u4Datumshifterslogo01DATUM SHIFTERS

UNIT FOUR 2013-14


Unit Four continues its explorations into architectures of public delight, antipathy or bemusement by examining the role of clarity, resolution and imagery in communicating and propagating spaces and events.

Last year we looked at how modern systems for reading, traversing and positioning ourselves within space may be mediated by constant flows of data, software such as Google Earth and our smartphones. This year we are interested in how these structures are based in correlation to the real world – fixed points, levels; the DATUM within a city.

Unit Four will investigate the notion of DATUM in the context of a physical and virtual city.

What happens when key datums change? How does this skew a city and open up new possibilities for the growth of new types of space and public occupation? What are the new forms of architecture yet to emerge from these fluid conditions?

In order to answer these questions, Unit Four challenges you to become a DATUM SHIFTER.



We consider DATUM SHIFTERS to be those who have pushed and probed technology, theories and ideas to allow us to see the city and its architecture in new terms.

Chicago is the home of the American Datum Shifters. The city has had its ground level raised block by block in an unprecedented act of civil engineering overcoming nature. The seemingly fixed datum of ground level was raised 14 feet through jacking up each individual building. As these architectures crept skyward at different rates, the whole city became a territory of datums in flux and flexible grounds.

When William Le Baron Jenney created the first steel and terracotta skyscraper, he changed the datum of the size and scale of buildings forever. Chicago was the site for this shift, and the city has continued to grow into a landscape of tectonic and monolithic structures that challenge human scale. In a world increasingly compressed or stretched by communication tools, Chicago represents the original template of a city formed by technology.

Science fiction films, from Metropolis to Blade Runner, and innumerable others have used the vertical, layered city to symbolize the future and critique both technology and the inconsistencies of society. DATUM SHIFTERS such as the comic book artist Moebius, informed countless versions of a city of overlaid layers through drawings showing the evocative potential of a stratified city. With its elevated railways, soaring superstructures and industrial sprawl, Chicago is the purest form of this city formed by the future. Yet this is the future of a century ago.



Unit Four encourages students to take a critical position in relation to the creation of architecture and its representation through drawing and modelling. What are the new forms of architecture that will emerge from the rupture between the physical and the digital? How is hand drawing being augmented by new technologies?

A datum invisible to the human eye can be seen and acted upon by other devices for viewing and recording. Cities are no longer purely physical entities, but multi-scalar sites for events and information organised thousands of miles away. As a DATUM SHIFTER you will propose buildings that play with these reference points, and respond to the context of the city as a combination of both physical and ephemeral site conditions.

As datum shifters we ask you to first interrogate the existing city, to produce architectures that play with the existing conception of a reference point. How would an architecture referring to a virtual datum appear in physical space and vice-versa.


The first term will be devoted to the remote exploration of Chicago. You will all identify and investigate existing datums within the city that will serve as the site for an architectural proposition.

DATUM SHIFT will then require you to design an architecture that disrupts, distorts and breaks down a datum. This may be a building that slips between layers of the city, causing breaks and fissures in the physical tissue of its surroundings. Or it could be an architecture that asserts itself through a hybridised physical and digital presence, becoming a dynamic spatial condition. Alternatively students may use the DATUM SHIFT project to create design strategies through case studies that will be applied to the form and approach of the main building project in Term 2.

Chicago as a city of datums readily offers examples of potential conditions for exploration:

SUBTERRANEA: Raised upon its matrix of subterranean tunnels, Chicago was once dependent on its underground infrastructure. Taken for granted by everyday citizens, they regulate services, flood control and underground transport. How can this forgotten underworld be interacted with and used to define future possibilities for the city?

BORDERLINES: The port of Chicago marks the birthplace of the city allowing for unprecedented growth through trade. Today the port area has spread into numerous Free Economic Zones, where the trade laws of the US are suspended to allow for efficient import and export. How might an architecture exploit these international territories that pop up across the Lake Michigan borders?

ALTITUDE: Chicago lives above its street level. From its towering skyscrapers to multi-levelled streets, ground is not a constant datum. The Number One Chicago City Datum marks the point from which all heights in the city are measured. Chicago’s skyline tells the story of planning restrictions, linked back to the datum of ground. Yet if the datum of ground can – and has – changed, how might the idea of altitude and height within the city continue to change and be challenged.

COMMUNICATIONS: Chicago is home to the second set of stock exchanges, in constant communication with Wall Street in New York. Attempts are being made to speed up this flow of information. Solutions ranging from microwave towers, to fleets of drones reflecting data streams have been proposed so these two great cities may better ‘look at one another’. How can you expose Chicago as a city of communication flows and propose an architecture that takes advantage both of this non-material space but also the infrastructure that facilitates it?

The outcome of this proposal will be communicated through a final drawing that will be a piece of hybridised work. This drawing will explore and define this new datum as well as communicating your architectural insertion into this context. We anticipate interplay between the hand-made, the computer produced, the static and the dynamic.


Traveling to Chicago, we will see numerous masterpieces of modern architecture, buildings that occupied new datums of architectural possibility. The trip will also involve visiting other sites that define Chicago’s history and existence as a pioneering city.

We will see the masterworks of Mies van der Rohe such as the Farnsworth House and explore the projects of Frank Lloyd Wright visiting the Robie House, his home and studio and Taliesin East. We will climb the Sears tower and follow in the footsteps of Louis Sullivan – the great architect innovator considered the father of both skyscrapers and modernism.

The Unit will also visit Fermilab, to see the modern legacy of Fermi’s nuclear reaction, where hadron colliders and particle accelerators have refined datums for understanding our world. We will explore Chicago’s subterranean landscape and visit its Mansueto library, where the collection is navigated by robot librarians.

Following our field trip to Chicago, and understanding our first term research in the context of the city, we will focus on the main building project of the year by applying the approaches and typologies produced in the first project. Through understanding and exploiting the datum, we will propose new forms of architecture that exist in the contemporary city, that see the role of architecture as an expanding field that questions how far the physical presence of a building may incorporate other datums and reference points within it.

DAY(TUMS) – Term One Workshops

This year we are proposing a series of day trips combined with teaching sessions to investigate curious datums in London and the surrounding areas. The aim is to unlock the imagination and understand the potential applications for the term datum:

SUBTERRANEA – Kelvedon Hatch, Churchill War Rooms

INFRASTRUCTURE – Thames Barrier, Dungeness Power Station

TECHNOLOGIES – The Future is Here (Design Museum Exhibition)