An innovative partnership between the academy and private practice is allowing design professionals to learn by experiencing great architecture firsthand.

An innovative partnership between the academy and private practice is allowing design professionals to learn by experiencing great architecture firsthand.

Matthew Pearson, a young designer with Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Co., will never forget the passion and humanity in Swiss architect Franco Moro’s voice as he described his vision for a home for the elderly high in the Swiss Alps. The structure, vertical in nature, opens onto a plaza at the top, adjacent to an elementary school. “The way he used materials, site, view, and program as a way to contribute to healing was amazing,” Pearson recalls. “Combining program created this incredible synergy between generations.”

It was 2004, the first year of a now six-year-old collaboration between Hanbury Evans and Virginia Tech. “Travel and exposure to a broad range of architecture and architectural research reminds us that we are always students,” says Wesley Page. He, too, recalls the Moro day, and a second project, a commission for a train car repair facility. It was simple and elegant. In the United States, it probably would have been a steel box, he says “Constantly asking, What if, this is where we need to be to mentally grow design.”
Profession + Academy

The International Design Retreat is one of three Hanbury Evans Legacy Programs. Others include a juried competition for upper-level student Summer Scholars and the Virginia Design Medal, which is an award and stipend offered to an architectural faculty member who spends several weeks with the firm each summer critiquing project work, participating in design decisions, and lecturing on personal research.

 “We are a firm that desires to be the best of the best, to build a practice that produces exceptional design, to attract talented people, and to be a global resource for our clients. To do this, we must invest beyond our project work, and see beyond our immediate projects sites. We must use the world as our textbook and inspiration,” says Jane Cady Wright, the firm’s president and architect of the program.

“To create great spaces, we must experience them,” she says. “There isn’t a better lesson in creating community than to walk through or measure the winding and narrow village streets, or to sit in the town square and watch the people interact, or to sense the awe of a grand space and to understand it isn’t necessarily scale, but light, sound, and the authentic use of rich materials that underpin a great space.”

The practice of traveling to learn dates thousands of years to the cradle of civilization, Wright adds, recalling Asia’s influence on Frank Lloyd Wright, and the influence of Italy and France on Thomas Jefferson. “I believe that travel and intense experiential learning as a team accelerates the rate at which we learn.”

“The integration of the academy with the profession,” is what is important to Jack Davis, Reynolds Metals Professor and dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies. The travels provide an evidence-based context, he says. “When you can experience a project and come out with two points of view, one professional and one academic, it is extremely valuable.”
It is a rich collaboration, and one that is unusual in the profession. Thom Lowther, who was senior director of the American Institute of Architect’s Continuing Education System when the program was established, says seminars similar to the Virginia Tech/Hanbury Evans example are rare. “Most universities don’t do it to this level.”

Virginia Tech began its undergraduate study abroad program in 1968 with the help of Swiss-born Olivio and Lucy Ferrari, who both taught in Blacksburg for nearly 30 years. The college eventually bought and renovated the 250-year-old Villa Maderni, as the Center for European Studies and Architecture in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. Olivio was the first director and continued in that role until he died in 1994. Lucy Ferrari served as director until 1997 and continues as an advisor today.

About 15 years ago, Tech alumni inquired about tapping into study abroad. While there are some fellowships for recent graduates, there are few opportunities for seasoned architects. So Tech gave it a try, starting the International Architecture and Design course, sanctioned by the AIA. When Davis heard Wright, a class of 1980 alumnus, talk about her firm’s aspirations, a collaboration was born.

Since 2004, 44 firm members — between eight and 15 per year — have been tapped for the experience, to destinations that have included southern Switzerland, northern Italy, Egypt, and Barcelona, Spain. The firm pays tuition, room, and board; participants are responsible for air travel. Architects earn AIA Continuing Education Units. Each year, the program is opened to others in the company but at their own expense.

Davis has structured the curriculum with Robert Dunay, an architect, professor, and director of the Center for Design Research in the School of Architecture and Design. Long-term university contacts, professional networking, and assistance from Lucy Ferrari have enabled them to knit interesting and timely programs, without ever repeating a theme.

For example, most recently, Peter Zumthor’s work was the prime focus. Zumthor, the 2009 Pritzker Prize winner, has lectured to Tech students at Villa Maderni. “We’ve been watching his work since the ’90s,” says Davis. The schedule was set several months before the Prize was announced in April, though Davis admits it gave this year’s experience additional dimension.

Overall, the Hanbury Evans program has been deliberate and intentional about visiting contemporary masters. It is also tightly structured and well-planned. “When you’re traveling with a group of professionals, you cannot take a big risk that something won’t work. You can’t just wing it,” Davis says.

The seminar, or retreat, is much more than tour-and-lecture format. “It’s glimpsing behind the scenes, seeing the personalities, immersing in the cultures,” Dunay says, most recently illustrated by a visit to the “campus” of Swiss architect and industrial designer Riccardo Blumer in the town of Varese. In Blumer’s classroom, the former church of San Giovanni at Casciago, missing floor planks are patched with metal grates through which students view centuries-old bones in the crypt below. His lab contains low-tech props: a kitchen pot atop a butane-fueled burner to test the properties of boiled leather, glass tubes of sugary syrup to assess the reflective properties of light. His home, in an adjacent former priest’s residence, is an amalgamation of abandoned design experiments alongside highly designed furniture and found objects.

This window into how the creative process is influenced by research made a huge impression on Emily Erpelding, a young and recently licensed interior designer. Erpelding’s group crowded around a work table, surrounded by shelves of models in various stages of development. As Blumer lectured, “It was a profound moment for me, one that fully captured a concept from design study to completion,” she recalls

Sketching as Research

One of the retreat’s “products” is a priceless inventory of participants’ photography and field sketches. These are shared with the broader firm in special presentations, and they form a reference library of tapestries, textures, and traditions.

“These retreats facilitate a wide range of activity, though perhaps none resonate so completely across the entire group as sketching as a way of digesting or taking ownership of what each person is seeing and experiencing,” says Rob Reis, a design principal who traveled to Riva and northern Italy. “The sketches become a sort of graphic language, with nuance not unlike inflection and tone in verbal conversation. Again and again, I saw colleagues re-acquaint through visiting, contemplating, and then sketching, evoking the same emotions that seduced them into architecture in the first place.

“Sketching again for me was cathartic,” he continues. “I hadn’t done a ‘leisure sketch’ in 25 years. I nervously contemplated that first one at the tram station in Lugano, overlooking the city. That sketch was a release that brought a profound level of meaning to all that I would see — and draw — from that point forward. It has resulted in more sketching in my work process than ever before.”

Professor Dunay calls sketching a form of research. “The collegiality of the Hanbury Evans group, the camaraderie, is unique,” Dunay says. “On our most recent trip to Riva, for example, to see Wes helping others, teaching them how to see with the pencil was remarkable and rewarding.” He was referring to Page, who is the recipient of several international rendering awards.

The level of conversation cannot be overlooked. “Seeing new work and getting people to talk and engage differently from when they’re in the office” is an important result, says Davis.

Writing, too, is part of the process, whether notations in individual journals, such as one by an early participant, “In Carippo, the more you get lost, the more you find,” or a magazine article like one produced by Jessica and Matt Pearson upon their return from Egypt and published in the magazine MAGAZ in both English and Arabic.

A Shared Experience    

The retreats create a shared team experience for the “design conversation” so important to the firm.

Moro’s home for the elderly, for example, turned talk to the social responsibility of architecture. Zumthor’s work resulted in a materials study. His St. Benedict Chapel in the Alpine village of Sumvitg, in the Swiss canton of Graubünden, caused a discussion about connection to place. Renzo Piano’s Byler Museum inspired a brown bag lunch exchange about time, control, and commitment. “I’ve never seen such a beautiful object set so elegantly in a lush landscape. I was overwhelmed with the control,” says Stephen C. Wright, design principal.

