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Thinking outside the cocoon

January 31, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

Honda's new Advanced Design Center, in Pasadena, is a kind of architectural version of a concept car. Designed by George Yu, a 42-year-old Los Angeles architect, it holds desk space for 10 of Honda's top car designers, along with a conference room and a small, sleek kitchen along one wall.

The center occupies a 6,000-square-foot storefront space in the 1904 Boston Centennial Building in Pasadena's Old Town, at the corner of Raymond and Union and within walking distance of the Cheesecake Factory, an Apple Store and H&M. But except for the occasional reception or cocktail party, it isn't open to the public. The location has more to do with Honda's interest in marketing itself as a forward-looking company to the students at nearby Art Center College, whose car-design program is among the best in the world. (Most of the designers who work in the new space, in fact, are Art Center graduates.) As much as the Honda center is an office, it is an advertisement, however unusual or oblique, for Honda.

At the same time, Honda, like all carmakers, is obsessive about secrecy and security when it comes to its future models. That meant Yu faced the challenge of taking a storefront space and turning it into a studio that would promote Honda's design work -- and at street level, no less -- even as it kept its details hidden from public view.

His solution didn't begin to emerge until he toured Honda's main North American design center in Torrance. Yu knew he wanted to create what he calls a "cocoon" of office space that he could drop into the Pasadena location, sealing the designers away from the eyes of pedestrians on the sidewalk outside, but he wasn't sure exactly how. Noticing the collection of milling machines that Honda designers in Torrance use to create models for new car parts out of high-density foam, the architect asked if he could use them after-hours, when they normally sit idle, to produce the walls of the new office. His plan was to take sheets of translucent acrylic and shape them into curving panels that would form the exterior of the cocoon.

Honda agreed, but that was only the beginning of what turned out to be a struggle to adopt technology meant for creating cars for the purpose of making architecture. There has been lots of talk in recent years, of course, about the digital revolution in architecture, and nearly every firm now uses powerful computer software of one kind or another.

But there is still a significant gap between the design process and the actual, physical stuff of architecture. Firms rely on digital design tools to produce plans and models that still have to be executed with steel, glass and wood by contractors working largely by hand.

While a number of young architects are experimenting with ways to close that gap, mostly by fabricating their own building materials or by developing modular house designs, so far the results look clumsy compared with the way that carmakers have smoothly integrated computing power into their factories over the last two decades. The biggest problem for architects interested in new technology -- particularly those in small firms like Yu's -- is that most of their designs are for custom "one-off" buildings.

Carmakers, meanwhile, are free to dream up models whose upfront costs can easily be earned back thanks to mass production and sales volume. They have a powerful incentive to invest in digital research and development and new equipment -- including the kind of rapid prototyping equipment Yu noticed so enviously in Torrance -- that can take instructions directly from design software.

The result is that car design has become a democratic art form (love or hate the Chrysler Spitfire) that mutates constantly in response to consumer demand, while architecture, for all its surging popularity, remains to a large extent a detached and rarefied field.

Yu set out to borrow a carmaker's approach and see, given his access to Honda's high-powered equipment and vendors, if he could make it work for this single, admittedly small architectural project. He bought acrylic panels for the walls of the cocoon from a German manufacturer. Opaque enough to maintain the designers' privacy, they are also translucent enough to bring some light into the workspace.

The first problem he encountered was one of scale. The biggest panel in any car is one that forms the roof, so the architect decided to use that size -- roughly 4 feet by 8 feet -- as his basic building block. Using the same Rhinoceros software program -- Rhino for short -- that Honda designers use, he produced a scheme for the Pasadena offices that includes nine shapes and 99 panels.

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