rafael vinoly architect

Interview with Rafael Vinoly



Rafael Vinoly is the principal of Rafael Vinoly Architects PC, a New York City based firm, with offices in Lower Manhattan and London.

AJ: RVA functions not just as a firm, but also as a place for continuing education for its many young young employees. That makes you not just an employer but also a teacher. As such, do you prefer working with specialists or generalist architects?

RAFAEL: The reason for the average age in my firm being so young has more to do with my own optimism that somehow it is better to have the chance of working with people that are eager to learn and are not overtaken by the frivols and the complexities of the profession. On the other hand that has a counter-side to it, which is that in reality [working in an office] is NOT supposed to be and SHOULD NOT be an educational experience. But the truth is that there is nothing inherently wrong with that. What is wrong, I think, is that people come out of school with a combination of skills which are not really related to the craft and it seems to me that this is something that has been supported by academia for the last fifteen or twenty years, under the big excuse that this is the time for experimentation and research. I think these two things are sort of prototypical in architecture. You would not find anybody in science or in medicine or in any other discipline that would think that because you know nothing you are capable of researching. It is in fact quite the opposite.

This Lack of real, serious interest in the construction and the craft and how the craft is actually performed is also emblematic of the last years of architectural thinking, which has been not really productive. It has really delivered this visual perception of everything being the same. So, I think that education is essentially not delivering people with a minimal level of performance skills to a job-market that is extraordinarily competitive and very badly paid. If you put it really in economical terms, your product is not really helping anybody.

Architecture IS a craft. If you were a pianist and you had to go through six years of conservatory they would not have you talk about the piano. Either you can move your fingers or you are out! And if you are composing or are in any of the other disciplines in which you have accreditation or knowledge if you do not know the basics. And the basics ARE basic. It is almost in the way which a brain actually constitutes itself. And then you must build on them. Even if you are in the fashion industry, you need to know how to saw, how to manipulate the fabric, how to draw … there are some basic things that you must learn that are in my view NOT elementary. That is all!

AJ: Do you think that architecture schools are effective enough in terms of teaching students the basics? Regarding M.Arch. programs in particular, do you think a new student that comes from fields irrelevant to architecture will ever have the chance to really acquire these basic skills and cultivate them?

RAFAEL: There are two different kinds of methods of organizing the way people learn something at university level. The European and Latin way of doing that is that first they put you in front of this moment of mortgaging your life with a profession at a young age, which I think is absolutely insane. So, I do think that it is perfectly ok to come into architecture from any field, the same way I feel that it is perfectly all right coming into any field from architecture. The problem is that it requires a certain level of knowing what it takes to do the thing, not at an instrumental level, because by instrumentalizing you become sorry for having to learn and you would feel better if it was given to you as a pill. I think it is exactly the opposite. I think the basics are literally where the stuff is!

Picasso used to say (paraphrasing), “I draw better than Rafael [the painter], so I can do these crazy things that I do!” Everybody else that tried to draw like he drew without knowing HOW to draw … well … you see what happened! This is a personal view on an orientation on how to organize the learning according to what really practice is. What is not really a personal view, but is an across the board realization, is that you come out of school and confront a reality that was not similar twenty five or thirty years ago. Then you had the chance to get a job, and your job was better paid, and you knew how to navigate through it, while learning every single day. Is it not enough to know that there is something that is not quite really working?

The sophistication and emphasis on the philosophical component of architecture is something that people seem to privilege now possibly because it is fashion, but you know, you have an obligation to be cultivated whether you are an architect or a welder. It is the same as assuming that a certain degree of virtuosity is enough when in reality there is a set of goals that one pursuits throughout one’s whole life.

AJ: What would you say is responsible for students choosing to specialize in specific modern design tools instead of creating a strong basis on the real fundamentals of architecture?

RAFAEL: If you look at the way schools are organized you realize that they are competing for bright students and teachers that have a big name. All these things are commendable and great, but they are not a substitute for having a notion of how the hell you are going to teach , and what it is that you are teaching! ¾ of the people that teach have never built in their lives. But, have you ever see a surgeon that teaches surgery without having ever operated? So, it is a complex set of issues that all converge into what I meant to say when I told you that the system is in crisis from the notion that you are supposed to perform a service in one interpretation or make an artistic contribution in another interpretation, in a climate where unless you sell a label there is no way of verifying whether you know what you are talking about or not.

What else other than competition among students would you expect from an approach to building as a cultural phenomenon that one’s experience of architecture gets started through reading magazines. This is really like beating a dead horse, but it is also the crux of this thing. As if the visual is the only thing that counts.
When you treat a building by simply laying out a simple organizational function and then loading it up with all these intentions about what is the form that you want to produce, then there is a problem. That is because in the end of the day there is a specificity about what constitutes an architectural idea, which has to do with much more than what it looks like.

This type of crisis is created by the market but it I also created by the market that really drove architecture to take this stand. I do think that in the end of the day, if you could construct a school of this of if you could get more than 3% of the budget of the country in the hands of architects, ten all that would be terrific. But to claim for that while these statistics are not really improving is absolutely suicidal and you keep fostering the thing to two or three guys that are lucky enough to make it through, but in the end of the day we are here for something else other than pay the rent … right ?

AJ: Should generalist architects avoid developing extensive knowledge in specific areas of the profession?

RAFAEL: The way an architect’s mind works is completely interpretive, which means that you do not know much about anything, but you know sufficiently about almost everything! So, because people have for so long talked about things that are not connected to the practice, other practices take hold in areas, where your performance as an architect is not really satisfactory. In other words you do not know how to put together a financial package of you do not know how to build a theater, and then the financial and the theater consultants appear. These are people that specialize in these things … but if you scratch the surface, and this might sound a little brutal to say, what they are doing is not really rocket-science. The stuff that these people know is absolutely a piece of cake. It is just that it becomes very difficult to do what you are supposed to do as an architect with these very elementary things when you are not exposed to them, not even slightly and when your brain is not trained to adapt to them as they are and as they change. You cannot take on specialization as a phenomenon outside of market conditions, because I think they are the ones that reveal a crisis of the culture.

AJ: Should schools educate project manaers, meaning people with better managerial skills and technical knowledge, rather than architects?

RAFAEL: The project management of architecture goes back to what the craft is. It is simply the craft. That is the only way you do things. A building is so large and complex and expensive that the minute you reduce it to something you are immediately put in that level of specialization. A project manager is just a bad term. Just call it the Architect. That is what you should know. That is the only integrative part of the profession, which is what makes an architect indispensable.
Three quarters of what you see today as being a royal disaster are functions of breaking down the pie into too many portions and not having a wholistic view of how this thing integrates into the whole system, other than the on that controls it, which is basically the financial component.

AJ: What was the profession like in the good-ole times?

RAFAEL: The good ole times were quiet times, in which the basic desire for notoriety was by far much more subdued, because it was clear that in the rotation of the media since you produced one of these things every five to seven years, you were in a clear disadvantage to a movie star, so nobody really thought that this was going to happen [becoming a star]. Now it does happen. The lack of visibility at that level of intensity I always thought was great. For instance if you are a real mover and shaker on the financial markets then the best thing to happen to you is to be undetected. Nobody wants to show up in every single magazine.

Also, we did not have all those different categories back then. Have you ever seen anything more ridiculous than this category of the design architect versus … another kind of architect? I mean what is an architect other than a designer? If you are not a design architect, you are not an architect, and if you are a design architect you should be able to do everything that is design, from putting together a building, to negotiating, etc. Because otherwise, the financier will ask you “why should I pay you more than for a piece of trace where you put some pastel over”. I am sure in fact that the people in architecture schools know that the entry level salary is less than if you were a maid. You tell me how in the whole world you can be compared with a person that is a paralegal that has an entry level salary of seventy-five thousand dollars a year!

The fact is that most students are unable to compensate the cost of their own education. Seven years of education and there is absolutely no way one can pay for it. Why is this the case other than because of the status of out whole system? But the thing is … can you put a building together after you graduate? No! What your education prepares you for is to maybe write a book, which of course you cannot do either, but the threshold for judging one’s worth is really undeterminable and this is exactly why you are getting paid less.
There is only one verifiable factor: specialization seems like a life-saver in our professional storm, because how the hell are you going to make it otherwise! And I think that is also revealing the same problem, which is that you are not going to make it that way either. Tomorrow you are going to decide that you are only going to do schools that are not more than 25,000 sq ft because you think that is what you are extraordinarily good at! Well … Bullshit, because then, through the filters of checking all these little squares that tell you “yes, I did check the efficiency of this and that and have used a rational structural system and have checked the HVAC too, and have selected healthy materials” and so on, you have a piece of crap anyway! And that is exactly in the crux of the problem, which is that you need an Archtiect!

