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“Architecture Making is Like the Unveiling of a Surprise": In Conversation with Leers Weinzapfel Associates

“Architecture Making is Like the Unveiling of a Surprise": In Conversation with Leers Weinzapfel Associates
“Architecture Making is Like the Unveiling of a Surprise": In Conversation with Leers Weinzapfel Associates, University of Massachusetts Amherst John W. Olver Design Building. Photo: Albert Vecerka / Esto
University of Massachusetts Amherst John W. Olver Design Building. Photo: Albert Vecerka / Esto

Boston-based Leers Weinzapfel Associates was founded by two women, Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel, in 1982, later joined by a next generation of partners, Josiah Stevenson, and Tom Chung. The majority of their work is done on university campuses across America, but this can hardly be identified as the firm’s focus, as campuses are actually cities in miniature, containing nearly every building type imaginable. The point of difference, however, is that campus buildings are generally designed with more idealism than projects in our chaotic cities and mundane suburbs.

University of Massachusetts Amherst John W. Olver Design Building. Photo: Albert Vecerka / Esto Wentworth Institute of Technology Center for Engineering Innovation and Sciences, Boston. Photo: Albert Vecerka / Esto University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex. Photo: Peter Aaron / Esto University of Massachusetts Amherst John W. Olver Design Building. Photo: Ngoc Doan + 32

The firm now numbers 30 architects—just enough staff to do the kind of work they like doing, but not exceeding the size of a familial creative studio where everyone knows each other well. It received the 2007 AIA Architecture Firm Award for their numerous complex projects, distinguished by memorable forms and expressive detailing. The following conversation with the firm’s four principals took place in their office in Boston. We discussed their aspirations, values, dreams, and why architects must be optimistic…all the time.  

University of Massachusetts Amherst John W. Olver Design Building. Photo: Albert Vecerka / Esto
University of Massachusetts Amherst John W. Olver Design Building. Photo: Albert Vecerka / Esto

Vladimir Belogolovsky: It is always interesting to know how one starts a firm. Andrea and Jane, you met early in your careers, while working at the office of Earl Flansburgh in nearby Cambridge. Could you touch on your idea of forming an office together?

Jane Weinzapfel: Well, meeting each other was terrific, because there were so few women in architecture back then. Even seeing another woman in a studio was a rare event. We came to Flansburgh right after we graduated, just a few weeks apart. In fact, for a while, we were the only women there. It was a wonderful opportunity to dive into the world of architecture. 

Andrea Leers: Cambridge was an exciting place then. [Walter] Gropius was still a part of the Architects Collaborative [TAC]. Our boss Earl worked at the Collaborative, and we started just a couple of years after he established his own firm. He was very supportive of us and other women, which was very unusual at the time. He was our mentor. Jane and I worked on projects together, and we became registered architects together. At the time, we were just good friends. The idea of forming an office came much later.  

University of Arkansas Stadium Drive Residence Halls. Image courtesy of LWA
University of Arkansas Stadium Drive Residence Halls. Image courtesy of LWA

VB: When you decided to work together in 1982, what kind of firm did you set out to build? Two women, starting an architectural practice—very unusual, right? 

JW: It wasn’t very unusual to us.

AL: We didn’t notice [laughs], because we were always the only women—in school, in practice, with clients. Always. We saw ourselves as architects; not as women architects. So, what we cared about most was to make really terrific architecture in the public realm. We were children of the ’60s, so we were socially motivated. And we wanted to make a workplace that was collaborative for everyone to enjoy. That was very unusual at the time, so we had to invent it. There was no model for us to look at. The truth is that we both had other obligations—I was teaching and Jane had a small child—and we had to collaborate; we couldn’t do all the work ourselves. These two goals are still our priorities, and Josiah and Tom have been with us for so long because they share these goals.  

University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex. Photo: Peter Aaron / Esto
University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex. Photo: Peter Aaron / Esto

VB: You have done a variety of projects, but mainly on college campuses, such as university energy facilities, campus centers, academic arts centers, architecture schools, and so on. Do you consciously pursue these types of projects? 

Tom Chung: Not really. We do all kinds of projects—from university campus masterplans to a pedestrian bridge, from courthouses, museums, and police stations to theaters, youth centers, and performing arts centers. We are particularly looking for projects that can have public impact. What we don’t do much of here is development work, but that is because we are not sought for this—we are not trying to avoid them. The kind of work we do may seem too risky for some because, for us, the bottom line was never a priority, and none of our projects are about maximizing profits.   

