Designing Our World
Working in the ultimate multidisciplinary field, alumni architects are creating compelling— and innovative—buildings and environments.
If you want to be a good architect, the best place to begin your education just might be with the liberal arts.
That’s because an architect has to approach the design of a building like a historian, untangling culture and precedent to create places that speak to shared narratives. An architect also needs to be a bit of a scientist, counterbalancing gravity with structure and materials with their inevitable decay, and squeezing out every ounce of operational efficiency in a world of dwindling resources. But architects also must be sociologists and psychologists, using space to bring together formal and informal communities, to set the stage for the stern deliberations of a courtroom, the exalted divinity of a place of worship, or the warm intimacy of a family home.
So it’s not surprising that many of the Haverford grads profiled here spoke glowingly about how the school’s liberal arts emphasis was the ideal sort of preparation for a career where it’s necessary to work across so many different disciplines. (A full third of them found their entree into architecture and design through a growth and structure of cities major at Bryn Mawr.)
And just as architects work from a knowledge base that spans the arts and sciences, their work in turn reflects the breadth of this assembled history and culture. Unlike most creative disciplines, architecture has no choice but to represent its age and the people who made it. Visual artists can craft a new world from only their dreams (or nightmares), and charismatic playwrights can gather a small group of acolytes around words of revolution spoken and acted in real time, but a building—or a designed landscape—is different. It requires heaps of time, capital, and collaboration to create. It’s no one’s idiosyncratic vision. It’s part of our shared world, and its form and function are informed by all of the liberal arts with which these Haverford grads began their education.
MARK MILLER ’84: The Innovator
Mark Miller has designed community centers, tech offices, and all manner of schools, but his San Francisco-based firm MKThink spends just as much time developing technology that tracks, with exacting quantitative data, just how buildings are used, and how they might be used more efficiently. After spending some time with Miller, clients often realize they “can’t just build their way out of a problem,” he says. His mantra is “build less, solve more.”
The drive for quantitative efficiency comes from a stark fact: Buildings are the single largest driver of carbon emissions. Today, a new building locks in its level of energy requirements and carbon emissions for its entire life, even as technology arises to improve it. So buildings “need to become more dynamic, more fungible, more changeable,” says Miller. “And to do that we need to have information.”
MKThink designs both the hardware that gathers this information and the software that processes it, resulting in sensors that track building occupancy, activity, daylighting, air quality, humidity, temperature, noise levels, and more.
Miller calls this area of research “spatial intelligence.” For buildings to “be more meaningful and beautiful,” he says, “they need to be more thoughtful and responsible.”
In the wake of wildfires that spread noxious fumes across the Bay Area, Miller has been working with the San Francisco YMCA to monitor air quality with “Air Angel,” which gathers weather and building occupancy patterns to analyze air quality on a room-by-room basis. For the San Francisco Zoo, MKThink is working on a master plan that will track how visitors use and move through space, and how animal wellness is affected by microclimates and the physical environment. At its heart, the plan aims to create more connection between visitors and the menagerie on display. “We’re removing ground coverage, bringing back natural landscapes, opening up habitats—basically un-building, to create a campus that is better for the animals, better for the visitors, and better for the environment,” he says.
JOVI CRUCES ’89: The Senior Living Futurist
Jovi Cruces has spent nearly his entire career at the Boston firm DiMella Shaffer, where he’s become a veteran designer of senior-living facilities. Over the years, he’s noticed changes in the aesthetics, services, and amenities offered, and shifts in how these facilities are used. And as 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 each day, he sees more change on the horizon.
On what’s next for senior housing: “Private property is not past its prime, but that model might change if we’re looking at statistics of home ownership. If we think 10 to 20 years into the future, and understand that people maybe don’t have that asset to sell, then the smaller approach ends up being the more flexible, malleable approach. We as a society, and the construction and real estate industry, will have to respond to the vicissitudes in wealth accumulation with the appropriate housing products, and housing options that are more flexible will naturally become more viable. Caregivers [could] come to your home or a series of co-op [homes] for 10 families. Twenty-five years ago, we were attracting people to move to a place that seemed like a country club. Every sector of the service industry is reacting to what we’re able to afford and build. It’s not better or worse. It’s isolating what we all benefit from.”
