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Architect James Timberlake

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KELLY WILSON: Welcome to Profiles on WFIU. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. I'm Kelly Wilson, director of the J. Irwin Miller architecture program in the Eskenazi School of Art Architecture and Design here at Indiana University. And our guest today is James Timberlake.


James is a partner at KieranTimberlake, an award-winning architectural firm recognized for its environmental ethos, research expertise and innovative design and planning. James explores some of today's most important topics, among them efficient construction methods, resource, conservation strategies, and novel use of building materials. They have notably built with their firm the Melvin and Claire Levine Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, which employs the first actively-ventilated curtain wall of its type in North America. And SmartWrap, a mass-customizable building envelope exhibited at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. Cellophane House, a fully-recyclable, energy-gathering dwelling exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And the U.S. Embassy in London, which employs strategies to significantly reduce energy consumption and sets an agenda to achieve carbon neutrality. Under his guidance, the firm has received over 200 design citations, including the AIA Firm award in 2008. And the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in 2010. He is a recipient of the Rome Prize of 1982 through '83. And James was an inaugural recipient of the Benjamin La Trobe fellowship for Architectural Design Research from the AIA College of Fellows in 2001. Since 2002, he has co-authored seven books on architecture, including the influential book Refabricating Architecture and the newest monograph KieranTimberlake: Fullness. James received his bachelor's of environmental science degree from the University of Detroit and a master's of architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania. James, welcome.

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: Thanks, Kelly. It's nice to be here.

KELLY WILSON: We're so pleased you could join us for Profiles.

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: And I appreciate it. I do just want to amend one thing about the introduction, which was just lovely. But I need to take the architect's black cape off. We work and collaborate with many firms - over 100 people - and I have a longtime partner, Stephen Kieran, who would have loved to have been here and was here the last couple of days, but unfortunately he had to leave to go to Washington for a project. And there's just so many others in the firm that enable us to do what we do. So, I’ll just set the black cape aside for the moment, and…but appreciate the fact that what we do is, we think, very special. And we just work hard at what we do.

KELLY WILSON: James and Stephen, his partner, are guests to the IU campus as the recipients of the Patten Lecture Series, IU’s most prestigious lecture series, and we're happy to have you here. Let me begin by asking you what you think an architect is, the definition of which has shifted over time. And you currently hold an attitude about what architecture should be, how one should think about it.

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: As I think about trying to unpack my definition of what an architect is, I have to go back to what got me here, which, simply, is that I've wanted to be what I think an architect is ever since I was 5 years old. So, I'm doing what I wanted to do. Probably unusual, in that regard, having sort of self-identified that at a very, very young age. But I think being an architect is going beyond just designing. It's also making and producing, innovating, inventing, really broadening a positive way forward for people and how they use space, and how they use things, and how they interact with the physical environment. I think what an architect isn't is sometimes what you hear about in any newspaper on the news channels where an architect of some disaster, you know, or the architect of some financial collapse. I think that's when the definitional word use is sort of abused and gives us all a bad name. Those of us who, like yourself, create.

KELLY WILSON: Vitruvius, one of the earliest recorded, in fact, the earliest recorded writings about what architecture is, and its principles, once said, “architecture should be expressive of commodity, firmness, and delight.” In your own practice you describe fullness. How would you talk about fullness relative to it? Is it related to how Vitruvius thought about his three principles?

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: Oh, most definitely. And I have to say, that is how Steve and I began speaking about the firm and its work from almost the inception of the firm back in 1984, after leaving Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's office in Philadelphia. And it was really about wanting to do it all and having architecture embodied and imbued with all aspects of what a building and its physical environs and what it influences - just use all the aspects and tools of what is available to us as architects. I think we were coming out of a period of time in the mid-'80s where postmodern architects, our mentors, Michael Graves, many others, some of whom you grew up with and also were even taught by, who, frankly, had moved the discourse of design to what I would argue was pretty much imaging buildings -  worrying less about how buildings were made, how they performed, how they operated - to others. Steve and I both felt very strongly that we wanted to be involved in all of it. We wanted to be part of, to borrow of Bob Venturi's favorite terms, the “messy vitality” of architecture in its true fullness, in a way. And I think that's what ultimately led us to the work that we do, and how we do it, but also led us to our new book, Fullness, as well. The art of the whole. Not just singular fragments of bits of things. Not doing just napkin sketches and handing them off to somebody, but really being involved from beginning to end, from cradle to grave, and beyond, with our buildings.