Josiah Stevenson: We are purposely generalists. We don’t want to be hospital or science lab experts. We focus on designing for the urban condition. However, in those types where we have completed multiple projects as you mentioned, we have continued a dialogue of refinement and exploration. Often, this is about solving programmatic challenges in better ways. For example, bringing light into courtrooms in the heart of a courthouse. This has improved in each of our latest courthouses. That said, we are still interested in design issues that are universal, such as a building’s scale in its context, how buildings’ modern materials relate to their surroundings, and how this impacts the experience of a place.

Wentworth Institute of Technology Center for Engineering Innovation and Sciences, Boston. Photo: Albert Vecerka / Esto
Wentworth Institute of Technology Center for Engineering Innovation and Sciences, Boston. Photo: Albert Vecerka / Esto

VB: Yet, you have a long list of infrastructure projects, such as chilled water plants, energy plants, heat and power plants. Is this a coincidence?  

JW: It has grown into a kind of focus, hasn’t it? [Laughs.] This is what happens when you do good work, you become known and sought after. We did these projects competitively and at prominent places, so we were noticed. Everyone said: “These things are beautiful.” And they are each different, even though their function is similar. Because we don’t want to do what we have already done or repeat how we did it, we are looking for ways of reinventing traditions simply because we live in different times. Dogmas must be rethought. So, the reality is that we don’t see ourselves as specialists. Our main focus is on public realm with urban components and potential to integrate architecture and landscape. We are paying attention to how our new buildings fit into existing ensembles whether in cities or on university campuses. We experiment with new materials, and we never want to just blend in. We express the materials and building techniques that we can use today. We react to the scale that’s already established. We are never explosive. We are never all about us; we treat the existing context as a colleague. Earlier buildings need to be treated with dignity. We are, of course, doing something different, but it is never totally divorced from what is already there. We find this infrastructure work exciting and important to the urban environment.   

AL: The story of our practice is about taking opportunities as they came. When we started, the only opportunities we had were in public sector. Maybe some firms were more intentional about their directions, but we didn’t have that luxury at the start. We did what was available to us. 

University of Connecticut Storrs Oak and Laurel Halls. Photo: Anton Grassl / Esto
University of Connecticut Storrs Oak and Laurel Halls. Photo: Anton Grassl / Esto

VB: Another one of your interests is mass timber construction, which is becoming a trend in architecture. How did you start this practice?

TC: This was another opportunity that arose in one of our projects, the John W. Olver Design Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As we were designing the building, their own faculty raised the possibility to use the building as a demonstration project of mass timber technology, which is the subject of the school’s research. So the building that began as a steel structure was changed to mass timber when the university gave the approval. Since then, we have done other projects with timber, including a 700-bed student housing project at the University of Arkansas that is the largest mass timber project under construction in the US. This direction is now one of my interests, and currently, I am teaching a studio in timber design at Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction, in conjunction with our research in the office.

VB: What are the advantages of using timber over traditionally used materials?

TC: There is a confluence of factors that make these projects possible now. First, wood has a much smaller carbon footprint, which makes it a better environmental and sustainable alternative to conventional structural materials. It has massive potential to shape our growing cities in a way that takes into consideration the embodied energy of our buildings rather than just operational energy. Second is technology, which is finally ready for large scale projects. It is now possible to engineer structural members in wood to have the strength and predictability of steel and concrete. There is more control and precision, as most of the work is done in factories and then assembled on site. So, wood construction can be done faster, quieter, and safer. Heavy timber buildings are also more fire resistant than, let’s say, steel buildings that lose their integrity after the fireproofing is gone. But in heavy timber buildings—we are talking about wood members that are at least eight inches thick in each dimension—there is enough mass, so that the surface burns and creates a charred layer that protects the rest of the wood and maintains its structural integrity. And finally, the wood is an appealing material because of its natural texture, aroma, and warmth; its use adds to the richness of architecture—spaces that studies are showing improves user wellbeing and productivity. Now, codes are changing for this type of structure, and IBC [International Building Code] just approved building up to eighteen stories tall in wood prescriptively. Each project is different. Certain things you can’t find in the client’s brief. You need to bring your own feelings and intuition to raise buildings to the level of architecture.

JW: As you can see now, we are interested here in developing both new archetypes and materials, and also in the nuts and bolts of every detail, and how to put things together. New materials give us opportunities for new tectonics and spaces that can be achieved. We are not afraid of talking about beauty and poetry here.

United States Federal Courthouse, Orlando. Photo: Peter Aaron / Esto
United States Federal Courthouse, Orlando. Photo: Peter Aaron / Esto

VB: In your 2011 book Made to Measure, you said: “Good architecture is like good tailoring. It is about form, shape, and silhouette.” What are your other intentions besides these descriptors? What is a good building for you?

AL: We are searching for a strong identity in every project, for an appropriate fit for a particular place and purpose. We look for clarity, we typically use primary forms that are bold and memorable. We search for permanence, serenity, layered light, and particularly examine the human experience of spaces. Besides form, shape, and silhouette, there is comfort, there is craft, texture. In terms of our intentions, we are dedicated to architecture that supports social wellbeing—that connects people to people and people to places. We try to create architecture that is grounded in context. We practice site-specific design, weaving together buildings and landscapes with the urban fabric. We are devoted to the art of building. We delight in both traditional craft and digital technology, touching senses through material detailing and light. We are dedicated to a sustainable future with the goal of net zero energy for all of our buildings by 2030. We are inspired by a made-to-measure process. 

VB: Sounds like a manifesto. 

AL: Well, it is! This is what we care about. These are the values that we all share here.

JW: I would also stress the importance of the investigation itself that is a consistent approach for us. I so enjoy the fact that you can start a project, and you have no idea where it’s going to end. To us, architecture making is like the unveiling of a surprise. Every project is driven by a unique constellation of people investigating, pushing, and struggling to make something sensible and beautiful. And how every project happens is always partially a mystery. [Laughs.]

JS: Also, we are in the midst of a couple of revolutions: one of production and one of fabrication that we must address. Building Integrated Modeling or BIM is now the standard method of design documentation but the real change continues to be in fabrication. With new technologies, buildings can now be 3D-printed, and custom-building parts can be formed with inexpensive means of production. Complex shapes are no longer cost prohibitive, and building forms are becoming more complex. Our work has capitalized on this form making as well.

Franklin County Justice Center, Greenfield, MA. Photo: Brad Feinknopf
Franklin County Justice Center, Greenfield, MA. Photo: Brad Feinknopf

VB: What do you think of the actual impact by architects on the built environment? Architects like to quote big numbers and how the built environment constitutes over 60 percent of the world’s assets with two-thirds of the pollution coming from buildings, so the premise is that if we act responsively we can change the world. But in reality, what is the percentage of all buildings that is produced by architects…two percent? Most buildings are engineered by contractors, developers, builders, and so on. And then what is the percentage of that two percent that is any good? So, relatively speaking, if what architects do is statistically insignificant, why are we talking so much about technology and social values? Why not focus on what architects are trained to do—to create emotionally charged, beautiful spaces that are so rare today?  

AL: Well you might as well ask—what’s the good of great writers, great composers, or great painters? Look at all the words that are written; only a few are really good, right? And of those, only a few writers are really, really good. Architecture is the same. Architecture is a part of cultural production and the great majority of cultural production is done by everybody, not by architects. But there is that small percent, and the small percent of that, which become great landmarks of our culture that will last for a very long time. Is that a serious impact? These projects add to the legacy of human culture. That’s what’s important about what we do. We are conscious of that. Every novelist hopes to be the one to produce important and lasting work. We all hope to add something important to the culture of our time. So what if we don’t do much! It doesn’t matter; that’s always been the case. We should aspire to produce meaningful and delightful architecture. That’s why architecture is not just problem-solving. It is inspirational and about making life better in the parts and corners that you can. We dream about something exciting, and then we work on making it real. How wonderful is that? Making architecture is a positive act! And maybe not everyone will appreciate certain highpoints of architecture. We don’t need to amaze everyone all the time. Constant stimulation is superficial. But if only a few people look at good architecture and we are contributing to that, that’s fine with us. We are optimists! 

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Cite: Vladimir Belogolovsky. "“Architecture Making is Like the Unveiling of a Surprise": In Conversation with Leers Weinzapfel Associates" 17 Apr 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/915268/architecture-making-is-like-the-unveiling-of-a-surprise-in-conversation-with-leers-weinzapfel-associates/> ISSN 0719-8884
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