Erected in Rome in AD 113, Trajan’s Column is an architectural wonder famous for its bas-relief decoration, which spirals 23 times around to a height of 625 feet. Architecture major Frankie Perone ’16 has been investigating the relevance of this historical precedent for contemporary architecture through MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which matches students with faculty in research partnerships.

In Perone’s case, the research focuses not on one specific problem, but on cultivating an entirely new perspective. Working with Associate Professor in architecture William O’Brien Jr., Perone has been creating two-dimensional labyrinths similar in pattern to the bas-relief on the column to investigate what new properties emerge when you wrap such forms around three-dimensional objects such as cylinders.

“How can we abstract this to a point where we understand very fundamental architectural ideologies about figures?” says Perone, who began drafting shapes on a plane and slowly moved to building a three-dimensional labyrinth out of acrylic. “These different visualizations give you a more in-depth understanding of what the original thing can be or what it is.”

O’Brien says, “This design research offers the discipline of architecture a body of work that is invested in form, history, narrative; and considers architecture first and foremost as an act of cultural production.”

While the project is admittedly abstract, Perone says the work has given her a more holistic understanding of architecture. Also, she says, she has found the process of working with pure lines, shapes, and forms a refreshing change from classwork, which focuses on solving practical problems in architecture. “I don’t expect there to be a building made from this research,” she says. “But I’m really learning to think for myself honestly, to think critically about what I’m doing and why.”

Exploring the same lines and shapes in different ways has given Perone an intuitive understanding of form she believes will ultimately help her produce more thoughtful designs. “Knowing how to establish clear, logical rules can be applied at any scale, to anything we interact with that has some sort of design element,” she says. “I think it’s a great way of looking at architecture.”

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