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Volume 14

Final Say

We sometimes forget that media is also the plural of “medium,” suggesting a vehicle for the communication of ideas.

A little-noted anniversary this year was the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan, the cultural theorist perhaps best known for the phrase “the medium is the message.” McLuhan was prescient in ways that even he, a master of self-promotion, might not have imagined. The phrase was coined at the dawn of what came to be known as the Information Age; soon information, or at least its relative quality, became less important than the technology that delivered it.

And so we now find ourselves at the dawning of yet another era, which might be called the Media Age. It’s perhaps a sign of primordial confusion that the word itself lacks precision—commonly used as both a plural and a singular, it is a homonym with multiplying meanings and manifestations: corporate entertainment and news entities; electronic gadgets such as smartphones and tablets; social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+. The phenomenon has sparked Darwinian races for corporate survival, but it has also ignited a new hypervisual culture, where infographics abound, YouTube replaces manuals for how-to advice, and one of Amazon’s bestsellers is a book on typography (Simon Garfield’s Just My Type). Architects naturally find themselves in the middle of the fracas, scrambling for a foothold, knowing instinctively that some sort of reinvention of the profession is underway. Nor are their buildings immune from the effects: “media façades” sport a form of electronic ornamentation, their pixelated LED screens a digital version of the tesserae in ancient mosaics.

In the midst of corporate hype and consumer lust for all things digital, we sometimes forget that media is also the plural of “medium,” suggesting a vehicle for the communication of ideas.

It is that last definition that makes this issue of ArchitectureBoston an appropriate close to my tenure as the magazine’s founding editor, which has been marked by the conviction that architecture itself is a medium that expresses cultural ideas and values. When the Boston Society of Architects formed a communications committee in 1997, the notion of a magazine with a national distribution of 15,000 and an active website was in no one’s mind. I was hired that 3rd November to edit a quarterly 16-page supplement to the BSA newsletter, scheduled to launch the following March. But after discussions with members about the stories and material that might be included, the desire for something more substantial became obvious. The March supplement was canceled, and a new 48-page magazine launched the following June. By publishing standards, this was crazy. (Sometimes it’s good not to know any better.) But with its new “ideas” magazine, charged with the exploration of the ways architecture influences and is influenced by our society, the BSA found just the right medium for its message of inclusive public discussion of the built environment.

Can there be any better job than editing this magazine? No. The editorial freedom that the BSA’s leadership has accorded; the creative opportunities; the intellectual stimulation; the gifted coworkers with remarkable generosity and good humor; the chance to promote important ideas and bring attention to new talent; and, above all, the ability to engage with this region’s extraordinary design community—none of this can be matched.

But after 14 years, the unrelenting drumbeat of deadlines can make an editor yearn for something different. I am tantalized by the thought of diving deeply into new creative challenges, with all the fresh energy that can bring. Change can be good for people, and it can be good for magazines, too. ArchitectureBoston will thrive with fresh leadership—and with the continued support of the readers, contributors, editorial board members, advertisers, staff, and BSA members who have made it a respected voice in the national design discussion. I thank you all.

Between the Leaves

Finding the world of architecture in the universe of words.

Jeff Stein: As an architect, a teacher, and a prolific writer in print and on the Web, you’re a master of media. In one of your books, Looking Around, you talked about Vitruvius, who described his three criteria for the well-built building: commodity, firmness, and delight. I’m interested, though, in a possible fourth condition: communication. Louis Kahn brought forward the notion that architecture is a building plus an idea.

Witold Rybczynski: Architecture communicates in many different ways; an obvious example is when art is incorporated into a building — a sculpture, say, or frescoes. But I would hesitate to put architecture on the same communicative level as a book or an essay. There was a moment in the Postmodern era in the ’70s and ’80s when people were very interested in semiotics. But even Umberto Eco, an advocate, had to admit that if a building does communicate, it does so in a very crude way. A building can look impressive or scary or charming, but it does not communicate with the same subtlety or complexity as the written word.

Having said that, architecture has its own expression; it has things to say about proportion and rhythm. When you walk into a grand building, you feel something; but it’s not what you feel when you read a book. The building is palpable; there are echoing sounds, light, shadows, textures. Think of a Gothic cathedral.

Jeff Stein: Or Boston City Hall.

Witold Rybczynski: Yes. When you walk into that building, it’s not remotely the same experience that you have from looking at photographs or reading about it. It is its own experience, and that has to do with sunlight and materials and all of those things. Imagine the feeling you get when you look up in a Gothic cathedral and see all that stone suspended magically in the air. That is what architecture is about, and I resist the idea that you can reduce it to a metaphor or to a literary message.

Jeff Stein: In addition to your early architecture work, your written work consists of 17 books and over 400 articles, essays, and book reviews. Your work is very much about the stories behind great ideas, and the people who came up with the ideas in the first place. What led you from designing buildings to writing about them?

Witold Rybczynski: When I started my career, I really had no understanding about the profession of architecture. I’d been taught how to be a designer, but I’d been given no preparation for the business of architecture. I enjoyed designing, but at some point, I realized there was more to architecture than just you and a sheet of paper. I didn’t know how to get the next client, as H.H. Richardson put it. So I ended up going back to the university, drawn to research rather than teaching. The writing grew out of that.

Jeff Stein: Do you find writing easier than designing?

Witold Rybczynski: Easier than the world of building. When you’re a writer, everybody’s on your side. Your agent wants to help you find a publisher, your editor wants to help you improve your book, and the bookseller wants to sell your book. Maybe the critic is not on your side, but everybody else is helping you. If you’re an architect, you’re struggling with everybody, even the client: You’re trying to find out what the client really wants and how much money they really want to spend. Architects have to fight to get their vision of the building realized. It’s very rare that anybody is trying to help; by and large, architects are on their own.

Jeff Stein: You write not only about individual buildings and people but also about cities and urban life. Cities and communication seem to be closely related concepts. Some would even argue that the value of the city is its ability to facilitate face-to-face communication—which I suppose would make it the greatest communications medium ever invented.

Witold Rybczynski: I agree that the main function of cities is to facilitate communication, but I don’t think of the city as a medium so much as a setting for various activities, including communication.

Jeff Stein: The city is a theater.

Witold Rybczynski: Yes. It’s a backdrop, sometimes a very persuasive and compelling backdrop.

Jeff Stein: And a dynamic one. Cities seem to continually need to accommodate or adjust to changing technologies, especially communications technologies. I’m thinking of the invention of the telegraph, which, for the first time, separated communication from transportation. Suddenly, you could communicate with someone faster than a human could move. It was a revolution. Now, of course, that has morphed into telephone, radio, television, and the Internet. How do you think this shift in communications technology has affected the role of the city?

Witold Rybczynski: It’s significantly changed the importance of big cities. For a long time, the big city was the only place where you could meet certain kinds of people, the only place that offered many kinds of opportunities; so going to a big city became an important moment in many people’s lives. But I don’t think that’s true anymore. If you like Boston, you go to Boston; but no one has to go to Boston. You can go to a small city, which would have been unthinkable a hundred years ago.

The specialness of certain cities is still visible. New York City continues to dominate some industries, such as book publishing and finance. But in fact, we don’t need a lot of big cities any more. We don’t need a lot of Bostons and San Franciscos. The majority of Americans are not yearning to live in big cities, which is why today medium-size cities collectively claim more residents than do the big cities.

Jeff Stein: And now, with communication technologies, it doesn’t really matter so much where you are.

Witold Rybczynski: It matters less. I won’t argue that living in a medium-size city is just like living in New York, but it does offer many of the urban advantages. And for many people, that’s sufficient.

Jeff Stein: And in many ways, the Internet makes that possible. Your first book appeared in 1980, before most of us owned a computer and well before the Web. Now you write for both old and new media platforms. How is writing a book different from your work for Slate?

Witold Rybczynski: A book has to remain meaningful for a longer period of time. For me, writing—whether a book or a magazine essay or a blog—is a way of exploring a subject; I don’t really know what it’s about when I start.

Jeff Stein: Your books are not coffee-table books: They generally don’t have a lot of illustrations. In contrast, your online pieces for Slate tend to include lots of photographs and even slideshows. The Web is simply a more visual medium. Has it affected your thinking about books?

Witold Rybczynski: I initially resisted using illustrations in my books, and I think I was wrong to do so. I believed that one ought to be able to write about architecture without including pictures. But later, I realized that the more ways you have of communicating, the better—whether it’s a caption, a footnote, or a photograph.

The great thing about Slate is that digital illustrations are actually better than book illustrations in terms of quality. And they’re quite large when displayed on a screen—larger than illustrations in most books and magazines. So online slideshows are a good way to illustrate buildings. And even though the captions and essays are necessarily brief, they work well side by side with the images. You can do things with that format that are harder to do in a book. So it’s a satisfying medium.

Jeff Stein: Are you conscious of trying to entertain when you write?

Witold Rybczynski: Yes. You have to get the reader to turn the page or click to the next screen. If the writing is tedious or somehow readers get swamped with too much information, you lose them.

Jeff Stein: Your new book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum—which certainly keeps the reader engaged. As I read it, I thought that a book that describes a whole process so thoroughly might serve not only as a document about this building but also as a way for architects to think about other buildings and their own work. But by the time I finished, I felt that we’re never going to see another process like this again, in part because the technology of making architecture is so different and in part because financing mechanisms are so different. Things happen much more quickly.

Witold Rybczynski: That’s true, although the Sainsbury Centre is not a typical building; but then the circumstances of achieving great architecture often involve uncommon conditions.

Jeff Stein: What attracted you to the Sainsbury story?

Witold Rybczynski: Partly the fact that most of the people involved were still alive; it wasn’t just history. And of course, the Sainsbury Centre is a great building by a young architect who became a great architect. The book isn’t simply about the process. It explores the question: How do you produce something exceptional? Remember that the Sainsbury Centre opened in 1978; Foster had received the commission four years earlier when he was just 38. The Sainsbury Centre predates the great museum building boom. It’s absolutely unprepossessing, and
it’s not trying to impress you with anything. It just sits there, this huge white shed, very quiet. Nobody would build a museum like that today—including Foster, I suspect.