KELLY WILSON: That's lovely. I wanted to ask you this question. What do you think is the impulse of a human to be an architect? What do you think that is?

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: I think we spoke a little bit about it, or have spoken about it in our lectures. And that is, just, simply a desire to make lives better; to help improve people's place of work, their place of living, their place of recreation, enjoyment - whether it's inside, whether it's outside. There's so many bad buildings. There's so many bad, bad landscapes. There's such poor design that we're…interact with on a daily basis in our lives, particularly in the United States, in my opinion. And I think, unfortunately, we can do better. In order to do better, we have to also help educate and bring people along to why specific buildings are better than others. And it's not just about appearance. But it's about how they…how they welcome, how they embody daily lives and daily experiences. Everybody has their favorite building. If you ask anybody on the street, they'll immediately opine on something that they know that they like. And they'll immediately opine on something that they hate in terms of architecture. And too often it's the hater side of that equation that I think gives architecture a bad name.


KELLY WILSON: Your partner, Steve Kieran. How did you meet Steve? And how did you guys know that you would make a good architectural design partnership with each other? Did you know how to design with each other, or did you have different attitudes and that was the magic?

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: Well, Steve and I met at graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-'70s. He coming from Yale and the East Coast, undergraduate. I coming from the Midwest, I grew up in Ohio and then Michigan and then went to school in Detroit, as you mentioned in the intro. And so, we meet at graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and…weren't close friends, buddies, so much as conversational acquaintances, I think, during those early years of graduate school…had our own groups of friends, and so forth. But eventually developed a conversation, just leaving graduate school, about commonalities, common principle - find ourselves about a year and a half later at Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's office, Venturi Rauch & Scott Brown - and then worked on a couple of projects together at that particular firm before he left to go to Princeton to teach in 1980 after having won a Rome Prize, to the American Academy in Rome. And then two years later, I had a common experience. I went off to the academy, having won a Rome Prize myself, spending a year in Rome. But while we were doing that, we were kind of moonlighting. We were doing small projects on the side - just having a conversation about architecture, about common principles. Now that I've married my wife and been married to my wife for 25 years, I've been married to Steve longer than my wife. Steve and I have been partners for 36 years. My wife and I've been married for 26 years. What's really interesting is their astrological signs are almost the same. And I don't quite remember what they are, but they're almost the same. And I being a Scorpio they are absolutely the rocks of my life. I have to tell you. They allow the sort of human being that you're talking to in this studio to be who he can be, because they are just always stable and always there and always just the person that brings me back to the kind of common principles between us.


KELLY WILSON: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Kelly Wilson, Director of the J. Irwin Miller architecture program for the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture and Design at Indiana University. Our guest today is James Timberlake. He is a partner at KieranTimberlake, an award-winning architectural firm recognized for its environmental ethos, research expertise, and innovation in design and planning.

It was always interesting for me to observe in the various practices of architecture, how the act of design was actually done. And especially when a project comes in the door, and the terms for the project have been set up, and the problem of schematic design, the beginning. Someone picks up the proverbial pencil. Who is it? Is it you, or your partner, or is it someone else in the office, or do you guys send this around, like a round-robin?

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: It depends. Steve and I have designed together. We worked on the embassy together with now a couple of younger partners who weren’t partners at the time, but have now become partners through that, through the aegis of that process, as well. I think early on I tended to grab the pencil. But I think now there's greater equipoise in that conversation. I would say, Kelly, that the thing that is the most important to partnerships is the conversation. And I think too often young architects begin their practices without having had that conversation. It is like a marriage in a way. And it's about those moments of commonality that you find over things that are not stressful; about how you're going to handle those potentially stressful moments, in a way. And too often, I think, we get into the act of design as architects with partners. And that act of design and the execution of a building over time, or a project, have its stressful moments, its disagreements, its gives and takes with collaborators and other engineers and other clients and others. It can be quite messy. But if you and your co-designer, or your co-partner, or a principal on the project have not had those underpinnings of those common design principles - those common roots to design - I think that's where oftentimes partnerships and breaking up. And fortunately for us, we had those conversations very early on and over things that allowed us to formulate an attitude, a kind of thesis, series of principles that underpin us to this day. And we've shared that culturally with those that have come into the office since. And so now that act of design becomes quite seamless. And it doesn't matter whether one of us grabs the pencil.

