Michael Walch

Amazon Studio Final Review

Posted in Rates of Exchange: Amazon Studio by michaelwalch on 4 May, 2010

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I presented my final project yesterday from the Leslie Gill/Mike Jacobs Rates of Exchange: Amazon Studio at Columbia GSAPP.  The jury included Sunil Bald of Studio Sumo, David Benjamin of GSAPP & The Living (New York), and Keith Kaseman of KBAS.

I spent the semester analyzing deforestation trends and flows of lumber through the Amazon.  I realized that clear-cut logging was actually a precondition to further deforestation by other notorious forces: agriculture and cattle-ranching.  Also, the current approach of trying to police the forest is doomed to failure – 23 field stations, each with a small team of officers and 125 thousand square kilometers of territory is simply impossible.  Even if we believe that the field station can police the territory assigned to it, there are still huge holes in the coverage.  (See the first few slides mapping this.)

The proposal shifts from a reactionary/policing model to a pro-active/regulatory model.  As an architect, this has very specific geographic and spatial ramifications.  The roads through the Amazon are intense collectors of both people and forest products.  We can use them both to deliver the social services mandated by the government (such as health care and education) but notoriously lacking in these remote areas, as well as support a legitimate, sustainable logging industry.

The architectural challenge is to bring these disparate groups together.  Each of them offers resources to the other – information about the forest, medical services or education, experience in saving habitats, or security.  This is akin to a multicultural space – salad bowl and melting pot must both be facilitated because both are beneficial.  The architecture serves as a screening device which at times (on the ground floor) keeps the groups separate, with carefully orchestrated circulation and views, while also allowing for open dialogue and exchange (on the upper level).

The research and proposal was generally well-received.  Architecturally, it was pointed out that the sectional ideas were much less developed than the plan relationships.

David Benjamin brought up more social and political issues of the funding or organizational structure for the facility, and its relationship to the town of Novo Progresso.  There is a lot of hope in the environmental community that new logging concessions and other extractive uses could provide funding for this kind of project.  Additionally the facilities could be a conduit for investment by NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund – environmental NGOs in Brazil often have the role of grass-roots enactment of government initiatives, and that could continue in this project.  The relationship to Novo Progresso is interesting – I had thought of the prototypical site as more rural than the site I chose to develop (just a few miles North of the town).  The workshop and small showroom I proposed was meant to work with the scrap materials of the lumber process, but clearly in rural environments there would be other very useful goods to bring in from the outside.  In other words, a 7-11 might be more useful than a craft shop.

Sunil Bald saw my project as an adaptation of the Brazilian highway road stop; a place for waiting, engaged in car-culture and consumption.  One of my goals was to take components of the amazing Brazilian architecture we saw on our trip – the outdoor rooms, attention to shading, rich textures applied to modernist structures.  I’m not much of a road-trip-er myself, but actually have a voyeuristic love of car culture, so I will definitely think about this in future projects.  Taking this advice the project could be more unapologetically a strip mall/truck stop, where people stop along a longer journey.  It could then open up to new modes of transportation along the roads – a Grayhound station, perhaps – alongside the lumber.

Lots of food for thought from the review.  Of course for now I have to get back to finishing up other classes…

P.S.  Thanks Carol for helping with the amazing Portuguese name: CeCim – Centro Comunitário de Certificação da Indústria Madeireira

Three Quarter Review

Posted in Rates of Exchange: Amazon Studio by michaelwalch on 12 April, 2010

Today was our three-quarter review.  Critics: Mabel Wilson and Enrique Walker, both of GSAPP.

The major recommendation was to think of my proposal as a flexible prototype, able to be adapted to a variety of sites and program needs through time.

Here are some of the drawings:  (Model photos to come)

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Brazil Photos

Posted in Rates of Exchange: Amazon Studio by michaelwalch on 1 April, 2010

Well, the Kinne trip with studio, plus my Spring Break week in Rio, was quite the experience, and everything is conveniently in sets on flickr.

In the order of my itinerary:

The Rainforest on the Rio Negro – Boat rides, monkeys, piranha fishing, cayman (alligator) hunting, and a rainforest walk

Manaus – Teatro Amazonas

Brasilia – TV Tower, Senate, Foreign Affairs Palace, Superquadras, Dom Bosco Cathedral

Sao Paulo – Urban farming, Lina Bo Bardi buildings

Rio de Janeiro – Beach, Palacio Gustavo Campanema, Museum of Modern Art

Roberto Burle-Marx Studio outside of Rio – Plants, plants, and plants (a few buildings, but even these were covered with plants)


Exploring Tectonics

Posted in Rates of Exchange: Amazon Studio by michaelwalch on 1 April, 2010

Some model studies of how to build a wall system with log cut-offs.  Other possible wasted materials are woodchips/sawdust and thin veneer strips which are too small to make dimensioned lumber.

The model is at 1/2″ = 1′-0″ scale (the wall would be about 20′ tall at full scale).  It is 12″ tall, 6″ wide, 3″ deep, made of bass wood.

There are 4 diameters of ‘logs’ from 9″ to 24″ – this is roughly what you’d expect from Amazonian timber.  The depths vary from 12″ to 24″ – 24″ is the maximum because logs are cut to length in 2′ increments.  The smaller the logs in the stack, the less light is let through, and vice-versa.  The larger diameters were really too bulky on their own within the 4′ (horizontal) space between vertical frames – they need more smaller pieces.

Projects informing my work:

The Dominus Winery by Herzon and DeMeuron

The Tokyo AirSpace by Thom Faulders

The Mortensrud Church by Jensen & Skodvin Arkitektkontor

Midreview Work

Posted in Rates of Exchange: Amazon Studio by michaelwalch on 1 April, 2010

Our midreview was March 3, 2010.  Jurors for my project included Laura Kurgan of the GSAPP Spatial Information Design Lab, Guiseppe Lignano of LOT-EK, and Joeb Moore of the Undergraduate Architecture Program at Barnard.

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The phenomenon I documented was the advancing arc of deforestation due to clear-cut logging – logging on the move.  I am using the network of roads to monitor logging, encouraging more sustainable practices while also adding value to the lumber through transparent certification.  Stations are located along roads like BR-163, in three contexts: deep forest, a logging town, and a cleared forest (farming) area.  In each of the three contexts, social services and environmental monitoring are piggybacked onto the industrial and enforcement activity.

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Sawmill Machinery

Posted in Rates of Exchange: Amazon Studio by michaelwalch on 23 February, 2010

I’m researching sawmill machinery – how big are these facilities?  How do they work?

I’ve found a manufacturer with extensive video demonstration of their machines.

Check out AWMV’s Horizontal Resaw video – it’s like musical chairs but for resawn lumber!

Ok, the most dramatic video though is the SII Dry Kilns promotional video from YouTube:

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The Moving Logging Fronteir

Posted in Rates of Exchange: Amazon Studio by michaelwalch on 23 February, 2010

I generated my own maps based on data from IMAZON Geo.

The moving logging fronteir. Black dots are logging 'poles' - groups of sawmills - scaled to their volume of timber output. The average sawmill lasts only 7-10 years before being dismantled and moving on.

The SISFLOR monitoring bases. Each of the 23 bases, concentrated in the 'arc of deforestation', monitors an area of 200km radius through satellite, GPS, GIS, and field data.

Loggers on the move

Posted in Rates of Exchange: Amazon Studio by michaelwalch on 21 February, 2010

Logging in the Brazilian Amazon is intrinsic to the process of deforestation.  The location of logging centers or ‘poles’ (sawmills) define a sort of frontier of deforestation.  Loggers rarely own the land from which they extract timber and other products.  Primarily they are hired to clear land as a first step (and capital-gathering) in the process of clearing and turning that land over to agriculture or cattle-grazing.

Here is a map of that phenomenon, from Schneider, R.R. et al. Sustainable Amazon: limitations and opportunities for rural development. World Bank Technical Paper no. 515 (Environment Series), Washington, DC, 2002.

Basically the sawmills use rented, cheap equipment and don’t own the land they are logging, which sets up a perfect environment for disregard of the protection of the natural resources of the land, and inefficient use of the resources extracted from the forest.  The typical lifespan of a sawmill facility is 7 to 10 years.  It’s no coincidence that this map looks like an advancing army – it represents the front line of deforestation (in the Amazon, the ‘arc of deforestation’).  What if we could diffuse these facilities across a larger area, so that they can be harvested less intensely per unit area?  How can we keep loggers in place?  Keeping them in place would require that they maintain the forests.  Emancipating the loggers from the agricultural and cattle interests could allow them to adopt more sustainable methods of logging.

There is already a very sophisticated monitoring system in place in the Amazon – called SISFLOR.  It combines information from IBAMA, including land title and conservation/extraction activity permits with satellite monitoring of deforestation and fires, and on-the-ground observations tracked with GPS devices, and overlays everything through GIS software.  This takes place at 23 monitoring stations, concentrated around the logging poles (the arc of deforestation) – each one has a monitoring radius of about 200km.

