A coffee with an architect is a great way to spend an afternoon if feeling in the need for collecting creativity and a lot of interesting stories. There is little necessity to write a forward, so I will just introduce the architect and let his words speak for him.
James M. Sandell is a principal at, Carr, Lynch and Sandell, Inc., a Greater Boston area firm located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1977 by Kevin Lynch, noted MIT professor of Urban Planning, with architect Stephen Carr. Jim Sandell, lived and worked abroad for a number of years. Then, after collaborating with Kevin and Steve for some time, joined their firm as a principal in 1987.
FG: When you had to choose college and a profession, why did you pick architecture? Where does your passion come from?
JS: Oh, that’s easy to say. I was in 4th grade when my passion for architecture began. My introduction to architecture was from my Aunt Ethel (on my father’s side of the family). After she graduated from high school, in 1920, she was hired by Ellerbe & Co., architects in St. Paul, Minnesota, at that time a four-person company. By the time she retired, as head of the Business Office, fifty years later the company had grown to 600 people. When I was young, I would sometimes go and visit her at work on weekends, and I recall being amazed by the large quantity of drawings and projects throughout the space. By the end of 6th grade, I realized that architecture would be my profession.
FG: What were your first experiences?
JS: Ellerbe was the first company I worked for. I started there while I was in high school. It was a 2 hour commute each way from my house and work started at 7:30 am. I guess I didn’t pick the job because of its proximity. In terms of drawing experience, in order to learn how to render using vanishing points, I started by drawing perspectives of log cabins.
FG: As a student at Harvard’s GSD while Jose Luis Sert was dean, would you like to share some of his more effective teaching? Probably some of that is still part of your way of designing.
JS: Actually, Gerhard Kalmann (1915-2012) and Michael McKinnel (1935), the architects that designed the much-discussed Boston City Hall in the 1960s, were my teachers at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Sert was, at that time, more focused on raising funds for the new Gund Hall therefore his teaching time was limited. What was unique about G. Kalmann’s teachings, the eldest member of the team and a very Germanic and professorial mentor, was his tendency to reduce projects and their surrounding ideas into what he would call “seminal drawings.” Those schematic sketches looked more like 3D drawings that were useful in deconstructing the whole project and analyzing its parts. McKinnel would listen to students’ ideas then ask a series of questions that would be important to help in analyzing the whole design process.
FG: Over the same period you were awarded the famous Rotch Traveling Scholarship. What are the most significant memories of that experience?
(For whoever does not know what we are talking about, the Rotch Traveling Scholarship is named after Arthur Rotch (1850-1894) who was an American Architect active in Boston. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a fact that influenced his future career leading him to the role of chairman of the visiting committee of Fine Arts of Harvard University. In 1898, together with his siblings, he founded the Rotch Traveling Scholarship which sends an American student of architecture for a minimum 8 months study and travel abroad (following the educational principle that was typical at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts).
JS: An architectural competition has to be won to be eligible for the Scholarship. I decided to enter the competition at the very end of my year as a student in Harvard. The competition was divided into two phases: the first phase took place over a weekend and only six people were accepted to pass onto the second phase. The second phase took place over a two week period. I still recall the deadline being on a Thursday afternoon at the BAC (then Boston Architectural Center). The following day the jury had to proclaim the winner. I was at home (resting after two weeks of intense work) when the phone rang and a woman told me I had won. To pick up the prize, my wife and I went to the home of Arthur Rotch’s descendents, Aimee and Rosamond Lamb, to have tea. I remember that they asked if I would like a drop of sherry in it. As it was 1968, I was supposed to be called to go to Vietnam. I had to meet with the draft board in my hometown to obtain a hardship deferment before I was able to leave. The trip started in Zuffenhausen: a suburb of Stuttgart, Germany where my wife and I bought a Porsche; that became our little house for the whole trip.
FG: At some point, in your career, you moved to Rome, Italy, for several years. What was your experience like?
JS: Italy has been a recurrent theme in my life. I went there for the first time during my junior year in college for two months. After the Rotch trip experience I had a chance to move to Rome and work for architects Spero Daltas and his partner Ben Brown (who had previously collaborated with the famous Eero Saarinen). They had an office there. I was in Rome for 6 years before moving back to the United States.
FG: When and how did your experience with Carr and Lynch start?
JS: The collaboration with Carr and Lynch started right after the Rotch trip and kept going during my time in Italy as well. In the beginning I was hired because of my drafting and rendering capabilities. I officially became part of the staff of the firm in 1978 and later a partner (that, of course, explains the current name of the firm). I remember the first project I worked on with Steve Carr being an urban design project for the city of Washington D.C. I had the chance to work closely with Kevin Lynch on a few projects before his death. The Church Street pedestrianization in Burlington, Vermont, was one of my favorites.
FG: After working and absorbing Kevin Lynch’s influence what do you see happening in the future of cities? Should they follow some existing (example) design or should they be reinvented?
JS: I truly believe Lynch’s points and theories are becoming more and more relevant for today. His ability to make clear and simple diagrams of the structure of cities is still valid and effective. His teachings can, of course, still be applied to today’s studies for any urban analysis or project. Talking about cities, I think there are so many different variables that have to be considered, it is hard to say if cities should be reinvented. It depends more on the existing conditions, therefore each single case should be individually analyzed.
FG: Talking about cities, in your career, you had the chance of working for the city of Cambridge MA and were selected to renew one of its hubs: Central Square. How do you see this space evolving? If your project could evolve following people’s needs, how would you modify it now?
JS: The threshold for the Central Square project was the pedestrianization of one of the most crowded and congested crossroads in Cambridge. Taking into consideration the conflict between pedestrian, bicycle and automobile traffic, we created a space that is now more pedestrian friendly. It is closer to the concept of a European street thanks to the creation of sitting areas, wider pedestrian sidewalks, the planting of more trees and the installation of pedestrian scale lighting. It is true that Central Square has been resistant to gentrification and it is home to a large variety of ethnicities and people. There is also a strong presence of social community centers. But, the big physical changes in Central Square have been a catalyst for improvements not only in the local economy but also to the whole look and feel of such an eclectic area. The constant, on-going process will keep transforming this area. Eventually it may look more like other areas in Cambridge, such as Harvard or Inman Squares but, it will maintain qualities that make it unique. MIT’s and Harvard’s constant growth and the MBTA presence/hub connections have been “pressurizing” Central Square and eventually will speed this improvement process.
FG: Another big project you worked on, concerns one the most popular places in Boston: I am talking about the Prudential Center. Considering architecture as a problem solving profession, in that particular case what were the challenges you faced and how did you solve them?
JS: In that specific case the challenge was to stitch back together two areas: Back Bay and the South End which had been divided by I-90 (more often known as the Mass Pike). The Prudential tower and its surrounding area were built over the highway; they are almost 20 feet higher than the surrounding streets. To become a knuckle between the two neighborhoods, the redeveloped Prudential Center, had to encourage the use of escalators to move people into the space as well as recreate the old horizontal pedestrian links. However, the new “streets” were being developed on private property and one wouldn’t, under normal circumstances, be able to move through those areas 24/7. So, one of the challenges was to demonstrate to the Prudential Center’s owners that the new pedestrian links should be kept open; after all, streets don’t close at night. They were convinced they should allow that. A second major problem was related to the original plan of the area. Completed in 1964 by Charles Luckman and Associates, a California architectural firm, the design for the Pru, on its raised platform, didn’t consider the strong cold winds that blow in Boston during winter. The original enclosed, but unconditioned, walkways along the retail storefronts were cold and grey, the strong winter winds made the outdoor space unusable and unwalkable for some part of the year. As well as the recommendation to more fully enclose, and condition, the shopping area, we proposed, four new buildings that not only became part of new streetscapes, but also functioned as wind barriers for the garden on the south side of the tower. The redevelopment included expanded areas for retail, conditioned pedestrian ‘streets’, a protected outside garden and new residential and office buildings, and was successful more quickly than was initially anticipated.
