A Method to the Madness

Studios GO founder and Pratt Institute Adjunct Gregory Okshteyn introduces his students to a more abstract design approach, fostering the confidence to let go of the process and let great design and architecture unfold.

05/25/2011 By AnnMarie Martin

Eric Wong recalls just being "thrown" into designing a building as an undergrad at architecture school. However, in the fall of 2010 in Gregory Okshteyn's graduate architecture studio at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, he learned that without an emphasis on any sort of thought process or logic behind your building, it does your final design a great disservice. Because with the thought process comes an understanding of your design, which in turn makes way for changes you never saw coming.

"And that's when you arrive at something unexpected and amazing," Wong says. "That's the big take away for me from Greg's studio. The best design comes when you relinquish a little bit of control and let your design feed back to you. It's not about knowing what you want from the beginning—it's about understanding the building on a deeper level."

Gregory Okshteyn, founder of New York City-based Studios GO and a fourth-year adjunct assistant professor at Pratt, noticed some time ago that schools were not preparing young architects properly for their careers because they weren't helping them to be confident in their skill set. So he decided to do something about it with a two-fold approach. The first step was to make sure each student had individualized attention that made them aware of their decisions and subsequent consequences, while building up their strengths and addressing their weaknesses. The second step was to implement a teaching process in his studio that solidified the confidence and knowledge that comes with self-awareness.

"I teach a new way of problem solving," Okshteyn says. "That's what we do in architecture school. We really don't teach how to build things. I mean, we're getting there, but especially in the very early stages of students' careers we try to teach them how to think. And with each student my approach is very, very different."

Michael Licht, also a former student of Okshteyn's, remembers comparing notes with his fellow students and realizing that Okshteyn had given them all different exercises to focus on. "You have to realize you're different than everyone else," Licht says. "He makes you feel like an individual."

For Licht and Wong's fall 2010 studio, the project at hand was a yoga studio on the Lower East Side. To get to it, they started at the most basic of levels: a 2-D flat material. Before going further, students had to fully understand the characteristics of whatever material it was they had chosen. After that, they were asked to build a physical model or "the unit" (a 6- by 6- by 6-inch model), using only that material and either celebrating its strengths or challenging its weaknesses. From there, students drew the unit, modeled it in 3-D on the computer and quickly gained a whole range of skills necessary for expressing a three-dimensional object.

The next exercise was to aggregate these units. "Now they're seeing how their initial models are acting as a system," says Okshteyn. "So all those things [the grad students] drew and diagramed are now changing exponentially as things aggregate. So that became very interesting, because we learned that some units aggregate easier than others. So there had to be this back and forth, because design is linear and nonlinear. You have to push forward while rethinking the previous steps simultaneously. They had to go back and forth and rework their units in order to propagate them easier."

At this point is when the magic typically happens and students start seeing "emergent behavior" in the models, or in other words, "things that came out of the design process that we didn't have control over. When we control every phase of the design process we already know what we're going to get and there's nothing exciting about that," says Okshteyn.

Giving students the confidence in themselves and their systems is where most of his time is dedicated, insists Okshteyn, but he also values showing students that creating a network amongst themselves is a vital component in shaping their careers. It's something he learned partially from his grandfather, formerly an architect in Soviet-ruled Russia.

"I have his portfolio and I do look at it every now and then, but the most important inspiration that I got from him was that he was just a true gentleman. He was highly respected by his peers, his friends and I still meet people today who knew him and tell me how much he helped them."

And from his grandfather to… the Kardashian sisters? "It's weird to talk about architectural academia and history and then the Kardashians," he laughs. "But at the same time that's another strength of mine—I don't have any preconceived notions or judgments. I want to learn from other people's successes."

During the fall 2010 semester, when Licht and Wong were going through Okshteyn's graduate architecture studio, their professor was also being featured on the E! series Kourtney & Kim Take New York, as he was selected to design their third DASH store in SoHo. The "success" he is referring to is how the girls have cracked the code on making social media work for you. As an open and transparent individual, it's something Okshteyn continues to strive for, particularly with his Facebook page.

"I want everyone to know the things I'm inspired by and things that are interesting me. So at first it was a way to just tell everyone the things that I like and share how I'm feeling and what I'm proud of. And by other people's responses I started to learn what works and what doesn't. It's slowly becoming a very powerful tool for me."

He cites how the design of a kosher deli by Studios GO was affected after Okshteyn posed a simple question on his page asking, "What's your favorite lunch spot and why?" The responses, received in just five minutes, influenced the client and the direction of the design.

"[The Kardashians] tweet their every move and I want everyone around me to know what I'm finding. It's about sharing what I'm inspired by."

It's a mantra that continues to work for him not just on Facebook, but in his architecture studio, where sharing stories and experiences will always be paramount.


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