“In New Hampshire, our firm has a new project called The Baldwin, which is a 250-unit assisted senior-living community that is part of a larger mixed-use development that has retail, market-rate housing, and multi-family housing. What’s interesting about this is that we have designed a street that looks like a small town. You can enter different areas from the street, and also walk through the [senior-living] building. [It’s] inviting residents who are living in the nearby market-rate housing to use that salon or eat in that dining room. We’re actually building the inter-generational city.”
NOAH WALKER ’97: Building a Sense of Place
Before he ever puts pen to paper, Noah Walker scouts the site for each house he designs as much as possible. It’s part monastic meditation, part camping trek, and part cartography hike. For his Oak Pass House, nestled into Beverly Hills’ namesake ridges, he hosted a barbecue and slept in a tent while the empty three-and-half-acre site still felt like a pastoral refuge from the rest of the city. “Great architecture heightens that feeling of place,” he says. The houses he designs with his design-build firm Walker Workshop are the result of this sort of deep communion with the Southern California landscape, and they exuberantly celebrate its culture and temperament: sliding glass doors, poolside patios, and all manner of hybrid indoor-outdoor spaces set up views to the golden horizon.
At Oak Pass, the top floors are glass pavilions containing the semi-public functions of the house (kitchen, living room) while the lower, more private, floors are buried into the hill, preserving the oak trees that dot the site. For his first project with Walker Workshop, the renovation of a Hollywood bungalow, he removed interior partitions and cut a deep skylight into the pitched roof, soaking this signature Los Angeles housing type in natural light. The skylight is clad in rare old growth Douglas fir, recovered from the original house, an opportunity his expertise as both an architect and general contractor allowed him to take advantage of. “When we’re designing, we’re thinking about how stuff is going to be put together,” he says. “One of the great things about also being the contractor is that we can’t, as designers, design crazy stuff that we cannot put together.”
CLAIR COLBURN ’91: Designing for Justice
With her current firm, Finegold Alexander Architects, Clair Colburn designs courthouses, a task that carries with it the responsibility to represent the rule of law in built form for the broadest possible swath of the public. “With courtrooms, if people feel like the building doesn’t work for them, it reflects badly on the whole judicial system,” she says. With projects like the Lowell Justice Center in Massachusetts, she’s shifting the design of justice from the monumental—ceremonial stairs, fluted columns, and impenetrable masonry—into new dimensions of light, air, and clarity.
On modern design conceptions of justice: “We design courthouses that respond to the way that courthouses are currently used, rather than traditional, iconic courthouses. In our most recent work, we express the law as mutable, transparent, and accessible to all by emphasizing glass in the public realm instead of stone. But then there’s also the solidity of the institution, which in the Lowell courthouse is expressed as a granite-clad volume that [contains] the courtrooms, in contrast to the public zone, which is much more transparent. All of the courtrooms we design have natural light—having that calming feature and a view outside is hugely important.”
On justice facilities of the future: “The judicial system is starting to move toward alternative methods of intervention, like mediation and restorative justice. A lot could be done with the architecture to support these different ways of coming together and interacting. Instead of having parties in a side-by-side orientation with an aisle between them, they would want to be oriented so that they can face each other. A circular shape facilitates that. For change to happen, whether it’s a victim feeling safe again or the reform that has to happen, that has to be a powerful moment, so coming face-to-face seems incredibly important.”
SARAH ASTHEIMER ’01: The Green Infrastructurist
Just about every major city is defined by at least one waterway, and lately, it’s been landscape architect Sarah Astheimer’s task to find ways to connect people to these origin points of urban history and culture. Practicing with James Corner Field Operations in Philadelphia, Astheimer uses the rivers, lakes, and oceans that spurred the establishment of cities to tell their story through landscape and ecology. “Waterways really define how so many of our cities have developed,” she says. “It’s really incredible.”
