Design Manifestos: Stephen Van Dyck of LMN Architects

Stephen Van Dyck (Photograph courtesy of LMN Architects)

Stephen Van Dyck, AIA, LEED AP, is a Partner at LMN Architects in Seattle, where he leads the design and delivery of public assembly, performing arts, transportation, higher education and mixed-use projects.

Stephen’s work embodies the shared vision of LMN to create buildings that engage and enrich public life, strengthen civic identity, and promote sustainable urbanization. Experimentation and a spirit of collaborative inquiry inform every aspect of his work. Stephen has pioneered the project integration of LMN’s Tech Studio, an in-house research and development lab, created to address critical industry challenges and the needs of contemporary practice. Tech Studio brings together a variety of specialists and designers to explore new digital working methodologies and test the limits of advanced fabrication and material science. The studio supports specific projects and conducts independent research and development in technologies such as building performance simulation, parametric modeling, digital fabrication, and human-computer interaction.

Widely recognized as an industry authority in design technology, Stephen regularly presents on the subject at professional conferences across North America and currently serves as a member of the Autodesk Architecture Executive Council. He has served as a lecturer and studio critic at Yale University. He holds a Master’s Degree in Architecture from Yale University, is a LEED Accredited Professional, and a Registered Architect in New York and Washington States. LMN Architects recently received the 2016 National AIA Architecture Firm Award and will be honored at the 2016 AIA National Convention in Philadelphia. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Stephen’s unique approach and design philosophy.

On becoming an architect
I studied architectural history in college. At the time, I didn’t think about being a designer at all, I was interested in the hidden story behind our built environment, the historic record that architecture leaves, and I guess I grew to really love the process of telling stories. Being a historian is a fundamentally creative process, you’re forced to build a compelling narrative from what’s usually a limited string of artifacts.

I grew up in Philadelphia, and during college I got a summer internship with Robert Venturi and the late Steve Izenour. Because I was really familiar with their thinking and legacy through my study of architectural history, it seemed logical to begin dabbling in design myself. I wound up working with them for a few years after college, and then realized if I wanted to do this architecture thing for real I needed to go to grad school.

‘University of Iowa Voxman Music Building Facade’ (Photograph courtesy of LMN Architects)

On discovering his voice as a designer
Surely Bob and Steve were an important early influence, and I think what I took from them was their commitment to understanding how you operate in a context, beyond the physical context to the historic context in which we live and work.

While I was at school I formed a very similar relationship with Gregg Pasquarelli. We got along really well during my last semester at Yale and I went on to work with him at SHoP for a few years following school. Phil Bernstein has also had a huge impact on my career. So between Phil and Gregg I’ve had a pretty strong bent towards thinking about the larger process of making buildings and spaces, knowing that the key to being a successful architect is knowing and commanding the larger value proposition of us as thinkers and collaborators. Gregg and Phil are very different people but they both would tell you ‘design’ as we have traditionally defined it is only part of the larger value we as architects can provide. It’s an evolving dialogue that we carry on at LMN every day now.

On joining LMN Architects
My wife and I had been living in NYC for a few years after grad school, but we knew something was missing. We took a vacation to Southeast Alaska one spring and realized we needed more big nature in our lives, and that’s hard to get on a regular basis living and working in New York City as architects. So on a whim we decided to move to Seattle and see what would happen. As we were moving, Phil put me in touch with LMN, and it was a great fit for me. Seattle is our home now and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Living in the Pacific Northwest has definitely shaped me as a person, which of course has some bearing on my work as an architect. Seattle is a wonderfully contrarian place, and being in this booming frontier town gives us all a ‘we can do anything’ attitude. Certainly that comes out in how we practice at LMN. It’s a very entrepreneurial culture, design is collaborative and curiosity about how we can do things differently runs in the veins of our studio.

‘Cleveland Global Center for Health and Innovation’ (Photograph by Ed LaCasse courtesy of LMN Architects)

On specific principles he strives to adhere to
We are a process oriented design studio, and we really treasure the richness that is produced by a chaotic and messy design process. All of that of course needs to be orchestrated so that it works together ultimately, and that’s part of my job. But with every project I personally try to make sure that we’ve done something differently in our process, challenged an accepted tenet or standard or workflow. That inevitably leads to a different –and hopefully better — design outcome.

I also believe we can improve the design of something while at the same time reducing its cost. There are a lot of ways to do this, but the path that seems most successful right now is the idea of achieving the extraordinary with the ordinary. Usually this means taking a relatively inexpensive material and pushing the limits of what it can do, mostly exploring how it can be crafted and manipulated with CNC tools. A good example of working in this way is the Theatroacoustic System we designed for the new University of Iowa School of Music. We took composite aluminum panel, a material originally developed for use in large scale exterior applications like car dealerships, and made an exquisite and high-performance ceiling system, something that couldn’t have been made in any other way.

‘University of Iowa Voxman Music Building’ (Photograph courtesy of LMN Architects)

On his primary focus at LMN Architects
I help lead design projects, which has many faces. There’s the external part, which is building relationships with clients to better understand their needs. And there’s the internal part, where I both curate design teams and our process, as well as work with builders and fabricators to deliver value. I also help guide the work of Tech Studio, our research and development group within LMN, which has both a project-based attention as well as a forward-looking focus, to things we think might be significant to us in the future.

