Conversation with Heather Roberge
The following is a conversation with Heather Roberge, Chair of the Architecture & Urban Design at the University of California, Los Angeles School of the Arts and Architecture, and Principal of MURMUR, an award-winning design practice based in Los Angeles. Click through the links below for Heather's answers, or check out the full transcription below! Heather's lecture video can be found here.
Transcribed and Edited by: Caroline Bozzi & Jordan Fitch
Scene: The Materials Library on the 8000 level - everyone enters and chooses from the various boxed Panera lunches on the table. Lots of rustling - sandwich wraps and chip bags - and intermittent sidebar conversations precede the discussion with Heather Roberge.
Chas: I'm assuming you've been to Cincinnati before - what's your relationship to the city?
Heather: Cincinnati? Well, I don't know that much, but my mother's family is actually from Northern Kentucky - my father moved there when he was a senior in high school and that's how they met. And so my mother's family is from Union, Kentucky and Florence, Kentucky, and so I explained to Bailey that I've spent hours shuttling back and forth between Columbus, but we only came to visit family. We weren't visiting the city in any way.
I do have a rule about transcription - if I say um - you can't transcribe it. (laughter) I can't remember where I went, but I had a conversation with a student where they transcribed and went to print with every time I said um.
So no um's - I'm very self-conscious and I try not to say um.
Jordan (laughing): Got it.
Heather: But I've been to Cincinnati - let's see - I think this is my third time. I was a graduate student when this building opened and Charlie Rose taped a show in the main space of the building and I came as a graduate school groupie (laughter) because there were interesting people - I think Sanford Kwinter, Jeff Kipnes and Peter Eisenman - having a conversation with Jay Chatterjee. My second time was for a job talk for the position of director and that was 6 or 8 years ago - that was a one day whirlwind.
Chas: We just went through that again.
Heather: I was recently just appointed Chair of my department so I'm now in the throes of realizing all the things I don't know about directing a school - even though I thought I knew quite a lot. But it's a little different when the complaints get into your inbox.
Bailey: I think we can get started with questions - I know Ed is coming up - we can go around and say what year we are - I think we're all architecture.
(Group introduces themselves individually)
Chas: I mean, I can always pull out questions - I'm kind of interested in the scene in LA - the architecture scene. You've got UCLA, SciARC, Woodbury, like all kind of in this ecosystem of southern California architecture...
Heather: and USC and Cal Poly and Pomona...
Chas: Yeah, I just want to hear about the relationship between those schools and where UCLA fits into that relationship.
Heather: Well, I think that it's an incredibly bustling, busy town for architecture so that makes it an incredible place to be an architect but it also means that you have to choose your allegiances, and choose what to tap into. I think it's quite difficult to know all the schools really intimately so I'll just preface an answer that way by saying that I know SciARC best of all the schools and in fact, there's really no competition between how well I know SciARC and how well I know the other schools. That's largely because as a full time faculty member and a solo practitioner and an administrator, I only have a certain amount of time so - I spend time on reviews at SciARC quite a lot, and I would say that UCLA and SciARC almost have a sibling rivalry. There's a deep admiration and love and yet there's a great deal of rivalry between the two places though they are quite distinct from one another. So UCLA is part of a research institution - it's predominantly graduate students in four graduate programs with a very small cohort of undergrads in the liberal arts degree format. So it's much more indebted in how you frame research questions in the teaching of architecture - how do you accommodate forms of research even in professional degree programs.
Whereas SciARC has, more, maybe it's equivalent, the number of undergrads and graduate students, and they have recently amplified their postgraduate program as we did four years ago. And so those are outlets for research that are not constrained by accreditation and professional certifications. And their undergrad program is a 5 year BArch program, and so it has much more professional obligations than our liberal arts program with an emphasis in architecture.
And so then I would say that we are a public institution and they are a private institution, so they have more money than we have - which is where the jealousy comes out. Because they also have a pretty incredible building and we have a terrible building.
They have good teachers, we have really great teachers as well. Their emphasis is more strongly on technique and how to conceptualize technique and I would say ours is more interested in scholarship disciplinary thinking and the framing of research questions.
Chas: I know we have some connections with UC people who are now at SciARC...
Heather: In graduate school?
Chas: In the postgrad program, teaching, or like having gone there for a couple of years and are now teaching - my familiarity with the other schools in that area is less, which is why I was asking...
