“I like the openness of the new building design. This department needs a modern building designed with modern concepts of how people work together and how they complete joint projects and interact. The openness in the planning is one of the building’s strongest features. This new building has a tremendous amount of merit and I’m happy to support it and I hope other alumni will support it as well.”
Tell me a bit about your background.
I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Texas-Austin School of Architecture. My studies at UT-Austin provided me with the good fortune of meeting some of the biggest names in architecture, including Michael Graves and Charles Gwathmey, which made a lasting impression on me. After a few years practicing in San Antonio, I attended the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University where I received my master’s degree. That was the formal side of things.
I was determined to practice architecture amongst my mentors, so I moved to New York. I had a tremendous opportunity to work at several of the most highly regarded firms in the Big Apple. Practices led by the likes of Richard Meyer, Charles Gwathmey and Philip Johnson. My final stop led Washington, DC, my home and where I’ve been practicing ever since.
How long have you been with SmithGroup?
My roots at SmithGroup date back to 1981. SmithGroup’s overall success is the result of great talent and strategic mergers made over the course of many decades. My firm in Washington, DC was one of those firms.
Do you have a design philosophy or general approach?
My motivations are centered upon what I believe to be the key topics of our time. First and foremost, architecture is a contributor to wonderful places and a supporter of institutional missions. In a way, buildings become a core part of the business of education, and they are instrumental in attracting and maintaining great researchers, great students, faculty, and administration. We try to fundamentally understand the institution’s goals, values and mission to motivate each design.
The other topic that motivates me personally and SmithGroup addresses the environmental crisis we find ourselves in and the role of buildings as promoters of good practices for energy and resource conservation. I look very hard at the philosophy behind what we do in terms of resource management and being efficient in a very smart way. We very much consider ourselves problem solvers. The design process is as much a part of the success of creating a great building as the philosophy itself.
What is the typical design process?
We like to look at a whole series of criteria that define the problem at a number of levels. At the broadest level, one must be a good citizen for the University of Illinois. The building has to fit the campus in a way that is not only supportive, but also sensitive to the environment. We have discussions about the right size and right placement of the building, the materials, as well as the forms and fenestrations to go with that. That’s the broad level.
Then, there are a series of mid-level issues. For example, how does one produce an efficient building that makes good use of energy and resources?
At the very fundamental level, you have to create classrooms, labs and program spaces that truly enable the department to prosper and to continue a tradition of excellence. We are looking at multiple levels of concerns and trying strike a balance so they are all addressed in tandem. The process is iterative between the different layers of concerns and tests, akin to a good research hypothesis. We try things, accept/reject them and repeat. In the end, we come up with multiple variants and attempt to rank them in our minds and with the University to determine the best amalgamation of choices.
What is your role as lead architect?
To your questions, consider this scenario. Major surgery at a hospital is not undertaken without a team of experienced people working together with one goal in mind. There is a surgeon, obviously, but there are also associated surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses and lots of equipment and on and on and on. The successful surgery is the culmination of the team’s collective actions.
Simplistically, I see myself as a team leader who guides, shapes, sometimes nags and cajoles a whole group of very smart people to get to the finish line and build the building.
How many people on a team?
Right now there are a number of disciplines involved on this project. There are the architects, but there are also teams of technical experts, some of which include mechanical, electrical, plumbing, structural and civil engineers, lab planners, specifications writers, and landscape architects. If you look at the architectural team at the moment, there are about seven people who consistently work on the project every single day. That’s occurred for months and will continue for several more. Each of the engineering sub-disciplines is doing their particular piece of the puzzle. If you actually gathered all of those people together at a given time, you would probably be looking at a group of about 30 people.
Where do you find inspiration?
In the case of ECE, the department itself is inspirational—an incredibly fascinating group of people at an institution recognized for decades of notable work and leadership. At the very beginning of the process we did a lot of research, interviewed department members, read articles about their ideas and inventions. We tried to understand their ethic and values, and how they view innovation, invention, and creativity.
We walked the campus extensively and completed photo surveys in order to understand the campus. For me, the biggest challenge was how to be a sympathetic building for the Champaign campus without being nostalgic or old-fashioned because ECE has always been very much about the future. The inspiration I was searching for was a combination that honored the values and culture of the home base, but also celebrated the future.
What did you find were the particular challenges for the building?
In any institutional building, you are trying to build something that will last one hundred years. When you entertain this scenario, the question of money emerges quickly. The program’s dreams, hopes for various kinds of systems, and construction techniques get mixed together within the strictures of reality. How much can be funded? How much will the building cost?
The other one is to really get the program right so the department gets everything it needs, one that doesn’t spend time, money, and resources on things that ultimately won’t be flexible or usable. A lot of time was spent with a broad cross section of people discussing their hopes and aspirations programmatically for their research and teaching. We spent a lot of time making sure that we tailored those facilities to fit into a strict budget.
How did some of the surrounding buildings influence you?
Well it’s twofold. We were the architects for the Beckman Institute two decades ago. We know the campus reasonably well. We saw the new ECE building as mitigating, in a positive way, a whole variety of existing buildings along the ellipse, near Beckman. These buildings are characterized as perhaps less consistent architecturally than other parts of the campus. The material and fenestration are also quite different. One role of the ECE building is to potentially mitigate heights, scales, and textures so that those disparate buildings could coalesce, because this is the final sight in that area for a long, long time.
