Designers to Watch

11/01/2017 By Jenna Lippin

Ningxin Cheng Kalen McNamara Open Pocket Open Pocket

Vectorworks, Inc., a global design and BIM software developer for the architecture, landscape, and entertainment design industries, recently announced the winners of its third annual Vectorworks Design Scholarship program. Prizes were awarded for projects that demonstrate the creativity and high-caliber work of the next generation of design professionals.

The concept “Open Pocket” by Ningxin Cheng (B.Arch. 2017) and Kalen McNamara (M.Arch. 2018) from Rice University’s School of Architecture was selected from more than 2,000 submissions from students around the world. The design represents a complete architectural concept for the structures that would house programming for NASA. Cheng and McNamara are winners of the prestigious Richard Diehl Award, which comes with a $10,000 grand prize. The submission was an assignment from their Fall 2016 Advanced Studio, which is part of Totalization, a unique collaborative design program at Rice Architecture.

“Great teamwork is the foundation for this project,” Cheng said. “Open Pocket begins with the particular nature of research conducted by NASA at Johnson Space Center (JSC). Scientists at JSC use technologically advanced and pragmatic means to achieve poetic ends. Rather than generate inventions, they pursue discovery. Therefore, the architecture produced to house their programs should be not additive, but instead transformative. We were lucky to have the chance to visit NASA and tour the campus, where staff shared with us their vision of NASA and its collaboration with universities. It was very helpful for us to have [the opportunity to see] what they are looking for beyond an innovation center.”

Cheng and McNamara developed the concept with the exploration of the system of “open pockets,” Cheng explained. “As we were looking at the relationship between the building and people who experience it, the performance of the envelope of the building plays an important role. Therefore, we also looked at the facade material and fabricated some small samples; we really imagined how the building would be realized in reality. When thinking about the concept, we imagined ourselves as the different user groups in the building to avoid flaws in use. When designing the facade, we also looked into how the panels would be installed and maintained. We consulted structural engineers and MEP engineers to find out the systems that would work best with our design intention. I think these efforts make our design stronger and more convincing.”

McNamara added, “For me, it was also very exciting and affirming. The experience gained through the project itself, as well as the little glimmer of recognition we've gotten since winning the competition, has made me more interested in the technical aspects of architecture.” She is currently working on her thesis at Rice and will graduate in January with a master’s degree. McNamara plans to look for work in architecture that will allow her to “directly engage” with clients. “What I love most about architecture is not just the process of design itself but more the experience of translating social/political/economic issues into architectural terms,” she noted.

Now studying at Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cheng is “exploring how to make a design more effective. For example, identifying the voices from under-represented groups, integrating architecture into the broader system including culture, technology, and real estate development. Overall, I'm still in the study phase and I feel there's so much for me to learn to be a better designer.