KELLY WILSON: Your firm is unique for having a research unit attached to it. Architects typically hire specialists of all kinds: engineers, other professionals, other designers, interior designers, often urban planners, urban designers as well or all people involved with codes, with trades, et cetera. Your firm is unique. You've started a research unit attached to your firm. Would you describe what that does? How you found that necessary to your practice?

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: Well, I think the aegis for that, the impetus for that was really, initially, again, cultural underpinnings; coming out of university, coming out of graduate school and research and then going to work for a firm, like Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown who had written numerous books, researched Las Vegas in learning from Las Vegas - a book that they had done. Another book that Bob had written which you're well versed in, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, a book that I've now read probably six or seven times - annotated on my travels. Those underpinnings were instilled in Steve and me when we began the practice. And that ability to not only go broad but go deep in research was something that we had to do on our own, initially. But as we got to the turn of the millennium around 2000 and the teaching that we were doing at the University of Pennsylvania and a few other places, we realized that we really needed to think differently about the whole collaborative aspect of that, and think about the transdisciplinary nature of research; that singular intelligence isn't as good as collective intelligence. And you heard me say earlier about taking the black cape off as an architect. Too often I think architects were set up as these fonts of singular intelligence. Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and others - and the thousands of people that are behind them during the research and doing the buildings - were never credited. It was always like, “this is Frank Lloyd Wright's work. This is Mies van der Rohe's work.” Well, there are thousands of people that make a building and do the research. And so, in 2000, we find ourselves really needing a transdisciplinary approach to thinking about not only our work but our architectural research. We win the Benjamin La Trobe fellowship from the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows. That fellowship enables us to do some deeper research, which leads to the book you mentioned, Refabricating Architecture, in 2004. So, during that three-year period of research, one of the things we go to do is go to Kvaerner shipyards in Philadelphia, we go to Boeing in Seattle, we go to Fiat Chrysler and Ford in Detroit and do these, really, these tours, these meeting with people, and we realize that corporations, such as Fiat Chrysler and Boeing and Kvaerner take some of their profits and actually turn that back into the business. Oftentimes 3 to 5% of their profits. What did Steve and I do in 2004? We immediately turned 3 to 5% of the profits of the firm, not into our pockets but back into the firm to hire transdisciplinary team members out of the Yale forestry school, out of other places that could help us think more broadly and deeply about the environment, about building performance, about a variety of other things.

KELLY WILSON: What do you think changed in the world that requires this new investment in the transdisciplinary nature of the architectural practice? What shifted?

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: This shift is simply that architects were skipping like stones across the surface of problems and using Google as their research partner. Anybody can look up, “how do I make buildings perform better?” But that isn't necessarily going to help you design them. It's not necessarily going to help you answer the deep queries that are necessary to get to the nature of the underpinnings of designing and building. We needed help, simply. And that help - by looking outside of architecture, looking at the building industry and the aerospace industry and the…outside of the building industry, but looking at the shipbuilding, aerospace, and car manufacturing processes. we realized that people were building things that could carry 400 people at 500 miles an hour, land and take off 25,000 times and not leak. Well, architects weren’t doing a very good job just not simply solving the problem of leaking buildings. Car manufacturers were turning out hundreds of thousands of cars that would go 100 miles an hour, carrying four people safely from one Point A to Point B and not leak. But we were prototyping one-off buildings at a time and not solving the basic problems of just having them stand up, and meeting the simple functions of people's needs.

KELLY WILSON: And hence, one of the premises of your book, Refabricating Architecture. You addressed some of these technologies and put a great deal of effort into rethinking the assembly of a building and how to do something. When you say leak, I know that to mean that energy is transported through our walls. And I mean, I know. I live in a log house. And I'm quite sure…it's often disconcerting to see light coming through the chinking as I walk down the stairs in the house, and know that a lot of heat or coolness is escaping through the walls and I'm heating the outside. So, you guys have researched this a lot. Can you describe some of the things you discovered and feel you have brought, with innovation, to the way in which we put walls around us?

