The student voice of the Knowlton School of Architecture

Questions for Michael Piper

with Samuel Ludwig

What sort of strategies do you have on talking to those outside of architecture about architecture?

That’s one of our main interests in our (DUB Studio) work. The challenge is that we as architects are accustomed to having one way of speaking internally and then another way of speaking externally to people outside of the profession. What I’m interested in is finding a way of getting what we do and the language we use to operate legibly in both realms without having to dumb it down. In a sense, that means changing the way you speak and the words you choose and the ideas you represent. I am, maybe to a fault, obsessed with clarity.

Do you think that the much-celebrated BIG methodology of diagramming is a way to bridge that gap?

I respect them a lot for their ability to get their ideas across about architecture and to make the work legible, but I think that this is an example of dumbing down architecture. He (Bjarke Ingels) presents the work as being some “this-that-that-that” sequence, which is an unfortunate way of disowning decisions in the design-making process.

It seems that while everyone praises the clarity of their diagrams, they’re also elevating them to the status of some pseudo-functionalist 21st century gospel… It’s a step back in terms of owning architectural decisions. We’ve come a long way in the past forty years towards saying “I did this because I thought it was a good choice,” and I think that those kinds of diagrams undermine that progress. And again, there is respect for the fact that it’s clear. In an environment of teaching then, should their work and diagrams be celebrated? One, diagrams are important. Two, often times they become overly deterministic as in the case with BIG. Also, often times as a designer, a diagram can literally make the project which I think is a problem. Ron Witty does a good a job at this, making a diagram that he can manipulate rather than having the diagram own him. What I try to teach is that a diagram is a starting point, a way to help you make decisions. It’s not that you represent the diagram formally: your building just needs to understand what drawing that diagram helps you make, and this is where the decision process comes in.

Where do you feel that the processes of ‘doing covers’ or ‘paying homage to’ are situated within an educational system which inherently punishes those for plagiarism?

You can’t consume media without reproducing it somehow. One useful way of addressing ‘copies’ is to acknowledge that through the process of study and production, radically different things have emerged. I don’t think anyone is a radical genius anymore and I embrace evolving ideas.

I’ll joke around a lot about copying because in many settings the extreme is to not look at work. I think that copying or taking something is like producing a diagram. You study it, understand how it works, and if it works well then there’s no need to reinvent certain things. It is adapted to what is being worked and then you reinvent the things that need reinventing. I don’t think that adapting copies is anything to be ashamed of, and that the need to constantly invent something new is an unfortunate product of our hubris as architects. This is not to say that inventing new things is bad – it is a question of where intention is coming from. The question is, is a design coming from something entirely inside of you? Or is it an acknowledgement of influences that are likely wide and spread out. I think it is much more intelligent to acknowledge what you’re involving rather than trying to claim what you’ve made is something completely novel.

Where do you stand in terms of ‘Project’ and the ‘Construction Of‘?

The building process changes things, radically. A great idea, once it faces reality, may implode. The reality of construction is that as soon as you start building, that first glitch you hit changes the entire sequence of construction. What is important is to be able to anticipate that situation during design and to understand sequence as a way of thinking and of designing something. When you build stuff, it’s never how you’ve planned. And, if you understand that as you’re designing, then you can make things that instead of having to rely on this precious detail to be perfect, in order to be perfect, it can be realized in several ways and still be good. It is not to say that details don’t matter, but they only matter in as much as you’re able to adapt them to the inevitable problems you’ll encounter in the field.

Your website utilizes both photographs and renderings, deliberately not privileging either, where do you stand in terms of curating the dissemination of your work?

We believe that to try and prefer any form of representation is sort of silly. What is useful about using both a rendering and photograph is seeing the relationships between them. It’s like doing a construction set, the most important thing is understanding how one drawing relates to another. Being able to see what happens in a diagram and understand it through a rendering is more important than either drawing alone. This affects how we make diagrams, renderings and how we make built things. We try not to make each diagrammatic, but we strive for a legibility between those three.

What scale (or scope) of work most interests you?

I’m an omnivore: I love everything. For me what matters most is context. For example, working on a hot dog stand in a shopping mall in Atlanta, and at the same time a million square foot project in the same context, both would get me excited. In effect, I love thinking about big things in very small ways: small design for big contexts. I also love site-work, I think its something in architecture that is still struggling. We (architects) know about the interior, the function and how it relates to the building shell, but we don’t know a lot about how the building shell relates to site. This is something that matters a lot in the US where you have a lot of space around your building.

What holds your office together? Both literally and conceptually?

With offices in both New York and Los Angeles we care deeply about clarity and communication. Conceptually, it’s ‘context,’ again. Often times though, there is a kind of negative perception of context as it usually connotes historicism. We prefer to think of it with a ‘work with what’s around’ model. This is similar to the idea of taking a precedent and using it, rather than just denying that you’re using it. To take things and use them works, and it is something that people have a hard time acknowledging. Using context can be highly productive in a design process as well as in the finished product.

What are you thinking about now?

Sarah Whiting has this diagram. There’s an A for architecture in the middle, connected to that is our varied interests: urbanism, economics, politics, etc. radiating outward. The idea is always that it is important as an architect to engage those things, but as an architect. To remember that you’re not an economist nor a politician and to always understand that you’re a designer and that is what matters at the end of the day. It is knowing what you bring to something as a designer, and what you can bring back to design.


Michael Piper is the 2010-2011 LeFevre Fellow at The Ohio State University, he is also a co-founder of DUB Studios, an Architecture and Urban Design practice based out of New York, NY and Los Angeles, CA.

Get in touch

The Ohio State University
Knowlton School of Architecture
275 W. Woodruff Drive
Columbus, OH 43210
Facebook // Twitter

Like what you see? Don't miss a thing! Get updates via email. You can always opt-out if you change your mind, don't worry, we'll still be friends.

%d bloggers like this: