By Clifton Fordham
Philadelphia’s architectural lineage runs through Frank Furness, Paul Cret, Louis Kahn, Venturi, Scott Brown, and Kieran Timberlake. Now, Digsau, MOTO, and Bright Common are cementing their reputations as some of the leaders of the Philadelphia school of architecture. Like their predecessors, the principals of the three latter practices have strong connections with local architecture schools as teachers. The editors of this issue asked principals of Digsau, MOTO and Bright Common their thoughts on issues related to architectural education and Philadelphia that they see impacting the practice of architecture going forward:
What are your thoughts of the current state of architectural in Philadelphia? What distinguishes work in the city from work outside, and at the center vs. in the rest of the city?
[Digsau] There is a lot of interesting work happening in Philadelphia right now. We are inspired by projects ranging from large scale urban initiatives such the Rebuild Program and the development of the Navy Yard, to adaptive reuse and preservation work building on the city’s rich architectural heritage. While Center City may be yielding many of the more conspicuous work, neighborhoods such West Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, Northern Liberties, and South Kensington have all seen a number of transformative projects. The proliferation of multi-family housing throughout the city has an uneven level of quality which, over time, may present some unforeseen issues. However, overall we are very enthusiastic about the current state of architecture in Philadelphia.
[Moto] There is substantial construction going on in the center of the city. Much of it residential mid and high rise. It is an exciting time and there is a lot of ambition. Much of the projected work in west Philadelphia is substantial and driven by developers that have partnered with institutions, such as Drexel and Penn. There is some concern these projects have a generic architectural language. However, we have seen moments that have been gems, such as the Cira Green rooftop. The opportunity for many of the projects outside of the center of the city is to address social spaces public space.
[Bright Common] Philadelphia has a vibrant design scene with multiple subcultures. Its only when we started showing our work outside the city that we began to appreciate how uniquely inspiring it is to work in Philly’s [post-everything urban infill] context for the past few decades. We recently presented a net positive energy rowhouse development under construction and someone from Canada commented, “Wow, what’s in the water in Philly?!” There is an abundance of good work coming out of this place that is taking on both the climate and housing crises. We are finally seeing people make the connections between a holistic and healthy lifestyle and equitable, durable, beautiful, climate-conscious housing.
What has changed over the last decade that causes you to reassess the relationship between architecture and the academy?
[Digsau] Issues of equity, social justice and sustainability have clearly become much more critical over the past decade. Architecture sits in a unique place at the interface between society and the environment. As such, architects have amazing capacity to be advocates in addressing these issues. The focus of the academy needs to continue to shift towards pressing current issues and preparation of the next generation of architects to make an impact.
[Moto] There are a number of things. One of the great things I have seen is students’ sense of empowerment. This generation clearly understands the magnitude of the climate crisis. Additionally, their experience and required ability to handle significant extreme events, such as the pandemic, has forced them to think beyond the traditional approach to architecture. They are thinking, talking and reacting to real life world events. This has both made them more resilient and more aspirational. The academic world has at times pushed passed the accepted techniques and tools that practice employs. It is interesting that students come into practices with skills that are new to the practice. Things are changing so much and so quickly, even practicing architects from a decade ago feel behind at times.
[Bright Common] The most obvious change is the long overdue social justice reckoning of 2020 and its intersection with the Climate Crisis. There is a widening delta between the rich and poor, with less and less access to the benefits that good design can bring to society. There is a disturbingly viral and disconnected nature to capital ‘A’ architecture which has colluded with wealth, “progress”, and political aloofness for decades. Philadelphia has a real opportunity to teach place-based resilient design as we face the reality that the climate has already changed and will continue to do so. And our activities as architects have contributed to this. As difficult as it is to look into that mirror, I believe the academy has an enormous opportunity (and responsibility) to radically reposition itself to educate a new generation of architects for the challenge that is already upon us. To do anything else seems almost comical.
What qualities do you seek in new hires? Please elaborate in “soft” and “hard”skills? Can you relate this to your teaching?
[Digsau] Hard skills, such as a command of digital tools for both visualization and architectural production remain an important quality in new employees, as is a sound understanding of construction technology. However, soft skills such as the ability to think critically and communicate effectively are perhaps the most essential. To be truly innovative, critical thinking entails being both a problem seeker and a problem solver. Effective communication entails listening as much, if not more, than it does speaking.
[Moto] We look for people who can problem solve, while also being able to think conceptually, holistically and abstractly. We would call these soft skills. In regards to hard skills, we believe that if they have the above, in their approach and thinking, they can easily learn certain hard skills, such as Revit, graphic software, etc. We have always found that someone who has a good eye can learn the hard skills to necessary to be successful.
[Bright Common] Curiosity, which is unteachable. Either you have it or you don’t. Those that have it can’t imagine not finding the new idea, the new version, the next material, etc. We also look for people who sketch, a lot, and have a lot of ideas to share. It takes dozens of terrible sketches to get to anything worth talking about. It seems like some students don’t enjoy this process or are afraid to fail. Failure is the only way to success in design. Its iterative and messy. Digital technology has made this harder, but it’s just another tool. Use the tool, don’t let the tools use you. This relates directly to collaboration. We believe that no individual’s work is precious, so allowing ideas to merge, to create something we could never have done alone, yields the best results. We also value critical thinking skills. An Architecture degree teaches you a process for solving problems. You will need to apply that ‘design process’ to every task. This is the core of design thinking. It cannot end when you graduate. It’s easy to say “this is how it’s always been done.” That’s not what the industry needs, and that’s exciting. Now more than ever there are opportunities to change the industry. It’s a great time for young people with new ideas to jump in.
How should recent graduates be equipped to make a difference, immediately and long term, with Philadelphia practice in mind? What should the academy do more of?
[Digsau] We believe that openness to meaningfully engagement across industries and within communities is vital to contemporary practice. Making a difference in addressing the pressing issues of our time will not be accomplished as solitary architectural acts. Architectural education should continue to build advocacy, expertise in sustainable design and dramatic carbon reduction, and encourage collaboration throughout every level of the planning, design and construction processes.
[Moto] Students have the opportunity to make a difference immediately. Their skill sets, such as with augmented reality, virtual reality, facile abilities with multiple types of media, allow them to connect the profession to the current world and even help propel architecture into leadership in affecting bigger pictures, such as climate change. The academy should embrace the self-empowerment of this generation and continue to nurture it through embracing the necessary agility required to navigate continuously changing media and technology. This means making sure the makeup of a faculty provides a balance of required knowledge but openness to different forms of media, information and speed of change that is inherently part of this generation of students.
[Bright Common] The rudiments of design thinking and decision-making skills still need to be honed, preferably at the beginning, without the complexities of digital technology. Eighteen-year-old brains need more development prior to diving headlong into AI, but technology is important in later years when students are less resistant to laziness. Academia needs to expose and prioritize students to real world design problems (e.g. carbon use reduction) at an earlier stage with a little less focus on the giants of modernism. We need to ask why sustainability, resiliency, climate consciousness, and poverty eradication aren’t the very DNA of an Architecture program post-2020. We all talk about the Architecture 2030 Challenge- that’s less than eight graduating classes from now! Design institutions need to radically address their curricula and syllabi to meet this challenge. And last but not least, we need full student loan debt forgiveness. You cannot ask the next generation to solve for global warming when they’re saddled in lifetime debt.
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