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: Yeah. What's interesting is most people don't worry, or are not, as they should be, concerned about that light filter coming through that - the chinking. Or they should be concerned about the fact that their energy that they paid for is escaping to the outside. But you know what most people worry about? They worry about the fact that after a rainstorm or after a storm, like weather that we're experiencing recently in the winter, that all the sudden water starts dripping into their kitchen or their bathroom. And that's the first moment that they come to understand that, hey, these buildings are vulnerable, not invulnerable. And that there's something wrong that they need to fix. Unfortunately, that's…in some ways, water is a problem. Water infiltration is a problem. But the thing that's costing them the money is exactly what you spoke about, which is the energy that escapes that they've already paid for. And I think, for us, the revelation in that was simply realizing in our travails through research and writing Refabricating Architecture and coming across architects and designers like the Eames’ - Charles and Ray Eames doing a video about the powers of ten, which you're well versed in. And which they did, I think, for the world's fair in 1964, and as part of an exhibit. And you see them attempting to have folks realize that we are basically the ants in a universe. People are very, very small specks of dust in the universe. And as you pull away from the earth and you realize how minuscule we are and that we're on an island home, the globe, the earth, that this is a finite circumstance that we're living in and that we need to be better stewards of our island home. So, I think the next advent of that was mentioned in a lecture recently, was the men on the moon. And looking back from the moonscape to earth and realizing, wait a minute, here are human beings on a body, celestial body some part away from the earth, and realizing that home was vulnerable. And I think then in 2000, at the turn of the millennia, I think we have come to realize that our buildings are incredible wasters of energy. Forty percent of the carbon expenditures in the world come from either building buildings, which is a small part of it, or operating buildings. And so, that carbon expenditure just keeps going up and up and up. And that we keep drilling the earth for more oil or trying to put more solar panels up or more windmills in the air to gather energy. But if we don't husband the resources that we currently have, including how we make our buildings, and how we operate our buildings, we're just running ourselves off the face of the earth.


KELLY WILSON: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Kelly Wilson, director of the J. Irwin Miller Architecture Program at Indiana University, and our guest today is James Timberlake of the firm KieranTimberlake.

I have a dilemma with an element of architecture that's used to help with the energy harvesting: the photovoltaic. Now if we take the fireplace, powerful symbol of home, one Frank Lloyd Wright used in all, what, 823 of his houses. The fireplace was central to his schematic designs for his houses. All people tend to recognize the power and the symbolism and the warmth that comes from a fireplace. Yet it's one of the lousiest ways to heat your home because it drags cold air through the walls up your chimney, takes the heat with it and whatever you get from radiant is not replacing what you've been pulling in through your walls. Yet everybody wants one. Highly inefficient thing. It's not natural to have a fire inside your home. So, we make a little room for it to put it in. Everyone feels wonderful that the feeling of a fireplace. Photovoltaics, the panels by which we harvest energy from the sun never produced in the image of architecture or the - its placement the building that warm fuzzy feeling you get from the brilliantly located fireplace. What do you think about that?

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: Well, first of all, I think the answer to that is: all things in balance. I mean, my grandfather had a great saying: all things in moderation. I think that's a Ohio family saying somehow that probably came from a Bible verse someplace, but he wasn't a hugely, deeply religious man. He was religious enough, but I think… he used to say that all the time to me. And he would say, things in moderation. So, there's no reason why - I think people are afraid of the fact that architects and their politicians want to take away their fireplaces. That's not what we want to do. I think the hearth provides an aspect - the hearth, the fireplace provides an aspect of a human condition of momentary warmth - a momentary conditional experience that is sensory and is imbued with emotion. And people react to it in very different ways at different times. If they've come in from outside, and they're cold and they start a fire, it's about arriving home. If they're in the home already and reading a book and the is flickering, it adds atmosphere to the memory of that experience of reading the book, or an exchange of a conversation. A photovoltaic can't do that by any stretch of the imagination. It's inert. It's externally focused, in terms of what it's trying to gather from. It lacks emotion. It lacks sensory interaction. But those two things actually work together, believe it or not. So, I'm not advocating that people go burn up a bunch of wood or charcoal to start heating their house. But I'm also self-aware that even in a modern home - an actual hearth - a wood stove provides something that can't come from a mechanical device, you know, or an electronic device. And yet, there are mechanical devices and electronic devices that may be more efficient than that hearth. And so, they work in symbiosis in some ways. And Frank Lloyd Wright was right in the fact that the hearth become a kind of central focus for the family, in a way, something that I think over the last 40 or 50 years we've kind of gotten away from with modern technology, in a way. And yet it's been replaced by other things: food, cooking, other things that have - we have to replace our lives with. And yet, they linger in our second homes, you know, the hearth. But all things in moderation.