AJ: Are there specialists in your office, and if yes, then how do you engage them in the process of design?

RAFAEL: In our office there are some people that have become interested in some parts of the process. Architecture is like tailoring versue mass producing suits. You have to be there and custom design the suit for the person in the place at the moment. Also, I feel that you cannot put your name on the door if the designs are not YOUR designs. You cannot have a corporate approach to design.

If you go to a hospital, you know that the hospital has a principle who is a doctor. So much so that there is no way to leave out that doctor, who has that particular skill inside of one anonymous organization. So, what you get is basically crap, under the big name of X! The truth of course is that does not happen in medicine, but it does happen in architecture. So, you have all these people that could not be any more market oriented, that have expertise or experience. There were experienced people for example that were terrific architects, like Skidmore, Owens and Merrill, who were fabulous architects and long gone, and replaced by another crew that was very good, and then another crew that was not so good and now you have … SOM as we know it!

AJ: Do you think that specializing in a specific type of design, or stylistic approach or even design philosophy that are directly related to the Principle of a firm could be frustrating for its partners after the Principle retires?

RAFAEL: I do not have an intention to know what will happen when I die. As a matter of fact I could not care less. What will happen to the firm is a choice of the associates. IF they have learnt only one thing, then they will have exactly the same kind of crazy operation that happened with Frank Lloyd Wright. None of the people that stayed there were Frank Lloyd Wright, and they kept doing everything the same way, even drawing using similar types of lines and crayons. It is a different problem of course when you are grounded in a particular vision of what is important in architecture. The problem with Gehry’s firm for example, is that is the only thing that is real. And this is all an interesting problem, whether that is an important thing to have or not. Then, you have no other choice but to refer back to the same thing, which is where the market is. And the market is all of those things.

AJ: Do you have any advice for new students or professors?

RAFAEL: I have more than an advise for new students, but advising the professors is a difficult thing. I know that most of these people are extraordinarily devoted and for reasons that have nothing to do with them they find themselves in situations like this. As a matter of principle I have a lot to say about arrogance, and you know how much of that is around us, so it is hard to really advice these people. But I think that the only real way to give good advice is to act upon it. The craft is not how many programs you know of whether you can tell from afar how much a building weights. The craft is about what you think, and how you construct your system of beliefs, not “A” system of beliefs, but your own, and how important it is, and basically understanding the mechanisms of self criticism, which is the only thing that you people have to do. If you have talent or not is another thing, but to assume but to assume that you do not need to nurture talent or that if you do not have it you are dea, that is idiotic. I would not be able to give advice to any student without trying to correct the system, and that would happen by getting one of these deanships in any of these universities and have card-blanch and just change everything. And that takes to change the perception of the access to school and have a level of rigor that may sound a little bit exaggerated, but that is how it is in everything else. If you are in a music school there in not such a thing as not finishing a piece if you are in a composition class. Many architecture students never finish anything. And one would argue that a work of art is worked on throughout the artist’s life, but what we are talking about are not works of art, they are training exercises. If you do not finish, you are out. Not because I am a tyrant, but because you yourself should walk out. Is it not a good level of discipline? Do not tell me that we have it, because we do not. Our system is an absolute joke!

The problem is that nobody knows how difficult architecture is. It is very difficult in more than just an internal process level. How do you think about whether you are right or wrong? Usually arrogance helps you in that direction and hurts you in another, but there is a system through which you can tell yourself that what you are trying to push all these people to do is correct. The other thing is that you have to know how to do it, because it changes as you do it.

This whole crisis about the question of theory and other sources of inspiration is just because these people are completely at a loss relatively to the importance of architectural knowledge. You do not need to apply psychoanalysis to a building or study the vibration of practice X. It sounds interesting, but it is pitiful. It is completely insane!

AJ: Do you think that in the end it is lack of creativity that causes all this?

RAFAEL: It is the lack of knowledge of what the hell you are doing! Because If you told me that you are a pottery maker, and you have never seen clay in your life, then you can talk about it all you want, but you are NOT a pottery maker! Te craft is hard to understand and painful to grasp. So many people replace it with this easy-to-grasp, unverifiable stuff. I taught at Yale, and I had not one, but two students that were telling me they were doing fractals … they have no idea what fractals are!

AJ: What do you think the reactions of other disciplines such as engineers would be to this attitude?

RAFAEL: They laugh at it! But the thing is cyclical and completely incestuous because nobody asks, because if you ask you have to go and cover yourself under the bed! It is the most embarrassing thing in the world. This is my own personal vision of how the situation is. The truth is that the age people that are at the forefront of that line are people of practically my age that have never built anything in their lives.
To make it simple, specialization is a reactive answer to a problem that is somewhere else. The last thing you want is you to become a sports architect or a specialized architect. There is not such a thing because the whole subject is to be critical about. If you are critical, you have to be a thinker. You have to be able to interpret these things and be open to learning and have the skills to learn them fast.

When we started designing labs, they had for 30 years been the sole complete sub-market of a group of firms you have never heard of in your lives. These spaces, which to me are some of the most completely interesting spaces today, is where something really interesting is happening. Where else? Certainly not in museums by the way! Today you hear all these firms designing labs, and that is because that is the only thing that is being funded. Where does the money come from? It comes from all the people that have someone in their family with a medical condition that needs research and know that these guys can cure it. This is now! Ten or fifteen years ago, I had no idea what they were talking about. In that case what you do is walk in the room and you say ” I do not understand the first thing about this, would you please explain this to me? “And they kick you out of the room or you learn it, and when you learn it you realize it is the simplest thing in the world. In the end of the day in fact, if you go back and look at the evolution of laboratory design, the only thing that has always been there as a matter of real knowledge was one dimension and one idea of the complexity of coordination. The dimension was 11.46′, and the complexity is that you cannot juxtapose tightly structure with HVAC systems. That’s it! When you do that, then you do exactly what everybody else does, which is that you start asking the real people, who are the scientists, who are completely underrepresented and are suffering there buildings forever, until you start doing things that are empowering and derive from listening to these people. The only person that can do this thing is an architect and the best thing that can happen to you is to know nothing, because then you can see what is really behind the problem.

Anyway, in the end, have you seen an environment more competitive for essentially nothing? Because if you told me that the salaries were $300,000 a year I would say ok! Power? What power? In the end it is all very lamentable I think, because it is not that this stuff is unsubstantial. For example if you are a specialist in tap-dancing and tap-dancing does down the tubes, it is not that terrible, because you can avoid it by not going to the theater. But our thing, you cannot avoid … It is all around you!

Percy Griffin - Architect

Interview with Percy Griffin

Percy Griffin is an Architect in New York and a Professor at the School of Architecture at NYIT.

So, what’s your story ?

I’m an architect … and I was born and raised in the state of Mississippi. I had never had a T-Square till I came to NY. My family were sharecroppers.

In the early part of my education we had to walk three miles to school and three miles back, whereas the whites had busses to ride. We did not have the facilities in our school to give us all we needed, but we made the best we could with what we had.

I graduated from high-school and I was the top of my class, and came to NY.

My mother said that I was born to be an architect even though she didn’t really know what the word meant, because she said that I used to be attracted to drawings and models and building miniatures etc. She said that her son (me) was different from her other sons (4 of us). So, that was the beginning of the idea.

I came to NY and started school, but had to take many remediate courses. That is when I discovered that any African American (back then called a “negro”) who was accepted in any school in this country, Mississippi would pay their tuition and pay for them to travel back and forth twice a year. They didn’t want anybody knowing that of course, so I didn’t know either and no one else knew it either. It was a cover-up for the federal government’s “separate but equal” policies.

There were a lot of people that helped me in the beginning of my career. For example, a lady named Ruth Hersh – an employment agent somewhere in the 50s – called me and told me that Philip Johnson was looking for a worker, and wanted to cross the fence and hire a black (I was one of the first ones that he hired).

I worked for Philip Johnson for 5 years. It was the experience of my life. that was where I was really able to mend the areas that needed to be mended, which was necessary for me to be an architect. I was there for about a month. I went there early spring. As I was looking around, everyone there was either from Princeton, Harvard, University of Tokyo, Yale … the best universities on the planet. So, I’m looking around, and I’m like “I gotta go back to school”! And I became friends with most of the workers. They were very nice to me. So, I spoke with some of them and said that I had to go back to school, and I don’t have the money to do that, and I have to use my money to live and pay the rent, so maybe I could work part-time and go back … “I’m gonna ask Mr Johnson”… “Oh no”, they said, “don’t do that because you are extremely sensitive and he’ll insult you”. Some of the workers wanted to teach, and when they told him, he ran up and got a check, and gave them the check and said “get out of my office”!!! He was a mean man. So, I said to myself after a couple of weeks went by, “well … he’s gonna have to tell me to go”. So, I went up, and I said “Mr Johnson I’d like to go back to school”. He said “Good!” So I said, “yes, but I want to work here part time”… “I DON’T DO THAT!!!”, he said … I said “Thank you sir”… Before I could get to the door he said “STOP!”  And then I turned around he said “but in your case I will make an exception and my office will fit your school’s schedule”. He paid me full pay, the same pay he gave to the architects that had already graduated, for 5 years, and I took off any day that my class was going on, and he never took off a dime. He kept paying me the same he paid everyone else… for five long years. And he also gave me personal crits on my school projects… for five long years! My fellow students at the school would pay no attention to the professors about the assignment. They’d wait for me to come through the door and ask “what did Philip Johnson say about the assignment?” And the teachers would get so upset. That is a true story! At his office I got the chance to meet Louis Kahn, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and others and go to parties with them, because they all knew Philip Johnson and he would invite everyone to the party. I wouldn’t trade that for any school in the entire world: Going to school up at City College, and being in the office of Philip Johnson.

Do you think that just that interaction with Philip Johnson on a daily basis was as critical as a formal architectural education?

Yes,  I do, because architecture is more than sitting in a studio and many of the professors at school were very prejudice. They were not ready to work with and teach an African-American. I think I was blessed and lucky to have been in that office. On top of all of that of course, you needed talent. I would proclaim that I truly had the talent and ability to be an architect.

What do you think it means to have the talent to be an architect?

It means the creativity, the mind to put things together, the mind to be compassionate, the mind to understand the needs of the users, etc. My clients are not rich clients, but they need architecture. Out of a few pennies I can put, I believe, the best they could get to transform their space into an environment that they would enjoy. I feel very confident about that. It has been my goal, my passion and what I do.

Is this ability to improve space what you love the most about architecture?

Yes. I love to help the people that are not rich but need what they need. If they need a home, they should get a home. A home is an investment, so they call upon an architect because the state requires an architect. The joy of having a home to them has nothing to do with architecture, BUT I try to give them all that they can get. And the pleasure when they have a home and it is ready and they walk into it often makes them say things like “we had no idea it would be like this”.

Here is another example:

In my career I have worked on a variety of different structures, from homes, to public buildings, churches to funeral homes. There was this particular funeral home, where the client wanted to add eight more chapels to the ones he already had. He showed me the space and he said, “professor Griffin, I need eight more chapels and you were recommended to me. There are architects here that all they do is do funeral homes, but I would like for you to do it”. There was one single hallway, with six chapels on the one side and six chapels on the other. I said “oh my god, you cannot do this” completely unconsciously and talking to myself. He said “why!”. I said “you cannot have all these chapels next to each other in a straight corridor and everyone having their service together and coming out and they are overcome with grief and then on top of that everybody is experiencing everybody else’s grief! “ I was talking to myself … he said “really ? What would you do?” I said “I would have the corridor go around a round wall, which would create four separate spaces. So, if one was at one end they would never meet someone at the other end of the corridor. And I tell you, we built it like that and it was most successful. EXTREMELY successful! You HAVE to have compassion for others and what you are doing. You have to live it. I have done a lot of daycare centers. I remember once I was working on a daycare center, and I wasn’t sure how the children would react after the space was completed. I went down to the old center and ask the director “could I fill a couple of cars with a few children? I’d like to take them to the new space”. The space came from my mind but I was trying to be a two-year-old. They got in there and went “WOW”. I walked out, tears were in my eyes. Job Well Done!!!! For me, that is what architecture is all about. Meeting the expectation of how the space will be used. It’s not about the money. Everyone needs architecture. The rich need architecture, and the poor need architecture. I work for the Poor! And I enjoy it!

So you feel that architecture has a special social purpose?

Yes, because there is a lot of need for improvement. If you are very lucky and it is something that you really enjoy it is not about work.

I tell youngster when they ask how much money they’ll make and such. “You’ll make a living”, and there are many architects that are very rich, but that’s not all. It’s far from being all. There is a lot in between. You should make a living of course, and the joy of the thing should be to be doing what you love to do, and if you are lucky enough, it will be all you want to do.

Whose vision is more important? Yours, the client’s or the theorist’s?

I try to expedite my client’s vision. That’s more important to me. But, to give them a little bit more than their expectation. They have an idea, they have a need, but in that need to give them a taste of honey is my purpose. If they are spending their money, then they should be able to get the best. As a professional, I would be very displeased if I only gave them what they need.

Is it poetics or function that are more important?

Poetics. It’s the music. Who’s gonna dance by your music! That’s what it is about.

I did a lot of churches. And again, I like to test my work. Once it is completed I like to test it. Not every piece, but to a good extent. I recall renovating this Baptist chapel on 114 street and Lenox Ave. A minister came to me (I am a deacon in the church) and said Deacon Griffin I understand you are an architect, and I need to do some work on the church. I did the work and even the little children when they walked in the chapel they knew that it had transformed into a musical piece. This is a response that I believe we all should seek when we do our work. Do it the best that you can. You will put a lot of time in it, you won’t make a lot of money, but do it the best that you can!


Do you think there are limits to what an Architect can do?

You have to know thyself and know the client as well in order to understand what you could do to help the client. You have to think of that because otherwise it can lead to a very sad end.

As an educator, what would you say to young architects?  What is the number one principle to having a successful architectural career?

I would think the first priority would be to make sure to know that this is what you want to do. It is very unfortunate if you don’t find out in an early stage. Architecture is not a picnic. You have to discipline yourself to count sand in the desert in a thousand degrees. You also need a family, and they must understand that you love what you do and allow you to do it.

Young architects tend to value awards more than actual accomplishments. What do you think?

Somewhere in the scripture it says that you should do things in quietness and that will blossom out. That doesn’t necessarily work in New York, but to go for the Marquee, you have to do the best, fight a good fight (in your own arena), and leave it there. Of course everybody would love to be published and recognized. Everybody likes a pat on the back. A publication is a joy for that reason, but that is all it is. It is not the essence. If you have the talent in fact it is good for the profession if you get publicity. However, if you don’t have the talent, it is not good for the profession.


Preparing for Architectural Practice

David Fixler is a Principal of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering P.C.

Preparing for Practice:

1. Specialized programs are typically both responses to the practical needs of the market and ways in which to influence design and market trends. This trend is likely to continue and to encourage greater specialization, but I believe that there is a core body of knowledge with which every advanced design professional needs to be conversant in order to successfully manage and design complex projects. It will become increasingly necessary, however, for all but a rarified few designers at the top of the profession to develop one or more particular specialties.

2. Since the separation of architecture and engineering at the end of the 18th century, the nature of the profession has become continuously more fragmented and diversified. There is no doubt that we continue to have a residual attitude toward the architect as the Master Builder, the person who is ultimately responsible for the artistic, intellectual and technical content of a project, whether or not this competency is appropriately still placed in one individual. Ideally, specialization should only be pursued over the foundation of a strong general background, as it is extremely difficult to conceive and execute good architecture without a strong initial vision that can be carried through the phases and processes necessary to get a building built. This vision can only come from someone or group of people who can see and understand the large picture from start to finish.

3. Yes, specialization creates niche markets and specialties which individuals can focus upon in order to distinguish themselves, and there is no doubt the desire for niche recognition constantly creates new areas of specialization.




1. The generalist still exits, but the successful generalist usually gravitates to specialized niches based upon completed work. The exception again is the ‘Starchitect’ – though even they have really just become specialists in one type or another of design. In competing for quality institutional, government or commercial work, what often wins the day is an office that can demonstrate specialized competencies in a culture that understands the continued needs for an overarching generalist approach.

2. This is the most interesting and provocative of your questions. Many argue that architecture, as cultural production has been sidelined since the advent of the industrial revolution, and that this marginalization has become particularly acute in the information age. We must recognize that architecture is transforming, and that the best architecture above the scale of the residence will probably continue to become increasingly specialized. What I think will become more dominant is emphasis on the integration and collaboration of diverse teams of specialists to produce an optimal product. Whether one considers the visionary(ies) of the group specialists in this regard could certainly be argued, but that person or persons will have to be able to bring a broad cultural and intellectual knowledge base to bear in order to sustain and realize such a vision.

3. I think the schools need to do both – to impart the gifted designer with management skills, and the gifted manager with an advanced sense of aesthetics and the nature of design practice. Having said this however, I believe that the continued emphasis on design in academia should remain – there is simply not enough time in practice to devote the kind of concentrated energy necessary to begin to grasp design skills without having a solid bases upon which to draw – design requires immersion. Management is less abstract and more experience based and can consequently be better learned in practice or with supplemental training.
4. I think that the AIA is genuinely concerned with where the architecture market is heading, but I do not sense any strong desire on either the part of architects or clients to legislate specialization – but maybe I’m naïve…..


Adele Santos - Architect

Interview with Adele Santos

Adele Santos is the Dean of the School of Architecture at MIT and principal of Santos Prescott and Associates.

AJ: Today all architecture schools are advertising their specialized programs in architecture. Is this a calculated response to trends in the schools attempt to collect the best students and funds, and if this is a reality then how do you think it will affect the practice of architecture eventually?

Adele: Well, I think you are generalizing, which is not quite accurate because the specialization in this particular university and the way it is configured is highly unusual. I mean if you go to Penn, Berklee and other places you will not find this separation out into disciplined groups in the manner that you have here. It is quite different there. I think in most schools the focus is on bringing students into the Master of Architecture program and give them much more of a general education. In other words, you start right from the beginning integrating all these subjects as part of design, because they are not separate, and the idea then is that you are, in a way, dealing with a kind of general education in architecture that touches on all the foundational issues that we all believe in. The specialization tends to happen at a post-graduate level. So, people coming in with a professional degree, might choose, because they have already had that general background, to specialize in building technology or what have you.
I think the drift of it in architecture schools in general is to give a very balanced education where design is actually focused.

AJ: Don’t you think, however, that even M.Arch students trap themselves in these fields due to a weak HTC department and a very competitive job-market that would pay more attention to a person with highly specialized technical skills?

Adele: No, I think this is actually rather overblown as an issue. I think that when you leave school and go to an office they are going to ask you some very specific things. They will look at your portfolio and see if you can design at all. They are certainly going to ask about your computer skills and which programs you know. And I think that people may choose to specialize later because of their interest. I mean somebody going into HTC, for example, is likely to want to teach one day. People who want to go further in building technology, probably want to seek out firms later where there is a different and more technological emphasis. But I do not think it is a marketing deal. For example, urban design would be something that a number of schools have. And somebody who has gone through architecture and wants to know more about the city because that is their passion, will go to Harvard or us, or UPenn or Berlkee, to “specialize” in that. I started in architecture and I got my Master of Architecture and went on to Harvard to do urban design because I hadn’t had enough of it, and then I went to Penn and did City Planning. So I was accumulating degrees, but it was a very specific strategy to add to my architecture diploma.

AJ: How were things different in the seventies when you started practicing on your own and when the norm was generalist architects that relied on one only undergraduate degree than they are now?
Adele: Well, there was a big change in architectural education when in the United States the Master of Architecture degree became the first professional degree. Before that it was B.Archs. I have a B.Arch. The extent to which it is fit to practice, I do not think it has to do with the educational institutions as much as with the change of practice itself, because I think practice has changed a lot. The client groups have changed a lot also. We were dealing with individuals more and now we are dealing with committees. If you are in the public sector you also have to deal with the public process. So the nature of practice has changed a lot and has become international, national, etc. People do not practice in the locale. You could be anywhere. And then once you deal with computerization and all the change of that, then we do not even have to be in the same place to practice together.
Scale has changed, the complexity of projects, the palettes of materials and methods available, the way teams are composed, for example, now there are more offices that agree to collaborate to do a job, so that you do not have to be the hundred person firm in order to do a big job. You can be a four person firm that teams regularly with an eight person firm. So there are clusters formed and I think this is very different.
Pinup: Is the architect of today still a generalist?
Adele: I think you start by being a generalist and you add on skill sets. That is what people, for example, will get people to do in their office.
Pinup: But should the architect’s generalist education change into something more specific as the game of the field changes? Should the architect be able to acquire more competitive skills in project management, economics or negotiation instead of as much theory and design?

Adele: If you go to any office, you sort out the skill set and there are people that just inherently are talented in design sets, other people are naturally talented technologically. Unfortunately, there are not so many of those. Some people have management skills. I think for us to be training managers in architecture schools is just a waste of time because we have got so much to teach. And, indeed, there are more things to learn now and we have less time to teach them. Instead of six years we have three and a half. So, we keep leaving things out of the curriculum, which is scary. For example, students graduate these days with very little knowledge of the history of architecture. All that stuff just kind of gets dropped out. It seems like a luxury to put the time into that, but that’s ridiculous.

AJ: Have you noticed that at MIT?

Adele: I haven’t looked at it enough, but I have been told that you do not have enough of it. And it’s amazing, how can we be dealing with a design language without understanding the history that led us to where we are. I don’t think we deal with contemporary history, by the way.

AJ: Do you think that three and a half years is too short?

Adele: Well, yes, it is too short and we are longer than most programs in the country. The question really is …”is our teaching methodology correct? Because I suspect not! We do not teach in a way that is really well calibrated with what we are trying to impart.

AJ: Do you think that students, especially some M.Arch’s here at MIT lack basic architectural skills, not just when they enter buy also when they graduate from the school?

Adele: I have argued that this is actually extremely unfair for students to come in without the basic skills to allow them to be effective. If you don’t know how to draw and see and do all sorts of things, that puts you at a disadvantage immediately, so at Penn we had a crash course during the summer that was really important. If you did not have the skills you had to take this intensive course, it would take a lot of time to catch up. I think it takes a good semester or two to catch up. And that is wasting time. So, if we do three and a half years we have to be better at teaching what we need students to know in a more effective fashion. I mean the other thing I always complain about, and have not had the chance to look at here, is that you have to pick the right vehicle to do the job, so you are trying to teach contextualism or whatever. Pick a problem that is not so complicated that you end up doing all kinds of stuff, which interferes with the real focus of what you are really trying to teach. We tend to overcomplicate things, when we can get the message across very simply. And I think that a lot of information can be recorded and replayed, so students can digest it and so that we don’t spend our time in the lecture room giving all the facts. It should be to discuss the implications of issues. There are ways of changing our teaching.

AJ: What would be a good way of improve basic skills?

Adele: What I did at the University of San Diego was that Fridays was the skill-set day, and we had tutors. The faculty was available but it was all scheduled for the tutors to deal with computer skills, model-making skills, woodworking skills, and whatever else possible, and people could actually do this. Some of them were not about improving skill sets, but more about learning to do fantastic perspectives, or fly-throughs. So, by the end of the fifth semester, everybody was at the same level and quite sophisticated because they had their Friday tutors taking them through this.

AJ: Are MIT students ready for the profession of architecture after three and a half years?

Adele: No, the time here is short, but I am mostly interested in training students on how to think and problem solve because you are never going to have all the knowledge. But, if you have a way of approaching information and problem-sets, then the knowledge comes through the process of discovering. But you can certainly put it into a conceptual framework that everybody going out would know how to approach a series of issues, particularly on a technical level. That, in a way, is sort of on the job training and you sit down in an office and work with someone who is superior in knowledge to you, but you at least need to know how to tackle the issues that all sorts of specialists will bring to the table [engineers, etc.]. I think that we need to figure out what we really need to teach immediately, which is why the idea of management would be silly for us to do because not everybody is going to be a manager anyway. Maybe one in ten will have the temperament to deal with this aspect of the profession, so, why go through that? We must touch on the basics through the lens of architectural design because this is the moment we can do that. Once you go into an office, you are on your own.

AJ: Would you consider that design is the core around which everything else revolves?

Adele: No, and that is the part that needs to be strengthened. If that is really strong, and to be strong, in my opinion, it has to be larger. You cannot bring in 12 students, for example. You should allow 24 students to enter. Then you get four faculty teaching them and you get a much richer education, and then the following semester you bring in the two and a half year students. Once you get to the elective studios, you have more choices. If you only have the choices of two things it’s not good enough. You need more choices. You need a better exposure to a world of ideas and then you work your way through it. So, I think if the core of our program is really strong, then all the surrounding elements that appear to be satellites right not, are integrated into it because this core is the focal piece, and what holds everything together. When it is too small, it appears to be not important as there is more faculty surrounding this than there are in the middle. As a diagram, it simply does not work.

AJ: What type of firm would you suggest would be more beneficial for a young architectural professional to work for in order to develop as an architect?

Adele: I look at each student individually. Some people would flourish at a large firm, and some would get lost there and they would be making tea and coffee. I think it has a lot to do with the personality. The really talented people in terms of design usually want to go into a smaller firm that is know for design because they want to identify with that firm and its belief system. Of course, it is difficult to get into one of these firms unless you are extremely talented and you have a fabulous portfolio and there are people who want to work with you. I think that in terms of a large firm you can get incredibly good training if you just deal with it for a year or two. Go in there and learn the technical stuff that you did not learn at school, understand the process of an office, and be alert to learning. The main thing is that you have just begun a lifetime of learning. Hopefully we have set in place a way of thinking about architecture that is a healthy and good one and then when you go out you can work and aggressively try to learn as much as you can wherever you are! Pick it all up!

Anton Nelessen - Architect

Interview with Architect & Professor Anton Nelessen

Anton “Tony” Nelessen has more than 37 years of professional experience as an urban designer, professor, author and practitioner in the fields of visioning, physical planning and urban design. His firm is considered one of the foremost vision planning firms in the country. He holds a professional degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota and graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design with distinction. He has taught at Harvard, University of California-Davis and Image Works School of Photography. He is an Associate Professor at Rutgers University Graduate Department of Urban Planning and Policy Development. He has guest lectured at colleges and universities across the United States, and at numerous planning, Smart Growth, New Urbanism, environmental and transportation conferences. His work in urban design and transportation qualified him to testify before the US Congress on behalf of TEA-21. He is charter member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. 


My story is a story looked at an old man looking backwards. In now about to turn 68, and I think back now and how fast my story evolved and changed, and became what I have become now.


I am a small town guy. I grew up in a small town. It was one of these places that you walked every place. Yow know, I worked in the downtown area. So I grew up with a very informal and a very tight knit Dutch community group in Wisconsin. I think all that originally had some influence on some Initial thoughts about city planning, how you should function, how pedestrians should function in the context of a city, but then I searched around for a profession, and of course the key was that I was from Wisconsin and there was no architecture school in Wisconsin. So I went to a school that had a combination of initially Engineering, drafting, etc, and I kind of moved in that direction – the direction of industrial design if you will. It was the University of Wisconsin at Monamony. The school was called “Stode”. It became clear after the first year that this was not where I wanted to be. And they said “Well, what do you want to be”, and I said “well, I’m not really sure”, and so they said “why don’t you take this aptitude test”. In the test, the art and the mathematics came up high, and they said the logical combination of those two is architecture, and I went … “oh! Architecture!” You know … Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc … It had never crossed my mind, but once they said it to me, I said “wow, doesn’t that sound fascinating”. So, the question became where do you go to school of architecture, so you are from Wisconsin and you can go to IIT in Chicago, which was the Mies school, but what was the Best school? At that time, the University of Minnesota with Ralph Rapsod being the head of the school, was where more Rome Prices came out of Minnesota than any other place, where more progressive architectural awards came out of Minnesota than any other place, and I thought “Minnesota!” so I went to Minnesota. And enrolled in a 5 year program in Architecture, and fell in love with it. I mean from the second that I got there that this was it. This was what I was going to do with the rest of my life… being able to create things, buildings, spaces, places for people.


There was 92 of us that started, and 7 of us that finished. It was a supercompetitive, cut-throat program, and in the end I hated everybody I graduated with. That was the way the school was – The mentality that “if I don’t graduate a good architect, I will not graduate ANY architect”. Ralph, because he had Polio and only one hand, he drew with only one hand in Grease pencil, so the notion of the sketch and how you transport ideas in sketch-form, was one of the main things … How you graphically represent things in Minnesota. It was really really important.


So, the craft of architecture was emphasized as much as the theory


No doubt. In fact I would say more the craft than the theory, because the theory was in fact about the spaces that the dean and several other people were doing at the time, which was really the cutting edge of what was going on nationally. The Guthrie theater for example in Minneapolis … all were kind of part of the the time of when I was in school. And every year that I was in school, [Ralph] won the top progressive architecture award.


It was a peer group. You always admired the drawings of the people in the fifth year. So, there was this ever-increasing standard that you were expected to achieve if you were to graduate. In my last year, I was introduced to a guy named Richard Peterson, who was there because we were slowly graduating to doing larger and larger projects, and finally we go to work of a project of a neighborhood rather than a building … And that was it for me! I said “why just get involved with a building, when you can deal with a whole neighborhood, and that did it for me. From then on I was totally committed to large scale archtiecture of multiple buildings, which then evolved eventually as the urban site.


What exactly is the ultimate goal that you have when you work in a neighborhood? Is it really the form?


No! I think it is the emotional feeling of being in a place that a) you’re really proud of, b) that gives you a kind of interesting feeling of the things that you see on the street, the birds, the light, the trees, the flowers, the smell of the food, the cafes on the street if you will, people you run into while you are there, the sequence of spaces that you are going through. Designing a sequence of space is so much easier when you are doing it with a neighborhood in a kind of larger, urban design scale, and I think that wa to me the thing that was the most important, and for us, most of our work has involved a kind of public participation process, where we show people images of their community as it exists now, and assimilates it as how it could be, and then other places, and what we find is that vision of what places want to be, human interactive places that have a kind of integration with nature, these kind of human responses to the physical place, are manifested almost across the board, in the 150,000 to 200,000 people that we have worked with in the past years. And there seems to be a human desire one that comes out of our ancestral past – I’m not sure – but there seems to be in human beings this desire to want to be in these really human, interactive, well-proportioned, beautifully lit spaces, and it seems to go across the board. The ethnic age does not seem to make any difference, so .. .there is something inherent in the human being, that has the engrams of this physical form past that we carry with us, and so it manifests itself in different ways, but I think that essence of the neighborhood, the essence of the community, the experience through walking, that is just inherent and just comes out in the work. I look back now on some of those original sketches from Minnesota, and it’s not that much different than what it was back in 1965 when I graduated.


Why is it so essential for people to understand te history of theory neighborhood by simply walking through it and looking at old buildings that had been there for ages


I think there is a certain level of comfort that people have in these buildings being that they have been there for a while, and there is something about the scale and proportion of them that is not overwhelming. For instance, if you take what we call “Identifiable Building Module” … If people pass a street that has multiple sizes of shops 2 meters, 5 meters, 4 meters and so on and there is a variety of these spaces, they somehow feel more comfortable, than with these kinds of monolithic types of facades, or (the worst of all) blank walls, which people dislike the most. So, you ask, “Where does that come from?” and then you go back and design the neighborhood.


If you think that people have these engrams of their past, and then, they get exposed to things that become familiar to them in their lifetime, their real lifetime. That becomes the next cummulative set of experiences in their head – the visual and spatial experiences in their head – and all of a sudden … that’s not there! Not only is it not there, but (in the case of the WTC) it is paralleled with the catastrophe of all these people getting killed and the noise, and the fumes and all the stuff that followed it and all the media response to it, and knowing people (especially from this area) who got killed, all this has had an extraordinary cumulative effect. In fact we hear it almost every day in our national defense policies. All this stuff we have in our heads. And then there are the experiences you accumulate by experiencing places and being in places, and then there is the third push I think, which is the media, which is telling you how to think. Now, in a time of rapidly expanding media, i.e. someone showed me their iphone and said “this is my new puppy!” And I thought “what a perfect word” You’ve got your little puppy you know, and you pet it and squeeze it, “good boy, you go with me every place, he is my puppy” … and I thought that this notion of communication is now exponential … and I grew up without a telephone. We didn’t have a telephone … we didn’t have a television until I was 14. And even when we did, we only had two channels up in Wisconsin. Instead, people talked and they interacted, and they went to church, and they went on the streets, and they went to festivals, I mean people knew and got to know each other that way. The children played in the street, etc. Now, what happened in my lifetime is this exponential increase in the exposure to media telling you what to think and what you want. And still there is this fundamental notion of interacting. In fact, I watched a documentary regarding a recent economic conference that took place in Switzerland. They asked him “why do you all go there.” I mean, you have got all this power in the world, you run this major bank, you can literally call up, video tape, video-conference anybody, so why do you come to this little village in the snow? He responded that “there is nothing that could replace this human interaction, sitting there having a drink and talking about it. The eye contact!” I think it it has to do with the energy transference. I think there is something about two heads being together, that is not possible when they are separated by an electronic visual screen. So, interaction is still very important to people. So I think that is the essence that makes these neighborhoods have the characteristics you want. Perhaps so even more today, because as we go further and further away from it, people may have the desire to have that even more! And I think that is an interesting think to think about. We have so much artificial communication, which at some point makes you say “ok, I need to actually go see people”. I need to be with other people. I saw another PBS documentary that mentioned the average 13 year old uses 154 text messages a day on average … or something like that! IT was some outrageous number above 100 … a DAY!


I am thinking of the mating thing. I mean … sooner or later … you can text all you want, but sooner or later you want to feel what the person feels like. It’s human nature. So, to me, the question is all about manifesting that into architectural form and urban design form. To me, that is one of those fabulous challenges.


