Imagining a New Model for Cross-disciplinary Design

FV-SK-2_webInterdisciplinary, experimental design is integral to the work of Sheila Kennedy, FAIA, MArch ’84 and J. Frano Violich, FAIA, MArch ’84. Their firm, Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA MATx), located in Boston’s emerging Newmarket District, has established a new model for practice that integrates material research with the practice of architecture. KVA MATx engages design across scales exploring architecture, resilient urban design, and new forms of infrastructure for emerging public needs.

After first meeting as peers during orientation in Piper Auditorium at the Graduate School of Design (GSD), Kennedy and Violich came to realize mutual sensibilities during their design education. Interning at leading architectural practices in Switzerland and winning a jointly authored design competition (including stepping on the finished boards to leave material footprints) were among the experiences that revealed commonalities and led the duo to start their experimental practice in 1990. At the intersection of material fabrication and digital technology, KVA MATx “explores the paradox between the raw status of natural materials, like wood or clay brick,” Violich says, “and how technologies can begin to expand the uses of those materials—how a material culture in architecture can evolve and become part of our everyday lives.” Through use and expanded “mis-use,” materials and natural resources are deployed to expand the public life of buildings and citiesFV-SK-1-(1)_web

MATx, the interdisciplinary research unit at KVA that Kennedy, leads works in collaboration with artists, scientists, manufacturers, cultural institutions, and public agencies. MATx is exploring two design approaches for next generation infrastructure. The first is the form and program of clean energy. According to Kennedy, “Distributed energy operates at multiple scales and has the ability to expand the fields of architecture, urban design, and energy design. MATx questions what the agency and territory of the designer can be and seeks to use design as a vehicle to integrate a spatial and social dimension to clean energy.” Currently, MATx is working with major energy networks in Australia, India, and Brazil to create and develop a new culture of clean energy in urban residential developments. The second area of inquiry is the creation of new uses and design applications for bio-materials. In several parts of the globe, MATx is developing energy efficient ways to form biodegradable and abundant materials such as areca leaves and bamboo. By looking beyond disciplinary boundaries, Kennedy and Violich’s award-winning practice is continually innovating across disciplines, materials, and cultures.FV-SK-3_web

Through designs that create new uses for carbon-zero materials, KVA MATx’s work invites connections that link people with activities and spaces. These connections have been formed both globally, with projects like the IBA Soft House, a live/work residential development for the Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA) in Hamburg, Germany, and locally, with the Tozzer Anthropology Building at Harvard University. To transform the Tozzer Library into a unified space for Harvard’s Anthropology Department, KVA MATx re-clad and reinvented the 1971 building in a high-performance brick and copper envelope while reusing the existing building’s infrastructure and foundation. The interior was transformed by a lightwell that unites and redefines classrooms and social spaces. Completed in 2014, this project recently won the 2016 Hobson Award, the single highest honor given to a building by the Boston Society of Architects, AIA. Additionally, KVA MATx has redefined social spaces for collaboration and engagement for Harvard College.

Kennedy and Violich are bridging innovation in practice and design education, which aligns with GSD Dean Mohsen Mostafavi’s vision for collaboration across disciplines and fields, and between the academy, industry, and the public sphere, to address global challenges. Kennedy and Violich are longtime mentors of aspiring architects at Harvard College, where their two children are juniors. Kennedy was an associate professor at the GSD while also serving as Director of the MArch II program from 1991 to 1995. Currently, as Professor of Architecture at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, she views the collaboration of “faculty coming together to work across schools” as a key contributing factor to Boston’s development as a city for innovation. This fall, Violich is teaching the GSD option studio Brick: Thick/Thin, which aims to challenge perceived notions of brick in an increasingly digital and networked world. Reflecting his view of the GSD’s “strong direction of being inclusive of the allied disciplines of design” Violich’s architecture studio includes MAUD, architecture, and landscape architecture students. Through working with the International Masonry Institute and the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers locally and traveling to Bogota, Colombia—“the City of Brick”—Violich’s aim is for “students to innovate through understanding how archetypical details can be brought—and thought—together with computational design. While the discipline tends to still emphasize thinness and transparency, the goal of this studio is to explore how a new opacity, a new thickness, could be imagined in an architectural response to contemporary issues of labor, climate, social collectivity, and form.” The studio will migrate outdoors as students invent full-scale brick constructions on site at the GSD. In addition to educating design students, Kennedy and Violich recognize the value of hiring GSD alumni. Alex Shelly MArch ’13 is an associate in their practice, and many GSD students have contributed to the KVA MATx office as interns.

Architectural education is more important now than it ever has been. Design education is creating knowledge that allows students to imagine alternative futures and set up strategies for how to get there from the present. For these reasons, KVA MATx supports the GSD and other institutions that are continually pushing forward.
~Sheila Kennedy, FAIA, MArch ’84

As Sert Council members who engage with the GSD alumni community and support the School, Kennedy and Violich perceive great value in addressing design culture and education. “The GSD is in a powerful position to shape the design professions. Supporting the GSD means that we are investing in critical design research for diverse voices that ask questions and look to the future” said Violich. Kennedy emphasizes the societal value of innovative, forward-thinking design training. “Architectural education is more important now than it ever has been. Design education is creating knowledge that allows students to imagine alternative futures and set up strategies for how to get there from the present. For these reasons, KVA MATx supports the GSD and other institutions that are continually pushing forward.”

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J. Frano Violich, FAIA, MArch ’84 leads GSD alumni tour of Golkin Hall at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

In addition to supporting the next generation of designers, the duo engages with the GSD’s robust alumni community. In May 2016 around the AIA Conference in Philadelphia, they hosted a tour of the recently completed, and KVA MATx-designed, Golkin Hall for the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Innovating with brick, their practice employed parametric software to study how to bring natural light down to the School’s lowest levels. For Violich, the tour was “a special experience to share our work with fellow alumni, to converse on pressing urban challenges, and to hear new ideas which alumni of all ages are bringing to the conversation.”

Kennedy and Violich offer a vision for the future of the design professions that is consistent with the GSD’s interdisciplinary platform. With their design research and practice at KVA MATx, their continued support of GSD design students, and their engagement with the GSD alumni community, Kennedy and Violich are demonstrating how the agency of design can operate on both disciplinary and professional terms.