KELLY WILSON: The building on the Wellesley campus that was recently finished by your firm, which sits atop the main quad which is a sort of plateau with sort of an escarpment surrounding it, which is the hallmark signature identity of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, has many delicate moments of touching its context, extending handshakes and welcomes, sensitively judicates between one building and another. There is something, if I can remember, something like 10 to 15 very sensitive issues of attachment, adjacency, and positioning to confirm - if the original authority of the design moved on that plateau - and yet to extend it very gently into something else. This is an attitude where a building possesses many, many ideas woven together that make the quality of silk. A texture so fine. How did you come across this strategy?

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: Well, I think both Steve and I - first of all, that was a project that Kieran did with, as part of the design team, with one of our principals, Marilia Rodrigues and also another architect now principal in the firm, Tim Peters. And both of those young people are sensitive designers, as well. But I think Steve and I share something going back to Italy, and Carlos Scarpa, and the whole notion of how Carlos Scarpa could take post-World War II ruins and antiquities and transform them with modernity and contemporary design into a completely different whole, or totality of design. The bank, the museum, some of his houses, the cemetery that Carlos Scarpa was known for are known for these…these moments of highly focused intensity and bursts of creativity that come together in a very well-edited totality. And I think one of the things that Steve and I pride ourselves on is also editing.  One of the things about being an architect is also being an editor. I think Saarinen once said, “99% of my best ideas can't get into my buildings at any one time.” And so, what that meant was that he was leaving 99 out of 100 of his best ideas out of some buildings in order to make that 1% just the very best it could possibly be and not be cluttered up by all this other stuff. That's what we do. We edit very well, and I think at Pendleton West at Wellesley, Kieran, you know, along with Marilia and Tim, have the time, have the moment, are of the moment with the client, of walking them through these passages, of these connections, of these campus relationships, of the choices of materiality, the interaction and contrast between board-formed, poured-in-place concrete and highly-refined wood interiors. The textured pre-cast panels that are up against glass walls and brick of the collegiate Gothic nearby, form this dialogue, this conversation that continues to this day without the architect being there any longer, or even the client hand being there anymore, because now the participants in the building where the people passing by stop and look and participate in that conversation. That's the beauty of architecture, but it's also what we try to do with our buildings each and every time we touch them as architects and as designers.


KELLY WILSON: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Kelly Wilson, director of the J. Irwin Miller Architecture Program for the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture and Design at Indiana University. Our guest today is James Timberlake. He is a partner at KieranTimberlake, an award-winning architectural firm recognized for its environmental ethos, research expertise and innovation in design and planning.

It's famously said that a great building also presumes a great client, and that the aspirations of your client have to also share in the aspirations of the people designing those buildings. You must have had the experience of having great clients.

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: Oh, many. And I think, frankly, it's easier to count the rough clients on one hand or one finger than it is to count up the many highly-engaged and…well-informed but highly-engaged and active clients that we have. And we embrace that. And we often tell our prospective clients about that. But it's - you teach in architecture school and at the Irwin school and here at IU. And we both taught at many places. But I would argue that, other than anecdotally, yourself or myself talking to our students, it's rare that that gets imparted to students of architecture. And I think it needs to be imparted more to them because, again, in taking off the black cape for a moment, it's the client that comes to you with the program. It's the client that comes to you with the money. It's the client that comes to you with the desire. It's the client that comes to you with the opportunity. Architecture and architects perform a service, and that service is to meet those needs of those individuals in…more than halfway and more than head on. And I think too often the profession has payed lip service to the clientele that we have, as architects working for universities or for the government or for our house clients, or whatever. And I think one of the things that we try to do really well is just get in there and embrace them and try to draw out their best qualities and have them own the building before the key is turned over to them.

KELLY WILSON: Often, there are clients that are, well, difficult or we come into conflict of ideals. How do you address that? For instance, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings and Merrill was, at least in the urban myth, I learned as a young architect, handled it by telling an architect, “you can do it your way and it will be very bad, or you do it my way and it will be great. But you're the client and you choose.”

