Skip to Content

The accidental architect

“The narrative of my own existence I know very well—the facts are a bit muddy,” deadpans Joel Lamere, when having to think twice about the year (it was 2006) that he graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). Lamere is in his fourth year as a lecturer in architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaching architectural geometry, design and representation. He was recruited by his mentor, professor Nader Tehrani, the head of MIT’s architectural department, to “shake up” MIT’s Infinite Corridor, the cavernous hall of classrooms beneath the school’s grand dome. Clearly, Lamere enjoys pushing the envelope.

As a kid growing up in the Bluegrass State, he manipulated planes of plywood into skateboard ramps. When he wasn’t gaining new heights on his rolling plane, he was folding planes to produce furniture. Leaving the South for the North, he graduated from Boston University in 1998 with a degree in philosophy. Heading west to San Francisco after finishing school, he worked a stint in a cubical of another sort. He then pursued architecture by “accident.”

“I didn’t know I was going to do architecture until I had finished undergrad and had been doing marketing for several years, believe it or not.” That was when he headed back East and found himself at the GSD.

Taking his team to first place in a furniture-design contest, Lamere found his calling: folding planes. A cardboard-chair competition was “super-related” to his studies. “My thesis work at the GSD was developable surfaces. That’s to say all the things you can make out of paper—all paper shapes. It’s the same set of geometric rules that apply to all sheet materials. And this is why it’s architecture. It’s not just paper; it’s plywood, it’s steel sheet, it’s plastic sheet. Anything that can bend or fold basically has to succumb to questions of developability. That’s the geometric rubric for that kind of shape. And, so, I explored as many rules as possible for the way those folds can happen and try to extend the fold outside of a thing that was generally about straight lines into the world of curve folding in a geometric way.”

As a master folding-planes craftsperson, Lamere visualizes the shapes he desires before he sets to grooving materials. In other words, he has solved so many of his previously unanswered questions about how materials react to scores that he is able to reverse his thinking. He now envisions a desired architectural feature and then sets to scoring materials to create it. “It’s much easier to fantasize about the shape of a line than it is to produce the thing that follows that shape.”

Ripping a cardboard insulator off his cup of joe, he scores the scrap with his pen to demonstrate the thrust of his life’s work. “If you take any sheet of paper and you impose a curved scoring line on it, and just by the nature of the way…oh, look [at] it, I kind of just scored it, didn’t I? That worked pretty well, surprisingly,” he says, as if it were his first time. “It’s just by the nature of the shape of the scoring line that you use, you produce certain effects in the way the curvature of the actual surface happens. My research is very much into how that works, essentially, and all the ways we can model that and use it as a design tool. Right? It seems like such a simple thing, really. It’s a material kind of research, obviously, but it’s also related to a much longer history of architecture and drawing. It’s about how the inscription of a line becomes a three-dimensional form. To me, it’s a contemporary version of a much longer history of discourse.”

Patterns run through it

“I consider myself a dabbler in certain ways. But, I’m a specialist in architectural geometry—in how you model it, how you fabricate it and how you deal with it.” After graduating from the GSD, Lamere worked with Anmahian Winton Architects in Cambridge, Mass., for several years. “Everyone there has something creative going on. Everyone there is talented. Their work is impeccably detailed as a rule. They build to last. They are the proto-sustainable architects. They’re focused on what produces longevity in a building. They build beautifully.”

“This is one of the best new pieces of architecture in Boston,” wrote Pulitzer Prize–winning architectural critic Robert Campbell FAIA of the Community Rowing Center. Others call it by its official name: the Harry Parker Boathouse, after Harvard’s famed rowing coach. Community Rowing ran its programs from inside a couple of cargo containers plunked on the bank of the Charles River. Today, the largest community rowing organization is fortified inside its palatial boathouse. In 2009—the first year of its eligibility—Anmahian Winton Architects’ design of the boathouse won the coveted Harleston Parker Medal, an honor bestowed on the most-deserving structures in Boston since 1924.

“The boathouse was under way when I got there to work full time. I had just graduated from the GSD. I had worked for Anmahian Winton while I was at [Harvard]. All of us worked on all sorts of pieces of it…. The work that is almost entirely mine is in the louver-patterning stuff. This is where I fell in love with this project. If I were to be called the project captain of one piece it was clearly that,” he says, pointing to a cubic section of the structure that sits to the side of the hulking rectangular section of the boathouse that holds up to 170 rowing shells and sculls. “It’s called the sidecar—a mixed bag of things—the administrative offices, the locker room and repair bay. The sidecar was without its current look. It was clad in straight louvers of a different scale, and only a little piece of it had them. It was my work to deal with a pattern, to try and produce a pattern.”