Jeff Stein: Certainly his new wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is not that.

Witold Rybczynski: It really was a different time. The whole development of museums went in a very different direction after that.

Jeff Stein: There’s a purity to the Sainsbury Centre that would be hard to replicate now.

Witold Rybczynski: Yes. Foster’s office did everything, including all the working drawings. Foster already had mechanical engineers on his staff and had worked with the structural engineer for a decade. It wasn’t a case of developing a design and then having somebody else figure out how to build it. It was this group of young people doing a rather unorthodox building, working out the problems as they developed. And it’s still a very striking building. It hasn’t aged aesthetically at all.

Jeff Stein: You write that it was never a fashionable building, and so it’s still not unfashionable.

Witold Rybczynski: People understood immediately that it was an important building, but one of the negative criticisms in the prevailing Postmodern climate of the time was, “Surely there’s more to architecture than this; there’s nothing here; it’s a warehouse.” Foster had ignored everything that was going on in Postmodernism.

Jeff Stein: It seems to me that much of your writing has been about process.

Witold Rybczynski: I’ve actually written three books about the making of architecture. The first one was about my own house [The Most Beautiful House in the World]. That was easier, in a sense, because it was about choices and why and how I made decisions. Then, with the landscape architect Laurie Olin, I wrote a book titled Vizcaya, about a grand villa in Miami that was built 100 years ago; Laurie wrote about the garden, and I wrote about the house. Vizcaya was a very interesting, unusual project including a client who was very involved, a young architect, a Colombian landscape architect, and a Beaux-Arts painter who functioned as kind of artistic impresario and brought the whole thing together. After that, I wrote Last Harvest, which, although not exactly about architecture, followed a land-development process, showing how a new planned community actually unfolds.

Jeff Stein: Is part of your success as a writer due to your natural curiosity? That you look at subjects like the Sainsbury Centre and start to ask questions?

Witold Rybczynski: It’s certainly what compels me to write. I usually start my books with a question, and I try to answer the question in a way that keeps me writing.

Jeff Stein: And as long as there are curious writers and curious readers, we will have books—whether paper or electronic.

Witold Rybczynski: For me, writing for the Internet is still writing. I put just as much work into it, including editing and fact checking. It’s a bit shorter; otherwise, there’s not much difference. All the people I work with at Slate are in their 20s, but they’re no different from the editors I used to work with at The Atlantic or The New Yorker years ago. They’re just as serious about the writing.

Let me put it a different way: When I wrote a book about Palladio [The Perfect House], at one point I wanted to see his drawings. I visited the collection in the library at the RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] in London. They’re little sketches, in ink rather than pencil, but otherwise they could have been done yesterday. You can see him trying to work out a plan. So in a sense you can watch the architect working. Amazing—500 years old, yet completely familiar.

And when Laurie Olin and I were working on Vizcaya, we found working drawings for the garden—they were blueprints that somebody had then drawn over. You could actually see how the designer was working things out by looking at these drawings. And Laurie observed, “We’re probably the last generation that will understand these documents because people don’t make these kinds of drawings any more.”

The business of architecture has changed, of course, but in some ways it hasn’t. With computers, you don’t necessarily make sketches in the same way. So it’s possible that drawings like these will one day seem very odd, almost like hieroglyphics. I hope not. Similarly, writers may not be producing text or publishing in the same way. But I suspect that, although the publishing industry will be very different, what writers explore will remain the same.

Mind and Hand: Drawing the Idea

You are what you draw.

It may seem strange to champion hand drawing today, in view of the universal triumph of digital graphics—especially when every progressive architect in the world seems obsessed with elevating computerized delineation to new heights of illustrative supremacy. At the same time, as the software revolution has increasingly taken precedence, there appears to be a fresh incentive among many architectural students—actually, a kind of quiet revolution—based on a newfound desire to hone their manual skills and learn to draw in the old way.

Geojae Hotel & Convention Center (late plan) - Okpo-Dong, S. Korea – SITE – J. Wines – ink & wash - 2009

Click image above to view slideshow.

I have been a long-standing supporter of dual skills, encouraging young designers to maintain equal graphic abilities on paper surfaces and computer desktops. This advocacy is based on a deeply felt conviction that, by focusing exclusively on computer-generated illustration, something conceptually profound is forfeited in the design process.

When electronic mechanisms replace the filtration of idea development through tactile means, the fertile territory of “subliminal accident” is lost. This refers to marginal calligraphy that dribbles off the edge of the paper, the inadvertent congestion of squiggly lines with no apparent meaning, the unwelcome blobs of ink that drop off a pen tip, or the inclusion of seemingly irrelevant references that have nothing to do with initial intentions. On innumerable occasions over the years, I have been the creative beneficiary of my own graphic musings and the chaotic trail of ambiguous images left behind by random charcoal smudges and watercolor washes. In a variety of miraculous ways, this pictorial detritus, hand-drawn on paper without any predetermined architectonic mission, has often become the springboard for new ideas.

Frequently, when watching some seemingly prepubescent computer whiz use software to whip out multidimensional views of a complex structure in a matter of minutes, I feel as though I may be pushing a hopelessly old-fashioned aesthetic ritual. I recall how impressed I was with the photo-fidelity of digital drawing a decade ago, when proficiency in computer rendering was applauded as some kind of transcendental feat. Everything churned out in those days looked too good to be true—and it was. As my eyes became accustomed to sorting out slickness from substance, I gradually acquired a highly refined aptitude for detecting mediocrity (or outright crap) lurking under the pictorial gloss.

Computer proficiency can never match the advantages of the calligraphic aptitude needed to draw really well. This is very different from the conventional capacity to produce photo-like images with great fidelity—a commonplace talent in architecture that is frequently mistaken for genuine drawing. The most noticeable deficit in young designers’ ability to draw is their lack of understanding of the complex aesthetic challenges that must first be met for accomplished draftsmanship. These include knowledge of the origins of language, the evolution of calligraphy, the nature of signification, and the abstract dimension that unites positive and negative visual elements on the picture plane. In this context, I am speaking mainly of drawing in its role as a recorder of thought process within the larger goal of building design. But, like the artist’s study for a painting or sculpture, the quality of calligraphic underpinnings in the initial sketch is always a decisive factor in determining its ultimate qualification as an aesthetic experience.

The beginnings

The discovery of the Altamira and Lascaux cave paintings (in 1879 and 1940, respectively) confirmed the fact that Paleolithic cultures as far back as 30,000 years ago had mastered the art of drawing and established the foundations for all subsequent graphic selection in the formation of written language. The illustrative factor was certainly part of the purpose of cave art; but those Magdalenian painters also knew that the profundity of visual language resided in its abstract and iconographic elements—in essence, the connections linking inscription and philosophy—apart from any basic reportage intentions. They anticipated not only the development of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese calligraphy thousands of years later but also the signifier/signified basis of linguistics and the role of mind and hand in the evolution of visual ideas.

Historian Andrew Robinson refers to Magdalenian art as “proto-writing,” seemingly based on the assumption that Ice Age people did not yet have a legitimate alphabet. On the other hand, there are enough abstract symbols punctuating the cave murals to suggest that these Cro-Magnon painters had already laid major groundwork for the development of written language—as well as all subsequent calligraphic innovation in art and design. In the context of prehistoric times, it was only a small aesthetic and linguistic leap to associate the gracefully tapered legs of a bison with all forms of stability and movement in nature. The next logical step was to abstract this fragment of anatomy into a pictographic symbol; refine it into a cuneiform inscription; and, finally, amplify its meaning by phonetic markings and syllabary alphabets.

With progressive logic, the extended legacy of this process evolved into the serviceability of e-mail on one hand and the expressive pathos of Picasso’s drawings for Guernica on the other. By following a similar route of graphic invention 4,000 years ago, China developed calligraphy to a degree where fragments of the first alphabet still remain a part of contemporary Chinese writing. Similarly, Chinese writing and drawing have remained synonymous skills in the hands of calligraphers. This interface between language development and the aesthetics of drawing is at the core of graphic expression.

You are what you draw

In my view, there is no question that the fluidity of connection between mind and hand determines the quality of the architect you become. It shapes your thinking and, therefore, the kind of firm in which you practice, including the creative level of people with whom you choose to associate. Certainly, a high aptitude in hand drawing influences the character and innovative level of the work you produce.

In 1970, I cofounded SITE; from the beginning, our work has been a fusion of art, architecture, and landscape. The philosophy of the firm is based on a view that communicative content in the building arts can be developed from sources outside the traditions of formalist design; our buildings are frequently interpreted as being about the environment rather than objects sitting in the environment. This approach proposes a narrative function of architecture. It springs directly from the questioning, multilayered, and sometimes-ambivalent process of sketching, as opposed to the limitations imposed by computer-generated abstract shapes—or, more specifically, preprogrammed digital systems for graphic delineation.

A number of my drawings explore the integration of architecture and landscape. As a result, buildings often appear to be consumed by their own environment—or, seen more perversely, as victims of nature’s revenge. In other examples, the renderings describe the need for more forested areas, water sources, and urban agriculture in the cityscape. The primary purpose is to explore the integration of architecture with context to a degree where it becomes difficult to discern where a building ends and the environment begins. In this way, vegetation, topography, and climatic conditions can become as much a part of the aesthetic/functional fabric of a structure as masonry, glass, and steel.

These drawings are often part of an interactive process that fuses computer graphics with hand drawings as a fluid interface between multimedia and conceptual development. From the incremental stages of source referencing and search-for-idea sketches through design clarification and, finally, renderings for pure aesthetic experience, the calligraphic underpinnings of the design appear in multiple formats and scales. These layers may not be apparent to the casual observer of the completed work, but they form its essence.

I encourage young architects to draw for reasons of idea development as well as for pure pleasure—advising them to follow Picasso’s obsessive example: “I draw like other people bite their nails.” In his enthusiasm for the power of the hand, the great Spanish artist is also purported to have taken a dim view of the digital revolution by commenting, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Although overstating the case a bit, he correctly prophesized the current revival of interest in hand drawing and the widening acknowledgment that there are conceptual and aesthetic qualities that software, such as Form Z, AutoCAD, and SketchUp, can neither equal nor replace.

