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Profile: Margaret Minor Wood AIA

Name: Margaret Minor Wood AIA
Job title and company: Project director, Pinck & Co. (owner’s project managers)
Degree(s): MArch, Harvard Graduate School of Design; BS in Architecture, University of Virginia

What are you working on now?

A public-school renovation and [an] addition, a private-school dorm, helping several nonprofit clients with a range of capital improvements, trying to figure out how to structure our office for continued growth.

How do you explain to your mom what you do for a living?

I help owners do what they would do if they knew what they were supposed to do. (It’s also a tongue twister.)

What inspired you today?

The weather (a perfect summer day), my children (who helped each other with math this morning while I made lunches) and looking forward to participating in the Lantern Festival at Forest Hills cemetery this evening (which always reminds me of the inspiration I’ve drawn from departed family and friends).

What architectural buzzword would you kill?

Any and all concepts that have become acronyms.

When you’re working, do you discuss or exchange ideas with your colleagues?

Constantly. But because I work in an office with people from a wide range of professional backgrounds, we stay away from politics.

What are you reading?

Best American Essays 2010.

Do you sketch by hand or digitally?

By hand. I’m hoping my kids will teach me how to sketch digitally.

Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?

“Yes” would be an understatement. I wasn’t even aware the role of owner’s representative or owner’s project manager existed 15 years ago.

Where is the field of architecture headed?

I think architects who are multifaceted and good listeners are going to continue to thrive, but the rest I worry about.

Can design save the world?

Probably, but first we have to teach others to value the unique talents and thinking that architects bring to every task. Architects are their own worst enemies in playing to their strengths.

What do you hope to contribute from your work?

I would like to think I am modeling professional behavior for every client and consultant with whom I work, and that by modeling professional behavior, I am teaching people that true collaboration always creates a better outcome.

Who or what deserves credit for your success?

My husband, who inspires me every day with his intelligence, integrity and high expectations for design and for life.

Your least favorite college class?

Computer programming:  This was back when you printed out your program on cards and ran it on a mainframe. (I realize I’m dating myself.) The interface was absurd.

If you could give the you-of-10-years-ago advice, what would it be?

Your children will survive (and thrive) with two working parents.

Your favorite Boston-area structure?

The Media Lab at MIT. I worked on it for five years at Leers Weinzapfel [Associates] before coming to work for Pinck & Co., and I still think it has the most innovative section of any building around.

Who would you like the BSA to interview next?

Margaret Wigglesworth.

If you were on a late-night TV show, what would your 30-second plug be?

Same way I explain it to my mom but with (unrehearsed) comments from clients added (Candid Camera–style).

If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give (with thanks to Winston Churchill).

 

Community engagement 2.0

We’ve all been to the public meetings with endless Powerpoints and a few very vocal citizen-activists who dominate the conversation. Perhaps you even presented at one such forum or sat in the audience wondering, How much of this is seeking public input, and how much is placating the public? How can community-engagement efforts become more ... well, engaging? A growing number of planners, designers and technologists are exploring social media, multiuser virtual environments and other interactive technologies to increase participation in the planning and design process. How do these new technologies complement the traditional public process, which values the immediacy of face-to-face interaction? And how can planners and designers make the best use of the gads of information generated from these technologies?

Informing

One class of participatory technologies is helping planners and designers better communicate the complexities of planning issues to a wider public, freeing them from the tyranny of Powerpoint presentations, flipcharts and a rigid workshop format. Interactive workshop tools such as the Envisioning Development Toolkits, created by the Center for Urban Pedagogy, enable laypeople to participate in conversations about changes in their neighborhood by teaching them about planning and design concepts and terminology.

Information Gathering

Another class of technologies seeks to turn members of the general public into information gatherers and tap into their local intelligence as the basis for sound planning interventions. Mobile applications such as Boston’s CitizensConnect allow people to easily report the state of their city; OpenStreetMap makes it easy for the layperson to represent features of his or her built environment that a map surveyor might have missed. Both are already having a huge impact in terms of better municipal service delivery and operations, and it’s not difficult to imagine the potential kinds of collectible data that will give designers a better sense of what they are designing and who they are designing for.

Some practitioners have found promising ways of integrating these technologies into traditional analogue public processes. In a recent planning workshop in Somerville run by Denver-based PlaceMatters, participants walked in groups to take pictures of their neighborhood and sorted them into subjective categories such as “desirable use” and “needs improvement.” These then composed a large online photo database and acted as a catalyst for small group conversations. The end result is not only a rich visual repertoire of the residents’ local knowledge but also a great deal of mutual purpose that arose from discussions among neighbors.

Participatory Chinatown, developed by the Asian Community Development Corporation, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and Hub2 of Emerson College and funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant, aims to create the same sense of mutual purpose within a community—but through gaming. Community members explore a digital replica of Boston’s Chinatown as one of 15 avatars, each of which represents a certain set of interests. For example, one avatar is an elderly Chinese immigrant who wants to live near other senior citizens, and another is a Tufts student. By taking on the guise of an avatar, participants come to understand the concerns and interests of others.