Heather: So we have a campus called the ideas campus, and that campus supports approximately four research based year-round postgrad opportunities called superstudios. And so there's a lead researcher in each of the studios and then between 12-18 students and an assistant teacher who come and they work on a problem. Right now, there's someone working on entertainment - they're all indebted in trying to form a relationship to industry and trying to expand the boundaries of what constitutes creative practice in architecture - expand it toward entertainment - how could you apply architectural thinking and skills and lead the market of entertainment and find a way to develop a form of practice there.
Another is in mobility - so it's working with tech companies that are changing mobility conditions with automation, and so it's looking at the impact that that has on building typologies and on urban organization.
An then another one is kind of urban strategy - that's run by Thom Mayne. It's basically looking at information - sorting through information about climate, about energy use, about demographics, and using information analysis as an engine to produce alternative organizational ideas for urban environments.
And then the fourth one is on technology - so it's looking at robotics and VR and augmented reality as places that architects could bring their creative practice.
Jodokus: In the super studios, for example the energy one, do the students one deal with the architectural side or do they also delve into the technologies of like solar panels or different kinds of energy or do you bring in outside people in to deal with that?
Heather: Well I think they bring in consultants, they bring in politicians, they bring in other kinds of researchers. They've been working with the Center for Sustainable Design on campus, which is a pretty well funded research laboratory and they basically give grants to different faculty to work on problems - these things called grand challenges. So part of their work is in association with that lab. And they are trying to figure out how to make LA carbon neutral, how to not import water by 2050 and so Thom is working with them to sort of test assumptions about the strategies for meeting those goals. So it's actually quite his particular research project, it's quite interdisciplinary, because he's relying on lots of researchers at the university.
Jules: What are some of the strategies for not importing water by 2050 as the problem keeps getting worse?
Heather: Well I don't know - he's just completing his report, but part of the interest is in completely changing the landscape of Los Angeles so that - I think 60% of domestic water is for landscaping, so the biggest approach would be to simply remove everything that makes LA look like LA.
So Thom recently completed a house for himself and his wife, and he told me has 8 palm trees and 13 somethings and that's all the water that the two occupants of the hosue can sustain in terms of outdoor irrigation, so he's...
Ed: You know the real problem is in the farming that's around LA...
Heather: Yeah yeah but LA - they're working on reducing water in the city, the central valley and the fact that California is the bread basket of the United States is a problem at a different scale.
Jules: Yeah it's a national problem - it's not just an LA problem.
Chas: So LA is changing - it's urbanizing and we're talking about transit, density, all the things that LA hasn't necessarily been known for... what's the engagement? Is UCLA using the city as case study often? Are you in your practice trying to test ideas at an architectural scale that can be scaled up?
Heather: I would say yes? yes? and I don't know if there's another question there - I'll say yes. For sure we are - we have different, a series of different research labs and they are the first format for making closer relationships with the city and trying to shift policy and trying to engage in the political process that shapes policies. Dana Cuff runs a research laboratory called City Lab and works on particular problems in LA - I told you about the super studio courses - they are really fortunate in that they can stay at one scale all year long and they can take a series of students that are the same from term to term and work with them on a problem across a duration that's more accommodating of big difficult problems. Right so, in graduate programs, we are on a quarter system, but that means our students turn over every 10 weeks and there are very few places in the professional degree that you can work on big intractable difficult problems.
I'm working with a group of students in a graduate research studio which is our format for thesis. We work, you know 10-12 of us work together aroudn a faculty developed problem that everyone agrees is of interest to them - they elect to join the research effort. And we are working on a- we just started Friday but the course is called a disciplinary guide to currents, and part one is water. So the students will develop a kind of stance about how to deal with water scarcity and excess in a way that's transformative to their architectural organizations. So we'll be doing a school that's sitting at the interface of the LA river, which is essentially a wash, and downtown industrial spaces which are polluting the runoff that goes into the LA River. So we're working between those two conditions but specifically adopting stances to control and think about how water really shapes architectural organization. I'm not particularly expert nor interested in becoming expert at the regional questions, I think we have programs that are designed to deliver expertise about regional stake and national scale problems like that - I'm more interested in how you take architecture as a case study for piloting an approach that might be able to be a creative model of small change on the unit basis rather than regional and policy ideas.
Ed: This is all the discussion for the last two weeks across the university about restructuring how we do things into labs that can be funded - you guys can come back and teach it...
Bailey: That would be helpful...
Heather: It's still also a challenge to secure appropriate funding. Our model wasn't to go to the university and try to compete with scientists with funding... the funding for arts and humanities in the university is microscopic. So our model was to try to connect with industry, to adopt or co-produce a question that would be of value to both of us, and then have investment from the industry side around those questions. We've had mixed luck in doing that - I think it's not so easy to convince people to pay for thought production, for engagement with young designers and thinkers.