When I watch masses of architectural students locked into computer monitors as prosthetic extensions of their bodies and churning out facile simulations of buildings, I recall Baudrillard’s eerie assessments of postmodern culture. Particularly resonant are his views of media phenomena—as illusion replacing reality—where substitution ultimately becomes the reality. In a world of simulacra, I find that signs scratched on paper with a pen or pencil have a way of restoring authenticity, as well as validity, value, and symbolic content. As Baudrillard astutely observed, the illusions created by media tend to remove people from the organic and tactile world around them. Retaining this connection between mind and hand seems just as valid now as it was for the cave artists who immortalized the hunt in Altamira and Lascaux. The quest for calligraphic quality is no less relevant as well. It is an objective perfectly described by an anonymous quotation I found recently on the Internet: “We all have at least 100,000 bad drawings inside of us. The sooner we get them out and onto paper, the sooner we’ll get to the good ones buried deep within.”

I Saw it on HGTV

The most influential source of popular design education is not a school but a television network.

It started a few years ago: Residential architects noticed that clients were referring to products and design concepts that they had seen on a cable television show. HGTV is generally thought of as a “network about decorating,” but that might be too facile a way to describe this highly successful broadcast format. It’s all real estate, all the time at HGTV, formally known as Home & Garden Television. If we are a society obsessed with residential real estate, then HGTV is our virtual national campfire, a place to gather round and be voyeurs of other people’s private abodes. We are observers as they engage in the endless search for bigger, better, and more elaborate places to call home.

HGTV goes beyond mere decorating to expand the notion of what decorating and design are. In HGTV’s treatment, design becomes refracted and given completely new cultural grounding. The notion of interior design as a genteel, relatively upper-class pursuit is quickly blown out of the water. Here, design is democratized and diverse. Ladies who lunch in Chanel suits are replaced with machismo men with tattoos and women who are not afraid to get tough to get what they want.

Take one of HGTV’s shows, The Antonio Treatment. Based in LA, star Antonio Ballatore refers to himself as “not your average designer” — and he’s not kidding. He appears more like a repo man than the aristocratic image of the Back Bay or Upper East Side decorator.

“It’s about going slick or going home,” Ballatore says of his design approach. (In a recent episode, he took a client’s existing colorful bedroom and gave it a rustic-cave treatment, complete with thousands of small wooden blocks in various lengths that formed a headboard reminiscent of stalactite.) Ballatore is a design celebrity, not because he has been recognized through the awards and publications that usually anoint the design profession’s elite, but because he has won the network’s popular Design Star competition. Following a formula straight out of America’s Next Top Model and American Idol, a dozen or so designers compete for a chance of starring in their own show; divas and drama queens — male and female — abound. This is design as entertainment.

This is also design as media conglomerate. HGTV’s roots may go back to the venerable This Old House, started as a shoestring public television series 32 years ago on Boston’s WGBH and now something of a conglomerate of its own, having launched spin-off programs and a magazine and now owned by Time Inc.

HGTV formally launched in 1994 and is now owned by Scripps Networks Interactive. It reaches a staggering 99 million households in the United States and is one of cable’s top-rated networks; its website,, is the leading home-and-garden site, attracting an average of 4 million unique visitors per month. A new site,, was recently launched, and a new publication, HGTV Magazine, hit the newsstands in October. Scripps Networks Interactive’s lifestyle empire is also vast — it owns and operates Food Network, DIY Network, Great American Country, Travel Channel, and Cooking Channel (formerly Fine Living). Scripps Networks Interactive posted second-quarter 2011 revenues of $534 million, up 12 percent from the prior year. So much for suffering in the recession and housing bust.

The Design Star participants are in residence at a loft in Manhattan when their “mentor,” David Bromstad (winner of the first season), enters with great pomp and announces that the teams are headed to Spring Lake, New Jersey, to redesign a bed-and-breakfast.

“Let’s go, designers!” Bromstad commands, as they pile into a van and head west.

It’s at this point that a viewer of HGTV begins to realize the network’s creative modus operandi. It’s all about repetition. After a program breaks for a brief commercial, which is often, we are put back in the scene and given a recapitulation; the pacing is two steps forward and one step back, but it accommodates casual viewing and short attention spans.

We also realize how much “creative merchandising” is being done between the network and sponsors — Shaw Carpets and Sherwin Williams, for example, have their own HGTV brands. You can “shop” a program to buy featured products, and at least one of the stars, Candice Olson, has launched her own product line, including upholstered furniture, fabrics, wallpaper, lighting, and bedding. There’s an “HGTV Green Mattress” by Serta and even a proprietary line of software allowing viewers to design their spaces themselves.

But despite the repetition, despite the obvious commercialism, we stick with it all because the programs deploy an age-old storyteller’s technique — the narrative based on suspense: Which house will they choose? Who will get voted off the show? What will it look like? Will they sell the house?

HGTV succeeds because it is about people — perhaps more than it is about design and real estate. Programs are built around strong personalities who often challenge our assumptions, as in the case of Ballatore or Kimberly Lacy, a project manager on Curb Appeal: On the Block. Lacy is a sassy, self-confident African-American woman who is not afraid to take on contractors or clients. “There’s a lot of testosterone around here,” she intones, surrounded by male colleagues at a building site.

But it’s the client/participants who capture our voyeuristic interest as we peer into their personal lives and pass judgment on their choices. Just as HGTV draws from a wide pool of talent for Design Star — industrial designers, shop owners, and antiques dealers in addition to interior designers and the rare architect — featured couples and families represent a broad demographic mix-and-match (although they seem to age out in the mid-40s). Their circumstances and motivations are varied and sometimes comical — does a young couple really want to buy a vacation home in Barbados with in-laws from both sides?

House Hunters International feeds not just our curiosity about others but also our natural wanderlust. Who doesn’t dream of chucking it all and moving to some exotic locale? And HHI shows how people of relatively ordinary means can actually afford places like seaside villas in Nicaragua and elegant apartments in Buenos Aires. This is voyeurism to an extreme, as we follow the chosen couple through their rounds, contemplate the wisdom of their decision to move and bet on the probable longevity of their relationship, and then imagine ourselves making the choice along with them: “No, pick the stucco townhouse, not the brick stand-alone!”

For all the frivolous air of many of the programs, some of them do teach basic lessons in design. The comments of Design Star’s design panel are often wise and valid; the imperative of form and function working together is repeated constantly. Before-and-after shots underscore the transformative power of visual ideas.

But there are other assumptions that are unquestioned, namely that everything needs to be redesigned. Yes, that’s the point of the shows, but it would be refreshing — and environmentally responsible — to occasionally hear “we only need to do minimal intervention in these rooms.” It is as if the hegemony of granite countertops and stainlesssteel appliances is now almost universal. What’s actually wrong with the white appliances and Formica countertops? True design creativity could find ways to freshen up spaces without the cost and waste of completely gutting, as if updating Thoreau’s dictum of “simplify, simplify” into “reuse, reuse.”

For HGTV, design is more than design. The network seems intent on expanding the notion of the human habitat to virtually every sphere of our lives. This, of course, is a major theme in 20th-century design; Le Corbusier’s “machine to live in” was meant to fundamentally transform the way in which people of all classes lived. But what’s especially noticeable throughout HGTV is how rarely “high design” comes into play — there’s hardly a reference to Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, or any of the rest of the Modernist pantheon, let alone well-known current practitioners. Unsurprisingly absent are the well-known academics who talk about “edge conditions” and “aesthetics and design that transgress Middle American morality.”

But let’s not forget that TV is a fiction: Everything is accomplished quickly. Experts are unchallenged. Homeowners are always grateful. Collaboration is unknown and unnecessary. And architects are nearly invisible (which some might argue is not a fiction) — a fact that should draw the attention of the profession both as an opportunity and as an omen.

Is it a stretch to compare this frothy entertainment with the design profession’s international “starchitect” culture? Yes and no — the David Bromstads revel in their fame and fabulousness, while the Frank Gehrys and Zaha Hadids feign indifference at all the attention they receive. Both feed our endless desire for celebrity.

It all seems to highlight the primacy of design as an intensely personal human endeavor. Who better to do this than HGTV, which has embraced design with gusto — and in the process made it possible for us to observe and critique the redecoration of a Prague apartment while munching popcorn at 2 o’clock in the morning.

The Museum as Medium

Is it about the art or the architecture? Both. Neither.

Art museums have been the primary medium for public access, understanding, and appreciation of art since the 19th century. By presenting art from pre-history to the present, art museums connect a large and diverse public to humanity’s artistic and cultural heritage. Born of the interests of the sophisticated classes during the Enlightenment and elevated to national institutions in Europe and America during the late-18th and 19th centuries, art museums have spread throughout the world. Now nearly every nation and major city features one or more art museums. Given the boom in museum construction over the last two decades, it sometimes seems that every one of them has been recently expanded or rebuilt.

Frequently dubbed the new golden age of museums, this period has signaled a significant shift in attitudes, expectations, and intentions since the first golden age at the end of the 19th century. We expect museums to serve as a medium for the interpretation of art Increasingly, we also demand that they serve as a medium for the expression of architectural ideas. Unfortunately, integrating effective interpretation of art with architecture has proven very challenging.

The success of the art museum as an institution is testament to the importance of the creative spirit and creative expression among all cultures; our respect for the inspirational qualities of art is central to this success. Individual, civic, and national aspirations have also been very strong influences in the development of art museums; identity and pride provide powerful motivation. These forces—the thirst for the inspiration that art provides, which is often most associated with the creation of collections; and the drive to celebrate identity and aspiration, which is often associated with museum architecture—are not always in alignment.

It is not a new problem. The Beaux-Arts template for museum buildings, which was developed during the 19th century and carried forward well into the 20th century, often created an overly embellished architec-tural framework. Even when curators, directors, trustees, and architects were in accord regarding the premise that art should be presented in an imposing civic monument designed to awe visitors, debates sometimes arose regarding the nature of interior galleries. During the 1920s and 1930s, curators and some directors argued that architecture should support the presentation of art rather than the glorification of architects or the ambitions of patrons who sought grand, monumental buildings.