To some practitioners in the area, the mainstream adoption of participatory technologies simultaneously holds great promise and demands thoughtful and critical attention in their use. Rob Goodspeed, a PhD student in planning at MIT, says that innovations in participatory planning must be well grounded by effective “offline” ways of working. The recent Internet & American Life Survey by the Pew Research Center seems to bear this out. Although people of all ages, races and incomes are moving online swiftly, the access level is greatest among the younger, the wealthier, and the whiter. This raises valid questions about disparities in access to web-based public participation and the troubling image of a new sort of “echo chamber,” as the technologically fluent dominate virtual public-discourse forums.

More immediately, how will planners and designers operate in a progressively more egalitarian and participatory online environment? Do things such as Next Stop Design, where a worldwide audience shares their opinion and votes on a future bus stop’s design, mark the dissolution of boundaries between experts and the public? Goodspeed doesn’t think so. Design professionals, he says, still have a role in putting forward assertive and creative solutions, but innovative participatory planning could ideally turn that into more of a two-way street, where the public, in the process of finding solutions to common problems, builds cohesion and a sense of inclusion, and design professionals, by tuning into the collective intelligence of the public, become more astute, dexterous and therapeutic in their problem solving.


Meera Deean is a designer in Boston.

Siqi Zhu is an urban planner and information designer at Utile. Prior to joining the firm, he studied urban planning at Harvard Graduate School of Design, where his work focused on the intersection between urban design, innovative visual communication, and environmental and social sustainability. At Utile, he has been involved in several public-realm-enhancement projects, including a streetscape study for Acushnet Avenue in New Bedford, Massachusetts; a study of a pedestrian mall in Salem, Massachusetts; and the ongoing Boston Complete Streets initiative. As part of the latter project, he worked on developing aspirational design standards for future Boston streets and devised visual and information design strategies that seek to better inform and involve a wider public.

Top: Photograph by Nathanial Hansen and Matthew Hashiguchi. Reproduced by permission of Engagement Game Lab.

The accidental architect

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patterns run through it

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

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

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

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

A plane man

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

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

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

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

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

One pavilion, two installations

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

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

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

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


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

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

Re-educating starchitects

Like most of Frank Gehry’s buildings, the Stata Center at MIT split critics in half, but most praised its jutting, angled facade and boxy, unconventional design. Love it or hate it, the building commonly known as the “two dancing robots” began to leak, crack and grow mold just three years after its 2004 unveiling. It’s another example of overambitious architects designing gravity-defying buildings that push the laws of physics and reveal their structural weaknesses in a matter of years.

In the case of the $300 million Stata Center, Gehry forgot to account for the ample amount of ice and snow that can accumulate during a Boston winter. The buildup on the awkwardly angled ledges caused mini avalanches on unsuspecting passersby as well as structural damage such as cracked masonry, which led to leaks, mold, one big lawsuit and a $1.5 million repair bill.

But Gehry is not the only one to drop the ball. Fellow Pritzker Prize–winner Renzo Piano narrowly escaped a lawsuit when the ventilation system failed in his $300 million Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the signature roof design began to whine and whistle in the wind. But is failing to consider a climatic condition such as wind in the windy city itself unforgivable or unforeseeable?

It’s often difficult to determine who’s really to blame: the architect or the engineer, or both? After all, shouldn’t the two work hand in hand? The best bet is to avoid these problems altogether. That’s about to get a little easier now that the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics (IBP) in Stuttgart, Germany, has established Climate Culture Building (CCB), an international graduate school that promotes climate-conscious construction and prepares engineers to work with architects to implement sustainable building practices. “Modern architecture frequently disregards basic climate-conscious principles and is then forced to counterbalance the structural and physical consequences with highly technical and not particularly energy-efficient constructions,” Dr. Klaus Sedlbauer of the Fraunhofer IBP explains.

Since many buildings’ structural problems are often attributed to weather conditions, it’s high time someone developed a compendium of climatic concerns that engineers and architects worldwide can reference. CCB not only encourages study in as many climate zones as possible but also takes into consideration the effective use of local resources and building materials. To accomplish this, CCB isn’t held in a fixed location but is conducted between the University of Stuttgart and the student at a university in his or her country of choice.

Though a systematic change is clearly in order, the outlook isn’t completely bleak; many architects and engineers have already gotten it right. The Federal Building in San Francisco, for example, is one of the greenest buildings in America, using only 45% of the energy of the average U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) building. On the other end of the spectrum, the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls in Lilongwe, which is funded by pop star Madonna’s organization, Raising Malawi, is making headlines with its use of local resources such as Hydraform bricks made from soil onsite and its creative solutions to combating the hot climate without air conditioning. 

Although it’s doubtful that someone like Frank Gehry would amend his projects to even the most learned engineer, all is not lost: For the 99% of the world’s structures that aren’t built by starchitects, there’s CCB, and there’s hope for a less wasteful, more constructive future in building.


Perrin Drumm is a California-born, Brooklyn-based writer with strong feelings about design, architecture, art and film. She’s currently working on her MFA in fiction. You can see her work at http://flavors.me/perrindrumm.

Photo: The Ray and Maria Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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