Ed: What we have here is the co-op relationship, so the conversation that I'm having is, the bigger firms are actually restructuring right now in Cincinnati..
Heather: Yeah that's brilliant for you guys...
Ed: So they want to come in on asking bigger questions, some of them will pilot things here, to do a preliminary work...
Jessica: I was about to say, we've definitely had a couple of studios that have been sponsored by firms or major corporations like Kroger or something like that...
Ed: But they're asking now - what is work? what is housing? not what does it look like, they've actually shifted, I think, in the last six months almost because of the things that have gone on, the larger corporations are restructuring, so it's kind of an interesting moment here. It's chaotic, but it's ripe for positive changes to actually get us relevant
Darion: The interiors program has some relationships, too - like Chick-Fil-A gave them a lot of money I know...
Ed: But that's a different thing, that's the old model.. the new model is a little bit different than the firms you're talking about... (turns to Heather) Did you talk about your disciplinary questions which I see is critical in the middle of the year of architectural education...
Heather: I was just fielding questions...
Kumi: Can you talk a little bit about how you translate your research into the work that you've been commissioned to do? I mean like, I read the readings and then I went and browsed your website and it was interesting to see almost how they have been translated into built work to some extent. How was that process?
Heather: Sure - To me that's a really exciting opportunity and also one that's fraught with resistance and difficulty. So I would say I try desperately to do that - I don't know that I have accomplished... I wish I had more opportunities. I would say the most challenging part of that is resources - so it's either what kind of budget does the client have or what kind of investment can I personally make in chasing an idea. And the answer in my particular case is not a lot
Unfortunately more than my accountant prefers - he's been in close contact with my like what are you doing?
But what I try to do is seed interests of mine in the work that I do as a teacher, and try to smuggle those back into problems that I find while I'm working. Sometimes I have a difficult problem in practice, and I think that there's actually a much more interesting and robust investigation around that problem than the one that I have the resources to tackle in a commission. And so they kind of go back and forth. And they change scale. Just to give you one example - a number of years ago I went on vacation to Seattle, and I went to Frank Gehry's Experience Music project and because I grew up in the Midwest and my mother taught me all kinds of things like sewing and crochet - I noticed that the Experience Music project had used garment making techniques to produce its surfaces. So I just kind of recognized them, but I had never recognized the fact that some of Gehry's models were being produced using techniques that one does to a developable surface, like fabric for a dress. And so I decided I would teach a topic studio around garment making as a way of learning about these techniques I knew from when I was a child and just wanting to understand how you could apply that logic and know how to develop the surfaces and know that square area and know exactly what means you would use to produce double curvature. And so then I found that doing that in a topics studio allowed me to work on questions about like the podium, midrise tower and it's podium, so one course worked on those kind of building tropes, and then I found that I could solve geometric details using some garment making techniques when I was working on a fabrication project. So I kind of, you know, just follow what I'm curious about, and I find that it's intuitive and easy for me to figure out how to scale those things up and down when they're scalable and not do that when they're not. I'm really interested in material behavior and making things, so learning about metals and ceramics and these kinds of things are actually building knowledge so taht when I'm wokring on something I can try to bring taht knwoledge to a new experiment. Sometimes I have the resources to do it, and sometimes I do it and try and then the client doesn't have the resources.
So I tried to work with Boston Valley, who is a ceramics company, really interesting collaboration with the University of Buffalo, and they can produce custom extrusions and they're really good at producing ceramic parts. So we tried to do that for a small project, and we ended up with a glazed ceramic facade but no Boston Valley.
So I kind of, you know, accept my beatings, but I try.
Bailey: I was actually curious about that - are you more, in your past explorations, have you been more drawn to material or to process, to start your thinking? Is it more of like, I mean you mentioned ceramics...
Heather: Yeah I think it's more, I would say probably more process than material though garment-making - I'm not interested in fabric, I'm interested in the geometric control that fashion designers and dress makers have over sheet material. So it's not really, I would say it's more in topology and geometry and ordering principles that it is in the actual material. Though, you know, I think ceramics are a kind of interesting contrast to 3d printing, and so I have quite a lot of suspicion around 3d printing so I moved to ceramics because I think you can get some of the effects of 3d printing but there is a different kind of durability, different expressive capacities, more rapid production, industry, etc. So sometimes I go somewhere else in order to disprove things I don't want to engage. I mean, it's sort of a passive aggressive approach...