Among the first architectural responses to those arguments were the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, 1939) and the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands (Henry van de Velde, 1938), designed in the then-new International Style. These buildings were highly flexible, very functional, purposefully unimposing, and far more visitor-friendly than the typical Beaux-Arts art museum. The white-cube gallery, first created in these buildings, became the standard museum gallery space (and remains so today). Finally, it seemed, an architecture had emerged that aligned fresh thinking about curatorial missions with ascendant social and cultural ideals. But with the intervention of World War II, relatively few museums were built in this era.

In any case, the new orthodoxy was turned on its head by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1959. Unquestionably a striking work of architecture, the Guggenheim is generally a woeful place in which to display works of art. Single-handedly, it reinvigorated the debate between architectural statement and the presentation of art, which continues more than 50 years later.

Several solutions have been tried, and we have seen extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Louis Kahn and, later, Renzo Piano created museum buildings that quietly reinforce and amplify the art presented within them. Their buildings rely on fine detailing and the use of natural light, proportion, and elegance rather than exuberant design to achieve success. Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Daniel Liebskind, Zaha Hadid, and others have created highly dramatic, sculptural buildings featuring various degrees of functionality and flexibility.

Given the unprecedented number of museum expansion projects, especially over the past 15 years, one might assume the dynamic tension between the art museum as a medium for architecture and the art museum as a medium for the presentation and interpretation of art would be more commonly balanced in a way that recognizes the importance of both. But several impediments have constrained a broad-based realization of this goal.

Few museum directors or boards of trustees do more than one expansion project in their careers. Staff who are charged with the day-to-day responsibilities of planning and implementing a construction program frequently have little familiarity with the building industry and may not have previously managed projects of such complexity. Yet surprisingly few museums attempt to learn from the experience of others who have already completed such projects. Art museums are prone to dealing with architects as artists, and most lack experience in being a strong client. Consequently, design too often trumps functionality.

The tremendous success of Bilbao convinced many directors and boards that “signature” architecture and more square feet will result in a transformation of the museum. This has generally been a misplaced expectation. The drive to create new or expanded facilities absent sufficient associated endowment has placed many art museums in a precarious financial position, especially as many museums fail to adequately project and account for the increased costs of operation and new programs; the economic climate since 2008 has only exacerbated this condition.

Changes in functional requirements have also contributed to the challenge. Art museums today are multifaceted facilities that must support not only the presentation and interpretation of art but also performing-arts events, social events, educational activities, shopping, eating, visitor services, and a host of back-of-house functions. Successfully meeting the needs of these disparate functions and integrating them into a cohesive whole is extremely challenging. Unfortunately, what is too often forgotten in the juggling act is the paramount importance of the nature and quality of the visitor experience.

It is entirely possible to create beautiful art-museum buildings that are intensely uncomfortable to occupy. It is likewise possible to present and interpret art in reasonably effective ways while providing an overall experience for visitors that is unsatisfying. The totality of the experience includes a host of factors that have, in far too many instances, been ignored or given short shrift by architects and museum staff and trustees. Examples are all too familiar: unwelcoming entrances; awkward placement and design of admission and orientation desks; inadequate signage; poor acoustics; insufficient restroom facilities; lack of comfortable seating; confusing circulation flows; fatiguing and disorienting gallery layouts. A great deal of research exists regarding the ways people actually behave in art museums and the kind of experiences and spaces required to increase visitor engagement with art—yet very little of this information is incorporated into the design of most museums.

Building or expanding an art museum is an extraordinary opportunity. The trustees and staff are often sophisticated clients who are committed to promoting the arts; they tend to think in terms of cultural legacy and are often willing to embrace new, even experimental design. Architects welcome the prestige and the artistic license associated with the commission. Museum architecture occupies a special place in the design disciplines: It is often where significant design ideas are advanced, which in turn influence other building types.

But this same convergence of factors—legacy, fame, identity, openness to the new—too often conspires to promote the billboard statement. The ability to present and interpret art effectively or to create truly satisfying visitor experiences often receives less attention than the creation of dramatic architectural statements.

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century and well into the second golden age of museum architecture, we frequently see ourselves designing buildings that in too many instances are not very removed from their Beaux-Arts predecessors: advancing the monument at the expense of the visitors and their experience of art. The seamless integration of architectural expression, interpretation of art, and the visitor experience should be our goal. Achieving it requires attention to the art museum as a medium with a unique ability to enrich people’s lives in material ways.

From the J. Paul Getty Museum Symposium:

  • Adams, M. and Luke, J. From Heart to Head to Hand: A Synthesis of Issues and Strategies Raised at the From Content to Play Symposium. (“From Content to Play: Family-Orientated Interactive Spaces in Art and History Museums,” a conference held at J. Paul Getty Museum Symposium.) (2005).
  • Edwards, R. The Getty Family Room: Unpacking the Ideas and Assumptions behind the Development of an Interactive Space. (“From Content to Play: Family-Orientated Interactive Spaces in Art and History Museums,” a conference held at J. Paul Getty Museum Symposium. (2005).

Recently published material:

  • Pitman, B. & Hirzy, E. Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums. Dallas Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2011.
  • Burnham, R. & Kai-Kee, E. Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience. Getty Publications, 2011.
  • Simon, N. The Participatory Museum, Museum 2.0, 2011.
  • Falk, J. H. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Left Coast Press, 2011.

Influential classics:

  • Lang, C., Reeve, J. (eds.) The Responsive Museum: Working with Audiences in the Twenty-First Century. Aldershot, Ashgate, 2006.
  • Durbin, G. “The Educational Basis for the Galleries,” in Creating the British Galleries at the V&A: A Study in Museology. C. Wilk and N. Humphrey. V&A, 2004

Writings on the unspoken contract between museums and visitors:

  • O'Neill, M. “The Good Enough Visitor,” in Museums, Society, Inequality ( R. Sandell, ed.) Routledge, 2002.
  • O'Neill, M. "Kelvingrove: Telling stories in a treasured old/new museum." Curator, vol. 50, no. 4. 2007.

Additional commentary:

  • Meszaros, C. "Interpretation in the Reign of 'Whatever'." Muse, vol 25, no. 1. 2007.
  • Knutson, K., Crowley, K., et al. "Three Responses to Cheryl Meszaros' Evil "Whatever" Interpretation." Visitor Studies Today, vol. 9, no. 3. 2006.
  • Fritsch, J. "Thinking About Bringing Web Communities into Galleries and How It might Transform Perceptions of Learning in Museums.” Paper available at: (2007)

The Message in the Medium

Say what you will — but how and where you say it matters.

Photography: Cervin Robinson

Architecture has enjoyed a love affair with photography since the latter’s invention in the middle of the 19th century. With the development of photographic reproduction in ink-on-paper journals, the relationship began to mature, and photographers and text writers came to be business partners.

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View related slideshow, "The Shooters."

By the 1880s, an architectural journal could include impressive photographs of a building and a related text, each printed by different processes on different papers. By the end of the century, “halftone” reproduction allowed printing text and photographs on the same page. Thereafter, neither a text nor its accompanying set of photographs stood on its own two feet. Each was propped up by the other—and the architectural journal was on its way to becoming the dominant medium for the presentation and discussion of architectural ideas.

Publication in the form of photographs became increasingly important to architects. Some designed with publication in mind; others did work that editors regarded highly but knew would photograph badly. In some respects, the architectural life of a building lay in published photographs.

Until well after World War II, the photographs in journals were initially black-and-white pictures taken by photographers with recognizable individual styles. By the 1980s, however, color reproduction started to predominate, and individual styles were becoming less apparent. Reproduction was more expensive, and architects began to share in magazine costs and take part in the selection of pictures (never mind independent journalism).

It was also an era that marked a change in the tools themselves. For many years, architectural photographs had been made with large cameras. But a shift soon came to smaller 4-by-5 cameras that would accept the Polaroid films used to determine exposure times. Camera technology continues to evolve with the development of digital cameras.

The ease of digital photography and the proliferation of inexpensive digital and online publishing media, combined with the demise of many ink-on-paper architectural journals, have persuaded many architects that adequate and certainly less expensive pictures can be made by their own office staff.

Yet there is a place for professional architectural photographers. We live in a world of visual media, where there is still a demand for high-quality images. And many photographers have found success and satisfaction in new directions, such as fine-art photographs of architectural subjects, often in the form of enormous prints made with large cameras—a form of picturemaking with which the inexpensive digital camera and the inexperienced photographer cannot compete.

The field has seen challenges before. In its early years, the introduction of dry plates made picture taking easier than with wet plates, increasing the number of pictures taken but initially bringing down their quality. Presumably photography will similarly recover from the generally lower quality of digital work today. In many ways, the life of a building still lies in its photographs, whatever the publishing medium.

Newspapers: John King, San Francisco Chronicle

As a member of the dwindling band of architectural critics who ply their trade at newspapers, I’m well aware of how lucky I am—and how my approach differs from the best critics who came before.

In the beginning, there was exquisite provocation: The likes of Allan Temko at the San Francisco Chronicle and Ada Louise Huxtable at The New York Times arrived on the scene in the early 1960s to give readers a good shake. Their audiences learned what was at stake as grand buildings fell and oppressive ones rose, why change is neither a given nor necessarily a good, and why we can’t leave our surroundings in the hands of developers and hacks and the powers-that-be.

Now such notions as “contextual design” and “managed growth” are part of the civic dance. Architectural review boards operate in cities large and small and are often constructive but also capricious. The definition of historic resource gets stretched by some advocates to include anything with four walls and a past. Urban design principles are of little interest to “eco-urbanists” who proclaim the virtues of all things sustainable and dense.

It’s a confusing terrain, with ever-more-varied voices and agendas. Which may be why I find myself trying to connect the dots rather than lay down the law.

