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How are iconic buildings repaired? This architecture student wrote the manual.

From "Boundless," 2022. Courtesy of Noelle Burke

When rising CAMD fifth-year Noelle Burke began her studies at Northeastern, she thought she wanted to be a journalism major. Then she went to Rome. As part of the N.U.in program, she spent a semester surrounded by ancient ruins and taking art history classes that focused on the structural landscape of the city and found herself drawn to the ideas behind the buildings. When she returned to Boston, she changed her major to architecture.

Back at CAMD, Burke eventually took the studio course Work in Progress, in which assistant professor Ang Li presented case studies on boundary-breaking architectural projects like Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 Splitting, a work that entailed cutting buildings in half to reveal gaps caused by gentrification. The course helped Burke learn that a bottom-up approach to architecture — “starting with an empty site, building a brand-new structure and then just leaving it there forever” — isn’t as interesting, or as practical, as accounting for aspects of buildings other than the structures themselves. “Boundaries can be broken in our ways of designing that can create much more meaningful works,” she remembers realizing, “works that, even if they don’t last forever, they remain in our minds.”

Burke says Li’s studio course was the best she’s ever taken, freeing her of preconceptions about what architecture should be. “I found that so valuable,” she says, “that I wanted to create something to help other designers think in that way.”

That help comes in the form of Boundless, a four-chapter research manual for which Burke was recently awarded a James ’66 and Jill Gabbe Creative Leader Scholarship. She is using the funds from the award to publish her work, both in print and in a high-quality online format. “The intended purpose of the whole project is to be shared, and printing is expensive, so the scholarship was really crucial,” she says. “I think it would have just ended up sitting on my computer if I didn’t have the scholarship. Now it will reach at least the wider Northeastern community in print, and potentially a broader audience online.”

The book contains four, themed chapters exploring 16 case studies for which Burke has written original essays and sketched new drawings for well-known architectural works, reframed through the lens of maintenance, a concept she’s been interested in for a long time. “We never really learn about the invisible acts of labor that go into maintaining a building or think about them when it comes to design.”

Burke aims to make visible these acts of repair and restoration through conceptual writing and practical diagramming. In one study, for example, she considers the window-cleaning robots built to scale the façade of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago. Burke couldn’t find any photographs or sketches for how the robots move up and down or how they function in relation to the building. So she drew a new cross-section that includes not just the iconic façade but also the cleaning robots, as well as the people inside. She hopes these designs will add a valuable understanding of the cultural or social function of the otherwise inert design of the Willis Tower. The drawings “include the human experience,” she says. “I think that’s what architecture should do.”

A spread from “Boundless,” 2022. Courtesy of Noelle Burke.

Boundless — which began as Burke’s Honors in the Discipline project but has now grown into her working architectural thesis — ends with a letter to future and practicing architects encouraging them to not only acknowledge the labor that goes into preserving buildings but to question how preservation itself should work in the future. “I wrote a letter instead of a conclusion because It’s meant to be something I can keep adding to forever, whether I’m working in the field or in graduate school,” she notes.

Next semester Burke will start a co-op at the Boston design and urban planning firm Machado Silvetti, where she says she was excited to find work being done in cultural preservation since it relates so well to her project. “I am looking forward to actually putting my ideas into the field,” she says. “It will be great to work somewhere where maintenance is at the forefront of design — and not an afterthought.”