The student voice of the Knowlton School of Architecture

Questions for Paul Lewis

with Lauren Grech

What is your biggest non-architectural influence? 

One of the great things about architecture is that it doesn’t have clear boundaries, at least the way we approach it. So it’s tough to answer that because we’re interested in seeing architecture in a lot of things. I would probably say that the production of space and humor in the work of Buster Keaton is probably one of the bigger influences. The way in which generic or banal things are transformed into magical objects through wit and an almost dead-pan approach and the amount of creative energy that he injected into the performance pieces was pretty extraordinary. It would produce something fantastically creative, and ultimately humor-filled, and this resonated with our knowledge of familiar objects and spaces.

If you could collaborate with any architect, dead or alive, who would it be and why? 

I’m hesitating because that’s very different than whom you would want to work for. I would like to work for about three months, or maybe a year, in about six different offices. But collaborating is a totally different animal. It’s hard enough for the three of us to collaborate, and then the idea that we would want to then collaborate with another architect, that gets really tricky.

Do you have any hobbies outside of architecture? 

I love to cook and that’s in part because architecture is extraordinarily slow and cooking, as a creative process, is extraordinarily fast. Looking at food and its prevalence within architecture culture today, I think food intersects with questions of landscape and urbanism and sustainability, etc.

In many of your buildings, I noticed you use a lamination of materials as a perspective device or a strategy for creating a sense of movement. What’s the basis for that strategy, and why do you employ it so often?  

It allows us to get out of a couple of things simultaneously. We like the accumulations of readily accessible and inexpensive material that up close you can recognize –it’s a strip of wood, it’s a strip of acrylic, it’s a coffee cup lid– but in their accumulation they take on very different readings at different scales and distances. Whether it’s a forced perspective or a moiré pattern or a kind of diaphanous screen, it’s that ability to be economical, to oscillate between different scales, and to register the familiar and the unfamiliar simultaneously that we’re interested in.

So many of the students around here are curious about your graphic process, how do you achieve your graphical aesthetic? 

It’s both the aesthetic consequence and the process that gets fused together in the approach. We’ll work in Rhino for the massing of a project, a rough model that allows different aspects of the project to be looked at by multiple people at a variety of scales of experience. We’ll use it to fix key moments, and then the three partners come in and look at it at a much greater level of detail. We essentially advance the design through the act of the three of us drawing, sometimes with 20-30 layers of Mylar. There’s never just one overlay and it’s done. This allows us to take a project that as a whole may be under-developed and accelerate the elaboration of certain aspects of that project without having to do it everywhere. The consequence is this design representation that is neither hand drawn nor digital, but is a hybridization of the two.

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery, especially in regard to other firms’ nod to your graphical aesthetic? 

I don’t see it as imitation because these are known tools, and it’s not as if somehow we have an exclusive license on them.

Your graphical techniques are so identifiable; do you ever feel pressured to evolve the precedent that you set? 

We use a variety of different approaches in the office and it really depends on how fully fleshed out the project is. If we have a very detailed Rhino model we’ll often use hidden line work layers to get that same overlap of atmosphere and edge and superimpose them without even using the hand. So in a way the introduction of the hand is really specific to a means to accelerate the design process through that technique when we know we have limited time and we can’t develop the entire project.

Due to the transitory nature of the NYC restaurants, did you hope to create something malleable and interchangeable? 

Probably not. In fact, probably the opposite was our problem: we would do them for specific clients and specific cuisines knowing that they probably would last a year – the average lifespan of a New York restaurant is one year – so at some level that gave us a little bit more freedom. We could work with materials we knew were not as durable because of the fact that the lifespan would be short. So in a way they kind of pushed more towards the art installation realm than they did kind of permanent architectural realm, and as a result we didn’t build in to them the possibility that they could be turned into a different breed of restaurant.

What is your connection to Ohio? 

I was born and raised in western Ohio. So was David, as you might imagine. (Laughs)

You’ve taught here and you now teach at Princeton. What similarities, if any, do you think there are between the two schools? 

I actually don’t know this school well enough to answer that, particularly since it’s been ten years since I taught here and even that was a visiting position. I think there is a much greater exchange between schools now than there may have been. But what you’re getting at is more of a kind of institutional difference, and I don’t know enough about how this place works institutionally. The work in schools is more and more similar. With the fluidity of faculty and the fluidity of work, you don’t have the kind of intense and identifiably distinct schools as I think there used to be, say in the 70s. I get the sense that things are fairly loose within the differences between schools.

What project to date are you fondest of? 

That’s easy to answer because we just finished this project in Texas that we’ve been working on for about five years called Art House. It’s right at the heart of Austin, Texas. It’s a contemporary art space, which is an ideal program. It has an urban location, great client, great programs inside, it exchanges with the city very well, and was done very inexpensively. I think it’s a different approach to the relationship between architecture and art than has occurred before in that it’s both a provocation to and a background for the art.

Paul Lewis is an Assistant Professor at Princeton University School of Architecture and also has taught at The Ohio State University. He is a principal at LTL Architects in New York, NY.

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Knowlton School of Architecture
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Columbus, OH 43210
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