Informed by the SISFLOR system, IBAMA has an approval stamp for legal lumber – for initial origin, transport, and export or consumer-ready.  That stamp is valuable!  All of the forestry certification processes have come from consumer demand and willingness to pay premiums for sustainably harvested forest products – this is one way to not only ensure that consumers are getting what they pay for, but also to transmit that revenue to loggers (many who are small companies or families) who are working within Sustainable Forest Management Plans (PFSM).

This approach is a fantastic precedent to the system I’m looking to develop.  The choice of site will be informed by where the timber is and the roads on which it is transported; it will need to work like a series of check points, border crossings, or way stations.  More to come.

Tensegrity Models – Digital and Physical

Posted in Rates of Exchange: Amazon Studio by michaelwalch on 15 February, 2010

I tried out tensegrity.. it’s tough!  Here are the most successful physical models, using dowels, rubber bands, aluminum tubes, and paper clips, and some digital 3D studies of towers using pyramid and rhombus modules.

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Light touch, big impact

Posted in Rates of Exchange: Amazon Studio by michaelwalch on 12 February, 2010

Big ideas can come in small packages.  I’ve posted previously about the Jauaperi Project on the Rio Negro River North of Manaus, where a communication satellite and solar panels were installed in a conservation forest.  The infrastructure itself is small, but the impact is huge – the community uses it for education, commerce, and medical information, as well as a data link to collaborating researchers at the University of Amazonas in Manaus.

Inherent to being an outsider in a foreign place is the blending of the imported and the local.  For this project, I’m considering what building components and technology could be brought into the forest, and combined with local materials, to provide access and monitoring of the forest.


Access is an open-ended term – it can be both physical and abstract.  I’ve often heard expressions along the lines of ‘If you love the wilderness, don’t go…’  The definition of wilderness is problematic generally, because, as I’m finding out in the Amazon, people have been living in and cultivating the rain forest for millennia.  Accepting that humans are in the rain forest then begs the question of their appropriate level of access to its resources, balanced against the needs of both the flora and fauna of the forest, but also other humans.  This is clearly a gradient condition, where extraction and resource utilization is necessary, but must be monitored.

As an example of one approach, here are the levels of access for the different forest classifications of the Brazilian Forestry Code, as of 2006:


Monitoring is very specific, and different from research in important ways.  Monitoring is the gathering of data.  I’ve been very interested in the Citizen Science movement, which recently has been associated with species identification at Cornell, although it has hundreds of years of history.  The Citizen Science project attempts to capture the wealth of knowledge all around us, with the simple premise that anyone can gather valid data.  The have had tremendous success because they have found that, with some attention to methodology, people are willing to contribute if you just ask them.

The bird-watcher walking around with standardized forms is an obvious example.  What I found more intriguing was that 60% of hunters, when asked, we happy to submit a part of their hunted game (literally, a limb such as a bird-wing) for identification.  Hunters get a bad rap for many of the same reasons loggers do – the directness of their extraction of natural resources goes against the abstract ideas we have of the source of our food, wood, and other forest products.  Of course there are hunters (and loggers) who don’t care about the forests they hunt, but there are clearly also those who do.


In the past five years or so, the Brazilian government has been very interested in establishing sustainably-harvested forests as an approach to conservation.  Through careful study, much of the legal amazon has been divided up amongst the categories in the matrix above, but one of the more interesting ones is “sustainable management” forests, or flonas.

The flonas are identified based on studies of biodiversity and conservation sensitivity, resource availability and economic value, and even travel distance.  As odd as it is in terms of habitat, the forest is highly politicized and these borders define conservation units, and these are the basic units of national forest management.  Clearly, they need to be monitored.

Data Forest – Monitoring the Flonas

In thinking about how to monitor the resources of (and their extraction from) the forest, it is important to acknowledge and work with the wealth of knowledge of the forest itself – patterns in the structure, organization, and relationships of the plants and animals (including humans).  Additionally, though, we will be bringing in advanced machinery and industrial technology in order to harvest from the forest, so it seems only right that we should bring it in order to understand and conserve it.

I am starting to think through the construction of a prototypical monitoring post as a point within a national forest communication network.  The monitoring post will assist in a cataloging and mapping of the forest, as well as a locus for services and some form of enforcement of the forestry code.


Three major precedents will inform my coming tectonic studies

Here are the drawing studies so far… more photos and drawings to come soon: