Spatial Affairs Bureau

Interview by Erin Kuschner
Photographs by Joe Mrava and Shanice Trimboli

Spatial Affairs Bureau is a small coalition of designers with offices in Richmond, Charlottesville and Los Angeles. Peter Culley started Spatial Affairs Bureau after his work on the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts left him with strong ties to people in Richmond. Their work is evidence of a fondness for landscape in architecture and a creative commitment to their clients. In our interview Peter explained what makes Spatial Affairs special and what he enjoys most about managing his firm.

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Can you explain a little bit about the way you have worked with both landscape and architecture and how that has had an effect on you?

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I feel like the exposure that I’ve had to the true discipline of landscape architecture has been very important and the horizontal plane is an important aspect for architecture. Also somebody recently was talking about architecture, or facade, being an interstitial moment between landscape architecture and interior architecture which is kind of true. Architecture is a result of those two forces. I think even in the project where we are at the other extreme away from landscape, somehow principles of it are coming through. Landscape often has an important role in tempering the building or adjusting your perspective of the building. It’s interesting that we’re wedded to landscape as an office, but also that we have lighting as part of our office. Lighting is essential in terms of the interior world and then landscape is as I said, the other extreme, and then maybe architecture finds its way out between the two. The bridge park is entirely a landscape project, but it’s very much a built form. That resonates with me. It’s an architectural element but overall a two-milelong project. I like that. We designed a little bench at the metropolitan museum, and we’re designing a kiosk now. I like that we have these different scales.

Can you tell us what makes Spatial Affairs Bureau unique?

I have a background in cultural work and some of what we are doing still comes under that category. Until recently, I would have said it all did, because we are doing a house in London for an artist and it doubles as an art gallery.We also have a big advertising office in LA that we are doing work for so that doesn’t totally come under the same kind of cultural heading, but the client is very creative. In my conversations with the client I always find that we’re connecting on a fairly significant creative level and I will be stimulated by it. The client is a huge part of the energy behind any project we do. They have to be people who I will learn from in the discussions that I have with them. Not all clients in the industry have a strong creative manifesto, but I think ours do. They’re always demanding and idiosyncratic.

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What responses do you get from clients about your work? If you showed them what you’re working on how would they challenge your work?

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We always show the work in a way that the client can understand what we’re giving them. We get them right inside of what we’re doing so they can give the right pushback. We typically show options that have similar outcomes. That way we’re answering the same needs but in different ways, and they can give a response quickly, because they can imagine it next to a different scenario. In the Bridge Park project we did exactly that. It’s a matrix of opportunities, shortcomings, costs, time tables and cultural needs and community needs…we start to develop a really big matrix of pluses and minuses. In the end you just have to be able to embrace the limits and the pushback you get from the client. Sometimes you feel like you’ve got a wonderful plan and everything’s working well, but then it’s not really answering this need, and then immediately I think, ‘Oh, well it’s not a wonderful plan, we need to answer that need.’

Can you tell me a little bit more about your office being split into multiple locations, and how you chose those locations?

LA was much more exciting to me as a city than Richmond. Also I liked the collection of architecture schools there and I had some connections, so that was really the push of it. I really wanted the Richmond office to keep going….all the time that I’d invested in Richmond with the museum, but also in the wider community, and then all of the connections that I’d made with people locally. It’s a growing reality that my time and my association with Richmond is very much alive, but I think it’s a more sustainable model if I am in an international condition. In the end it probably helps the Richmond group. Then we can decide where and how we do projects. For communication in the work that you do, would you say that is achieved through personal visits or technology, or are there any other steps that you take? I think that probably it’s only technology. In fact, we’re still working towards that. The aim is to move towards systems that liberate you to do creative things in different places. We do a lot of this WebEx stuff, because you can see that it works very well. When we were doing VMFA, it was phone calls and a huge number of emails with mark-ups, but WebEx really didn’t exist in quite the same way then. If you went back twenty years, we definitely couldn’t do an office like this. It would be a complete nightmare. If you have a certain amount of direct contact time, it allows all the digital stuff to be gone for a while, but then you end up needing to get back the direct energy of being in front of each other.

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“I think you have a certain hunch of what people might be ideal for and I do like to develop a kind of connection. That’s very important when you’re smaller, to see how people are going to work between themselves.”

