Defining an Architecture of Necessity
By Rab McClure
Plato’s Republic, written more than two thousand years ago, declared necessity the mother of invention—a notion that resonated at this year’s Virginia Design Forum IX, entitled, “An Architecture of Necessity.” Over two days, a panel of four nationally recognized speakers discussed their work and explored the theme, defining necessity in broad-ranging terms, from economics, aesthetics, politics, and ethics, to design approach.
Philip Freelon, FAIA, founding principal of The Freelon Group, of Durham, North Carolina, delivered the keynote address. With a polished, understated delivery, Freelon tracked the firm’s hyperbolic rise from coffee table designers to architects-of-record for the $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture (as part of the Freelon Adjaye Bond team).
Throughout the firm’s history, projects have taken form in response to users’ needs. One particular school project placed children—the “clients”—at the center of the planning process. In another case, the firm’s suggestion to renovate an abandoned municipal incinerator (rather than demolish it) reduced unnecessary new construction. A series of built museum projects followed, including the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture: a long, slender building with a handsome, patterned façade that is inspired by quilting—an art form, Freelon explained, based on the concept of making something out of nothing. Freelon repeatedly stressed the need to address each project’s unique circumstances in the formulation of its solution.
Julie Eizenberg, AIA, of the Santa Monica–based firm Koning Eizenberg Architecture, led Saturday’s speakers. Her manner was witty and self-deprecating, but her opening challenge to restate, to take exception, to dig deeper, and to do more with less, was heartfelt. Architects, she said, challenge convention by their very nature, and she advocated a mixture of keen observation and doubt. Eizenberg’s use of doubt to leverage a thoughtful architectural solution was best characterized by the firm’s competition entry for the American Craft Museum, a renovation of the iconic Edward Durell Stone building at 2 Columbus Circle in New York City. Feeling trapped by the building’s tiny, inefficient floor plate, the design team’s solution was to go outside the box, resurfacing the building with a glassy, cantilevered vitrine containing new stairs, in a move that created essential interior space for exhibits.
Andrew Freear, the Director of Auburn University’s Rural Studio, outlined the school’s famous design-build approach, which operates in impoverished western Alabama. The student-driven program intervenes in places that often lack basic regulatory agencies and, by necessity, Freear explained, an important social contract emerges between the students and their clients in an ethical framework of self-regulation.
Freear chronicled the program’s history of scrounging for resources and inventing ways to creatively employ donated materials: developing wall systems from carpet tiles or used tires, forming a playground from 55-gallon drums, or dismantling, moving, and reconfiguring the parts from a television tower to create a new tourist destination. Recent research explored creative uses for thinnings—trees too young or misshaped to be harvested as lumber—with students refining the program’s mission to be more self-sufficient and sustainable. New goals include eliminating the use of 2×4’s from Lowe’s and feeding the program from crops students grow themselves.
Teddy Cruz, AIA, a San Diego-based architect and principal of Estudio Teddy Cruz, expressed the need for social and political activism on the part of architects to reform land use, zoning, and policy formulation. On bold yellow slides with red capital letters, Cruz spelled out the tenets of his manifesto, with messages like, “neighborhood: site of production,” “plug housing with support systems,” and “parcels: micro socio-economic systems.” Cruz seeks to replicate the inventive, entrepreneurial spirit he finds in tough, struggling places like Tijuana, where a front lawn might host an impromptu taco stand or where the space between two houses becomes an informal repair shop. As a matter of urgency and necessity, Cruz challenged attendees to expand the traditional role of architects.
The concluding panel discussion, moderated by Ned Cramer, Editor-in-Chief of Architect magazine, restated the call for a renewed emphasis on the way things work and operate, on the process of integrating political and architectural activism, and on more cross-disciplinary collaboration.
Rab McClure is Assistant Professor of Interior Design at Virginia Commonwealth University, a registered architect, and an NCIDQ certified interior designer.