Is it necessary for the architect to see the ugly side of architecture and urban design as well as the good side of it? Is seeing and understanding successes as important as seeing and understanding failures?


The little town I grew up in had everything. A little movie theater, two little supermarkets everybody knew, two meat-markets, two hardware stores, and it was a small town of only 6000 people. It had everything you ever wanted and you could walk to work, and was surrounded by farmland, so it was pretty idealistic I must admit. Well, when the main highway came in, Route 96, which is the main street of the town, they took away the trees, widened the road, and shrank the sidewalk. When it was done, they closed it and had a big dance in the middle of the street because “boy! Wasn’t that progress, and wasn’t that fantastic”. Well, 20 years later there is NOTHING left in that town. It has all left on that highway to the periphery. Everything basically got bigger and “better” just down the street and outside the town. The fire-department needed a bigger space, so they couldn’t do it in the town, so they moved it out. The supermarkets got bigger, from a 12 thousand sq ft supermarket all of a sudden you needed 50 thousand. They moved out of town, and so on! So, eventually what happened was that everything disappeared. I think there is one bar left and that’s it. Everything else is GONE ! Now, they look at the Main street and they ask what happened. Well, you let it happen. And to make things worse, they had dutch elms and they died. These trees created a beautiful arcade. When all the trees died and all the downtown was dead, all of a sudden you ended up with a ghost-town. Sad and terrible thing!


This whole thing started happening in the 50’s. It started getting edgy in 1960, with stuff starting to think of moving out. By the time I was out of college in 1965, already a quarter of the stores were out, so there is a period between 1960 and 1965/66 when this happened. When it hit 1975 and early 80s, it was almost completely done, and then from the 80s to the 90s it was the death. There was nothing there any more. It totally disappeared.


As an architecture student, did you find any of this fascinating as it was happening initially?


No! I was horrified! “How did you let this happen” I would ask. I think I was angry. I even wrote letters to the editor (for which my parents were upset about) saying why don’t you at least have the good sense of replanting the trees. Do something, but don’t let the thing stand as is, and of course this is a dutch society so you don’t criticize. There are strict rules about what you do and don’t do in a Calvinistic Dutch society. But, every time I went back there I just got more and more angry. This dark side, still propels my vehemently anti-sprawl sentiment, that I’ve had in my entire life time and continue to have. I cannot stand suburban sprawl. Now, what is interesting about it is that all these Route 18s and whathaveyou, THEY are all dying as well! All the stuff that moved out there, a 50 thousand sq ft supermarket, go replaced by an 80 thousand sq ft supermarket, and the next big downtowns were replaced by the bigger malls. And all that stuff is sitting around there and I am going, “how stupid”. And the human interaction has disappeared and EVERYTHING … everything … is done by car! It is filled with parking-fields in front of the mall. And for a while they were happy about this progress. Twenty years later they are saying “What happened”. And I say “Listen folks, we could see what was happening. Why couldn’t you see what was happening”. So, as a designer, and an urban designer, and a planner, and an educator, and even the books that I’ve written … It’s all about the same thing. I cannot imagine people being happy shopping on the route 18s and the rest of that ugliness. I cannot imagine it. Especially after the filming work that we have been doing around the world in various countries. People are walking, and they are itneracting in their small shops, and it’s pedestrian and then you come here and it’s all cars, parking-lots, entrance to the big stores, 50 cashiers, nobody knows your name etc. It’s gotta hurt. It’s gotta hurt people psychologically!


But how can you prevent that from happening? It is not really the peoples’ decision. It is the decision of investors who decide to open a mall.


No, I believe it’s a little bit of both. One is that we are kind of deprogrammed from the original experience. Let’s think about who bought the streetcar systems. All these towns had these glorious streetcar systems. Who bought them up? Firestone Tires, Standard Oil, and General Motors. They bought them up and ripped them out… for the car. And I guess they lost a lawsuit about them, but they didn’t care. Motorama in 1939 showed us the image of what America was supposed to become. This place of super-highways … and we became that vision. It was clear. We were told through that last depression that this new vision of auto-oriented suburban development was going to be the wave of the future. This was how we were going to build the new America, and we did. But … you can have the war, but how do you prepare the exit strategy – How do you repair what you just destroyed.


Do you have any proposals for how to change this path?



Fernnado Domeyko - architect

Interview with Fernando Domeyko

Fernanco Domeyko is an architect and has also taught architecture around the world, at several universities including MIT, where he served as a professor for several years.

AJ: There is this general mentality in academia that the architect must be a renaissance man and have a generalist education. Why is that? Why is it necessary for the architect to have this broad education?

F. Domeyko: The Renaissance man was a generalist man, a broad man as a human being. The Renaissance men are examples of completeness of men as humans. They touch on poetry, on the sense of infinity and on techniques. They are complete men both from the physical and intellectual perspective. That was the idea of old times men. I think that education is exactly that. Education is a process of thinking, a way to understand and be responsible to society. It is a way to be responsible to other human beings who inhabit our planet which is constantly changing, because of technology, disasters, and tragedies. That is why architects in this super-dynamic constant movement have to be prepared to think always in an innovative way. I believe that a school has to communicate the sense of excellence, the sense of ethics and the sense of aesthetics. These three things have to be part of our education which would then allow us to integrate technologies and other things which are associated with resolving problems.

AJ: You are saying that technique that the architect uses is not necessarily a technique that the architect completely understands? Is it a technique that he uses while trying to achieve something that he has thought of as a generalist?

F. Domeyko: I think we use techniques for many different reasons, certainly not for a linear thinking. To solve problem X I will use technique Y, is a mechanistic approach. Our mind is very free. It can’t be forced to think linearly. We operate in an environment, and for that the school has to be a good place to receive information, learn about new issues and discoveries, explore your interests and prepare your mind to be open. Every time that we face new techniques we have to be able to operate and open our minds to that. That should be a part of our educational and technical preparation.

AJ:Today schools advertise their specialized programs. Do you think that we are currently witnessing a fragmentation of the profession of architecture? The option to get a generalized education is there but students themselves choose not to, because of the needs of the market that requires specialized education?

F. Domeyko: I think that the role of the school is not to advertise new techniques but rather incorporate them with the contemporary thinking. I believe that it is not possible to separate history from ethics, from scientific discoveries, and from philosophical achievements. It is true that techniques open new ways to think, such as this latest parametric way of thinking. Even though today software programs can do open parametric possibilities, that way to think is nothing new since it was investigated by others a long time ago. So, it’s not possible to separate techniques from the way of thinking. They go in parallel but in different speeds. Thinking is in general by far more advanced than available techniques. The problems we constantly discover are by far more dynamic and strong than the extremely primitive techniques we have.
I think the good schools don’t advertise about techniques that much but they advertise about problems and attitudes towards life. If schools produce people who are purely technical and don’t think at all, they are producing technicians and that is the least we want. Schools have to produce professionals, artists or intellectuals. Schools should prepare students intellectually to deal with the physical environment.

AJ: Isn’t a form of dangerous specialization when a student comes into the school lacking basic techniques of the profession that have been there forever and he/she ends up substituting them with new specialized techniques which eventually end up defining student’s thought? In other words, if I can’t draw and I can use a software which contrary to the human mind has some limitations, wouldn’t my thought process be limited by it and wouldn’t that limit myself to a very specialized end product?

F. Domeyko: Yes, what you are saying is absolutely true. Machines in general are serving only certain aspects of the scientific investigation and particularly in architecture they are serving only certain aspects of our process of design while others are not touched. For example, our attitude toward nature, toward human life, toward our own existence as human beings is an important part of the design process which is not taken into account from the machines.
Since this super-rationalistic time doesn’t provide us with answers to the big questions, people start to hesitate about the rationalistic thinking and about process. This certainly does not mean that we deny process, but that other issues such as intuition and the fact of discovery became very important.

People who use software believe that they can generate through it a certain process and they can find and discovery things that they never expected. But the same happens if you start to understand things that you never understood before. Just making things, for example, is another way to produce discoveries. By making certain things you find other things that you never thought that you would find.

In any case, when you enter the discovery process you have to act with intuition and without intention; you have to try to liberate your mind from the intention. I don’t deny the possibility of the software to get there but whatever is the way you took it is an act of consciousness that you understand anything different and new. The mechanism in itself doesn’t resolve the problem, but it eventually can open certain aspects that we never thought of before.

AJ:Do you think that what drives students to be more specialists is the professional market, since with a specialized degree you have more chances of getting a better job?

F. Domeyko: I know exactly what you are talking about and I think this is completely personal. I believe it is a mistake to think that way. People who believe in that are preparing for the next three years and then after three years they will be replaced by a new generation. I think you should always be critical and distant to techniques or just love them as they are. Do not try to surpass the machine. You cannot ask a software to do more than what it can produce.