What do you think you gain from having people work all together in a building if your work is so easily sharable through technology?

I believe in human touch. I think that’s really essential in everything. Clusters of people where there is a primal social structure are important. The aim is to have clusters where people feel like they’re supported with physical interaction. If you imagined everybody always working in isolation, there would be a dialogue missing. But at the same time, being able to sometimes work differently, and being on your own for a certain amount of time is important for certain tasks, so I think in the end you want to offer the best of both. There’s this idea now of being able to offer different environments to work in, and I’m sure it’s come about from the technology we have. It allows us to move around the house and sit in different spaces. I’m used to working on my laptop in many different settings, it’s almost like we’ve been able to return to more instinctive ways of working. For example, sometimes I would stay at home a little bit longer to get through something. That’s good, because I can be completely focused.

At this point in your career, what would you say is the most rewarding part about being here at Spatial Affairs?

I think it’s wonderful to see something growing. I was thinking on the way here, that I don’t have any projects that I’m not super excited about. That’s extraordinary. We have several projects, and they’re all fascinating in their own way, and the sites are fascinating, the clients are fascinating. To get all of this going financially is very tricky, and cash flow is a real issue in architecture generally, but I think it’s interesting that we have different things in different places. I feel fortunate and excited that there are these different scales of projects that are at a reasonably high level. I feel like we have high-level clients...Did you ever look around in the back and the workshops and all of that?

Yeah. It must be exciting to have people working back there. Sometimes I question the work that I do like that at school. We have a printmaking lab and a woodshop and stuff. It’s so good to do those things and then I wonder, “Am I wasting my time? Should I go back to my desk and work on my projects?”

No, because it’s real. The thing is that if you do stuff in wood or metal, that’s architecture. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is, and the models you make on your desk are not actually architecture. I mean, they’re architectural spaces and they’re architectural representations, so it’s very important work. By the time you use a material that goes into making a building I think you’re doing architecture.

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So my last question for you, since this is a publication that is written by students and largely consumed by students, is there anything that you would say to people who are maybe not sure what they are going to do after college and how things are going to go?

There are two things I think that are very important. One is that you must be uncompromising in terms of who you look to work for, and that you do a really significant search. Of course it’s good just to get a job and economics are a part of that, but I’d just say really strive to find an office that resonates on some level with what you think you’ve become while you were a student. And don’t forget your own work that you did as a student. It’s probably the last time you’ll get to do work without much in the way of limits. Even if you’re running your own office, you’ve got lots of limits coming to you from clients to economics and site. It’s difficult to realize it at the time, but you’re currently in a situation where everything is focused towards you. You have professors responding to your work. It’s an incredible luxury in school that those people are spending their time to focus on your work and that you can chose how to take that and go in your own direction. That is not to put pressure on what you do with your work right now, but treat your portfolio as something quite precious because in some sense it defines who you are.

Peter Culley is a graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture, London, where he has subsequently taught, and University of Liverpool. He conceived Spatial Affairs Bureau in 2007, as a loose container for strands of interest from orthodox architectural practice to experimental spatial investigation. He now runs a busy studio with projects across the US and in the UK, and currently teaches in the graduate and undergraduate school at Woodbury University School of Architecture, Los Angeles, where he was awarded the title Professor of Practice in 2015.

Scott Gartner

[This story is from Volume III]

Interview by Claire Davis and Carly Landers
Essay by Carly Landers
Collages by Scott Gartner

Scott Gartner has taught at Virginia Tech since 1989, after studying at the University of Houston and HarvarD.

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At a young age, Scott Gartner started collecting materials and putting them together in surprising ways. He had stumbled onto the art of collaging, and he was quite good at it. He understood early on that there was something very compelling about turning objects everyone recognizes into something they could not have imagined. The spirit of giving familiar things a new life has stayed with Gartner. “Early on I realized that if I collaged from my own photographs I would start predetermining the outcome, so I find it’s more challenging and I get
much more interesting results by working with just the things I can find because I have to make do.” When he says he finds objects, he’s serious. He will search far and wide for the perfect one, and Gartner has been seen lurking in some questionable places. “I don’t know what the weirdest one is, but I’ve been in some pretty dicey places; looking in the trash, back alleys, getting into dumpsters.”