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: That negotiation happens with every architect almost every day over almost every idea proffered over almost every conversation, whether it's internal - between collaborative team members and the client - or whether it's with the client itself. But there is a kind of - there's a way to embrace, I think, what the client brings and what the client is offering as a means of challenging you as the architect to think differently, as opposed to the more hubristic and somewhat arrogant answer that Bunshaft is alleged to have, you know, stated. And it's repeated in different ways by different architects - right over the years - and others. I do think that one of the things that we like to say to prospective clients is if there is an architect that tells you that there's only one way to design this building, then they're lying to you because there are a thousand ways to make this building. And there are a thousand ways to incorporate what you want in it. And the only problem that we're going to face along the way is whether or not we can incorporate all the things that you want in the building, and incorporate them under the aegis of the budget that you've proposed under those circumstances. Because those are some of the limitations that you have when you're trying, in the alchemy of making architecture - conceive and execute a design, whether it's a landscape or whether it's a building or whether it's a piece of urbanism, you know, in a city, to negate or to obviate or to denigrate the viewpoint of a client in an exchange is a way of putting up a wall, putting up a barrier, closing out an opportunity for further exploration that I think, unfortunately, Bunshaft and many others have found with projects that weren't successful. Who are they going to blame? Are they ultimately going to blame the client in that particular case or are they themselves responsible for that outcome? And in the end, it's the architects that are responsible for the outcome, not the clients. And finding a brilliant way to negotiate that…moment of…not trespass but impasse, I think, is really part of an art of being an architect.

KELLY WILSON: Yes. In your conversations with us in the profession amongst architects, your firm has famously shifted the conversation to the problems of energy, assembly, combinations of materials, an ethical attitude towards the problem that faces us with the act of construction, the issues of our planet, the global consciousness, rising, of the way in which things have shifted on us relative to climate, our global economy, etc. I'd like to ask another kind of question related to this. When we design, I know that one of the fundamentals of architecture - when I say that word, I mean you can't design architecture without it - is something I'll phrase as a question and how the public, I think, looks at most buildings: Why does your building look like that? Now, I remember another…Lou Khan story - the famous architect, also from Philadelphia, who taught at U Penn - pressed to answer what the Yale Academy of Art, British Academy of Art at Yale in New Haven was to look like, as he was describing, I think, the fact that it has, you know, metal was going to be the skin of the building, by the trustees of Yale, he said, with frustration, “on a cloudy day, it'll look like a moth. On a sunny day, it'll look like a butterfly.”

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: (Laughter) I love that. I had not - I had not heard that one. And I can - those moments of frustration, you know, where we've been caught off guard and not really had the best answer in our pocket? That's probably amongst the better off of those retorts, you know, when you think about it.

KELLY WILSON: But, so, when you design somewhere enters in the mind no matter how much performance and even aspirations we have for the…a building, somewhere it has to take an image or an iconography something. Like, a great example, Antonio Gaudi successfully imported biomorphic imagery, the organic shapes, into architecture. And did a great job with it. That's what we mean by iconography. How does that enter your own practice? And, sort of, were you- were you aware of where the roots for that were?

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: The gestation of a building is really, I think, an interesting, mysterious art to the general public, but also to clients. And we've tried to unpack it for our clients and for the general public, or even for our students when we're teaching. And it begins, obviously, with a brief, program, a list of spaces that a client might want, and usually a budget. And, oftentimes, maybe or maybe not, there might be a site and that site has impacts on it, whether it be environmental, climate, context of is it in a city or is it in the countryside or is it mediating between those two things. And then there is this alchemy that's part of the mystery of that gestation. I think that people can't quite quantify, don't quite understand how it emerges. And part of that happens depending upon…over time. But it happens with different architects in different ways. Too often, I think architects are slammed and were rightfully wronged, not rightfully wrong. They were rightfully criticized for imaging first and then packing the program in later. And there are many buildings that we've experienced in our teaching and design lines over the years that are examples of that. I think - I'm trying to think of a good one where the building outcome and what it looks like is not the outcome of the program and its context and its - and the kind of gestation of all those ingredients that make the building up - but is really just simply a form play and a gesture on the part of the architect that then has all the other stuff packed into it. And that - I mean, I'm sure you're well versed. You could think of one of those and help me out.

KELLY WILSON: Well, I like these examples that come from outside of architecture. For instance, the airplane owes a lot to the bird for the fact that bilateral symmetry, when, to physics, that's not necessary for the concept of lift and flight. There's something called the flying scissor NASA developed that allowed a plane to rotate its wings to go faster and to open them to go slower to do acrobatics. But the military wouldn't accept it because it didn't look right.

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: But those kinds of things, those are devices that have…the program is purpose and the initiators of that, the originators of that of that idea in flight going back to, say, Leonardo, for instance, looked at a bird and imagined, “well, what if?” And then from there it takes on the mythology of Icarus, and putting wings on a person's arms and then the either success or fail of that. And then it evolved to the Wright Brothers and others. Look at a car, for instance, evolving all of the sudden the idea of something with two or four wheels but having not a horse in front as a motor, but now having some other self-propulsion embodied in it, gives a different form to the nature of that cart which takes time for it to evolve over time. I think in case of architecture it's informed by art as much as it's informed by things outside of itself, and informed by program. And so those gestures of something looking like a flying saucer or something looking like a - something that is extraterrestrial, if you will, doesn't look like it fits necessarily in the context that it's within, has come from outside of itself in a gestural nature over the course of the gestation of the thinking about that building. Many of our buildings are informed principally by context, I think. Most architects are informed first by where those buildings are placed, what elements are going to affect those buildings, whether they're on a campus, whether they're off a campus, whether they're in a downtown, whether they're out in the countryside. Many of them are informed by the purpose of environmental performance and structure. A barn with a gambrel roof. A gambrel roof is a very efficient form, one, because it can be made with big spans with smaller, you know, smaller elemental structural sticks building up a faceted roof, basically. But the point of that is to give it big space underneath but also to shed snow and water off the top in an efficient manner. And so, it takes on that form and that shape. Unfortunately, then, that form and that shape may inform downstream a building that doesn't require that coming from the structure or coming from that environmental purpose, and where that form - ultimately that image of a barn becomes the only reason why a building looks like the way it does; as a gem, or as something else, and that's where the transformational nature of form choice and imagination then reflects itself in a whole other purpose of design and construction and then creates that out of body experience of that person walking up to the building and scratching their head and going why does it look the way it does.


KELLY WILSON: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Kelly Wilson, director of the J. Irwin Miller Architecture Program at Indiana University, and our guest today is James Timberlake, of the firm KieranTimberlake.

You have also said that you believe in the ethical notion about architecture and beauty. This is a question that actually comes from our students that asked me to ask this today: How would you define beauty? And, accompanying that: please define ethics.

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: Well, the whole notion of ethics, particularly for architects, I think, is something that in an ethical practice is something that we've embraced for the wholeness of the full term of our practice since leaving Rob Venturi and Denise Scott Brown 36 years ago. I have to say, maybe it comes from the Eagle Scout Kieran and maybe it comes from the Episcopalian minister's kid Timberlake. Not that we're goody two shoes by any stretch of the imagination, but just realizing that in our ethos, in our upbringing doing the right thing as whomever you are in whatever purpose a life that you have…is important. So bringing that “doing the right thing” to architecture, as architects, we think is important because you have choices over the arc of designing a building or even being - having your name associated with a building - that involve ethics about accessibility, for instance, or about building performance, about having a low carbon footprint, about reducing its energy consumption, about being a comfortable place to live, work or play in, about accommodating purpose, about ethically looking beautiful, being purposeful in its imagery and its contribution to a visual landscape. And so those ethics mapped out on a chalkboard as we have, as a practice, are widely and deeply informing of the making of architecture. And unfortunately, many of them are out at the periphery of a core group of things that really go back to “commodity, firmness, and delight,” the Vitruvius saying that you said earlier, which is literally commodity being usefulness and firmness being longevity and purpose and delight being beauty and something that's joyful to live work and play in. Those three underpinnings right at the core of ethics are now informed in a very complex society a thousand years later, or more, by economics, and by lowering energy consumption, which Vitruvius in some ways didn't really have to worry about in some ways. And it doesn't make him any less ethical. But a three-legged stool: commodity, firmness and delight… can't stand up if you pull out one of those legs. It will fall over. That three-legged stool will fall over. And so, beauty or delight is incredibly important to the arc of conversation of the public, of our clients, why they buy things, why they invest in things, of the federal government, of why we do buildings for our federal government. But the whole notion that just putting up a box solves only one-third or two-thirds of a problem that then makes that not…either great architecture or a contributor to our visual landscape. And so, beauty becomes, both inside and out, becomes very much a part of the purpose and part of the ethic. Unfortunately, I think architecture schools and students are too often - because of the short defined nature of the problems that they're given in the arc of study - too often, too focused on making something look good or beautiful and not enough on the relationships of the parts in that building as much as - and also the conversation of how they think they're going to make that building and how long it's going to last. And some of its environmental ethics that might also inform its beauty, than they are just on the singularity of that one certain leg of the stool, which is beauty.

KELLY WILSON: So beauty might also be defined as the sort of integration of all these elements...


KELLY WILSON: ...Making a kind of consilience of things.

