Getting There

On first glance, it’s not easy to tell that these are all photos of the same building.

This private art gallery in the Philadelphia suburbs was designed to look different from each and every angle. And to have a certain ambiance when morning sun strikes it, one that is distinct from when the sun is beaming down overhead, and different still from that on a gray day.

Each glass panel of the wall is a different shape. Each of the wood-like slats that cover one side tapers outward, changing in width.

Even the greenery of the surrounding lawn has been designed in irregular patches of flower and grasses, blooming and sprouting in different shapes as the seasons progress.

Yet the gallery also performs at its intended function, showcasing artworks without exposing them to direct sunlight. An asymmetric wire mesh drapes in artful curves over a wireframe beneath the high ceiling; the structure will allow for artworks to hang in almost any configuration.

Spend a few minutes talking to John Shields, and you get the impression he’s a dreamer. But his firm, point b, has had great success in putting inventive design ideas into practice.

Their work asks one to reconsider conventional views about the placement of objects and their relationships to environs. Nothing is static, Shields notes, not even a building. It, and all else, exists in a constantly changing state that depends on time of day, season of year, what’s inside or adjacent and who is the viewer.

point b creates for their clients “working in five dimensions: height, width, depth, time and budget,” Shields says. “point b is a studio in which the physical act of making and the digital design tools converge.”

Their workspace lacks the clean white walls and cubicles of a traditional design studio. It’s a true workshop, strewn with in-progress wood and fabric models, partly-finished pieces of art and plenty of tools, among them several computer workstations and a 12 x 20 foot digitally-controlled tabletop mill.

Products range from entire buildings, like the art gallery, to interior pieces like etched glass doors or mosaic cubes to use as art or furniture. Quite often the innovators at point b will stay with a project from start to finish; from concept to design to testing to fabrication to construction.

Parametric design and modeling, where tweaking any one dimension in a computer model of a design automatically updates all related measurements, often comes into play. The b.digi branch “facilitates the translation of information from conceptual to computable.”

Shields & co regularly output scaled physical models of projects and take them directly to the client for hands-on feedback. Any changes needed are made on the model, and then fed back in to the computer using their table-top mill, which can both read and output with its drill-head.

When the final design is ready for production, the creatives often go around intermediary suppliers and source manufacturing directly, working with fabricators and artisans worldwide. In this way their b.fab branch has been able to bring to fruition ambitious designs that would have blown out the budget if ordered from traditional builders.

In John’s own words:

point b design is a unique studio in the profession of architecture and design. we have a rare combination of insanely creative people and the most advanced tools in the profession. we are able to design intelligent and beautiful spaces that change the way you see the world.

Happy to agree; it’s true.