FG: What is your architectural philosophy? How has it been evolving since you joined Carr and Lynch’s firm, then CLS?
JS: We could talk about my philosophy of architecture but the truth is that architecture is made for clients as they use it. I value working with small clients, such as home owners, as much as clients with larger projects, such as companies or municipalities. The first ones choose to live in my designs, therefore I am not only shaping forms, but lives as well. Kevin Lynch, in fact, taught that what you design is predicated by how they live.
FG: What is your perspective when considering the concept of “genius loci”?
JS: Well, location itself is where the project starts, so I would say it is a very important factor that influences and partly drives my design.
FG: What is your approach to the creative process?
JS: When designing, experience allows me to filter what the best solutions could be without having to try many different approaches. Part of the creative process lies in my interest for technology (intended/interpreted as materials and performance), which always helps inspiration.
FG: You have been recently focused quite a bit on residential architecture. What type of relationship would you want to create between body and forms of the spaces you build?
JS: I don’t consider the relationship between form and function as a strict one. There certainly has to be a balance between the two, but I have noticed that sometimes form can lead function and create something really interesting, that of course would include functional spaces, as well.
FG: Among your projects, talking about residential architecture, you were called to “renew” one of Walter Gropius’s projects. What were the challenges you had to face when working on an existing building design by one of Modern architecture’s fathers?
JS: In that case we were called to build a second house on the same property as a Walter Gropius’s project for Mary Haggerty in Cohasset, MA. Of course part of the challenge was to design something that looked appropriate, but had to meet today’s zoning requirements and environment regulations. The property is located almost on the beach so, mainly in the winter season when there are more storms from the sea, the existing property faces flood problems. Because of this, we designed the second, smaller, house closer to the inland area of the property. Due to flooding issues, you can imagine how hard it was to meet all zoning and environment regulations.
FG: The process of construction is generally considered like something in between endeavor and struggle. What are your thoughts about it?
JS: Experience and passion for this job has taught me, as well as all the staff at CLS, how to overcome and persevere over struggle, no matter what type of project we are working with. We try to ease the struggle for our clients by quickly understanding and resolving the issues that can come up during construction. We have usually had more experience with the construction process than our clients. Quickly identifying what is routine from what needs more intervention helps to calm things and provides the space to find a solution for the issue. In the office we often ease the struggle with humor, commenting on how “we do crazy”; we almost thought of typing it on our business cards. (Laugh) Many projects have crazy things that happen at one point or another. It does point out that the value of working with an architect goes, beyond design.
FG: How is the role of architects changing in relation to our culture and mankind evolution?
JS: I believe in architects as problem solvers and in designing while understanding the unpredictable. Over the centuries mankind has had to face the problems related to nature when building cities on the edge (such as Amsterdam, under sea level, or New Orleans when struck by weather conditions). Coming up with physical, structural solutions that require savvy planning is the goal that should be achieved in every project. It is odd to think that Venetians had already understood this dynamic and were able to design accommodating nature centuries ago, while we seem to have to reinvent it all over again.
FG: If you were to teach a class of future architects, what would teach them?
JS: Drawing classes, for sure. Want to hear a funny story? Spero Daltas, the architect I worked with during my “Italian years” had worked with Eero Saarinen. During his job interview Eero asked him to draw a horse. That was the test to pass in order to be hired. Of course Spero drew one correctly. Now, could you draw a horse?
FG: well, I guess I can try (sketching at my best but proportions weren’t looking quite right. I would say it was looking more like a hinny)
JS: I can definitely tell it is a horse and not a dog, but I am not quite sure Eero would have hired you.