Architecture Is for Everyone

At Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), Interboro Partners, an interdisciplinary and relatively young firm of three GSD alums Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore, said “architecture is for everyone.” As a way of introduction, Jerold Kayden, a former professor of theirs, affectionately characterized their practice with five key attributes: incredibly creative, versatile (employing many methods), academic (taking a critical approach), entrepreneurial, and famous.

Architecture clearly has a broad definition at the firm. With backgrounds in architecture, urban planning, and urban design, the firm’s three founders capitalize on whatever skills they have in order to achieve a common goal. Kayden jokingly suggests that the only missing professional title among the three is landscape architect. One of their most recent projects, Living with the Bay, one of the winners of HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition, would suggest otherwise though (see brief video above). Collaborating with a host of partners, including landscape architects at H+N+S, this complex project blurs the disciplinary boundaries between urban planning, architecture, engineering, and landscape architecture.

An interdisciplinary approach is one of the hallmarks of the firm. In fact, Armborst calls refers to this approach as their “means,” the way in which they, as designers, do their job of influencing outcomes in the built environment.

One of the first projects Interboro mentions is Improve your lot! in Detroit, an example of a research project based on the idea of doing “good detective work.” It takes curiosity and persistence to “suspend judgement for as long as possible in order to acquire a kind of located knowledge,” as D’Oca described it. Creating this “located knowledge” involved documenting the various needs and uses of private property in this shrinking city. It meant learning from the citizen’s “unplanned” transformations.

When the team discovered thousands of homeowners were expanding their property by acquiring adjacent lots, redrawing the city’s blocks, they termed the phenomenon “blotting”–that is, making a “blot” (a block of lots).

Blotting Map / Interboro Partners

Armborst recognizes that their “work as urban planners is then something like that of a ghost writer,” using their training to really tell this story of blotting. “Unplanned transformations are funny,” says Armborst, but they are also inspirational and useful in hinting at the city’s needs.

D’Oca explained Holding Pattern, a temporary public space at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York. He describes how the design within the museum’s courtyard began in an untraditional way. They began, in fact, with the end. They thought about the possible afterlife of the materials they were using for their design at the beginning.

Holding Pattern / Interboro Partners

Instead of asking the museum about its needs, they turned to the museum’s neighboring community. D’Oca points out that their “client” thus shifted from MoMA to 50 clients within Long Island City, which included schools, non-profits, and other organizations in need. They charted their needs and wants and came up with a plan to treat the courtyards as a sort of stockyard for these future neighborhood improvements. Each item in the exhibit was tagged with a card explaining where the item would end up. They created a public space design wholly shaped by the neighborhood beyond MoMA’s walls.

Holding Pattern / Interboro Partners
Holding Pattern / Interboro Partners

Here’s how Armborst describes it: their design approach was a bit like Iron Chef, where one chef gets a whole bunch of ingredients and must do something creative with them. On a more serious note, Theodore calls this one of their “small, catalytic projects” that positively impacted Long Island City.

Unplanned transformations. Small budgets, limited time. These begin to characterize Interboro’s creative toolbox. Architectural tools, however, are for Interboro something to be used with caution. The firm is well aware of the power of these tools to shape the built environment.

In fact, their forthcoming book The Arsenal of Inclusion and Exclusion aims to reveal, in an encyclopedic manner, the many ways in which the built environment is built with “weapons.” These weapons of exclusion, like a uncomfortable public bench or even a private golf course, shape our communities.

Cover illustration by Lesser Gonzalez for Interboro’s forthcoming book The Arsenal of Inclusion and Exclusion / Interboro Partners

The encyclopedia is one of Interboro’s many strategies for making architecture for everyone. D’Oca says it best: “We think only architecture that pays close attention to what is happening out there engages in any meaningful way.” The simplicity of their thinking is profound: Interboro Partners seeks to understand what forces are acting on them in order to improve their ability to act as architects and planners.

This guest post is by Lara Mehling, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

One thought on “Architecture Is for Everyone

  1. Maureen Coffey 11/21/2014 / 7:31 am

    I once was stranded in a big European city close to a shopping mall. I had to wait for someone who obviously was delayed (there were no mobile phones yet). The surroundings of the mall were beautifully landscaped, maintained and designed. Benches and tress everywhere, litter baskets, everything very tidy. It was a hot day and the sun was shining with no clouds. So I sat on a bench close to a tree. Unfortunately the shadow from the tree did not “quite reach”. And you could not sit near the tree at least not if you “were behaving yourself”. So I looked around for another bench. Then another. All the while little cafes with canopies were in full view but I didn’t feel like spending money. After a while I got suspicious. I looked at every tree and bench combination in a rather Sherlock Holmesian manner until I had corroborated the fact that each and every bench had been placed so and every tree planted so that under no circumstance, no matter what season, could it provide shadow for a bench. But just. This must have been shrewd planning and it was then that I came to understand architecture as a set of “weapons” though not in a pleasant sense. Depends on how you define your customer obviously …

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