AJ: How important do you think experience is for an architect? Does that limit the horizon of young professionals who just stepped out of school?

F. Domeyko: I think that experience does not exist in itself but what exists is the capacity of reaction. The capacity to react in a relative right way to new problems is something very important. There is no achievement in the architectural profession as in any profession. We constantly prove things. I think life is everyday completely new and challenging. We can’t argue that a certain architect is better from somebody else because he/she has experience. What counts is the capacity of reaction to a specific problem. In this case, a young and inexperienced architect might have a better reaction than an experienced architect.

AJ:What you are saying is extremely important, but do you think that the professional market has realized that?

F. Domeyko: I think yes. Architecture is very complicated because you cannot take the risk of millions of dollars with somebody who hasn’t built anything, even if he/she is someone with a good idea. But little by little if that person is able to think correctly and react correctly he/she will achieve something.

AJ: This brings us to another question in terms of legalizing specialization. The market prefers specialized architects, i.e., SOM that might have a department that specifically works on hospitals or labs. If some powerful firms like that end up controlling the AIA wouldn’t there be some sort of federal legislation that would require that person who wants to build a hospital should go to a certified firm? Which means that the younger generalist would not even have the opportunity to react?

F. Domeyko: That is purely a political, bureaucratic and economical problem. It has nothing to do with education or the way to think. Of course, when those big firms achieve certain stability they want to preserve their privileges. The architectural thinking or the architectural attitude is to read and renovate society and not invent it. In that sense, if, for example, SOM has a vision for society today and another architect does not, they are the winner. In recent years I am doing installations with students around the campus. Believe that in fact you can do architecture in the most modest way. You don’t need to make a hospital to make architecture. The majority of hospitals don’t contain any architectural quality. They are completely empty monsters, constructions and not buildings.

I think that today a new way of working is emerging because of the extent of the work, its complexity, because of the possibilities and of the techniques that we have. We can now achieve better results in a much more complementary way. I see collaborations happening between big professional offices, which didn’t exist before.

People say that research has been done on software or in building technology but never in architecture. This is not true. We have been doing research in architecture that we don’t classify as such. I feel that we have to orient school towards interdisciplinary research. Schools are where this can really happen. In their environment there is a very actual and interesting debate between the idea of software as a tool of the architectural thought process and the logic of understanding through senses derived from the bringing concepts to the direct confrontation of the architecture facts, tectonics and phenomenology.

Something else very important is that schools doesn’t finish when you graduate. After graduation you continue to be part of the school which has to extend to your professional life.

AJ: It feels that the architect is not anymore what Frank Lloyd Wright was, a utopian thinker, but the architect nowadays is more of a coordinator.

F. Domeyko: I believe that vision always comes from one person. He/she is the one who will take the pencil and do the job. It is not a common agreement because vision is not a common agreement. In the architectural office people do not vote. Architects just make arguments and find reasons, forms and designs which convince.

AJ: Do you feel that in the corporate architecture the role of someone as the project manager is the replacement of the generalist architect or a necessity for the firm to work?

F. Domeyko: I think that in good firms project managers achieve their positions because they are able to think correctly and make the right decisions.
My advice to students would be to have more faith. Believe me, this is a beautiful profession and it’s always possible to do something successful. You are always in confrontation of problems and must have the desire to discover, think, and challenge new things. There are people who believe that machines will resolve everything, even make the human brain survive. For thirty years, I have been hearing the same discourse: In the future this and that will happen…I don’t believe in looking at the future because it is definitely going to be different that what we predict. So I would put everything in the present. I don’t care if in the future some software will be able to produce my project instead of me. I think what matters will always be humans, ourselves, not the machines, not the techniques!

Bob Stern - Architect

Interview with Robert A. M. Stern

Robert A.M. Stern is the Principal of Robert A.M. Stern Architects and Dean of Yale School of Architecture.

AJ: We would like, if it’s possible, to base your responses to both your experiences as the dean of Yale and your professional practice.
Graduate schools nowadays usually advertise their specialized programs in attempt to attract students and funds. What they usually end up doing, is to propose very specialized programs which inevitably create specialized technocrats. Plus, the general idea in architecture schools is that the architect must be a “renaissance man” with a generalist education, but in graduate schools what we see is strictly specialized education, programs like visualization, fabrication, BT, etc. Our question has to do with March programs which attract students that sometimes lack basic skills and directly go into very specialized programs. We would like to know your take on that, if you are for or against it, whether you think specialization is a trend and why.

R. Stern: I can’t answer all of the questions. You are asking me this as the dean of the architecture school, so I have to answer it as the dean of the architecture school. First of all, at Yale we don’t have that situation. We have three programs. We have what we call the Marchl, it’s for someone who has some or even no real background in architecture, comes out of typically American undergraduate colleges, with a BA degree majoring in everything from architecture to physics or history, and that program is three years long. Then we have a post-professional program, which has students who already have a bachelor of architecture degree. Historically, those students have come from American universities and abroad but more from America. Today that becomes less and less the case. Partially because many American schools do not offer the bachelor of architecture any more and they have gone to what is called the four plus two year plan. Obviously they want to keep their best students to go from the 4 year college where they get a BA or a BS to the graduate 2 year to get the March. Last, we have an advanced program called the MED, stands for master of environmental design which maybe a misleading title, but it’s for people who can have architecture degrees or not even, who want to pursue some kind of independent research for 2 years. In any case, the real answer to your question is that we don’t have specialized programs, we only are a school of architecture. It once, until 1968, had a planning department, it doesn’t have that now, it has no landscape architecture program, no urban design program and we believe in training people in the skills of architecture when they come in, and mostly to have a think about architecture, to see architecture as a means of thinking. Of course, we like to think we are training these leaders for the profession, who will be able to be a “renaissance man”, a term which is slightly out of fashion, so I would call them leaders who are generalists. In a table of specialists often the architect is the generalist. Of course, there are people developing specialties.

AJ: How would you define the real generalist?

R. Stern: A generalist is someone who can through the processes of his thought, through the collection of his knowledge easily make connections between seemingly diverse things and bring people together and ideas together, to create a synthesis. A building really needs to be synthesis. A building needs to represent many diverse strands of attentions from the technical ones that are built in it, to the technical ones that are run in it, and the programs that are performed in it, and the different problems of paying for it, financing it, etc. That’s what it’s all about.
Of course, we are generalists but people specialize in my professional office. One of my partners, Alex Nimus, who has a BA degree from MIT 25 years ago and a master’s degree from Columbia when I used to teach, decided to make a specialty of libraries. He is interested in technology and he got interested in the problem between the new electronics and the libraries as traditional building types so he as made his specialty of libraries but he did not go to school, to Columbia or MIT, to specialize in library architecture which would be preposterous.
Pinup: Do you think that the generalist exists? Even if the generalist exists, it is really the generalist that drives this profession? Is really the generalist in this large pool of specialists able to first of all find a job, find a good place in the architecture industry and then push himself in higher levels of leadership?

R. Stern: You are asking me an awful lot of questions. People who have a talent or skill very often find their way into places or positions of responsibility in any field. First of all, I don’t like the work architecture as an industry, it’s a profession. If a student in an architecture school is allowed to pursue for two or three years of his/her time some narrow focus, urban housing or something like that, I would say that that student is being misled. Architecture school is so short, it used to be longer, even when I was in school it was four years, after four years of college. So, I think you need to be challenged from different sides. I can only speak of how we do it in Yale because we have a core curriculum, of course, we learn basics, we try to introduce the idea of habitation as a concept in one term, small public buildings as a responsibility and a challenge for architects, and a way to get their hands on certain complex relationships. We have a term called urbanism where we have students do what you might call urban design (but we don’t like that term because it’s a misused term), and then we have advanced studios where they are these famous professors who come in and you can take a class with Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jaquelin Robertson, and Demetri Porphyrios. That’s how we do it.
You are asking a person who is a generalist likely to succeed in the profession. Well, I would say the first thing is that, in school you learn how to think about architecture, you learn certain working methodologies, you learn how to draw, and you learn how to run a computer these days, and you learn the craft and some of the art of architecture. But I do not believe that schools should substitute for professional education. So the first and most important thing a student has to do when he/she leaves school is get the right job. Students don’t always get the right job. They don’t always listen to old guys like me, and I didn’t always listen to old guys when I was a student either.
AJ: What is the right job?