In order to keep that spirit of giving old things a new home, his collages consist of everything from colorful National Geographic magazines to old incandescent light bulbs. The strangest items have created the most intriguing and thought-provoking collages. One of his pieces uses discarded cigarettes found outside a Houston hospital. He tells the story of how each cigarette was smoked by the same nurse, who wore bright magenta lipstick. As he lined up the old cigarettes, there was the straight edge, the broken edge, and along the middle—a bright wavering line of magenta—a nod to an influence of his, Mark Rothko. “You get to look at things completely differently. You don’t look at it and think, ‘that’s a cigarette butt.’ You start thinking about it as being a color, texture, or something in combination with something else and it completely changes the way you perceive things.”

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Perception plays a key role in Gartner’s collages. He does not want them to be easily understood for what they are. He believes they should mean something different to everyone—in fact, if the story becomes too apparent, he’ll leave the collage unfinished. “It’s that constant off-balance that keeps something from being discovered, that to me, is the most enjoyable
thing about it.” 

To make things even more dynamic, Gartner will often hide images in his work. “It may sound crazy, but one of the things I do with the collages, typically the larger ones, is introduce a kind of static into them. When you turn up the radio and it’s got a lot of static on it, and you really have to listen hard to what’s being said or what music is playing. I want that to happen so it’s not just there at the first glance. There’s some resistance in the image in front of you that hopefully draws your attention even more.” It is this type of layering which Gartner delves into to make the work dramatic and successful.

When a viewer sees one tiny hidden detail and has to stray away from their preconceived notion of what that collage is to find the rest—that’s Gartner’s goal. Stirring up the imagination and seeing things in a different light. He touched on this a bit when comparing artwork and play, “It’s the way, for example, when we were children and we wanted to play a game. We could pick up anything and it became a part of the game. If I didn’t have a toy gun, I’d just get a broom and point the broom and go “bang,” or get under the table and it’s my house.” In the way that children can create anything in their minds, imaginatively transforming things is something that he finds inspirational and necessary. To Gartner, this necessity is not limited to the world of design or art; it exists in every avenue of life. 

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An imaginative disposition can expand your mind more than any amount of linear focus could. It adds depth and character to your person. In his collages, sometimes a layer will include the miscellaneous items he finds, other times it’s one of those small hidden details only some will be perceptive enough to uncover. The layers are what bring life to his collages, and he believes that this kind of ambiguity has the ability to bring life to design as a whole. A passion for design is just one of many overlapping layers. Pursuing other avenues is often what makes quality design work.

“This happens both in architectural design and collaging, even with problems while teaching. I’ll be working with a student and I’ll really want to make a suggestion or help them see a certain direction that would be very valuable, but the answer will come. Your consciousness puts such a pressure on the solution of the problem that often times it just flattens under the weight of your focus, and you can’t really see other possibilities.” Collaging is Gartner’s outlet outside of architecture, and he believes it is beneficial for designers to be curious and keenly observant in other mediums. “I think one of the healthiest things that young designers can do is to build in that opportunity—to rest and allow the mind to bring forth possibilities that are overborne by the immediacy of the problems that we have. Take advantage of what life offers you, or what the university offers. Take a class that’s utterly irrelevant to your major because it’s interesting.
Maybe you want to go out and study geology because you like rocks, whatever it might be. It’s got nothing to do with the design or the immediate project, it has everything to do with cultivating yourself, and giving yourself a world that’s large enough to grow in.”

Not only does he preach the advice of experiencing other things to better yourself—he lives it. Concerts, books, music, art. He enjoys all type of music; he mentioned that he was taking faculty Bill Green to a ZZ Top concert. The two are great friends who met when they taught in the same architecture studio. “He changed the way I taught. I was a lot more serious. He has helped me a lot because I want my students to not only take their designs seriously but to have fun doing it. You want to be pushing yourself further because it becomes something
you really want to enjoy. It’s about creating an atmosphere that allows people to trust themselves, to take risks. Do it seriously, do it in a way that is simultaneously challenging and rewarding and wonderfully enjoyable.” 

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Elise Birnbaum

[This interview is from Volume III]

Interview by Luisa Lacsamana, Austin Ledzian, and Christine Yen
Photographs by Luisa Lacsamana and Elise Birnbaum.