That’s not a job description I learned in journalism school, but by all evidence it resonates. In today’s fragmented media scene, I can stand out by drawing on age-old tools of the newspaper trade: Before putting on the critic’s hat, I covered City Hall and planning and the business of real estate. My editors place more value on lucid writing and solid reporting than on coy references to Andrés and Rem.

There’s still a place for activist criticism that strives to nip excess in the bud, as the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin shows so well. But there’s also a need to bring the landscape around us into sharper focus. Think of it as an ongoing course in design basics: why the experience on the ground is as important as the silhouette in the air, why the cosmetic appeal of images shown to planning commissions isn’t nearly as important as an actual building’s materiality and craft. Architecture writers can help readers—the public—see more, and more smartly. We can help them understand the implications as we shape tomorrow’s civic realm.

This is the unique role that general newspapers can play, precisely because of their general nature and because they have yet to be replaced as the primary community forum. My readers aren’t architecture buffs receiving glossy magazines in the mail or turning to their favorite like-minded website. They’re people who know that buildings and spaces can be deadening or dynamic, even if they’re not sure why. They do know this: They want help making sense of our urban terrain.

Exhibitions: Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley, pinkcomma gallery

At a time when old media institutions such as publishing houses, journals, and newspapers face increasingly dire financial prospects, the gallery remains a flourishing site of cultural production and dissemination. We see the role of the gallery in an era of new media types as even more urgent for its ability to respond to a changing landscape of human ideas and interactions. The gallery is here to stay because it is good at things that virtual or printed means of dissemination do less well: putting people in physical space to interact with one another face-to-face in the presence of objects and artifacts. Discourse is at the very core of what makes a gallery an active site of exchange rather than a destination for passive leisure. This social and spatial coupling cannot be easily replicated online.

In creating architectural exhibitions, curators have tended to follow two approaches. The first regards exhibitions as “atmosphere” (to use Henry Urbach’s term): temporary stages for spatial experiments freed from the constraints of more permanent or conventional commissions. The second, which is closer to gallery practices outside the architectural field, regards the exhibition as a form of knowledge: a site in which visual, historical, or data-driven content can be brought together to instigate discussion around issues of concern to the discipline. Although design plays a crucial role in how this material is shaped and presented, it is content, not format, that drives the making of such exhibitions. The first approach treats the exhibition as an excuse for design production, while the second regards it as a form of cultural production.

We lean toward the latter, seeing the greatest disciplinary relevance of galleries not in more spectacles but in their ability to promote discourse that can reshape the discipline. We stake our bets on exhibitions that challenge the viewer to think more deeply or critically about issues concerning the built environment—and to engage with colleagues and the public in ways that other modes of design production, whether physical or virtual, rarely permit. Recent shows employing a range of techniques to provoke conversation include: Clip/Stamp/Fold, curated by Beatriz Colomina and Princeton PhD students at Storefront for Art and Architecture (displaying an archive); OMA/Rem Koolhaas’s Cronocaos, at the Venice Biennale and New Museum (instigating a critique); and Jean-Louis Cohen’s Architecture in Uniform at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (producing historical scholarship).

The gallery is one of the few types of dissemination that has not been entirely overturned by new media formats precisely because curation and social engagement remain central to a gallery’s mission. Although these formats enable broader possibilities for installations and more opportunities for outreach, the basic function of the gallery remains unchanged—a counterpoint to design practice and a site for commentary, reflection, and discussion.

Building Information Modeling: Phillip G. Bernstein FAIA, Autodesk

When the idea of Building Information Modeling (BIM) started to hit the full consciousness of architects a few years ago, it was seen mostly as the next version of CAD, best used to create precisely coordinated drawings from a 3D model. But there was another idea in there somewhere, a vague notion of collaboration and integration, a thought that moving from mechanical drawing to parametric modeling might mean something bigger in making buildings. Does it?

Of course, the raison d’être for BIM—and how most young designers pitch it to their older, less savvy managers—is productivity. But, much as CAD was initially adopted as a tool for faster drafting but soon launched the age of the curvy façade, maybe the “building simulation” that is full BIM is likewise leading us someplace unexpected. It was Alberti who first asserted that the building’s design exists apart from its construction and that the builder should slavishly execute that design model. When that design is now a BIM model, however, it’s the architect’s authorial role that may well take a hit. Is that a bad thing?

Architectural labor theorist Paolo Tombesi suggests that BIM is “likely to produce a lowering of social transaction costs by making information less subjective, its exchange speedier, and its monitoring more precise.” There’s that precision argument again, but with a twist: a lowering of the “transaction cost” of participating in the design itself. A building designed with BIM is not encoded in the special language of architects—plans, sections, and elevations—and is thereby accessible clearly to everyone involved in the design process: collaborators, builders, even clients. Some of that “authorial mystery” of the designer evaporates, and in its place appears the precision of a digital model that gets hot and cold, has operating doors, and can generally give everyone a great idea of what’s alleged to be. From this democratization might well rise greater design literacy and even bring an “architectural springtime” much like what’s been inspired of late by Facebook and Twitter. Better design has to be the result.

While Alberti might disagree, the authorial role of the architect isn’t completely pulverized by BIM. Tombesi also suggests that BIM’s “simulative and predictive capabilities” decrease the subjectivity of the result. But if BIM provides “just the facts, ma’am,” it also creates an opportunity to leave the mundane tasks to the technology, allowing architects to spend their time finding, testing, and implementing even better ideas.

BIM won’t replace design talent—and may even quickly expose its lack—but like any tool in the hands of a master, it just might empower the process of design as never before.

Publishing: Kevin Lippert, Princeton Architectural Press

I was a bit taken aback to read this first sentence in the manuscript submitted by the author of a forthcoming book: “Media’s pressure to make architecture into a consumer product concerns me. The resulting artifacts are conceived as disposable, only useful until the new model comes along.” Wait a minute, I thought. Is this a dig at his publisher, who is arguably part of the media pressure to make consumable products about architecture, books on “the latest model” designer, buildings, and other hot topics?

We all—architects and publishers alike—want to be in the business of producing lasting objects of significance that transcend the unforgiving cycles of fashion. But even though Princeton Architectural Press prints all its books on acid-free paper and sews their bindings, the inescapable truth is that publishing is very much a business of producing consumables, whether paper or electronic, and consumables are, by their very nature, products of fashion. This surely informs our thinking in the kinds of books we publish (What are our readers interested in now? What topic can we define that might create a trend to capitalize on?) and how we publish them. (What’s a “sexy” package? What’s an appealing price in a crowded and often difficult market?)

Architecture is richer, better made, more functional, more beautiful, more useful—whatever criteria you use to evaluate buildings or design—as a result of the written and published discourse around it, whether in books, magazines, or well-executed websites. Although I might regret our tacit participation in a culture of producing consumable goods, especially when some of those must be literally disposed of (the publisher’s nightmare: the horrific “pulping” of unsold excess inventory), I truly believe that the library of books from Princeton Architectural Press has improved the built and visual environment.

Unlike most consumer goods, if you put ours on a climate-controlled bookshelf, they will last, our paper manufacturer tells us, for 300 years or more—not too shabby for “disposable” media and certainly a lot longer than electronic media and even most buildings, especially those built today. Since its origins in reprinting classic 19th-century tomes (such as Letarouilly’s Edifices de Rome Moderne, still in our catalogue), the Press has become a keystone in a massive act of documentation of the architecture of the 20th and 21st centuries, a project in which publications such as ArchitectureBoston are also important participants. I’m happy that the books we make today will endure long enough that another publisher might reprint them from the originals a few centuries hence, ensuring that the architecture we document will last long after the forces of fashion or commerce have knocked it down to make room for the new.

Animation and 3D Visualization: Lon Grohs, Neoscape

Architecture is itself a tangible subject: visible, physical, concrete. The experience of architecture, however, is anything but that, and is profoundly visceral. It’s a sensation, an impression, a feeling.

Communicating the physical characteristics of architecture is a relatively forthright technical exercise. Conveying the emotive aspects of architecture is a different matter entirely.

A range of visual techniques and media including sketches, renderings, models, and photographs, are traditional means of conveying information about the experience of a building. In the past decade, we’ve witnessed a remarkable evolution of these longestablished media types, and visualization and animation have swept in to become part of the lexicon.

So-called 3D visualization now offers a sophisticated projection of an architectural experience that, despite the common moniker, is still essentially a two-dimensional snapshot of a building at one point in time. But new technologies are already expanding the media arsenal.

Foremost among these is architectural animation. At the turn of the millennium, a standard walk-through or fly-through was a meaningful and sufficient experience. It provided a glimpse into the future world, allowing the viewer to analyze and subsequently synthesize an impression of the space, and was a useful means of transmitting physical information about the architectural design. At the time, however, technology and skills had not advanced far enough to successfully convey the spirit of the design. The technique was met with harsh criticism—rightfully so, because it was interpreted as cold and lacking a soul.

But innovation in this medium happened rapidly and almost exponentially. By the middle of the decade, the terms “walk-through” and “fly-through” seemed a vestige of the past. The “architectural film” had evolved, and a new genre was born. In fact, the visual language of the architectural animation progressed so quickly that the story became the motivating factor.

This new medium is no longer an unadorned expression of a physical realm yet to be built, but a manifestation of a specific glimpse into a future world. It presents an exacting and layered environment complete with flora and fauna, likenesses of its inhabitants, specific atmospheric conditions, precise times of day, and ambient sounds—all of which can be varied within the narrative of the film, thus adding a new dimension to architectural representation: time.

And this is just one example. Other types of media are evolving at a similar pace—including augmented reality, rapid prototyping, and real-time visualization—all of which promise new tools not only for presenting architectural ideas but also, with increasing integration into the design process, for creating them.

Blogs: John Hill,

When I started the Web page A Weekly Dose of Architecture in 1999, I had no idea that my site, which featured building reviews, was a “blog.” Now, 12 years later, more than 156 million blogs are in existence, according to Wikipedia; a tiny fraction of those are related to architecture. In the supersaturated online realm, how influential are architecture blogs? What are their contributions to architectural discourse? And in what direction are they heading?

