Claire Gorman blends architecture, computing to tackle pressing challenges

Claire Gorman ’20 arrived on campus intent on studying computer science. As her Yale experience unfolded, she developed a love for architecture.
Claire Gorman

Claire Gorman

Claire Gorman ’20 arrived on campus intent on studying computer science. As her Yale experience unfolded, she developed a love for architecture.

Embracing both interests, Gorman majored in computing and the arts. Her senior project merges machine learning and architectural theory to explore how cities and landscapes function and change over time.

My years at Yale have been the best of my life,” said Gorman, a resident of Ezra Stiles College, who is living with her family in Minneapolis during the COVID-19 crisis. “I’ve learned more there than I can articulate. I’m proud of that.”

Gorman’s project grapples with the concept of tabula rasa, or “blank slate.” In computing, the term describes an artificial intelligence that can learn from nothing. In theories of urbanism, it refers to an empty site, such as a city razed by violence or natural disaster, or a pristine wilderness. 

To investigate whether a true tabula rasa exists in the physical world, Gorman built a machine-learning model and traveled to three sites while on leave last fall: Hiroshima, site of the atomic blast on Aug. 6, 1945; Valdivia in southern Chile, which was leveled by the largest-recorded earthquake on May 22, 1960; and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas, a protected wilderness. Her fieldwork was funded by a Harvey Geiger Fellowship from the School of Architecture, which supports travel and research by undergraduates.

Her machine-learning model, an autoencoder that breaks down images and rebuilds them, provided an analytical device for parsing the landscapes.

She concluded that in both computing and architecture the concept of the blank slate functions is a “legal fiction” — an invention accepted as true for formulating theory.

I found in all three cases that the erasure of the tabula rasa, whether by atomic blast, earthquake, or federal protections, is never complete,” she said. “Urban patterns, traditions, and marks on the landscape remain preserved.”

Hiroshima’s Peace Boulevard, a 100-meter wide parkway through the city’s center, illustrates her point, she said. It was originally a firebreak constructed during World War II to prevent bomb-seeded flames from crossing the city. After the atomic blast, the firebreak’s path was rebranded as a peace symbol. 

Due to her research leave, Gorman will complete her degree this summer. She plans to use her skills to address challenges concerning climate change or the pandemic.

I’m excited for the potential of what I can do with the skills I learned at Yale,” she said. “I hope to contribute to the improvement of our cities and technological networks as they relate to the pandemic — issues that are closely related to spatial organization and information processing.”

She’s eager to join her fellow graduates in New Haven once circumstances allow it.

Our class is missing the typical celebration, but it deserves to celebrate as much as anyone,” she said. “I look forward to being with my friends when the crisis is over, so we can toast each other in person.”

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