R. Stern: The right job is to probably to go to a bigger office and not necessarily to the office that is doing the work you think you are going to be doing twenty years later, but doing the kind of quality and exposing you to the diversity and practices, the things that happen in architectural project. The problem is that many students, often the most talented, want to work for some small young architect who is five years older than they are who don’t have any idea what their doing more than the student themselves.

AJ: But some of them might be widely published.

R. Stern: Oh yes, today especially, you can be published for just going to the men’s room or the ladies room, it’s ridiculous. In any case, to come to your skills and your destiny as an architect over more years than are represented of just being in school you need to know how to manufacture your opportunities and to move in. But one of the most important things is to pick the right architecture school. You also have to pick the first job you have because it can determine the entire character and the course of your career.

AJ: Do you believe that students decide to become specialists because of the competitive market and because they try to get a better job?

R. Stern: No. I don’t know what the market is but we have 150 people working so I guess I am part of the market. When we hire someone who comes out of an architecture school, whatever school, they are people who can think, who have tried different things, who are fresh, free and smarter and more talented than I am. Yes, we hire specialists too. I need a structural engineer, we hire the best structural engineer, we need an environmental consultant, we hire the best environmental consultant. You name it: Lighting designers, landscape designers, whatever. The last thing I want is specialists. Of course, when we hire someone who just got out of school we realize that the first three years those people are going to in our office having their second three years of architecture school. That is fine. But I would like people to come out of architecture school knowing, for example, that things have measure, which is a big problem now. Most students have no idea how big anything is. If you ask them how big it is they don’t know because they see it on a computer screen, it has no scale. So that’s a battle I fight as a dean and a school and I fight as the leader of a large architectural practice.

AJ: So, an academic education provides you with architectural thinking whereas an education you get from an office familiarizes you with the problems and issues in the profession.

R. Stern: Yes, but if you are in a good office you would be taught things also like how to handle a difficult client. There is no right or wrong, it’s about human dynamics. The architect who sits there and says no it has to be this way and pound the table and has a terrible temper usually doesn’t get anything accomplished. He is just a jerk. You need to see that as a young architect. You learn those things from older architects and from being in a good office where you should be invited to the meetings and sit maybe in the back row and see how it happens. It’s not just happening at the desk. Very often the decisions, incredibly important, are made between an architect and his consultants and sometimes the consultants and the client altogether on a table. We walk in with a sketch or a proposal and it comes out looking totally different. It doesn’t mean anybody is compromised. Everybody has learned.

AJ: That is very interesting because it completely goes against what some of us read about architects today who are persistent and are considered very heroic.

R. Stern: Frank Gehry that I know pretty well builds the zaniest buildings of ever, but he is a very practical guy, he doesn’t pound his hands on the table. He brings people along. If you look at a competition that Frank Gehry enters or any good architect, Rem Koolhaas doesn’t make any difference, the technical problem that the clients asked is perfectly solved. So these are little things that I can say a thousand times in architecture school, Frank Gehry has said it a thousand times at Yale, and students don’t somehow want to hear it, but when they would come in an office that’s another part of their education. Schools are very important to give you a chance to limber up, to get your creative juices running, to measure up against other people of your age, to develop relationships with other students who will become your professional rivals and colleagues throughout your life. And that’s why it’s very important to go to a very good school. Because if you are surrounded by the best and brightest, those are the people you are going to put up against as you are competing.

AJ: Another question we had in terms of legalizing: what we call specialization has to do more with licensing some firms to work in specific types of projects. Meaning that, Robert Stern is licensed, for example, to build labs whereas Diller and Scofidio are not.

R. Stern: Licensed? No, there is no such thing. As an architect you are licensed to practice architecture of any kind.

AJ: I know, I am not saying there would be such a thing in the present, I am asking about the future.

R. Stern: Oh, that would be the worst thing imaginable! Zaha or Bob Stern should be allowed to design all kinds of buildings. I work very hard to go after projects just because I haven’t done projects like them before. But, we have done few laboratory buildings and we work with people who design the labs; we are not sitting there pretending to be experts on lab planning. There are people, some times architects, and some times from other disciplines, who do devote themselves to specialization.

AJ: So you approve of that in this particular situation? You approve of the existence of the specialist?

R. Stern: Of course, I approve of specialized experts but I don’t approve of them studying lab planning in architecture school. This is something you come to. If you came here and worked for five years or ten years on houses, for example, you might say you are starting to become a specialist in residential architecture. We do a lot of campus buildings and campus plans, so we could say we are becoming specialists on that. Some people really enjoy a special kind of work, and I would propose to continue to do it. I am a more restless type, the leaders are often more restless. A guy like Bill Peterson of Kohn Peterson Fox does all these office buildings. All he wants to be asked to do is embassies, university buildings or houses. I have done some houses and quite a few midsize projects so I’m thrilled very now and then I get a chance to do a skyscraper. I fight against being pigeonholed in specialization, bit if I am going to do a skyscraper, we are working with teams of people, engineers and others, who know much more about skyscrapers. However, it’s not rocket science, you can get it, you can pick it up pretty fast. But there are millions, parts of it that are very specialized. For example, curtain wall design. There are people who spend their lives, engineers some time architects, studying how walls perform, new materials and so forth. All of this is great but in an architecture school you need to have an idea that all of this exists in the world or architecture. You need to be acculturated to the fact that it’s the architect who is the leader of a complicated team (the architect might have been in the 18th century a person who does everything), and you may be as a leader a person with the artistic spark that sets the whole thing to function.

AJ: Do you think that schools should train project managers?

R. Stern: Not in the three or four years have in an architecture school. But you can become introduced to the problems and possibilities of project management if you have seminars where you have to get up and give a talk and you have to answer the questions of your fellow students and the professor and you have to interact. At Yale, all the students in first year compete to build an affordable 1,500SF house. Every student designs his own house over a weekend for the site, then students are put into teams and the teams get bigger and they ultimately compete. Every one of the four teams competes and the final competition has already made a set of drawings. Then they go out to the field. They are hammering and they are working on the other side of the table. So they look at architecture from the production side. Some students have shown management skills and some students have shown draft skills; it comes out in the process. But we don’t have a course for that. We are far from that.

AJ: It is almost like providing the students with some basic skills, survival skills in the profession? I am kidding.

R. Stern: This project so called Yale-building project started in 1967 by the architect Charles Moore. Students wanted to add a more special engagement, so he cooked up the idea that students would build an affordable community. Initially, they were community centers and later they were camps for boy scouts and finally homes in New Haven. For 14 or so years students have built in New Haven, so there are 14 houses in the small city of New Haven each designed one a year and build which are occupied by first time owners, people who have never been able to buy a house. It’s a very interesting experience. That make for leaders, because somebody had to lead these teams and everything has to work, has to be organized; but we don’t have a course on it.

AJ: What do you think about this trendy adoration of form nowadays? Form deriving from the computer…..

R. Stern: Well, architects are always looking for the new Jesus. They also want to find some new way that will somehow release their creativity. So whether it’s history or the technology of the electronics, or the technology of long span structures, or prefabrication, or whatever, people are always looking for new gods. And I think that’s true of us all as we go through life that we still need also to pay attention to the old god in general as opposed to the new gods, to the basic values of fine construction and have that to be the genesis of architecture. Of course, the new forms that are emerging in the computer are interesting; much more interesting to me is the new fabrication techniques and the new relationship between designer and fabricator that the computer will make possible. At Yale we have new digital equipment to further explore computer as simply an extension of the traditional tools of building.

AJ: That is not how specific designers use those tools. They use them as the means to synthesize.

R. Stern: There are some designers who view it that way and some who don’t. Greg Lynn teaches at Yale and he manipulates the forms through the computer. He also likes to go down to the shop and see all the stuff we make down there and likes to play with that too. There are always new ways to explore architecture and new ways to evolve form. Some of them really do create new situations and some of them are just new shapes.

AJ: Why would someone whose architecture derives from historical architecture, someone like Bob Stern, accept the recruiting of Greg Lynn to the faculty?

R. Stern: Because, first of all, I don’t believe that an architecture school is an academy or an office. I would hire Greg Lynn but he would have to do my work here in the office, but in Yale I hire him to be Greg Lynn. That is the reason why I think Yale has a successful way of approaching the basic issues you ask, because we don’t have specialization. The great experience of a student is to take Leon Krier one term and Greg Lynn the next term. Students also stand in the studios and see projects from each of them being debated and then we put on a jury Greg Lynn and Leon Krier. Instead of having just Leon Krier talking all people who believe the way Leon does and Greg Lynn talking all people who believe the way Greg does this is much more interesting, to have the dynamic; because the world is not simple. This is not the medieval world in France where nobody knew anything else beyond 50 miles more or less, this is the modern world. The modern world is full of contradictions, and contradictions are fine because you learn from them.