The other influence is to respect the sheer impact and the seriousness of Beckman. We looked long and hard at specific materials and colorations. It’s a very powerful building, quite large. The entrance tower is a notable landmark on campus. We wanted to place the ECE building in a manner that complimented and continued some of colorations of the brick, stone trim, etc. We wanted to be a good neighbor to Beckman.
Tell me about the photos you put up in the faculty lounge early on.
We completed our own visual survey. One of the wonderful things about electronic media is that we can look at a variety of facility types, worldwide, quickly. Some were directly appropriate. We actually looked at a fair number of competitive facilities. One of the institution’s goals is to maintain its role in the very top echelon of these programs.
We also brought to the table formal ideas about the way the building could be rendered by using pictures of facilities from far-flung locations in Europe and Asia as an idea generator. This was part of understanding how technologically overt the building could move towards the very modern idiom. The department expressed the desire to look forward. We wrestled with the challenge of how one builds in a manner that the campus will be comfortable, and at the same time, the department still views as a clearly representing their aspirations of leadership into the future.
What surprised you about this project?
We were very pleasantly surprised and have become great admirers of both the department’s commitment to excellence in the building and the University facilities group’s desire to do the right thing in terms of energy and environment. They really stuck to their guns about being efficient and put pressure on us. The project has reached a place that we’re doing things that will ultimately prove to be very smart for the institution long term. These ideas didn’t emerge from traditional processes and value equations.
What has been the most fun?
The people are great. I’ve had some terrific and fun conversations with the department building committee: Andreas, Phil, Jeanette, and Molly, and the facilities group. They’re a very smart group of folks that very much care about the institution. That ultimately makes it fun for us. We’ve had clients in other settings and times that were disengaged and did not participate in the project as much as they should have. This was not that case at all here. These team members were in the middle of the dialog and highly supportive. Sure, we had our usual kind of tough moments, but they were consistent and supportive of doing the right thing. The people have been the most fun.
What was the most challenging?
When you design buildings, no two of them are really alike. Even though you have 40 years of practice under your belt and your business has been up and running for a long time, you still learn on the job. Each and every project is different. The challenge that excited us the most was how to use the computer models that are available now to describe energy usage and systems choices and how we actually use them as a design tool. The building industry is still old-fashioned in that the traditional process focuses upon reactive analysis, where one generates an idea based on some traditional understanding of the problem as they saw it, and then does the analysis retroactively to try to validate the choices. In this project, we were able to turn that around and use modeling as a design tool to make smart choices up front, before we actually drew anything. That turned out to be quite a fun process.
Thinking of the various presentations you’ve given on campus since the beginning of the project, how do you communicate design to audiences that perhaps don’t have a design background?
Every profession develops its own private language. Think about talking to your doctor or to a research scientist. Their particular field of work relies upon a special language within their community as shorthand for understanding concepts. Using an internal language of architecture that I would use with a team member, magazine editor who focuses on architectural design, or a client who has hired architects over and over again, doesn’t work well when you are dealing with more of a lay public—even though it’s a highly educated and sophisticated public. So we look for ways to describe what we’re up to in words that are very general in the sense of language. That’s one key ingredient.
Then there’s the old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words. Ultimately, we’re in a visual discipline. You must have the quality of renderings and the actual design intent that is appreciated by an audience. We end up using a lot of various types of modeling and rendering tools to help us explain. By and large, it’s the process we go through of capturing the essence of our team’s dialogue in a way that those outside our industry can understand.
Is that something that you would rehearse?
I certainly go through a process of trying to force myself to rehearse. It’s a lot like giving a lecture. If you have a vast topic and you’re given one hour to present, you tend to create shorthand or capsules in which you can trace ideas that are easy enough to understand, not only for yourself, but for everyone in the room. That’s pretty much the process of talking about design. We look for common themes that are not so specific to the building we are dealing with, and we try to understand how our designs play against these common themes.
There were differences between the first design you presented in September  and the one you presented to the Board of Trustees [March 2010]. Can you comment on the evolution of the design?
We’re very happy with the end result, and very proud of where the process took us. There was obviously a lengthy, yet fun, discussion about materiality. What would really work on campus? We had our own internal discussions about that and about the budget to afford that. The process with the department and facilities, and subsequently with the president, looked at the issues of compatibility, masonry and everything else in between which led us to a very good place. We’re quite happy with where we ended up.
What makes this project recognizable as a SmithGroup design or a David King design?
That’s a fascinating question. I have shared with people, for many decades now, that my goal was never to do the same building twice or to have any sort of signature style. Intellectually, it makes no sense to me to do a building in Phoenix or Champaign or New York City and have all three buildings look alike. This approach strikes me as fairly vacuous. I like the specificity of buildings. I love the notion that the final design that we ended up with could have happened only in Champaign-Urbana, only for ECE, in this day and age. In my mind, this would be quite a successful building. As I work on projects in other locations, each one will be different. They may share some intellectual themes that I’m concerned about, again back to the earlier discussion, but I certainly wouldn’t want to have the same building show up at the University of Illinois that showed up at Clemson University or showed up at the University of Arizona.