In the past decade, I’ve witnessed the changing role of online media in architectural journalism. Initially shunned by respectable journalists, bloggers have seen their influence rise with readership and as some have expanded into successful online businesses; many journalists now blog in addition to their print articles. With the widespread use of blogging software to structure Web pages of all types, blogs have reshaped both the way in which content is created online and its character, as the medium favors brevity and frequency.

The most trafficked blog, ArchDaily, churns out the equivalent of one Architectural Record magazine every day or two, including news items and scads of photos and drawings. Yet most posts typically feature only text contributed by the projects’ architects, not unbiased critical commentary from people who have visited the buildings in person. This breaks with magazines such as Record that balance the architect’s intentions with first-hand description and criticism, and is part of what some see as an unfortunate trend that values image over experience. In fact, many architecture blogs simply regurgitate press releases, with an “editorial process” as easy as copy, paste, upload, and publish. The role of the unique voice that is at the root of blogs is being lost amid the relative ease of syndicating PR content.

Of course the focus of everybody’s attention these days is not on blogs but on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Google+. Architizer and Archinect follow this trend with user-generated architectural content, but the projects, profiles, and features are curated by editors to let certain content rise to the fore. This “hidden hand” points to what defines social media: It’s not enough to post something online; that information has to be shared. But blogs and social media are strongly linked because many links shared via social media point to blogs, which are still the easiest and quickest way to combine text and images online.

As the differences between blogs and traditional journalism blur, and as browsing the Internet is superseded by sharing, everybody using social media becomes a curator, influencing what others read and in turn what blogs and journalists create. In this sense, the origin of content is irrelevant. Awareness of this role as curators ultimately sensitizes people to quality. Readers, the future of architectural media is in your hands.

The Real World: Decay, Fungus, and Mold

It ain't pretty. Mold may be surprising beautiful when viewed under a microscope, but in real life, it's rarely mistaken for art. These photographs illustrate common molds in residential construction — along with their counterparts, fungus and decay — in the context of where they're found.

Face-sealed, non-water managed synthetic stucco allowed water to enter directly into the wall, which led to decay.

Click image above to view slideshow.

To learn more about what causes these problems and how to address them, visit the vast array of resources on Building Science Corporation's website: All images courtesy BSC.

Read the accompanying ArchitectureBoston article, If Walls Could Talk: The Science of Building, as BSC's principals Betsy Pettit FAIA and Joseph Lstiburek PhD, P.Eng discuss this real world with architect Jason Forney AIA.

If Walls Could Talk: The Science of Building

If walls could talk, there would be a whole lot of moaning, groaning, and general kvetching.

Jason Forney: In the days when the architect was the master builder, science was an integral part of building design; but in the latter half of the 20th century, architects lost that connection. Through writing, teaching, consulting, design, and an extensive website, your firm, Building Science Corporation, is largely responsible for reacquainting a new wave of architects, builders, and clients with science. Why have you committed yourselves to that endeavor, and why do you think people are listening now?

Aspergillus versicolor

Common Molds and Fungi Found in Residential Construction. Click image above to view slideshow.

Betsy Pettit: I was concerned that the architecture profession was giving up a lot of its work to other types of consultants. Architecture is really a combination of art and science, and we architects need to understand how things work in order to come up with an aesthetic that is meaningful for sustainable, energy-efficient, durable projects.

Jason Forney: You define building science as “the study of the interaction between the various materials, products, and systems used in building construction, the occupants of these buildings, and the environments in which they are located.” A lot of people would assume that’s a definition of architecture — or that it used to be. So what happened?

Joseph Lstiburek: I think the problem started when architects came to view themselves more as artists and lost their familiarity with all aspects of construction. I’m appalled in some cases at how architects practice. How can you possibly be an architect and not know the technical side, the physics side, of construction? There should be no place for firms such as ours. If architects do their job, there is no need for another consultant to do the stuff that architects used to do as part of their day-to-day practice because they knew how buildings worked and they knew their materials. Now architecture is mostly art. I love art, but you don’t leave your artwork outside in the rain.

Jason Forney: There is a stereotype that beautiful buildings leak, and efficient, technically well-conceived buildings are ugly. But there’s no reason that needs to be true.

Joseph Lstiburek: You can’t possibly have good architecture without beauty. As an engineer, I approach the problem a little differently. I say the only way buildings are going to last a long time is if people take care of them. The only way that people are going to take care of buildings is if they want to take care of them. And people don’t take care of ugly things; ugliness is not sustainable.

Jason Forney: Sustainability has, in fact, drawn a lot of attention back to building-science issues. What are the overlaps between building science and green building?

Betsy Pettit: A building that’s sustainable is one that is durable, that people can live or work in comfortably, that doesn’t require a lot of intervention to achieve good indoor air quality. And, serendipitously, the things that provide durability, comfort, and good indoor air quality happen to be the things that promote better energy efficiency. That is really where green building and sustainable building should be going. The science helps us get there.

Joseph Lstiburek: I view green as a passing fad. I’ll be happy when it’s over with and we can get back to following the rules of physics and doing architecture in the truest sense: beautiful buildings that stand the test of time, that are structurally sound and therefore safe, that don’t make people sick, that are comfortable and durable. Why do you need a special label certifying that you did what you were supposed to do? Why do architects need to join a special club with an arbitrary and capricious checklist and a secret handshake? I’d be insulted if somebody told me that I had to follow this checklist. That’s why I became a professional. Are we not professionals anymore?

Jason Forney: We’re seeing significant revisions to building codes in response to concerns about sustainability and energy consumption. Do you think codes can drive change?

Joseph Lstiburek: Codes have long ceased to be a means of preventing disasters. They’ve become instruments of social change and government policy. I don’t have a problem with social change and government policy; I have a real issue with building codes as the vehicle for achieving that.

Jason Forney: Can you give a specific example?

Joseph Lstiburek: The thermal-resistance requirements for the building enclosure — we’re now being told what glazing ratios to use. So homeowners who want lots of windows for views and daylight and transparency are forced to build a very different sort of structure, because someone has decided that limiting windows is the prescribed route to lower energy consumption. The codes are consensus documents, but consensus from whom? They are subject to unbelievable lobbying — the process is subject to tremendous political interference. I think people would be appalled at what codes have turned into if they knew how bad the process is. Having said that, I don’t have an alternative.

Jason Forney: What would your code look like if you were in charge?

Joseph Lstiburek: My code would be one sentence: Don’t do stupid things. But the entrenched reality is that codes are political documents. It took me 15 years to get the vapor-barrier provisions changed because of all the politics. Politics in a vapor-barrier discussion? Well, sure: If the code requires a vapor barrier, then you have created a market for a certain set of products that must be used. If the code doesn’t require it, then the market expands to a different set of products. Somebody makes money, somebody loses money.

Betsy Pettit: And we haven’t even mentioned the legal aspects of buildings that had polyethylene vapor barriers. We live in a litigious society. If Building Science Corporation says not only that you do not need poly vapor barriers but also that they can create problems, have we cleared the way for a whole new category of lawsuits? And what does that mean for the profession’s ability to expand its body of knowledge? We should be able to live and learn and evolve. Some experiments are failures, but they help us to learn more about the way things work.

So we have to be very careful about the experiments we make. And frankly, it makes doing research in architecture very difficult. Who pays for it and how? We’ve been lucky to be part of the Building America program, a research program established by the US Department of Energy to promote more energy-efficient housing. Unlike almost every other industry in the country, the building industry, generally speaking, does not invest in research.

Jason Forney: What sort of directive did you receive from Building America?

Joseph Lstiburek: In the early days of the program, the government said, in effect, that things aren’t working and we’re not sure why; go and figure something out. It was as general as that. We said, let’s focus on the failures, which are very expensive, and try to solve them in an energy-efficient way. In other words, try to get a two-for-one. And if the mechanism of solving the problem doesn’t in itself save energy, maybe we can at least save money that we can deploy somewhere else in the project to promote efficiency.

Jason Forney: That’s an interesting way to think about a project — in terms of redistributing savings to rearrange the budget.

Joseph Lstiburek: Only an architect can connect the dots in that way. This is important. Think for a moment about the perspective of typical homebuilders. How do they figure out how large a heating or cooling system a house needs? They ask a mechanical contractor to size the system. Mechanical contractors have absolutely no incentive to make the system smaller. They make money based on the number of tons of installed cooling capacity. So there’s no reason for a mechanical contractor to say, “You know, if you use better windows and maybe make them a little smaller and move them from here to there, I can save you two tons. So maybe you spend $2,000 more on windows to save $3,000, but you’re still $1,000 ahead.”

Incentives get even more skewed when you talk about construction at the scale of the production homebuilders. One of the legends in the homebuilding industry is Bill Pulte; his company is one of the largest homebuilders in the US. He explained it to me pretty clearly: the science and physics of building is a complete distraction. In fact, constructing a house is completely incidental to their real business, which is pushing the property and financing package. It’s all about impressing Wall Street.

The only solution lies with architects. But now we have a gazillion consultants because the architecture profession today doesn’t have enough generalist knowledge to ride herd on everybody. Architects need to be more in control. They need to know enough so they can push back when a mechanical engineer or a structural engineer gives them colossally stupid advice. That probably sounds surprising, coming from an engineer. But I want architects to have more knowledge and more power. They don’t have to know everything, but they need to be good general practitioners.

Jason Forney: Some residential architects are headed in that direction, optimizing energy performance with the Passive House standard and the net-zero-energy concept.

Joseph Lstiburek: If you want to have an R50 slab insulation, I think that’s fabulous. If you want to have an air-tightness requirement of .6 air changes per hour at 50 pascals, knock yourself out. But when you run around saying anything less than R50 and .6 is dumb, I get irritated. There is a difference between private standards and labeling, which can be helpful, and mandates. I believe that certain decisions and tradeoffs should be left to the client and the architect. Of course there should be an energy code, but its requirements should make sense. The code shouldn’t push beyond technology’s ability to respond, which is what’s happening now. We don’t yet have the industrywide delivery mechanism to achieve some of these targets on a large scale.