On recent projects that best represent his unique approach
We believe in some specific things that a bunch of very talented people are a part of, and maybe I think that’s what makes our approach unique. Fundamentally we are committed to cities and urban places. We all believe that every project, regardless of type or scale, has a broad impact far beyond its site that we need to understand and shape. If we’re successful, this means you can’t easily tell the bounds of a given project. For instance, our work in Cleveland we were commissioned to design a Convention Center, but when you look at the project, you can’t even really distinguish where the convention center begins or ends. This can make life more difficult for our marketing team at times, but it’s actually an awesome outcome.

‘Cleveland Civic Core’ (Photograph by Jim Maguire courtesy of LMN Architects)

It’s also an attitude which has more recently brought us to design civic infrastructure projects. We’re able to bring a huge amount of value to construction projects that are typically not in the purview of architects. Whether it’s at a planning level or a detailed design and fabrication solution, we are bringing new skills and ways of thinking to the table usually directed only by engineers. Bridges are a personal favorite of mine, and we’re working on a few of them right now.

‘Northgate Pedestrian Bridge Model’ (Photograph courtesy of LMN Architects)

On his design toolkit
We always start with parallel digital and physical models. Every project, even the ones we don’t get awarded, begins with these models. From the first interview to the last design meeting, the client (and often the builder), is with us on a journey through both digital and physical models, often including self-prototyped mockups. There’s so much about the craft of making things –especially with our digital fabrication tools — that’s part of a thought process that translates, either directly or indirectly to the final outcome.

From a technical standpoint, Rhino is our main digital design tool in the early phases and Revit in the latter, though that is really a generalization. There are tons of other peripheral platforms and plugins we use for various simulation or generative needs, and the process is always different, but right now it basically comes down to those two workhorses.

On the state of design software
I’d say that historically the design tools we’ve used as architects have been appropriated from other pursuits, not made for what we do. The software industry, at least until very recently, has continued this paradigm, providing us with what they think we need as opposed to what we might actually need.

But you saw it a little in the 2D CAD era, with LISP programming, and much more so now with the prevalence of graphic programming (like Grasshopper) being so dominant, architects are finally taking the lead in making their design tools, which is really exciting. And I think here in 2016 we as an industry may finally be nearing the end of the initial ‘gee wiz’ stage where the tool dominates the outcome, and entering the more mature phase of defining the tool for the need.

So I’d say we are in a transitional state where the industry is finally responding by starting to create flexible, user-defined tools that will mature with the user and project needs, be flexible enough for a wide array of applications and customization, but also be interoperable, which is the challenge.

All of this is to some degree the reason we started Tech Studio. We knew that we had to invest in making our own tools because the industry wasn’t doing it for us. We had to invest in connecting those tools and making them interoperable, so we weren’t slaves to a specific platform for every need. I’ve always hoped that effort would make itself obsolete, which to some degree it has, but our research is now on to other things which are also really exciting and not so much software-focused.

‘University of Iowa Voxman Music Building Rendering’ (Rendering courtesy of LMN Architects)

On architecture being in need of disruption or innovation
I think as an industry we need to learn from our mistakes a lot better than we do now. Historically architects don’t pay much attention to buildings after we photograph them and hand over the keys. But there’s a growing capacity to unobtrusively get data about how they’re performing, and how successful they are. You see it across other sorts of design and manufacturing today; real-time feedback about performance, made even more accessible with mobile technology. While it may be tough for our profession because every project is bespoke, and of course there’s an assumed liability in this approach, but we need to be smart about which data matters and why, and be more open to changing our habits and instincts to respond to real results.

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
Our industry is slow to change but the biggest disruption we will need is a re-thinking of the supply chain that produces buildings and infrastructure. For the most part, it’s really inefficient and the technology and talent exists to do it better. And it’s true, architects are poised to lead this process if we can develop and maintain a mastery of the data that we create, right down to the chemical makeup of concrete or the code generated to fabricate building components. But we can’t do it alone and will need to build strong industry relationships to make that happen, particularly in manufacturing. We are always working to build those relationships knowing that someday the trust we build will allow us to do something extraordinary in partnership with our manufacturing and construction colleagues.

‘Northgate Pedestrian Bridge’ (Rendering courtesy of LMN Architects)

On the future of LMN in the next 5–10 years
LMN is an exciting office because we are big enough to tackle large-scale civic projects that have major impact to communities, but we’re also structured in such a way that we’re nimble enough to be quickly responsive and strategic, be that at a client or an industry level. So that puts us in a great position as the AEC sphere is going through this transformative period.

I would say that one of the ways we’ll be well equipped to help lead this new phase for our industry is our engagement in the physical side of building, and for us that’s an internal effort to start. We have a nice sized fabrication shop downstairs from our studio where we are constantly testing ideas at all scales. It engages our designers with the physical side of what we do from day one, getting our hands dirty making things, testing ideas out, seeing what works and what doesn’t, so we can have an informed conversation with our colleagues throughout the process. You have a lot more credibility with the fabricator that you’re working with when you can show them how you attempted to make something. And of course the stuff you learn takes your ideas in directions you could never have expected if you’d remained in a purely digital world. And guess what, now your idea is not only better but buildable! It’s the critical step we as architects need to make in order to really help merge the process of designing and building.

On advice he would give his younger self
Don’t fall in love with anything you think of. Try and maintain distance from it. And be the first person to find the problem with your idea. Then you can be part of finding a better idea more quickly. And if for some reason there isn’t a better idea, that’s ok too. But you need to test it and create some friction, because if you don’t, someone else will. It took me a long time to figure that out, but it’s become an important part of how I think. Trying to see every problem from multiple vantage points really helps confirm your position and direction, and usually that friction opens your eyes to things you never would have thought of otherwise.

This post was previously published on on 3/28/16.