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Profile: David Eisen AIA

Name: David Eisen AIA
Job title and company: Principal, Abacus Architects + Planner
Degree(s): MArch, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Professional interests: Doing architecture and design, writing about architecture and design, teaching architecture and design, photographing architecture and design, talking about architecture and design.

What are you working on now?
For a small firm, we have a pretty diverse array of projects—all within about 50 miles.  We’re doing a new synagogue in Milton; a new library in Mendon; the masterplan for a community center in Carlisle; artists’ live-work studios in Lynn; and mixed-use developments in Cambridge, Brighton, and New Bedford. We’re burning through the tracing paper.


Artist's Live-Work Housing, Lynn, MA - Steel balconies and sunshades emerge from a glass curtain wall to suggest the renewal of this gateway city's downtown. Loft studios provide places for working, living and storage in a very limited footprint.

How do you explain to your mom what you do for a living?
I do exactly what I did when I was seven years old, but the buildings are big enough that people can actually use them. And the pieces don’t clog up her vacuum cleaner. 

What inspired you today?
I always start the day reading The New York Times. There is so much misery, but it is described in such an intelligent and articulate way. And, of course, there are stories of redemption that renew our faith. The paper inspires me to use my medium—architecture—to ameliorate misery, create joy, and tell a great story about how to move forward.


Community Learning Center, Leominster, MA - A simple barnlike form provides a sense of monumentality articulated with small scale bays and windows. The double height interior provides a variety of work and meeting spaces defined by a rolling door and screens laser-cut out of particle board.

What industry buzzword would you kill?
Buzzwords become buzzwords because they can communicate effectively. Most of them are perfectly good words. I get mad at people who misuse and abuse buzzwords and consequently ruin them for the rest of us.

When you’re working, do you discuss or exchange ideas with your colleagues?
No and yes. I go back and forth between trying to define ideas in isolation until they have taken on some sort of preliminary form and then stick them on the wall for discussion. You don’t want to be flapping in the breeze—or getting stuck in a rut. That’s really the art of architecture: holding on to a good idea while letting other people help you judge and refine it.

What are you reading?
Mostly The New York Times and my emails. Also, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. It’s about the evolution of an idea over 2,000 years. It puts the daily paper and the avalanche of emails into context. 


Affordable Accessible Housing, Stoneham, MA  - Sheltering roofs are folded up or slit open to allow for passive solar heating and natural light to all rooms.  The open interiors defined a variety of living spaces that look out to the treetops beyond.

Do you sketch by hand or digitally?
Nothing helps lead the brain, the eye, and the hand to the forms they are searching for better than a pencil and paper. Architecture is analog, not digital. The hand can wander over a piece of paper like a person through a building with way more immediacy than a cursor on a computer screen getting sidetracked by all those menus. But it’s really helpful to have a hard-lined digital version grow out of a sketch—so that it can become an underlay for a fresh piece of tracing paper.

Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?
I was the architecture critic for the Boston Herald for 10 years; I never would have guessed I’d be doing that. But it is really important to head down side streets and walk in doors that you might not have known were there or didn’t think mattered. They are, and they do.

Where is the field of architecture headed?
Tools, technologies, and formal languages may change, but human needs don’t change. We have to protect ourselves from the elements, [and] make private places where we feel secure and public places that bring us together. And we need to do it with forms whose composition touches our souls. Architecture needs to accommodate a changing world while reminding us of our essential nature. Perhaps it doesn’t need to head anywhere—just do a better job of being where it is at.


Senior Center and Affordable Housing, Concord, MA - A 100 year old school has been transformed into a senior community centered on a new two story lobby.  Wood, glass and steel wrap the interiors and then extend out to redefine the exterior.  

Can design save the world?
No. But great design can suggest why it is worth saving.

What do you hope to contribute from your work?
Protect people from the elements [and] make private places where they feel secure and public spaces that bring us together—with compositions that touch people’s souls and suggest why the world is worth saving.

Who or what deserves credit for your success?
The sum of all of our experiences and relationships makes us who we are—and what we are is what leads to whatever success any of us is able to achieve. Along with all the twists of fate that we’re not even aware of.

If you could give the you-of-10-years-ago advice, what would it be?
Get involved. Get engaged. Don’t wait.

If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?
Architects give form to life.