The centuries of urban design represented in Barcelona provided a new collection of experiences for the firm’s campus master planners. “The street sections alone are a textbook of people-centered urbanity,” says Steven W. Gift, another design principal. Egypt’s mashrabya, decorative wooden screens that provide privacy, shade, and sun protection, encouraged a study of climatic response to environment.

 “One of the most valuable tools in our architectural tool kit is a broad understanding of what is possible. To experience design responses in different cultures, with different processes, in different contexts, allows me to view my designs and my life from a fresh perspective,” says D. Keith Storms, a campus planner. He continues, “I have a new collection of experiences from which to draw.”
Gregory Rutledge, a preservation architect, says, “Architects should never stop observing, questioning, and discovering, not just buildings, but the reasons why, as individuals and a society, we build. I have never appreciated historic context as much as I did on the Design Retreat, and that has changed how I research history and the context in which we build. History, architecture, economics, religion are all intertwined; historical influences are multifaceted.”

For all, the experience is a source of continual renewal and an inspiration of great places. Says professor Davis, “As human beings, we may enjoy one experience more than another, but they’ve all been rich. It’s about total immersion in the moment.”

Impact vs. Investment

Wright says the retreats have “radically elevated our design conversation and our designs over the past six years.” Her metrics are:

•    Enhanced design conversation across the firm regardless of experience level

•    Development of design values by distilling what we value about the big ideas and concepts and what makes the spaces and architecture exceptional to our team

•    Sharpened analytical abilities by experiencing design through a personal lens and hand, which books and lectures cannot communicate. This translates into increased analysis of the firm’s design work.

•    Shared points of reference for principals of design; team building with a touchstone to the pulse of good design referenced through a tool kit of experiences and memories

•    Enhanced communication by polishing how we communicate design concepts through required presentations of these experiences back to the firm

•    Clarity in work through developing vision statements for every project, which are used to measure internal success

•    Stimulated curiosity through understanding we must push ourselves outside our comfort zone every day to be curious and collaborate beyond required collaborations

•    Educating clients with brilliant examples of contextual work that illustrate that context is a not about style, but about empathetic use of material, scale and relationships

•    Experience-based reference materials through a collection of sketches and photographs that expand our analytical and image resources beyond what we ever imagined. These serve as exceptional resources in our work to inspire and communicate concepts to the team and our clients.

•    Ripple effect illustrated by the renewed vigor in bringing the world to the firm through additional venues — for example, our “Mag Tag” brown-bag lunches.

•    Connection to the academy by sustaining a relationship with the academic side of our profession. The integration of design and design research is liberating to colleagues and challenges our work.

•    Enhanced relationships by developing connections to people and places, both internally and externally, the benefits of which are immeasurable

Other consequences are nourishment and refreshment, attraction and retention. “The retreat shows a tremendous commitment by the firm to invest in its people. This made a big difference to me when I was considering making a professional change,” says Williams Hopkins, who went to Egypt.

“The retreat, in conjunction with our other Legacy Programs, foster a unique culture of cooperation, esprit de corps, continuing education, and a drive to excel in the work we produce — a culture where young raw talent can learn from experienced staff and vice versa,” says Louw Strydom.

Storms says young candidates almost always ask about the Legacy Programs. They also grab the attention of Summer Scholar applicants, who study the firm’s Web site before committing to the rigorous entry process. “I think it is a differentiator for our firm,” says Storms.

Hanbury Evans Chief Financial Officer Nicholas E. Vlattas adds, “Norfolk is not a Boston or Chicago or New York. This helps promote our region and our firm as a design environment.”

Most important to Wright is that employees understand the firm’s core purpose, to “enrich the human spirit and community through design.” She concludes, “We are the sum of our experiences.” Quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, she adds, “A mind stretched by a new idea never returns to its original position.”

Deborah Marquardt is an associate of Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Co. Though not an architect, she was invited to the 2009 Design Retreat, during which she even tried her hand at sketching. Spending time with colleagues helped her understand what is important to them about architecture and design. Prior to joining the firm, Marquardt was a journalist and magazine editor.