Lamere’s signature to the award-winning structure is a recurring wave element that defines the sidecar’s façade of Prodema, a trademarked wood product. “It’s one shape, a single piece that’s rotated and flipped. It’s rectangular to give four different orientations, repetition of a single cut that produces a pattern.” Lamere’s pattern produces the rhythm of a river, giving the hulking building an organic essence. “It’s a pattern that I calibrated very carefully to deal with different scales. It may appear at first as a very smooth pattern and then it becomes a rippled pattern. So, when you get close, you can see the bolts coming together, but from far away, it reads as something entirely different.” Adding, with an understated gratification, he says of the boathouse, “Design is always a struggle, always a fight, but I think the right ideas won in the end.”

A plane man

“I don’t think we need more architects; I think we need to teach more people what architects do. Architecture has a populism problem—a cultural problem,” laments a man who is passionate about his work, his profession. “It suffers from a misunderstanding.  It’s not seen by the world as a valuable profession. We’ve allowed ourselves to become isolated, enwrapped by our own discourse or discipline.” Instead of empty grievances, however, Lamere is an agent of change.

Already an accomplished designer, Lamere is making a difference in architecture. Even his downtime is loaded with purpose. During the summer break, when he’s not applying himself to his practice, he’s teaching gifted high-school students who earn a coveted slot in a program called the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science, aka the MITES Program. Lamere introduced 25 MITES students to the program’s first-ever class in architecture two years ago.

“Maybe only one of them goes on to study architecture,” he says, “but it is almost the most satisfying work that I get to do. These are people totally foreign to architecture. They start out seeing architecture as just the making of homes. They start out drawing pitched roofs and walls. They see it as a profession they have no access to. They don’t see the middle road, the everyday architects. It’s been pretty amazing, frankly. These young minds are totally new to [architecture,] but they're so smart, earnest, so into it.

“I am very much at the beginning of my career on [two] fronts: teaching and practicing. And I consider my career as having to always come from these fronts. I don’t teach accidentally. I believe that many of the pains of architecture come through the failure of education—the failure to educate other people about architecture. Right now I teach graduate studies, which is very much about teaching architects, teaching students about architecture. Architectural geometry—form and folding planes—[is] critical to my practice and my thinking. I’m also teaching undergraduates, of which only about a third will go on to architecture.”

According to Lamere, that leaves the other two-thirds to act as informed architectural ambassadors. Their responsibility as professionals will be to enlighten the public about what architects do and the differences architecture makes. In his young life, Lamere is already practicing what he teaches.

One pavilion, two installations

Lamere is furthering his practice of architectural geometry as a consultant for Boston-based Utile, which was recently awarded the design work on a public waterfront installation known as the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Lamere and Tim Love AIA, who founded Utile in 2002, taught together at Northeastern University, where Love was an assistant professor of architecture. Love tapped his former colleague to assist with exactly the work Lamere is building his reputation on. “I love building. I really like the challenges of construction,” as if saying he’s not just an academic. “I did a lot of the geometric-design work for the two concrete canopies and for the steel ribs that go underneath them. They’re really complex.”

Speaking of practices, Lamere announced, “I just, kind of, launched a practice with my design partner with an installation at the Evergreen Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.” Limited to the confines of  “an unused grotto inside of a very long brick wall,” Lamere and Cynthia Gunadi (a member of Hashim, Sarkis Studios Architecture, Landscape, and Urban Design in Harvard Square, and Lamere’s partner in life) created a sculpture made solely “out of 16-inch polypropylene sheet and zip ties.” At 15 feet and 110 pounds, it was tall but “super light.” It stuck one foot outside the 14-foot-high stone space. It comprised a series of folds and turns that produced a line of sight running through a series of “S” turns. Right now, of all his work, Lamere is most jazzed about his and Gunadi’s work in the grotto.

Their firm’s name, GLD, “ostensibly stands for Gunadi Lamere Design,” says Lamere, “but we pronounce it like ‘Guild’ and embrace the connotations of collective interest, association with high craft and standards—all characteristics of how we see a contemporary collaborative practice.”

Looking to the future, the always inclusive Lamere, hopes “everybody” comes to the MIT 150 Exhibition, which opens in January 2011, a celebration that is as much about engineering as it is about MIT’s 150-year history. Somewhere along MIT’s Infinite Corridor, Lamere and Gunadi are going to showcase their next collaboration—installation. Meanwhile, he says, “We are seeking projects while we’re in the process of licensure.” When asked about life beyond his academia and installations, he says with certainty: “Where I am going is to bigger, real architectural projects.”


Dan McNichol is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist and national speaker. His website is danmcnichol.com.

Photo: Harry Parker Boathouse, designed by Anmahian Winton Architects. Photograph by MikeChampion.