She worked on her firm’s renovation of Chicago’s Navy Pier, and is working on a plan for the C & O Canal in Washington,D.C., but Astheimer’s favorite project is Tongva Park in Santa Monica, Calif., which re-creates “a derelict urban site into a really lush, immersive place,” she says. Located adjacent to the beach, the park runs along a historic ravine, where water flowing from the Santa Monica Mountains once washed into the ocean. Tactile water features, perfect for a playful splash, and expansive meadows and gardens make it a much more dynamic environment than the sun-baked sand next door. The historical memory of those mountain streams is honored in the form of paths that flow around hills and rises like ancient, surging arroyos. These hills and scenic overlook pavilions (rendered as biomorphic ovals) look out toward the ocean. “So [many] of those views in California are privatized, so that was really important, to capitalize on these moments where you can get up a little bit higher and enjoy the sunset,” she says.
At Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, team members at Field Operations doubled the size of a lake to make it a more effective drainage site for storm water runoff and a better place for active recreation. This expanded shoreline is engineered and planted with a “crenulated edge,” she says, which also makes it better for launching kayaks. “The type of work I love is when you have the opportunity to bring some wilderness into the city,” says Astheimer.
And that professional aptitude, unique to landscape architects, makes landscape architecture a regenerative practice in ways that architecture and building are not. “Now, instead of looking at industrial infrastructure, green infrastructure is the way cities are developing today, around open space and parks, because that’s how people should be living in cities,” she says. “Landscapes in cities are these incredible common grounds. They’re where people can come together.”
GIL SCHAFER ’84: The Traditionalist
While he was designing his own house 20 years ago in New York’s Hudson Valley, Gil Schafer learned an important lesson about where, exactly, the line between classical high style and cozy lies.
Schafer knew he wanted the house to be in the Greek Revival mode, a classical style with roots in the area as far back as the 1830s. When he started investigating the architectural history of the Hudson Valley, he found that architects had created and sold Greek Revivalstyle pattern book templates to developers and builders. But these diagrams “didn’t necessarily look like the Greek Revival farmhouses that I was seeing,” says Schafer. He realized that local builders altered these designs on the fly to suit their budgets, skill levels, or the resources available—applying some homespun ingenuity to get the job done just well enough. And somehow, that made these houses better. “There’s less ornament,” says Schafer. “It’s just a little less fancy. It felt more authentic, but it also felt more comfortable.”
Today, with his eponymous New York City-based firm, the most critical decisions on any project are when to “break the perfection of the ideal,” he says. Schafer combines high style motifs with traditional American building types steeped in intentional imperfection. That means barns that are equal parts picturesque and commonplace, or subtle new takes on regional housing traditions (saltboxes in New England or Spanish Colonial in California).
Focusing on residential work, Schafer’s traditionalist oeuvre offers allusions to a sophisticated and heralded past, with an acknowledgement of the way people live today, all detailed in the two books he’s written: A Place to Call Home: Tradition, Style, and Memory in the New American House and The Great American House: Tradition for the Way We Live Now. His houses are warm, inviting, and open, with any air of chilly formality evaporating at the hearth. Swapping cramped parlors for generous kitchens and ensuring an easy flow of people, air, and perhaps some joy and laughter across the space, he’s starting from a sturdy set of values—amenable, he says, to the ceaseless tide of architecture’s evolution, which somehow never strays too far. “It’s a language of architecture,” he says, “that’s endured for centuries and reinvents itself with each time period.
JEAN-GABRIEL NEUKOMM ’90: Details Matter
As Jean-Gabriel Neukomm’s New York-based practice has expanded to include ever-larger mixed-use residential projects on both coasts, he’s been careful not to forget that rigorous, quality architecture has to work on the largest and smallest of scales. In JG Neukomm Architecture’s largest project to date, he designed the interiors for a multi-tower residential development called LA Metropolis in downtown Los Angeles, more than 2,000 units across one million square feet, where he mined the neighborhood’s Art Deco history for an understated and abstracted take on the city’s first age of architectural exuberance.
Yet, “one of my favorite things to design on any project is the elevator interior,” he says. “It’s tactile and it’s enveloping.” And it’s often a surprise. At his Ashland residential building in Brooklyn, the elevator is covered in a laser-cut rosette pattern layered on top of smoky mirrored glass, creating depth and texture. “You need to look at small details,” he says. “The drive for my interest in designing furniture is not that I just want to do furniture. I want to look at the project at the scale where you sit on something or touch something. Just because it’s smaller doesn’t make it qualitatively less interesting.”
