farmers’ market, including green space, seating, and covered zones. Feuillet also designs at the product scale, experimenting with textiles, jewelry, and graphics.


University of Southern California

Undergraduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Luciana Varkulja, Lecturer

With a stark, eclectic style of representation, Lafôret focuses on some overlooked aspects of the urban environment, including transit stations and even a public pool. Many projects respond to social issues like homelessness and ableist development.


The New School

Graduate Interior and Lighting Design

NOMINATOR: William Watson, Visiting Assistant Professor

Llerena intersperses shared functions with housing blocks in Perforated Solid, a mixed-use master plan. Celebrating Tradition takes advantage of a biodiverse Quito, Ecuador, neighborhood to elevate tradition, knowledge sharing, tourism, and economic development. Both projects reveal an attention to broader communal economic forces.


Syracuse University

Graduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Paul Crovella, Assistant Professor

Many of Mishra’s projects explore modularity as a way of addressing pressing social challenges, such as in Recondition, a veteran support facility, and Jan Connect, which amalgamates public functions in shipping containers for underserved districts.


Cornell University

Undergraduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Naomi Frangos, Professor, Internship Adviser

Niu’s process includes painting, site studies, and clear-eyed renderings to explore the uses of buildings. Projects such as the Roman Floating Citywalk aim to help pedestrians discover and use underutilized space within a dense urban context.


Rice University

Graduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Troy Schaum, Associate Professor, Partner at Schaum/Shieh

Scott embraces complexity and dualities in her projects, exploring how difference can coexist within a single structure. Other projects delve into the potentialities of small-scale architecture, such as rooftop water tanks and bicycle parking systems.


Virginia Tech

Undergraduate Interior Design

NOMINATOR: Lisa Tucker, Interior Design Program Chair

Many of Shorten’s designs are based in a single point of inspiration that guides the entire project. Comprehensively developed projects include an attention to site and fine-grained consideration of materials, furnishings, and circulation.


California College of the Arts

Undergraduate Architecture

NOMINATOR: Antje Steinmuller, Associate Professor, Chair

Velyka focuses on exploring the possibilities of warping, scaling up, and serializing simple geometric shapes, an emphasis that courses through furniture design to public space design. Simple design conceits produce novel castings of structures such as libraries and parks.

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