Productive Competition

I found this image of Le Corbusier’s proposal for the Palace of the Soviets (1931) when discussing ways that Joe Pucci, a graduate student at Northeastern and a former intern at Utile, might represent his proposal for a mostly-temporary aquatics center for the 2024 Boston Olympics. Le Corbusier, a chroniclor of the evolving technology of airplanes, looks like he is preparing his the model for flight (to Moscow). Note the open window and the way that Corbusier and his assistant are doing a final systems check.

Corbusier was always looking over his shoulder at potential competition, and gossip has it that he saw Ivan Leonidov as a threat to his preeminence as the world’s most important avant garde architect. Corb set out to prove he could do Constructivism as well as the Soviets, but ironically after Stalin had embraced social realism as the officially-sanctioned style. The entry was was mocked by Pravda as a “congress hangar.” Frank Lloyd Wright was driven by the same competitive edge. The Johnson Wax Building, Falling Water, and Talisien West – all designed in the mid-to-late 1930s – sent a strong message that he was “back” and could do streamlining, Dutch de Stijl (that he initially influenced), and an earthwork with complex overlapping geometries better than anyone.

Maybe we should start strategically looking over our shoulders too!



Design Communication and Rhetoric

The modes of communication change dramatically during the course of a design process

The modes of communication change dramatically during the course of a design process

Architects are not builders, but we need to be knowledgeable enough that we can create written and graphic instructions for a building team. While this is an obvious statement, it points in an interesting and mostly unexplored direction. There is a value in thinking about an architecture firm as a communications business in order to clarify the role that different modes of communication play through the course of a project. Importantly, there is a target audience, a specific set of communication tools, and an appropriate rhetoric for each stage of the design process. A communication theory for practice has not been a significant focus of architectural theory since the late 1980s when Robin Evans, Massimo Scolari, and other scholar/practitioners were writing about the relationship between representational strategies and design production. In light of this void in critical thinking, I am going to take an initial stab at the potential issues and opportunities as they pertain to practice and architectural education.

In architecture and many other design fields, there are only five target audiences for what we write, say, and represent visually (draw):

Ourselves (the Designer/Author) – iterative writing, sketching, and drafting we do to work out a design problem

Our Design Collaborators – same as above, but with a rhetorical overlay because we change the mode of representation to persuade others, whether self-consciously or not

The rhetoric of persuasion necessarily changes depending on the stage of the design process.  We might do an evocative perspective sketch to convey an idea early in the process and an authoritative detail sketch during design development. At all stages, we also deploy authoritative analysis and data to justify, back-up, or qualify our design decisions.

Our Clients – same as above, but with a larger emphasis on the role of both persuasive and authoritive modes of communication

Evocative and persuasive depictions of potential solutions need to be combined with authoritative analysis and data to help drive decision-making.

Builders and Fabricators – legally codified instructions in written and graphic form

The authority of legal relationships is reinforced by the written and graphic convention of construction documents and submittals during the construction process

The Public – the most emphasis on persuasive communication strategies – and most akin to advertising

This audience falls outside of the design process but has an influence on decisions made by designers and their clients.

What’s most striking about this list is the range of communication skills that are required, including persuasive, authoritative, and instructional modes of speaking, writing, and visual representation. The relative role of these modes of communication change dramatically and abruptly during the design process, mostly as the result of the evolution of audiences. We start out sketching for ourselves, then communicate with our team, and finally present to our clients during conceptual design. If this work is going to build consensus around a single design direction, it will require a combination of persuasive and authoritative modes of communication. As decisions are made and the project scope is solidified, typically during late Schematic Design and early Design Development, there is a rapid decrease in persuasive modes of communication and a corresponding increase in instructional representations. The graphic above suggests this trajectory.

Given these observations, how can we adjust design practice models to more self-consciously apply their lessons? Certainly, there is an under-emphasis on speaking and writing skills at design schools. In general, a theory of communication, focused both on audiences and rhetorical modes, needs to be taught. Some schools, like the Yale School of Architecture, have devised innovative courses that are co-taught by graphic designers and business school professors. The D-School at Stanford is a program that working at these questions from the other direction, but with an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving and not specifically the modes of communication that engender it. Likewise, in practice, very little thought is given to these issues. I’m hoping to apply some of this thinking at both Northeastern and Utile in the next year. Theory is always  best worked out in practice!


You Need to Become an Expert!

A two-day building envelope educational symposium and design challenge, hosted by Architectural Testing, Inc. (ATI) at its New England Regional Laboratory in Chelmsford, MA, received capacity attendance by 50 area architects, engineers and representatives of product manufacturers specializing in the design and construction of the all-important building envelope air barrier.

A two-day building envelope educational symposium and design challenge, hosted by Architectural Testing, Inc. (ATI) at its New England Regional Laboratory in Chelmsford, MA, received capacity attendance by 50 area architects, engineers and representatives of product manufacturers specializing in the design and construction of the all-important building envelope air barrier.

While there are many aspects of the typical university tenure process that are counter-productive (an issue that has been covered extensively in higher education publications), there are some aspects of the process that could have a positive influence on our firm and the individual career paths of the people who work here. Central to charting a successful path to tenure is the need to identify and foster an expertise that is recognized by others as unique and relevant. In fact, the need to articulate a unique focus-area and research plan (a priest would call it a “vocation”) is typically the first step of a five-year plan.

But how would a tenure-like process translate to Utile? It’s notable that young architects and planners with the first stage of significant experience under their belts are the same age as young academics who get their first tenure-track positions – typically they are in their early/mid-30s. For both cohorts, it makes strategic sense, even outside of the demands of the tenure process, to take stock of one’s career and decide where one’s unique expertise and interests fall after core competences have been mastered. Perhaps more than within a university department, practice is the arena where a more self-conscious career evaluation, incentivized by an institutionalized process, would benefit both the organization and the individual.

It’s important to emphasize that the implementation of a tenure-like process at Utile would benefit the individual first. The goal is to help each person define their area of expertise and research plan. This added-value expertise, beyond the fundamental skills that the disciplines of architecture, planning, and graphic design require, would be highly marketable outside of the Utile bubble. The benefits back to Utile are indirect (but considerable). A team of diverse nationally-recognized experts would increase the number of perspectives brought to each project, open up new territories of practice, and attract other smart and ambitious people to the firm.

So take a few minutes this weekend to self-reflect on what topics interest you and would inspire you to do ground-breaking research. Your newly-gained knowledge will open up creative new avenues on projects and in your career.


Beware a Generic Olympics!

Globe image

Rendering submitted as part of Boston’s Olympic bid

Now that Boston has prevailed as a finalist for the 2024 Olympics, it’s time for the Boston 2024 Organizing Committee to make several important additions to their list of planning priorities. In addition to launching a public outreach campaign to seek public input and garner more support for the Games, the Committee should understand and promote their cultural potential. I hope design innovation is a focus for the next round of planning. One of my platforms when I ran as BSA President was to promote initiatives that would help Boston become a global design city like Copenhagen and Montreal. Planning for the Olympics is the perfect vehicle to help meet this goal.

The proposal to date already includes progressive planning strategies, including a focus on mass transit, building reuse, and walkability. In fact, these attributes were a key factor in the win because they helped make a case for a relatively low overall price tag. But this forward-looking approach needs to migrate into finer-grain decisions, including the architectural characteristics of buildings large and small, the branding of the Games, and the visual quality of the spectacles that are a hallmark of the Olympics. A refined proposal should fully leverage the incredible talent in Boston across disciplines that include architecture, landscape interactive lighting design, industrial design, and graphic design. In addition, the MIT SENSEable City and Media Labs and the professors and research fellows at area design schools should be a resource.

The Olympics provide the perfect opportunity to foster a wider bandwidth of design practices because design thinking will be needed to inform both large-scale planning decisions and to help define the physical character of multiple facilities and events. First and foremost, the new sports venues and the Olympic Village need to pull in and showcase the larger city. The generic rendering of the Boston Games that were published in yesterday’s Globe (see above) looked like they could have been located anywhere and were probably produced by the hand of someone who has never been to Boston. The views of an Olympic Village along the Reserved Channel – produced by Yale students last spring – did a much better job of capturing the potential character of the Boston Games.

Proposal by Nicholas Muraglia and Sarah Smith

Proposal by Nicholas Muraglia and Sarah Smith

Proposed new facilities – like the modular stadium at Widett Circle and aquatics center – should show off Boston in the same dramatic way that Barcelona was displayed to the world in 1992 as the backdrop to the diving competitions.