Jason Forney: Do you think there’ll be a point in time when that changes? When either the cheap oil era has really ended, or energy costs increase so dramatically that changes are forced on us?

Joseph Lstiburek: In fact, on a square-foot basis, houses in the United States and Canada have improved dramatically in the last 30 years. But houses in general haven’t saved energy, because the houses have gotten bigger. So we have all of these wonderful improvements in technology and efficiency, but we’ve managed to find some way to squander every one of them. We now have efficient heating, cooling, windows, and enclosures, and I suspect house sizes have maxed out. So how come we’re still using so much energy? Well, have you ever looked at what we put into a house? The televisions, the computers — all of the consumer stuff that’s plugged in and never turned off. Betsy just worked on a house where the miscellaneous electrical loads are larger than either the hot-water load or the space-heating load.

Betsy Pettit: It was a house with three boys, who are all into gaming and technology. But at some larger level, these are moral questions that people need to struggle with individually. It’s not the job of the architect to impose the answers. But we can build holistically and efficiently, and help people make smart tradeoffs.

Jason Forney: In the introduction to your Builder’s Guide series, you talk about the loss of knowledge and the reliance on following convention, when people don’t understand why or how the methods that they’re using work. Sometimes the science exists, yet it’s still ignored. That’s a lot of inertia to overcome.

Joseph Lstiburek: We don’t teach fundamentals in school anymore, so people seem to be incapable of sorting through the nonsense.

Jason Forney: Betsy, a lot of your recent work involves transforming homes through deep energy retrofits. But there are millions of existing homes. It’s a huge challenge just to know how to begin to evaluate them.

Betsy Pettit: And we don’t have the total answer. It’s much easier to figure out a way to build new buildings after learning from the forensics why things fail. But the problem of existing buildings is that each one is a research project in itself; none of them are the same. We are working with National Grid and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on the Deep Energy Retrofit pilot program; they really want these retrofits to be affordable, and they want to be able to implement them by component. Right now, we’re not comfortable with not understanding the whole house. We believe that a plan needs to be made for the whole building before we can think about ways to implement it incrementally.

So we have a demonstration project with whole houses. We’re hoping that we’ll learn from that process how to do it less expensively and how to make a kit of parts that will give homeowners some options: Here’s how to waterproof and insulate your basement. Here’s what you can do to your attic. Here are ways you can change your windows. These techniques can be applied to larger buildings, too, although those projects tend to have consultant teams. Houses are the bigger problem.

Jason Forney: Historic buildings present another set of challenges. How far should we be pushing changes in appearance to historic buildings for the sake of increased efficiency?

Betsy Pettit: One of the most controversial issues in historic structures is windows. Old window technology is terrible compared with new windows. The argument is over aesthetics; I don’t believe that the difference is huge but, obviously, some people do.

Joseph Lstiburek: It’s a political, moral, and philosophical judgment. I can put windows back into a building that are exactly what I took out, without improving them. Or I can install windows that are significantly technologically superior that look very similar. I understand the arguments for the old windows, and I know the new ones aren’t the same. But what are we trying to accomplish here? Especially when taxpayers’ money is involved through tax credits. I think it’s appalling that taxpayers’ money is being used to subsidize energy inefficiency.

Betsy Pettit: And sometimes decisions are made on the basis of outdated or incorrect information. Our office is in the Somerville Historic District, so we needed permission to change the windows. We knew they would be wood; we wanted low-E glass, which was not allowed because early low-E had a purple tint. That’s not an issue anymore. I had to bring in sample sashes to convince them, and we ultimately got permission.

Jason Forney: Another controversy in this region is insulating masonry buildings. Why are so many architects afraid to add insulation to the inside of masonry walls?

Betsy Pettit: We’ve told people that you could potentially change the way the brick sheds moisture, and you could ruin your brick. So there should be some fear about that. But we’ve got mill buildings all over New England. Probably every architect in the region has at some point turned a mill building into housing of some sort. Why in the world would we think that it’s not OK to insulate the brick wall?

Joseph Lstiburek: It’s irrational hysteria. Yes, there is some level of risk in insulating a masonry building on the interior, but it’s been overblown. If you control the way rainwater is handled by the surface of the building from the outside, the risk is trivial. I just did a project in Vermont, a 100-year-old masonry building. You could see the problems from the parking lot: a stain under every window and at the parapet, which meant those were the areas with water issues. I told the owners to rebuild the parapet, and then pull out the windows, pan-flash them and give them drip edges, and then put them back — because they needed the historic tax credit. So regardless of the thermal performance of the window, they could resolve the water management problem and safely insulate the interior.

What I loved about that project was the architect, who was grinning because the clients had paid to bring in the outside expert to tell them exactly what he had already been saying. This is an architect with a world of experience, and he knew what he was talking about: You keep the water out, you keep it from collecting where roofs and walls come together, and you can insulate as much as you want. Once you handle the water, everything else is secondary.

Jason Forney: Your last 30 years have been, in effect, one big research project. What are your conclusions at this point?

Betsy Pettit: Buildings are complex structures. Things happen that you can’t anticipate. So I never brag about projects while they’re only on paper; I like to wait until they’ve been built for at least a few years. What we don’t do enough as architects is go back to our buildings. Of course, we don’t get any money to do that, generally speaking, so it’s tough. Nobody would pay for pure building-science research if we didn’t have public funding. We are thankful to have the government as a client who will pay us to do the research that architects and engineers are benefiting from. We’re doing our best to make that information available through our website and teaching.

Joseph Lstiburek: Thirty years ago, I thought I was a really clever guy who knew everything; now I’m an older guy who is convinced that he knows significantly less than what he thought he knew. I’ve discovered that ignorance truly was bliss. With the lens of experience, I know that a lot of issues are not as black and white as people like to think they are. There’s a lot of gray. But I do know this: You can’t substitute the judgment of the architect or the engineer with a computer simulation program and a checklist.

Practical Science

In the face of new technical challenges, these firms have designed a smarter way to practice architecture.

Increasingly complex building systems, interest in sustainable materials and technologies, and demand for improved energy efficiency — most architects would agree that the need for hard data and real innovation has never been greater. Some firms have embraced what would have been unimaginable a few decades ago: the integration of practice and science-based research. Their success suggests that they may have also found a path toward more artful design.


by Nicholas Holt AIA

The Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology (CASE) is a unique scientific research partnership that was formed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s School of Architecture in 2008. CASE’s ambitions are manifold. Perhaps the most important is to produce desperately needed, game-changing technologies that will enable the aggressive net-zero goals that are being adopted in the US and worldwide. A second priority is to use the synergistic, academic-professional partnership to confront the ways in which new architectural technologies are developed and brought to market.

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Applied research as it is currently practiced in the building industry is often slow and inefficient, and results in building systems that do not meet their potential when confronted with the practical realities of practice. The architecture profession has in large part not taken advantage of its power and responsibility to truly innovate. RPI and SOM hope the CASE model presents industry and universities with a way to change that.

SOM views CASE as a complementary practice, not a separate institution, and CASE’s headquarters are located within SOM’s Wall Street office in New York City. CASE is led by a tight group of academics and professionals: Professor Anna Dyson of RPI’s School of Architecture is the director and Associate Professor Jason Vollen is the assistant director, with Kenneth A. Lewis, a managing director at SOM, and me, technical director at SOM, acting as CASE principals. Currently more than 24 PhD, master’s, and undergraduate students actively do research and attend classes led by five professors and other guest scholars. Members of SOM’s staff collaborate with CASE investigators daily.

CASE researchers work primarily in the area of technology transfer. They mine discoveries and developments in fields unrelated to architecture, such as optics, aerodynamics, and the biological sciences, and develop them into full-scale building systems. Currently under development are sustainable building systems, such as a modular daylighting system that includes helioptic concentrators that improve the efficiency of photovoltaics; high-performance eco-ceramic masonry walls; electropolymeric dynamic shading systems for buildings; and an active-photoremediation wall system using plants to purify air, reducing the need for outside air.

SOM’s real-world experience brings considerable influence to bear on the development of CASE’s research, particularly in making conceptual ideas scalable, manufacturable and, ultimately, commercially viable. These technologies must be proven to be maintainable, aesthetically compatible where applicable, and usable in real construction. They must be shown to perform at a level whose impact is great enough to make their costs justifiable. Prototypes must withstand mockup testing and the rigorous standards of health and life-safety codes.

The firm’s involvement allows CASE’s investigators to focus on in-depth research while leveraging SOM’s expertise to challenge ideas and adapt solutions to real-life projects. The collaborative environment works. CASE investigators have successfully developed comprehensive testing prototypes and submitted their work at the proof-of-concept stage to the rigorous scrutiny of peer review, and their papers have been published in academic journals. SOM’s involvement has also been helpful in securing federal and state grants.

The benefits of the CASE collaboration include the satisfaction of attending to the urgent business of creating a sustainable world, and in playing a crucial role in the development of systems that are imaginative, ambitious, and potentially game-changing. In turn, the advanced high-performance buildings SOM is working on provide teaching moments for some of the most imaginative minds working in building-systems research today. What is priceless, however, is the dialogue resulting from the exchange of ideas between academics and professionals that enriches all who participate in it.


by Yanel de Angel AIA

In 2009, Perkins+Will made a commitment to support additional research initiatives within its practice as a means of solving our clients’ increasingly complex challenges and advancing the profession. Although these initiatives grew out of the firm’s cultural focus on the convergence of design, technology, and research, our experience indicates that these initiatives have in turn fostered an environment that is even more open to innovation and collaboration.

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With more than 1,200 employees in 23 offices, Perkins+Will has organized these initiatives under the oversight of its Research Group, which includes full-time researchers whose investigations include biomimicry and ecological systems; strategies for operational efficiency; building technology and performance; design process bench-marking; policy research; carbon and energy analysis; and organizational behavior.