Elise graduated in 2010 with a degree in Studio Art from the School of Visual Arts (SOVA) at Virginia Tech. She spent a year screen printing for a non-profit organization before landing her current job as a Window Display Coordinator at Anthropologie. We talked with her about her student life and her working life.

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How do you come up with your concepts?
Anthropologie gives us kind of basic concepts that we work with and get inspired by, so it’s the perfect amount of constraint to give you enough freedom. Season by season we have different concepts. Anthropologie pays a lot of attention to what is going on in the art and design world. You could walk in and if you were paying enough attention you might have a view into some recent trends. For example, I feel like weaving was having a moment recently and we were all really excited about it.

Do you usually iterate your concepts or do you stick with the first idea?
As a designer a lot of times the first thing you come up with can be the right thing. If you have to think too hard it’s like you’re forcing it. That being said when you’re creating multiple installations within one space there are so many things you have to think about. There’s definitely a lot of going back and brainstorming and trying to figure out what makes sense with each piece interacting.

How long does a display usually take to make?
Usually we will sketch for a window for a few days, find inspiration, go over our sketches with our district bosses and our regional bosses and then we have a week to prep and a week to install. If it’s not a big installation and you don’t need to prep that much you can switch it up a little but usually a window will take two weeks and throughout that process it’s really collaborative at various different levels. It’s awesome because when you’re in school it’s different, there’s a weird disconnect. Now I might be stuck on something and someone in Ohio will say “hey why don’t you do this?” We definitely go back to it and refine it and keep trying to push it.

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How long are the windows up?
There are five or six windows each year and then three times a year we change the entire store. I encourage you to go into an Anthropologie in the spring. There are five or six installations in there at once so change is constant. We just finished a window and for the past few weeks, we’ve been planning for Spring.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
It’s challenging, in a good way, always trying to push yourself to one-up what you did before or come up with new ideas. Just trying to constantly get better and better, which is probably the hardest part of every job.

You mentioned someone in Ohio. Is there a community of window display artists?
Every store has an artist, which is really cool. A lot of bigger stores even have more than one, like Rockefeller Center has a team! We’re able to reach out to each other and talk about things and have conference calls. We also send big teams to open a store, for example in September a new store opened in Columbus. It was like a two-week summer camp of artists making things. It’s the best thing in the world but it’s also twelve-hour days. 

Do you have a studio?
I have an art room in Anthropologie. Each store has an art room. My room is one of the bigger ones, but whenever I show people they’re like ‘you make it all in here?’

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Is it nice working alone?
I like it, it’s a good balance. You’re working in an environment where people in retail are very social, but you can also close your door and blast the music, or listen to podcasts, and just really work. It’s awesome.

Do you know many other creatives in Pittsburgh?
There’s a great community here. There are so many colleges which means there are so many young people. Carnegie Mellon has an insane architecture and art and design program. We do internships and we get most of our interns from Carnegie Mellon and they’re amazing. So there are a lot of young creative people because they can rent cheap studios and buy houses.

Do you find that the community informs your work?
It definitely does. A good example is a window a few years back. It was an Earth Day window and the idea was making fake produce grow out of something recycled. What we came up with was all these bicycle wheels hanging on the wall which was informed by the growing bike scene here. There’s a bike store called Construction Junction and they have a program that teaches you how to build and fix your bikes for free, and you do labor to pay for it. So they gave us all their extra wheels. We also got to go to local farms to learn about eating locally and farming because we were using tomato plants that were growing through these bicycle wheels. And we actually put real tomato plants in the window and a tomato grew on them. I was really excited. The farm is called Grow Pittsburgh, and they provide tons of veggies for local restaurants. So we did this by speaking with these people who were teaching us about farming and then put it in our window. It was cool.

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Do you have a favorite window display?
One of my favorite window displays was during the summer when I had a lot of interns. We made thousands of those little Chinese fortune-tellers and dyed them. There was a whole panel of them, they looked like flowers but ombred. And it was all natural dyes—we used beet juice, blackberries, blueberries. We were all really excited about boiling down blueberries to make the dye. And the range of colors you could get was awesome.