Diving at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics

Diving at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics

Without a management plan that includes a strategy for effectively and efficiently outlining the design opportunities – and then marshaling the most creative people to help envision potential solutions – the Boston Olympics may turn out to be as generic, from a design perspective, as the 1996 Atlanta Games. Barcelona leveraged the Olympics to become an international center of architecture and design by marshaling that city’s established and emerging design talent. Boston has the same opportunity.


Utile City vs. Turner City

Turner City

2013 Turner City, an annual interactive mash up of Turner’s significant projects

2014-11-20_Utile City-01 (2)

Utile City, updated December 2014

Thanks to a tip from Howard Davis and additional sleuthing by Alex Davis (no relation), I was directed to Turner’s fantastical mash up of their notable projects from across the country. Despite the family resemblance, there are significant differences between Utile City* and Turner City, in addition to the difference in net worth and international reach between the two organizations. The first is that Utile has chosen an axonometric line drawing over Turner’s full color aerial perspective view. In addition, Turner’s version includes ample grassy green spaces and a density that suggests an “Edge City” (like Irvine, CA or Tyson’s Corner, VA) or one of the booming life science campuses that have sprung up near universities and medical centers. Utile City, on the other hand, is a reasonable facsimile of a handful of dense walkable cities, including Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago.

Most of the buildings in Turner City seem to be of the same early-21st Century vintage. Interestingly, all surface parking lots have been eliminated; as a result, we are led to assume that parking is located below the buildings in the scene. Utile City, in contrast, has the earmarks of a city with a messy and unresolved historical past. An elevated highway still makes its way through the urban fabric, parking structures dot the downtown, and early-20th Century residential buildings are cheek-to-jowl with the tough-to-humanize building types that dominated late-20th Century real estate development.

Neither city is perfect, or even a model for an urban future, but they do serve as apt symbols of the preoccupations and priorities of their respective organizations.

* Please note that at least one Turner project – the Boston Harbor Island Pavilion – is depicted in Utile City.


Tehrani on Mies, Saarinen, and Discursive Opportunities

Saarinen_IngallsRink120bn21_s1.640px (2)

Eero Saarinen, David S. Ingalls Rink, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1953-58

As an extension of our conversation last week, I would add a few thoughts in response to Tim’s blog below – this, as an opportunity to expand on the discussion, and to overcome some of its oppositions, which may lead to reductive readings.

The connection between past and future projects in any office are sometimes inevitable, but rarely are they necessarily interesting in themselves. For this reason, I would make a case for the so-called design agenda not so much as something that underlines ‘personal’ agendas, but rather the discursive opportunities they provide. In other words, the ability to link projects, arguments, and debates across history, culture and circumstances is something that may link a design project to a broader intellectual project. The intellectual project, for me, is not only a personal commitment, but one that advances a disciplinary commitment, and thus puts the personal agenda in a broader political and ethical sphere.

The Mies-Saarinen comparison is a good one, and it helps to advance both ideas: the intellectual project through iteration (Mies), as well as the alternative, the intellectual project through the speculation of varied materials, configurations, and morphologies. Though Tim’s characterization seems to align me with the former, I would actually suggest an alternative model where Mies and Saarinen are braided together to form a commitment that cuts across the binary composition of the argument. What is fascinating about Saarinen’s work, in fact, is the precise way in which he establishes part-to-whole relationships in his projects despite variations of vocabulary. In a similar way, the Mies of the Tugendhat House, Barcelona Pavilion, and IIT show an architect of vastly different linguistic potential, someone who cuts across material and formal languages with equal ease.

As clarification, while Saarinen’s approach did vary vastly from commission to commission, his approach should probably be differentiated  from eclecticism: his individual works were highly studied material, formal and spatial artifacts that brought synthesis to each realm, even when they varied completely from his other works. In this sense, his strategic choice to speak in different languages across commissions should not be confused for lacking a disciplinary commitment, something that is here being cast as a personal agenda. In Saarinen’s work, what is fascinating is the red thread that crosses the boundary of vocabularies, from project to project, despite what may be visible at first glance.

Of course, it would be important to look at Mies and Saarinen in their own historical context to expand on this idea. Invariably the question of authorship looms behind both cases, with Mies’s later work falling into the trap of the very language he develops, while Saarinen is free to evolve from commission to commission. If Tim aligns Saarinen’s strategy with an acute awareness of his corporate clients’ varied identities, I would simply say that his brilliance came not so much in his dutiful acquiescence to those corporations, but rather his translation of their mandates into architectural terms that transcended their very culture, and with great linguistic range.