>>JAMES TIMBERLAKE: I think you're absolutely right. And that's where Fullness comes in, our book, the notion that - I mean, I think too often people have looked at our projects…there have been projects that they've looked at and they've said, “I really like the way it works and the way the way it engages, and all of that…but why did they make it look like that?” And yet, there are others that will see the beauty in all of that. And yet, I think there's an intentionality to beauty that is sometimes unspoken, sometimes unstated, sometimes comes blurted out in the Kahn quote of, “sometimes it looks like a moth and sometimes it looks like a butterfly.” But all of that is contributing, beyond a discourse, to a daily interaction that we engage with our landscapes and our urbanism and our buildings on a daily path of travel. And the last thing I think you or I as architects would want is for somebody to stand outside of one of our buildings and say…and being asked the question, “what do you think of that building?”…and have the response be no response. I'd rather have them say, “I think it's ugly,” or, “I think it doesn't fit,” or, “I think they could have done better,” and why, or, “I think it's beautiful,” or, “I…I really love that building and I love it because of what it does for all the other buildings around it,” than having no opinion at all. And therein lies the, again, the engagement of the architect back to the general public and to our clients. Because we want to evince that reaction. We just finished a project at Washington University in St. Louis involving five buildings and putting all the cars underground in an underground garage and designing the buildings for low carbon and high performance. Many of them are glass, but they are LEED Platinum-aspiring projects that are great environments to engage in and live and work and play in. And they're a high contrast to many of the other brick and stone and concrete buildings on the campus. Yet, they are transformative in the nature of how they engage those buildings that existed before them. And I think the response has been overwhelming to that transformation of the front of that campus, and to the nature of how those buildings have begun to transform both administrators and faculty and students' lives. And that in the arc of their passage throughout that campus they come in contact with many different buildings. And it's created a new, novel discourse amongst the community at that campus about building design, I think. Things that are beautiful don't always have to be contextual or imitative in nature of the existing buildings there, but can be contrasting in that nature. But one of the things that those buildings do is make all the other buildings around them better because of the choices that were made. And that's what I pride our architecture on, is that wherever you go I challenge you to ask yourself the question,” did the KeiranTimberlake building make everything else around it better?” And I think that's really the legacy that we want to leave behind.

KELLY WILSON: How compelling. It’s sometimes the way I describe the way I found the modern architecture in Columbus…


KELLY WILSON: …Indiana, that it's somehow…when I can't sleep at night, I'll think of all the buildings - the modern ones that were added from the '60s forward - in my head, like a gigantic axonometric. And then I extract the new ones, put them to the side, and it just turns into a normal place. I put them back in…everything got better. It's a beautiful definition for your firm, and we're delighted to have had you here on the IU campus, and to speak to us on Profiles. Thank you.

JAMES TIMBERLAKE: Thank you, Kelly. It was really enjoyable. I enjoyed being here. Thanks.


KELLY WILSON: I'm Kelly Wilson, director of the J. Irwin Miller architecture program for the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture and Design at Indiana University. Our guest today is James Timberlake. He is a partner at KieranTimberlake, an award-winning architectural firm recognized for its environmental ethos, research expertise, and innovation in design and planning. You're listening to Profiles on WFIU.

MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website:


Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.

James Timberlake

James Timberlake (Photo courtesy of KieranTimberlake)

Architect James Timberlake's projects have broken new ground, exploring some of today's most important topics—among them, efficient construction methods, resource conservation strategies, and novel use of building materials. Examples include Melvin J. and Claire Levine Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, which employs the first actively ventilated curtainwall of its type in North America; SmartWrap™, a mass-customizable building envelope exhibited at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; Cellophane House™, a fully recyclable, energy-gathering dwelling exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in New York; and the Embassy of the United States in London, which employs strategies to significantly reduce energy consumption and sets an agenda to achieve carbon neutrality.

Under his guidance, the architecture firm KieranTimberlake has received over 160 design citations, including the AIA Firm Award in 2008 and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in 2010. James and Partner Stephen Kieran were the inaugural recipients of the Benjamin Latrobe Fellowship for architectural design research from the AIA College of Fellows in 2001. Since 2002, they have co-authored five books on architecture, including the influential book Refabricating Architecture.

In addition to his architectural practice, James teaches a graduate-level design and research studio at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Design. He has held visiting professorships at the University of Washington, Yale University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas at Austin, among other institutions. In 2012, he was appointed by the Obama Administration to serve on the Board of the National Institute of Building Sciences.

He spoke with Kelly Wilson, Director of IU's J. Irwin Miller Architecture Program.

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