I don't write that I don't like 3d printing, I just write that we've forgotten that we've learned how to make one object every thirty seconds and instead I 3d printed a model of En Pointe and it took us 45 hours (laughter) and so to me there's a lack of pragmatism in some of our engagements with technology, and so I move to sources of real embodied knowledge that we can bring back over to what we do, so that we don't lose sight of what's pragmatic.
Darion: You've talked about how you don't usually write but you're starting to now..
Heather: No I'm not starting to now, I just want to say, I've always written a little, I hope I never have to write a lot..
Darion: So right now we're in the same boat with our thesis, because we've never, I haven't taken an English class in like 5 years. Do you have any advice for people who don't like to write but have to write?
Heather: Sure, I have great advice because I have a book that is 260 pages long and I have the 14 most important page to write and I haven't written in three years. So, that’s how much I hate to write. I have spent so much time, so I am going to finish that this year. I had a friend who suggested that I get On Writing Well. It’s a book. And I really love to read, so I got On Writing Well. I forget the name of the author. And it basically was a great book that explained how to make sure you are articulating your thesis, how to use evidence, how to structure the evidence. So I read On Writing Well and then I also read...
Ed: The other good one is Umberto Eco's, How to Write a Thesis, which is written on how to use index cards, which are a great technology.
Heather: That too. And then I read a book on grammar because I don't have good grammar. I have been told by all the critical studies faculty, I just don't put the commas in the right place. I read that but I still don't think I have great grammar.
Ed: I have been told that I am a good writer. My family are all writers. I'm the bad writer in the family. It takes as much work as a design project. In school you always write it the night before, and you can't do that. Bob Somol can do that - he is the only person who I can see, he was here a couple weeks ago, who can kind of rough it out. You have to then have an outline and then you have to be willing to change it when its not coming out right, just like you would in the design. And then you tease out pieces of it and work on them. Some people can just write straight through.
Heather: It is very rare. And I don't have the time or the interest to put that kind of effort into it, but I recognize good writing and I appreciate it. I think in my life there are so many things I have to learn to be capable of and sometimes I decide to be good enough at something. And so the writing is probably the thing that I am just merely good enough at. I mean there are other things to but that one is the one where I think it's on the bottom.
Darion: How do you start to write? Do you start with the outline? I know right now I am struggling to figure out the starting part of the writing.
Ed: Start in the middle. That's always the hardest thing: the beginning and the end. So start in the middle.
Chas: On plasticity and tradition, which is a word that you bring up. As I was reading your writing, I was thinking about The Alphabet and The Algorithm by Mario Carpo where he was thinking about creating the objectile which is the generative code or script that you produced. I am interested in this weird place in architecture we show off the final products all the time and we hold very close to us the secret recipe that produced it. I am interested - is that a way to move architecture forward if holding on to the objectile, the generative thing, slows the march of our practice or if we should continue to celebrate the objects that are created by the objectile?
Heather: I think the process is where you learn. I don't know how you teach without teaching methods. I think we are a bit opaque and definitely secretive about methods which I find really odd because methods are a kind of currency. It allows you to test things. All my teaching is really methods-based, but not methods for the sake of themselves. I think it is as important to argue for the effects and the new or different conditions that emerge out of the deployment of different methods. But I was also a student at a particular time in architectural history where the process and technique and procedure were where the focus was. I would say, we also had quite rigorous kind of theory classes and quite rigorous history classes so I see myself as very happily occupying this space between things. So I am not comfortable just chasing technology nor am I very comfortable with the resurgence with postmodernism. Because it is just sampling things that are no longer connected to contemporary conditions. They are not necessarily relevant to our present moment. I don't think have as many colleagues who share my interest in being between things, but I am very interested in being between things and understanding tradition, material, assembly, history of architecture, emerging technologies, forecasting the future of work or the future of housing. I believe in architecture as an important generalist profession. You have to become an expert when you need to become expert, but you can't ever mistake being expert at one thing as being able to continue to be relevant. You have to go in and out of force of expertise because nothing in singularly produced by one set of facts.
Chas: Since you brought it up, sorry, can we talk about the resurgence of post modernism?
Ed: That hasn't really hit here.
Chas: No, it's on the internet. It's everywhere. Digital nostalgia is the aesthetic of the internet right now. I see it coming a lot from the west coast and I am curious, what do we do with this.
Heather: It is really his fault.
Chas: Who's fault?
Ed: I said it in my introduction, he is to blame.
Heather: Bob [Somol].