Do you do any side projects? What do you do on your weekends?
Yeah, I do some side projects. I still do some screen printing. I took a woodworking class recently and I’m trying to get better at that. Also, I just took a metalworking class too and I’m trying to make spoons but I’m still learning. Anthropologie has been so amazing with how much they have exposed to me...it feels like I’m in three years of grad school. There is this community of sharing of techniques and ideas and I am trying to learn as much as I can.

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You were in SOVA at Tech. In what ways did your art education prepare you for this job?
Really wonderfully. I actually took a class called Professional Studio Practices. It’s like putting your portfolio together and applying for jobs for art students. They made you fake-apply for a job, and I fake-applied for the job that I have. I was here working a different job and I thought ‘I’ll just work at Anthropologie part-time and see if that’s really an option.’ The way my job is set up is very relevant to how school taught me to manage my time.

Speaking of professors, did you have anyone during school that inspired you?
Definitely Deb Sim. She still runs the gallery in the Armory. And Chris Pritchett—I have one of his pots over there. And Emily Callon. She’s not there anymore but she’s a really amazing fiber artist. I almost wish I could go back and do school again because I’ve learned so much that now I could be so good in school, I could be amazing!

Are there any life lessons you learned while in college?
Well I was on the track team which made me have to be really efficient with time management, and that’s a big part of my job. I’ve joked with other display coordinators that we’re the responsible art kids. This is where the responsible art kids end up!

Do you have any advice for graduating students entering the “real world”?
Put your foot in as many doors as you’re interested in. Do it for real. Get an internship. You have to put yourself out there! If you don’t ask for something, you’re never going to know that the answer isn’t yes.  I feel that has gotten me to a good place.

If you could give a lecture on something you know a lot about, what would it be?
Flea-marketing? [laughs] I could do that. I’d tell you where the good flea-markets are, and then I would tell you about all my sly techniques on how to get lower prices. I’ve been to a lot of flea-markets in foreign countries and figured out how to not speak the language but still get good deals.  

Curation 2

by Jee Yun Kim

here's another one.

ART

Olga Fedorova’s generic jungle

Olga Fedorova is a Russian artist who has been active in photography and painting and is now holding her first solo exhibition in London. The exhibition is made up by 3D rendered images inspired by modern technology and political state. 

Link to Olga Fedorova's website

Neil massey's the vietnam collection

Something cool I saw about a scene I had no idea about. During his 6 year stay in Vietnam Neil Massey captured the metal and punk scene within Saigon. He found this small minority of Vietnamese youth that has embraced this underground scene to escape family and societal pressure. 

Link to Neil Massey's books

derek ridgers' run to me

Uhhhhh more pictures of underground kids but this time in the UK because you know me. Run to me partially collects photographs by Derek Ridgers taken throughout the 80s and 90s portraying British youth culture. 

Link to Derek Ridgers' website

MUSIC

DR. JOHN - GRIS GRIS

This album makes me feel sweaty. Probably one of the best psychedelic albums I've heard come out of the time period with a cool mix of styles that's pretty representative of the region. Swampy, funky, jazzy, kind of weird.

Favorite Tracks: All favorites because since this is only 30 minutes long

Real good 90s/00s pop inspired album without the cheesiness. It's produced by Clarence Clarity, and you can definitely hear his sound bleed into this project just with less glitch.

Favorite Tracks: they're all pretty good :)

 

MOVIE

videodrome (1983)

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Videodrome is a Cronenberg movie that centers around the idea of the permissiveness of technology and media in our daily lives. Reality is questioned and the characters are pushed to see very literally how connected flesh and technology are. It has bits of great body horror that would be expected from Cronenberg, but it's definitely very story-driven. The original title for the film was Network of Blood which was a much more literal title, and was changed later after script revisions to reduce the violence. Still, it's been said that Universal head, Sid Scheinberg mentioned wanting to stop film production after reading the script. Some of the inspirations for the film include Cronenberg's childhood memory of picking up late night television signals and worrying about seeing something messed up, as well as professor Marshall McLuhan who focused on media theory.

