Lisa Iwamoto: Envelope Systems Innovator

Architect, professor, and firm principal Lisa Iwamoto will bring her ideas, insights, and developmental discoveries to Charlottesville March 16-17 as a panelist in the tenth biennial VSAIA Design Forum, organized by the Virginia Society AIA Design Committee (VSAIA DC).

With a BS in structural engineering from the University of Colorado, Iwamoto worked early in her career as a structural engineer at Bechtel before earning her MArch with distinction from the Harvard GSD. Her subsequent experience as an architectural designer includes working at Morphosis, Schwartz Silver Architects, and Thompson and Rose. She has also taught at Harvard and was a Muschenheim Fellow at the University of Michigan.

Iwamoto is currently an associate professor at UC Berkeley and principal of IwamotoScott Architecture in San Francisco. Her design research in particular concentrates on the perceptual performance of material and digital fabrication techniques.

Among the many innovative concepts she has worked on in recent years are the Voussoir Cloud (a structure composed of paper-thin wood petals arranged based on a Delaunay tessellation analysis to create a translucent vaulted structural logic), the Jellyfish House (with an open-mesh envelope that gathers rain water and sanitizes and stores it, along with gray water, with a titanium-dioxide/UV-light and underground-cistern system; it also uses phase-change hydrous salts as a Trombe material), and the Hydro-Net competition winner for San Francisco that conceptualizes a futuristic, resource-self-sufficient City by the Bay.

Here, Iwamoto responds to questions posed by the VSAIA Design Committee on her ambitious approaches to advancing the profession’s position at the vanguard of built-environment research and development.

VSAIA DC: You worked for a variety of firms: Schwartz Silver Architects, Thompson and Rose, and Morphosis. What did you take away from these experiences?

Iwamoto: Mainly how to make design-development and construction drawings. This is what I really wanted to learn since it was not something covered in school. I liked my experiences because each office was design-oriented with a number of young people.

VSAIA DC: Why did you decide initially to pursue a degree in engineering?

Iwamoto: My first degree was in engineering, and I worked as a structural/civil engineer for several years before architecture school. I worked at Bechtel, which does huge projects, so I was on very large teams doing design and analysis for steel structures and substantial concrete foundations. I wouldn’t say as a 17-year-old entering college that I made all my decisions about subjects with a lot of foresight, but I am glad I pursued engineering for awhile, which also pleased my family.

An installation demonstrates the Voussoir Cloud concept. Images courtesy IwamotoScott Architecture.

VSAIA DC: Do you find your work is influenced by your engineering background?

Iwamoto: Yes I do. It took awhile, though. Architecture and engineering, though obviously related, are entirely different. Engineers are trained to think in the abstract, diagrammatically, and to try to optimize structure at the expense of everything else. This does not always lead to good design. So I spent my time in school and many years after trying to become a good designer, trying to think synthetically, rather than single-mindedly. The best engineers do this too, of course, but many don’t. Now I try to merge my interests in design with structural performance; for example, in the Voussoir Cloud or in my teaching.

VSAIA DC: You teach at UC Berkeley and are pursuing research on perceptual performance of material. What the heck is that?

Iwamoto: Ha, ha—good question. Really, any path of design research—mine being about materials, technologies, and fabrication—wants to have a reason. Some reasons may be for efficiency or economy, others for formal interests. What I want to focus on is the perception of the people who inhabit and see the space being made. How does the work influence how someone understands something about the design? How do they reinterpret a material, a form, or a system? How can architecture encourage someone to see something differently?

VSAIA DC: How do new technologies inform your work?

Iwamoto: In several ways. One, of course, is with computerized fabrication. I wouldn’t say this is a new technology, but it is certainly more accessible. For our speculative “future” projects, like the Jellyfish House or Hydro-Net, we also look to what might be an emerging technology now that can be leveraged for architecture in the future.

VSAIA DC: What new technologies do you see on the horizon? What new technologies are needed?

Iwamoto: I would be more specific in that this question can be parsed three ways. We need to think in terms of building technologies, computer technologies, and the interface between the two.

I think what we need most is for the technologies we have to be more available and economic. For example, think about the military industry. It would be great if the efforts put toward a drone airplane could be put toward buildings as well.

Consider, too, how computer technologies have shifted the way we design buildings. They are not simply allowing for a new way of drafting. On the contrary, they allow expansion of the form, boundary, and performance of architecture.

The envelope of Edgar Street Towers, a study for the Alliance for Downtown New York, features fiber optics to bring light in during the day and project a solar-battery-powered glow at night.

VSAIA DC: How do you see your work evolving with the new technologies available? Is your focus shifting?

Iwamoto: Our focus is shifting mainly because we want to be doing more buildings and larger-scale work. Installations are wonderful vehicles for experimentation, but we want to work on more permanent projects as well, of course.

VSAIA DC: The Modernist period repudiated ornament. Many of the “skins” in your work have a lace-like quality to them—for instance at your M.A.C YQ store project, or the ceiling at Moffit Hall. Is your approach a reconsideration of Modernist thinking or new developments consistent with the overall Modernist philosophy?

Iwamoto: That’s a big question. I feel like most built architecture today stopped at Modernism, while speculative architecture seen on the Web by lots of young design firms is speaking a different language, literally. I think we fall somewhere in the middle, but on the whole can’t imagine that the future of architecture ends in the early 20th century.

VSAIA DC: What would be your dream project?

Iwamoto: That’s a tough one, but a cultural institution with a decent budget would be great.

VSAIA DC: Most of your buildings are of a small scale and design-build projects, and most of your design is interior. Do you see a future in which the same technologies and techniques will be applied to large-scale buildings? What would be different?

Iwamoto: Our built projects have been more normative because of the much larger number of constraints, including the tight budgets placed on them. We hope to unite our more research-oriented work further with larger-scale work. Of course, the constraints are still there, but with the right client, I think experimentation with built work is possible.

For more information on the Voussoir Cloud Installation, Jellyfish House, Hydro-Net Competition, and many of their other highly innovative completed and conceptual projects, visit the IwamotoScott Architecture Web site.

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