Neukomm’s current firm—launched in 2017 after he spent 15 years as a founding partner at SPAN Architecture— focuses on retail, hospitality, and residential projects, but whatever the building type, an emphasis on photography often informs the work. For LA Metropolis, his own photos of Art Deco architecture in downtown L.A. inspired his adaptation of the theme. For Brooklyn’s Ashland, he designed a floral lobby mosaic from his digitally altered photos of architectural details in Brooklyn, wrapping residents in an immersive, tactile experience. Neukomm uses photography as a tool to bring a wider world of cultural context into his projects, and as a throwback to his time at Haverford, where he studied philosophy. “I see the photography as an arm of a more humanities-driven starting point,” he says—a chance to experiment with color, composition, and light outside of any narrowly defined discipline.
As a philosophy student, well-practiced at wrestling with abstraction, Neukomm was interested in methodologies, tracking the epistemology of craft and creation. “How do you make something? Why do you make something?” were the questions he kept returning to. “All I was doing was writing methodologies for making something,” he says. After a while, he came to a realization that it might be good to get his hands dirty, and that led him to architecture.
BRIAN DOHERTY ’07: Material Inspiration
In his time with BOSS.architecture in Denver, Brian Doherty has been blessed with clients that show up with trunkloads of school lunch trays, test tubes, and empty liquor bottles, and leave it to him to figure out what to do with it all. In a series of restaurants for Chef Justin Cucci, Doherty and BOSS created spaces whose textural and material variety emanate from the second lives given to discarded objects. At Vital Root, an open-air dining room is paneled in hundreds of school lunch trays, abstracted into bands of color, fronted by a series of troughs planted with herbs. At Ophelia’s (a restaurant and concert venue), the rear wall of the stage is a screen of old radios, a jigsaw puzzle of molded plastic and tuning knobs zip-tied to a welded steel mesh. Server stations are divided from the dining room with glowing, transparent acrylic cylinders pulled from Xerox machines. To attract patrons toward the bar, a wall is formed out of green glass Jägermeister bottles, laid on their sides and layered in an offset brick pattern.
“What we’re always interested in is creating spaces that are both modern and also timeless,” he says. “Part of the challenge is to create something that’s going to live beyond a moment in time. It’s about making it so you don’t see Jägermeister bottles. You see color and texture and light.”
Doherty also designs office and residential projects with BOSS, which he says are both being influenced by the restaurant and hospitality sector. But interiors-focused hospitality design, he says, holds a special appeal. Without the functional constraints of weather and climate, there’s free rein inside to create “a little world in and of itself,” he says.
KATHARINE STORR ’08: The Provocateur
Though she practices with the architecture firm Allford Hall Monaghan Morris in London, Katharine Storr keeps some design inspiration to the side for SLAB, the entity she and a partner use to pursue charity projects, design competitions, and other speculative endeavors. “It’s my extracurricular,” she says.
Her Postcode M25 project for an affordable housing design competition imagines housing interlaced with green space built on top of the M25 motorway that rings London, preserving what’s left of the city’s green periphery and plugging into existing transit infrastructure. A bit more down-to-earth is her Playhouse Rock project, a playhouse raffled off as a fundraiser for a Dallas, Texas, children’s nonprofit. It’s a bright purple and yellow hutch for boisterous joy, where nearly every surface and material is a percussive musical instrument.
On Postcode M25: “It started out as a pie-in-the-sky idea. I don’t think it’s completely unfeasible, but it’s definitely pushing the boundaries of what the government and builders are willing to do. It’s hard to take risks on big new ideas, but at the same time, the scale of the problem is such that it needs some big new ideas. There’s a lot of quite feasible aspects to this scheme. In fact, they’re already building part of Heathrow over the M25 on the west side of the city.”
On Playhouse Rock: “The energy and excitement of it is important to the sentiment in which it was designed. There are times when architecture should be serious; there are also times when architecture needs to go out on a limb and be provocative and enjoyable.”