READING

Hexus Press on Horror’s Impact on Visual Culture

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FASHION

Number (n)ine aw09 "a closed feeling

View full collection

sasquatchfabrix aw17 "ethos"

Lucy and Olivio Ferrari

A Film about Architecture and Life by Shelley Martin

Interview by Ethan Bingeman and Austin Ledzian
Article by Austin Ledzian
Photographs courtesy of Shelley Martin and Lucy Ferrari

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Lucy and Olivio Ferrari contributed greatly to the betterment of the School of Architecture
+ Design through their unique and inquisitive methods of teaching. Shelley Martin, an architecture professor taught by Ferrari, became interested in film when she was a student shooting landscapes on a little Swiss Bolex camera. Layer by layer, she has assembled a visual document of the stories of those who have known Lucy and Olivio. It seems that even through brief interaction, people have a story to share. Over the course of its development, the project has come to tell the story of our school just as much as the story of the Ferraris.

The film takes two approaches: one of their professional world and one of their personal world. In the personal realm, Lucy and Olivio had a deep love of American ideals: democracy, the idea of the individual, the character of Appalachia. Lucy collected quilts and locally crafted objects. Olivio could learn just as much from a simply crafted desk as from a modern Max Bill print. Both felt there was merit in learning from objects that could then be applied to their own work. Objects made by craftspeople, not just architects or designers, could be equally relevant.

As an architect, Olivio felt responsible for his environment at every level. He greeted everyone
good morning and treated everyone equally: the faculty, students, staff, the custodians and the shop technicians. In one instance, he was mistaken as custodial staff because he was sweeping the floors. He always looked for ways to improve your thinking, saying things like, “it would be very easy to correct a Le Corbusier house.” He would challenge canonical architecture as something you could learn from, not as an absolute truth. “The students were charged with maintaining a critical atmosphere,” said Shelley, “the challenge to construct and maintain questions and operational outcomes was infectious.”

Lucy Ferrari, a former Director of the Center for European Studies and Architecture, is an accomplished weaver and photographer, speaking seven languages and stressing to students the importance of travel to their education. “She equated how travel should be understood as a cultural pursuit, so you could understand the language of how to build, so that you wouldn’t be a tourist,” said Shelley. As an example, she taught German to students so they would understand their architecture a bit better. She was, and still is masterful in her way of doing that.

Dress woven as a single tube By Lucy Ferrari  

Dress woven as a single tube
By Lucy Ferrari
 

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Olivio brought ceramics, photography, filmmaking and graphics studios into the school, aware of how they could enhance the education of an architect.Though seemingly unrelated, how a wall meets the floor can translate into the section of a bowl. The student can feel the section physically and feel when a bowl is too thick. The lessons film and photography teach to the architecture student are many: the most significant being how to first see and understand the world before you; and then to transform that understanding into precise images that convey an idea through visual means. In the graphics studio, students learn about interaction of color, layers and the deliberate action of printing ink on paper. These practices are exacting and bring about a higher level of awareness and precision, broadening the definition of architecture.

When interviewing the Ferrari’s past students, a common theme rose to the surface: questions,
complex questions. For him, the questions were more important than the answers. Olivio had the ability to identify what a student was after rather than simply expressing his opinions. He had a talent of teaching the individual, critiquing students against their own standards instead of his own so as to catalyze rather than conform. The process was more important than the outcome. To find an individual way of thinking and to find oneself is a journey that begins in the foundation year.

Shelley shared with us a story from when she was a student in the architecture program here.

In studio I was working on this precious little house and the roof was a little bit complicated, it was kind of ignored. Ferrari gave me the keys to his truck and said to me, ‘ Take the keys, here’s the truck, just go out to Glade Road, you’ll find it.’ His house was being roofed with standing seam copper at the time and I got up on the scaffolding to watch Mr. Noonkester use his beautiful old tools and crimp it again and again. Ferrari knew that I had to understand how it was really done, rather than just drawing pictures of it.

The film has evolved beyond a documentary, transformed into something more visually and conceptually complex. Such complexity speaks to the way the Ferraris taught and lived. They have become teachers of students, and teachers of teachers.

Shelley Martin makes films about landscapes. She is a faculty of architecture at VT SA+D, teaching foundation, filmmaking and drawing classes. She practiced architecture in New York, and was once— and remains—a student of the Ferraris.

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[The text and images from this post have been edited and formatted for blog from the Lucy and Olivio Ferrari story of Volume 3]