Thick Skin and Dense Space

A Proposal for a Luxury Aquatic Leisure Campus in Mission Bay, San Diego 


Created for the Advanced Architectural Studio V entitled “Thick Skin & Dense Space” at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University. Critic: Lise Anne Couture of Asymptote Architecture.

Through the strategic reinterpretation of the tessellation patterns and geometric orderings originated from the shell of a tortoise, a new dynamic condition unfolds where there is no longer a binary inside / outside relationship but an inside, outside, above and below condition. This new condition stems from the fact that the tortoise is unique in that it has both an endoskeleton and an exoskeleton. The top part of the shell is the carapace, the underside is the plastron, and the two are connected by a bridge.


This symmetrical hybrid system allows for an architectural potential of a series of intricately carved spatial organizations that challenge typical interior to exterior relationships. There is a carved exterior, a figural interior space that is open to the exterior and fully enclosed interior with large penetrating ‘exteriorized’ programmed volumes. This ordering lends itself well to a site, massing, and programmatic strategy that are developed simultaneously and follow the behaviors of the tortoise in its natural habitat.


Situated in Mission Bay, San Diego near world renowned destinations like Fire Island, Scripps Research Institute, and Sea World, the new campus will augment an already well-established network of marine focused destinations. With dozens of luxury resorts and villas sprinkled across the bay and a prominent waterfront site with incredible visibility, the campus will serve as a beacon for tourists, day travelers, and locals alike.

Here the massing is on an edge. Amphibious like its tortoise brethren, the new campus sits comfortably at the intersection of land and water, of earth and sky that converge into a new layering of inside and outside conditions. There is an inherent directionality in its composition, suggesting a balanced but focused emphasis on an exchange of the natural elements. Water comes slowly around and underneath the campus, with pockets of pools found above and within.

Structure & Material

The tortoise carapace has a unique material translucency and structural strength, which has been extrapolated as a strategy for an envelope that varies in opacity, becoming most transparent where areas have been carved out the most. This operation heightens a sense of slowing down, retreating inward, and feeling fully enveloped by a strong warm volume when circulating from the exterior to the innermost spaces. There is a formal and material continuity between ‘glazing’ and ‘mass.’


Ultimately the goal is to explore how an exterior condition can be perceived as fully enveloped by the interior and vice versa. This inversion of a typical spatial relationship can create a heightened sense of awareness of the moments of transition between interior to exterior and affords the potential of a strategy that exudes a simultaneous heaviness and porosity. Through the strategic carving and nesting of a repetitive form arrayed in series, an intricate system of filtering between fully enveloped exterior spaces and their interior counterparts can potentially be revealed.

This interstitial filtering poche then serves an experiential, programmatic, and potential structural purpose. To create such a condition, the carving and boolean strategy stages both the extent of the envelope and the configuration of the landscape simultaneously, potentially revealing new ways to define the relationship between interior (building) and exterior (landscape) in a wholistic and integrated fashion. The end result is a thick yet porous envelope that filters a hidden light source, serves a structural purpose, and creates a series of spaces that begin to blur one’s bearing and take them outside of their own metaphorical shell.

The Brief:

Thick Skin and Dense Space

The International Style is often described as having evolved into late modernity along two main
paths: on the one hand an architecture focused on technical virtuosity and efficiency, of lightness
and thin skins: shells, membranes, curtain walls or cladding; overlaid, stretched, wrapped, or
hung from an assembly of structural and/or planar elements (systems such as spaceframes,
geodesics, columns and slabs, posts and beams etc.). The second is rooted in early experiments
with concrete that resulted in radical transformations of existing building types from a previous era
such as the villa, church, monastery and eventually institutional and cultural buildings. This
second trajectory evolved away from the pursuit of lightness, transparency and minimal elegance
as exemplified by the steel and glass structures towards a more massive and sculptural
approach, a radically different form of expression that was equally if not more compelling.
The early modern concrete experiments and later sculptural works that came to be known as
Brutalist architecture, a label with unfortunate negative connotations, are now recognized as
some of the most important architectural masterpieces of the twentieth century. Today the legacy
of these two approaches has resulted in a delineation that has been blurred and perhaps even
rendered irrelevant as exemplified in recently executed work by professionals, as well as that of
students in design studios. While the availability of digital tools and methodologies along with new
materials and techniques, have enabled a new architecture of surfaces and lightness often with
geometrically compelling envelops, varigated patterning and modular articulation, this studio will
make a deliberately shift to take the other tack and look to towards creating an architecture of
figural spaces and sculpted mass, of thick skins and dense space.
Rather than wrapping, skinning, cladding or sheathing we will aim to create an architecture
through the carving, shaping and sculpting of material into articulated solids, shaped voids and
even hollowed out poche. The studio will be initiated with analytical and abstract studies of the
sculptural masterpieces of the last century by LeCorbusier, Marcel Breuer, Paul Rudolph and the
like, resulting in both digital and physical models as well as digital composite (collage) drawings.
We are not interested in mass from a load bearing point of view but rather in formal explorations
and the potential for relationships between sculpted exterior forms and shaped interior spaces.
The digital transformations of these precedents into new, or even radical, forms will be not only
be inevitable but also highly desirable. Lastly, the generating and testing of strategies for
aggregation or clustering will be the final preparatory step towards the design of the semester’s
The program that we will use to test this methodology and its outcome is inspired by our growing
21st century obsession with wellness: our drive to achieve equilibrium, to strengthen our cores, to
monitor our vital signs, engineer our diets and increase our life span. More specifically our project
will be in response to ongoing research on the effects of the internet on the brain in connection
with neuroplasticity; the ability of the brain to re-organize itself by altering the structure of its own
neural connections. While many see a positive side to findings that associate internet use with an
increase in certain types of brain activity (the prefrontal lobe
Thick Skin and Dense Space cont.
associated with problem solving and decision making for instance), further research indicates that
this increased activity comes at the expense of other neural regions and also results in the
compromising of further areas related to memory.
In short, we are at risk of becoming a population of fast tracking, multi-tasking, text skimming,
superficial surfers who are addicted to distraction while losing their ability for concentration and
weakening their capacity for the “deep processing” necessary for critical, analytical and creative
thinking. Our program for the studio is therefore a Rehab facility for the 21st century brain, a
place for internet interventions, web withdrawal and digital detox.
The architecture of our contemporary hybrid of monastery, spa and wellness resort will therefore
be part of the net addiction antidote. While our hypothetical residents will forsake the glow of a
hyperactive backlit screen for immersion in a cool pool, a thick book or the atmosphere and mood
of their new spatial environment, the studio will not be abandoning the extensive use of digital
technologies in our process but rather through their use seek to create new architectural
experiences for the analog world.

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