Currently, two initiatives within the firm focus on developing and disseminating a new generation of science-based research. The first is the Perkins+Will Research Journal, a biannual publication available online and in hard copy that documents some of the firm’s investigations, representing a range of research from behavioral studies to building science. All research articles go through a rigorous internal and external peer-review process prior to publication. Examples include articles on design strategies for double-skin façades and their impact on energy performance; energy modeling; design considerations for pools in cold climates; the effect of heat flow and moisture on exterior enclosures; and a comparative analysis of the environmental and economic performance of flooring materials. The value and significance of this publication is that practice-oriented research is documented and shared both within our global practice and with the larger design community.

The second initiative, the Innovation Incubator, is a funding program that supports small, focused research projects proposed by staff members with micro-grants of money and time. Launched in March 2010 with the goals of providing the opportunity for invention and creating a culture of innovation within the firm, these micro-grants provide incentive for proactive idea exploration, technical development, and design collaboration. After project completion, each participant is expected to provide a tangible product that explains the aim, procedures, and outcome of the project. Participants make detailed formal presentations of their work to their home-office colleagues, and their work is disseminated across the firm through summaries published on the firm’s intranet.

In its first year, 12 projects were selected from 90 applications, representing seven offices and 20 partici-pants. Projects included research on acoustics, energy analysis, air pollution mitigation, and energy consumption in food production, as well as an array of projects related to planning, practice, and user-based design. The program allows and encourages a range of formats: technical white papers; events and installations; project prototypes; and process refinements. Already, several projects have found second lives: Some have influenced the firm’s business policy, some inspired conferences, and others are candidates for extended internal research.

As the experience of Perkins+Will has demonstrated, practice-oriented research has a logical and comfortable role in the firm environment that is based on parallels between research and architecture. As the editors of the Perkins+Will Research Journal wrote in the second issue, “Architectural design requires immense amounts of information for inspiration, creation, and construction of buildings. Although uniform sets of systems, materials, and construction processes are considered during this process, every design is an answer to a set of unique questions and circumstances. Therefore, research becomes an integral part of the design and construction of buildings and environments, where inquiry into existing knowledge, study, and adaptation to particular circum-stances leads to the development of new knowledge.”


by James H. Collins, Jr. FAIA

Payette’s practice has always been focused on challenging not only the status quo but also our own well-established thoughts and beliefs. We embraced the pursuit of innovation and invention within the context of a traditional design process but acknowledged the lack of appropriate tools beyond our instincts. Although we could often justify (or post-justify) the directions we took with calculations or measurements taken from the final design and construction, we were rarely able to pursue rapid iterations of design modifications in a controlled setting.

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Over the past 10 years, however, the development of new software tools made specifically for design analysis, coupled with a surge of interest from academia, has enabled us to bring true rigor to this fundamental part of our work. With architecture schools throughout the country emphasizing technology, sustainability, and process, we have been able to bring new architects into the firm who leverage this technology and contribute to the design process at its earliest stages.

Of course, Payette is not unique in pursuing this agenda. Firms across the country have embraced science in myriad ways. Some have focused their practices on making each project an academic research endeavor. Others have formed elite “skunk works” teams within their organizations to pursue cutting-edge technologies, often with institutional partners. Payette has taken an approach that lives between these two extremes, incorporating tools as they come online but keeping specific client and project needs at the forefront. The focus is on the practical application of design research.

To turn this concept into reality, Payette recently established a “Research and Innovation Initiative.” This effort is led by representatives from each area of the firm, who make research tools — such as modeling software, prototyping equipment, and an in-house Wiki — available to all design teams, leaving the teams to determine how to implement these resources. As part of this initiative, a building scientist joined the firm to provide expertise in the physics, engineering, and analysis of building performance.

Some examples of specific decisions that were a result of this approach may be useful. In Pakistan, we were able to develop a modern version of the traditional wind catcher, using earth ducts to provide natural ventilation and cooling throughout a new college campus. For a small community college in upstate New York, we were able to analyze multiple façade technologies to determine the cost benefit of double-wall construction under varying thermal conditions. For a small cheese production facility in suburban Boston, we were able to investigate multiple options for the development of a zero-net-energy installation specific to the needs of this farm.

The defining trait of these projects is that the results have relevance far beyond the immediate needs of the projects; this allows us to justify the additional overhead expense of the exploration. These investigations inform the entire practice and should streamline and influence future decisions. Ideally, significant research and results can be taken beyond our walls to the greater professional community through our online presence, conferences, and publications.

Ultimately, we see this as a question of leverage. We are not trying to live on the bleeding edge, inventing new technologies or materials, but we want to use all of the resources at our disposal to attack every problem we confront. Our approach to research is about strategic investigation that helps to rationalize our process, bring rigor to the work and, more than anything, develop the intuitive sense that drives all formative design work.


J. Frano Violich FAIA

We practice at a time when the stakes could never be higher for architecture to respond to the challenges of our time: health, mobility, economy, and the environment. Yet the compartmental roles institutionalized by practice have reduced the design process to a limited number of repeatable steps that favor design service over design inquiry. Architectural exploration takes place primarily within academic settings or with a handful of specialized consultants, a fact that further distances the architect from the direct hands-on investigations required to address these global challenges.

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In architecture schools in the late ’70s and early ’80s, research was limited to social or environmental factors driven primarily by program. This was followed by a tendency to explore history and the urban fabric as a design research tool. What I found missing as I entered the profession was an understanding of how systems worked, especially infrastructural systems and their implications for urbanism and architecture. Further, at a more detailed level, there was no opportunity to investigate architecture through its material properties. This was the root of Kennedy & Violich Architecture’s beginnings and the subsequent establishment of the firm’s material research division, MATx.

One of the greatest challenges for the profession is to establish a place within the discipline that integrates research with the design process and the workplace. As digital drafting tools evolve, so, too, do fabrication tools, and they are becoming increasingly synergistic within the design process. Details of an exterior building envelope that have been generated through an algorithmic script to respond to climatic exposure can be 3D-printed or routed to test design characteristics from the assembly of parts to its overall look and proportion, all of which can be done without even leaving the workstation. Almost half of KVA’s office in a converted bottling plant is dedicated to research and fabrication, including spaces for optoelectronics, digital prototyping, and analog equipment, such as table and band saws, drill presses, soldering guns, and sewing machines. The intersection of digital and hands-on fabrication is a foundation of KVA’s research process. It is not always a pretty sight to come into the shop and see the latest swatches of high-performance textiles, flexible CIGS photovoltaic panels, electroluminescent panels, digital circuitry, lithium-ion batteries, milled lumber, plywood, and recycled plastic strewn about the workbench and even sometimes the floor. However, research is by nature a messy business. It raises many more questions than answers and, in this sense, is less noun than verb. How research is conducted is important, yet equally critical is where it is done, because spaces dedicated to research offer the room for an expanded range of projects to occur, from industrial design to temporary installations and architecture, promoting an office culture where “making” exists side by side with “drawing.”

The work now coming out of KVA/MATx has never been more diverse: a law school at the University of Pennsylvania; a prototypical urban solar rocking chair and charging station; sustainable housing in Hamburg; portable power and light for communities in the Amazon; a ferry terminal in New York City; and the planning of 5.5 miles of the Upper Mississippi in Minneapolis as an urban ecological landscape. Yet the work has become more focused, primarily due to a commitment to practice that applies speculation and inquiry to contemporary conditions that affect our quality of daily life. Maybe it’s time to step out of the office and plug in to the shop.


Seeding Knowledge: The BSA Research Grants in Architecture

by Carol Burns FAIA

Research, broadly defined, is systemic inquiry directed toward the creation of knowledge. Research adds to a profession’s body of knowledge.

Why, then, has the architecture profession failed to embrace formal research as part of its culture?

Although architects in practice regularly engage in investigations in which they gather, evaluate, interpret, and analyze information, these efforts are rarely considered “research.” Formal research is framed by protocols, including statements regarding hypothesis; methodology; and the formulation of claims, evidence, and generalized conclusions. In sharing or disseminating research, the peer-review process upholds the accepted standards of a discipline and prevents publication of irrelevant findings, unwarranted claims, unacceptable interpretations, and personal views.

As a field, architecture is not effectively using and creating knowledge. Peer-reviewed research is rarely incorporated into work in professional practice. Research protocols rarely frame professional efforts, and results are rarely documented for sharing. As a consequence, architects rediscover or repeat what is already known and fail to focus on the development of new knowledge. The tradition of research has not been adequately recognized and honored, and the vital role of research has been undervalued as well as underfunded.

Recognizing the importance of research, the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) established a program in 2004 to provide funding to individuals and teams to conduct research in architecture. The BSA Research Grants in Architecture program supports original research in any area of architecture by anyone with a clear methodology and the potential to contribute to knowledge. With a focus on practice-based and practice-oriented research, the program has funded 55 projects in areas including: materials and technology (about one-half of all projects funded); social, economic, political, and cultural dimensions of architecture; aspects of physical design; and historical topics. Many projects cross two or more of these categories, speaking to the interdisciplinary nature of architecture.

The BSA program is distinguished in many ways. Grant amounts and recipients have varied widely depending on the scale and need of the project, from $2,000 awarded to students to $10,000 awarded to support studio-based projects and $40,000 awarded for more significant research projects that can bring together professionals, industry representatives, and academicians. No other program offers grants of this size targeted to support substantial work by interdisciplinary teams. After seven years, the BSA Research Grants in Architecture program now occupies a unique niche in architecture as a “long-lived” program.

What has the program accomplished? The completed projects have been shared as lectures, publications, and books. In direct response to this initiative, the AIA has created new research programs, including the Upjohn Award. The BSA has contributed to the creation of a culture of research within the profession. Where should it go? In my view, architecture is a “generalist” profession that demands knowledge across a wide spectrum, and practitioners should be able to search for and obtain useful “evidence-based” knowledge at their desks. Presently, the BSA takes the first step by posting on its website all abstracts and reports of completed projects. Alliances with other web-based publications are being explored to support peer review and enhance accessibility.

The field of architecture is constantly evolving, and research has never been more important to our profession than now. As Thomas Fisher states in the pioneering chapter on research in the Architectural Graphic Standards 2007 edition, “For architecture to flourish as a profession, we must have a reliable and researchable base of knowledge shared among ourselves and proven in ensuring people’s health, safety, and welfare.”

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