Chas: It is in representation. It is in aesthetic. It is in people producing eye candy that is fun to look at. That's the definition of eye candy, I guess. But I'm not sure where it takes us at all.
Ed: He will take full responsibility for it, so you don't have to answer that question. It was just an observation.
Heather: I ask questions. The nostalgic condition is not just in architecture. You can see it in a quicker turn around in fashion. You can see it in music. It's a cultural impulse. I don't actually know how to explain it, but I think that it's mistaken in that it wants to connect to authentic things but it's producing artifice. I think as a reaction to how synthetic and disconnected things are from human history, it's a reaction to that. The digital, the technical, the shinny object. There is a reaction against all of that, but it has become the same. It is lacking substance in a new way.
Chas: If you read it that way. If you get the joke, I guess. When you are looking as stuff and saying that it is being critical.
Tiberiu: Why do you believe it lacks substance?
Heather: Probably because I don't understand its effects aside from its transferability and its quick reception by audiences. I haven't heard compelling arguments framing how it can be extrapolated and prolonged. How it can have impact beyond its own conditions? I know it has impact through mimicry. People do the same thing and so you have a different mash up of things and the techniques are transferable. I just don't see how it actually engages non architectural audiences for durations longer than Facebook and Instagram. I might just not see it.
Tiberiu: What I was trying to get at is that in our architectural history course, we talked about Roman architecture and how they developed their own techniques. I feel like we are kind of going through that with every century - we develop a technique but then eventually something happens and it ends up not being used. You have Roman architecture from Vitruvius then you have the plague and all of a sudden all of the foundations that were left from the Roman buildings are still there and the people that come after that don't realize it until the 19th century when people start to excavate and put in plumbing. I feel like what we do now, may not have a certain substance but it might be capable of producing a branch that then creates something of substance.
Heather: I would say there is a fair number of people who think that is the case. I might be a minority. No, I am not a minority. But I'm in the minority in some circles.
Heather: Did you go to the Chicago Architecture Biennial? The Make New History show or in LA - it's not any of that. I find that really fascinating and pertinent. I think understanding any of the parts thoroughly is also very valuable. It's just the mashup technique where you take found objects and you take a temple type and you just kind of crash things into one another. I just... I guess I... I don't think I have a good enough sense of humor to appreciate it. I'm too sincere. I'm very earnest. It's really a problem.
Jordan: If you have advice to people that are starting their architectural careers, about how to not be pigeon-holed in the first couple of years - because we get into these firms where there is a technical guy, there is the LEED person, there is the so-and-so, but how do you balance that to get the mashup? Because that is the ideal, right?
Heather: I think it's the ideal, that’s why I made it the places I did - but my retirement account might not thank me.
Your question is biased towards your sensibility. Other people might be really comfortable being an expert at curtain walls, and so a big firm allow them to be an expert at curtain walls. Your question received my response because I understand your bias and I share it, but I don’t think my answer will work for everyone because they are comfortable with other kinds of expertise. Since I'm not, I never liked to hear someone say, "do that" without telling me why I would do it that way. I don't really walk through the world without wondering why was it done that way - usually in the most cynical of ways like, “How in the world could it have been done that way?” But also in a curious way - “Why is it like that?” I chose small offices to begin with, because I wanted a place where I had a close relationship to a couple of people who would humor my questions about why I was going to do it that way or even better, wouldn’t even tell me how to do it and I had to figure out how to do it. All of my jobs have been completely over my head, and until maybe my current job that felt good.
Ed: Sadly this is the one we both seem to think we know how to do.
Heather: Yeah this is the one that’s hurting a little bit.
I would also suggest that you never go somewhere where you don’t respect how things are done, because no matter how long you’re there, that changes what you believe is acceptable, it shifts your values. And so I would always try to go to a place that seemed commensurate with my value system so that I could not learn something I didn’t want to know.
Jordan: Be picky, in other words.
Heather: I think you should be picky. I mean picky in the way that works for you. And then if you make a mistake, be willing to change your mind. I did that once - I worked for a place for three months. At the end of the first week, I knew that I had been sold on something that was not ever going to happen, and then I became much more demanding about what I said I wanted. I got a job that allowed me to do what I wanted to do. That one, they fed me something that wasn’t true.
Darion: I think we’ve all had that happen.
Lunch Attendees: Jessica Dangelo, Jordan Fitch, Kiana Memarandadgar, Brent Nichols, Tibby Potinteu, Jules Rosen, Jodokus Sieverding, Bailey Stultz, Kumi Wickramanayaka, Chas Wiederhold, Darion Ziegler, and Ed Mitchell (Director of SAID)