My challenge to the Utile-OU team was precisely this: how can they extend their own disciplinary research without apology on the one hand and at the same time develop a speculative spirit that takes bigger risks with form, organization, and materiality in response to their client audiences. These two agendas need not be pitted against each other if Architecture’s agency is to be considered as a central part of what we, as designers, bring to the equation. The middle ground to which Tim refers is not irrelevant, but is neither always here nor there. I am asking them for a both-and, and though their proposal is beautifully developed and conceptualized, I wonder if they are willing to take on the risk of failure, if only to advance the discourse of Architecture.

-Nader Tehrani

Design as On-going Research vs. the One-off

During a recent event at Utile where NADAAA and o,u/Utile teams shared their design submissions for a project in the Middle East, Nader Tehrani challenged the o,u/Utile team to include trans-project design research and preoccupations in future design proposals. Citing the design operations and features of a house in New Hampshire as one impetus for his team’s proposal, Tehrani made the case for disciplinary agendas that carry across multiple projects. Without stating it outright, Tehrani implied that such continuities in design agendas would result in richer and more meaningful proposals. While I favor self-conscious theorizing (while at the same time still meeting, if not exceeding, the client’s expectations), I am not sure that a practice that champions “evolving consistency” is the only model. Certainly, Mies van der Rohe’s post-war obsession with the corner of his glass and metal panel buildings is one exemplar of evolutionary architectonic thinking (Palladio’s villas are another). Mies’ multiple versions of the corner detail, provoked both by a larger conceptual agenda for each building and his growing interest in facades that suppressed the reading of the structural bay, have the same satisfying narrative arc and denouement as the sequence of prehistoric proto-horse fossils at Harvard’s Peabody Natural History Museum.

Diagrams by John Winter, The Architectural Review, February 1972

But if Mies is one kind of practice model, Eero Saarinen is another. In a very unlike-Mies way, Saarinen and his collaborators (which included, importantly, Kevin Roche), invented completely new organizational approaches and architectural languages for each new commission. And while each building partly borrowed from the work of other architects (Gordon Bunschaft and Mies – sort of – for the GM Technical Center, for example), they were each unique and fully-wrought technical, language, and symbol systems.

Eero Saarinen, GM Technical Center, Warren, Michigan, 1949-55

Eero Saarinen, TWA Flight Center, Idlewood Airport (JFK), New York, 1955-62

This eclectic approach, partly necessitated by the demands of corporate clients looking for uniquely imageable buildings, required a way of thinking that was radically opposed to Mies. Rather than play out design preoccupations across multiple commissions, Saarinen and his team must have worked vigorously to come up with novel conceptual frameworks and building systems. Utile, I think, follows a middle ground by self-consciously applying lessons learned from recent projects (both pragmatic and architectonic) while finding new issues to spark fresh design thinking, whether because of the site or program. In the end, I suppose, it’s what all relatively mature architects do, whether they theorize about it or not. The larger lesson from Tehrani is to be more self-conscious about ongoing design preoccupations. William Saunders, the former editor of Harvard Design Magazine, once told me that a “theoretical architect” is nothing more than an architect that is intellectually self-aware about one’s ongoing work. -Tim

(Update: Nader Tehrani responds to Tim’s comments.)

Typological Mash Up

nebraska-capitol post card with lights

Bertrand Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol is a typological tour de force that combines a Beaux Arts four courtyard plan with a dome-topped tower that deploys the most up-to-date compositional and syntactical strategies for skyscraper design. What was unique about the project was the way that it transformed what had been conceived as an urban building type – famously sculpted by Hugh Ferriss to allow sunlight to penetrate to Manhattan’s streets – into a uniquely American civic expression. The resulting free-standing ensemble has both the paradigmatic clarity and sense of ritual of Fischer von Erlach’s reconstructions of the important building complexes of Antiquity, including the walled compound of Diocletian’s Palace in Split and the Porcelain Tower of Nanking (Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture, 1721).


Diocletian’s Palace, Fischer von Erlach

The Porcelain Tower of Nanking, Fischer von Erlach

Like the projects from Antiquity, the Nebraska State Capitol is surrounded by massive walls with ceremonial gates and has a symbolic monument on the interior that is highly visible on the skyline.



Theorizing Construction Phasing

Bertrand Goodhue's State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska

Bertrand Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska

While in Lincoln, Nebraska recently, I visited the Bertrand Goodhue-designed Nebraska State Capitol (a typological tour de force). I learned, while reading the historical information in the ramshackle exhibit* in the lower lobby, that the design of the building was mostly influenced by the need to keep the existing – and more conventional – capitol building operational while the first phase of the new building was constructed. Rather than build the new capitol near or next to the existing building, two opposing arms of Goodhues project were built around the existing structure.

The north and south wings of Goodhue's Nebraska State Capitol embracing the existing capitol building, circa 1924

The north and south wings of Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol embracing the existing capitol building, circa 1924

This audacious strategy was both an act of conceptual hubris and highly deferential to the quasi-sacred ground of Nebraska’s government. I suppose it also made the move from the old capitol to the new wings of Goodhues’ building relatively affordable.

Phases of capitol construction

*Note to the Architect of the Capitol – Utile would love to redesign the exhibit.


Tangible Space

While in Austin, TX recently, we stumbled across an exhibition of Korean artist Do Ho Suh at the Austin Contemporary that renders everyday domestic appliances, fixtures, and entire apartments in finely-woven color polyester fabric. Their particular ghostly quality results from the high level of detail that can be rendered with stitching and the way that the fabric both objectives space, as if liberated from a mold, and allows for a view of interior spaces through the translucent material.

The pleasure of Apartment A, Unit 2, Corridor and Staircase, 348 West 22nd Street, New York, New York, 10011, USA partly results from the way that a gallery-goer’s experience unfolds over time. Visitors first see the negative spaces as translucent glowing objects, the color of gummy bears, and then enter the apartment and marvel at the same both-inside-and-outside experience at a smaller scale. The consequence of this experience, enhanced by the everyday ordinariness of the apartment and objects being rendered, is the sense that figurative architectonic space permeates every object, molding, and electrical device.

The installation conjures up the installations of Rachel Whiteread, winner of Britian’s annual Turner Prize in 1993. In Whiteread’s House from the same year, the concrete cast of a Victorian row house represent the banality of domesticity in a new light. Like Suh’s installation, the rendition of the negative spaces of windows and fireplaces as protrusions make domestic space corporeal.

Do Suh’s installation seems to be a direct commentary on Whiteread’s work, but where her negative space is an impenetrable and almost colorless solid, Suh provides both a view into the warmly glowing objects and an opportunity to explore them again, but transformed by their uncanny materiality. Both Suh and Whiteread point to a pre-1990s preoccupation of architectural theory: the description and analysis of figurative architectonic space. Discredited as retrograde by theorists focused on the broader dismantling of Post Modernism (of which the recovery of pre-Modern figurative space was a major goal), an interest in “space” may be due for a comeback.

Bramante’s 1505 plan for St. Peters demonstrates the power of conceiving of architectonic space as a subtractive operation. The square-configured ambulatory that surrounds the center dome-space appears to have been tunneled out of solid matter, given the residual shape of the pier/walls that remain. Likewise, the attenuated transepts, shaped like ghosts of hot dogs, disrupt the spatial legibility of the central space in ways that pre-figure Mannerist sensibilities. At a finer-grain, the reciprocal relationship between niches across secondary threshold spaces, continue the theme of intersecting figurative voids. It’s as if Bramante’s plan was conceived as a full-scale mold for nested figurative spaces.


Luigi Moretti, an important post-War Italian architectural theorest and architect (Il Girasole in Rome, circa 1950, is his most important work), made a series of plaster casts of seminal Italian Renaissance buildings to support his theory of interior space, as articulated in Spazio, an Italian journal. In his essay “Strutture sequenze di spazi” published in Spazio 7 (December 1952-April 1953), Moretti makes a claim for the supremacy of figurative space in architecture. “There is however an expressive aspect that summarizes the fact of architecture and that can be assumed even in isolation, with more ease than others. I allude to the interior space and void of architecture.”

Like Rachel Whiteread’s casts, plaster provided Moretti with a medium to create corporeal representations of figurative space. Plaster, however, does not allow for the depiction of the interpenetration of spaces at a range of scales. Perhaps models of the same spaces rendered in color polyester fabric would allow for a more nuanced representation of the orchestrated spatial effects that Bramante and his progeny were able to wrest out of solid matter.