Chapter 585: Q & Arch [02] feat. Real Architecture Workshop (Part 2)

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In this edition of Q. and A.rch we'll be featuring the second part of our 10 question conversation with Justin Merkovich of RAW (Real Architecture Workshop) Dakota. He shares his personal thoughts on RAW in response to another set of Q. and A.rch questions geared to pertain to an adventuresome design/build class being held this July 26th-August 6th in Custer, South Dakota.

Also, be sure to come out and see Citizen Architect at the Walker Art Center this Thursday if you're in Minneapolis or check out www.citizenarchitectfilm.com to see it as it travels around the country this summer. After the screening at 7pm there will be a panel discussion featuring Maureen Colburn of AFH-Minneapolis/St. Paul, Paul Neseth of Real Architecture Workshop as well as myself. More on that in the next few days. For now, on with the show...

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Justin and his son at a Minnesota Twins baseball game


1) RAW is in its first year. Although it was originally a facet of Paul's vision, how did the rest of the project team come together and what is your shared vision for the project?

The rest of the project team has a close relationship with Paul through the Biloxi design/build project through the University of Minnesota and through Locus Architecture. For me personally, Paul has been a professional mentor as I try to navigate the world of architecture.


2) In addition to a strong University of Minnesota contingent, Adam Jones is an instructor at Vesper College in Minneapolis. What more could you tell people about Vesper and the ethic of the work being done there and its effect on the RAW project?

I have known the president of Vesper College (Dan Noyes) for about 10 years. Dan actually wrote a letter of recommendation for my M Arch applications. Vesper College and RAW are kindred spirits. My interpretation of Dan's vision for architecture is that it be a seamless combination of beauty, functionality, and sustainability which is congruent with the ethos of RAW. Vesper College is deeply concerned with creating meaningful architecture by hand, not just on a piece of paper, or a computer - the haptic quality of materials is essential to Vesper's approach. Both RAW and Vesper College strive to reclaim materials or gather materials locally even if they be unmilled or what some may consider to be unsuitable for construction-both programs desire to be fully invested in the inherent qualities of materials in whatever form they might take and to challenge themselves to make them work architecturally.


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3) How did the decision come about to do work in the Black Hills of South Dakota rather than a locale in Minnesota? Does the rural setting afford more flexibility in design and construction?

RAW hopes to be an agile and mobile program, taking place wherever the opportunity presents itself whether that be an island in Lake Superior, Black Hills of South Dakota, or the foothills of Mexico and beyond. The Black Hills site was dependent upon the client in this case. In my opinion, the fact that we are working for a client/owner who fully supports and trusts Paul's overall vision for RAW is crucial. The ability to harvest and build with local materials that fully engage the beauty of the Black Hills area allows us to create something that is truly unique to the place and that is something that I think every RAW project will do.


4) What kind of collaborations is RAW involved with to make something like this a success and what kind of community interaction do you have, if any?

RAW is collaborating with local Native American tribes as well as the mining community in the Black Hills through lectures, tours and critiques/reviews. Perhaps most importantly, RAW students will be spending time biking, rock-climbing, and hiking in and around the Black Hills. The opportunity to experience the landscape from a physical standpoint will be a truly unique experience in architecture. I can think of no better way to fully understand how the local stone acts and feels than to try to gain a handhold while climbing a rock face.


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5) RAW is currently an independent program that is available for young architects and students. Do you see trying to integrate the program into a university setting?

As of this writing, Vesper College is offering college credit to their students taking part in RAW so the process of university integration has begun. I think there are some challenges involved to integrating with the accredited architecture programs in the region and beyond but I'm sure it would make enrolling students much easier.


6) How would you compare RAW to other building labs and what do you think distinguishes RAW in terms of the type of experience attendees will receive?

I can only compare what I know through observation as I've not attended other design/build programs. I think any design/build program should aspire to have a meaningful connection to the local community from a sociological standpoint. Samuel Mockbee and Auburn University Rural Studio has set the standard for engaging with the local populace and I hope that RAW can achieve half of their success in this regard. My personal hope is that we can also move beyond pretty little pavilions on the horizon that serve no purpose nor function and don't employ local materials nor local sensibilities -this is not an indictment of other programs but a challenge for us to create something beautiful AND necessary for the client and the place.


7) It's mentioned that there is a strong disconnect between the profession and its trades. What are some good ways to bridge that gap?

Again, this is only my personal opinion but my experience is that both sides (trades and architects) view each other with skepticism and mistrust. My personal background is in the trades - my father has worked in the concrete sawing and drilling industry my whole life. As a teenager I could run huge concrete saws and later in life I worked for a cabinet maker. I have in-laws putting footings and foundations in the ground and supplying civil engineers and municipalities. Having spent more time with the trades than architects, my approach is to view the tradesmen with the utmost respect and to work very hard to get them to impart some of their hands-on knowledge to me. I once attended a small lecture with David Salmela FAIA in which he told the following story:

"...talking to the tradesman firsthand and trying to get them to understand why you designed something a certain way is critically important. If you can gain the trust and understanding of the tradesmen, soon they are not working for their bosses or the contractor, they are working for YOU." I have found Salmela's statement to be a great lesson in how to interface with craftsmen.

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8) Moving forward, where would you like the Real Architecture Workshop to be in a year? In five years?

I honestly think that RAW has the potential to go anywhere and do anything. RAW Black Hills could be fertile ground for architecture for several more years with expanding client needs creating opportunities for different architectural programs. But, as I said, I see RAW being very agile and very well-suited to going anywhere from the most remote places to large cities and engaging with elemental landscapes or reclaiming urban detritus and turning it into something beautiful and useful. I also think that there are seasonal opportunities similar to those offered by Taliesin who spends the spring in Wisconsin and the fall in Arizona. RAW could have a winter design/build in Oaxaca and a summer in the Black Hills or Alaska or Lake Superior.


9) Whom or what in the design world are you into right now? (links, firms, projects, people, ideas, etc.)

I'm probably not the best person to ask about the design world because I've considered myself an artist first and foremost for my whole life and I've only just entered the world of architecture. My greatest interest is in residential architecture that strives to use the fewest resources, the most passive strategies and embodies the beauty offered by local materials. The following is from "A Fish Called Wanda" and sums up my feelings on architectural theory:

Wanda: "You think you are an intellectual, don't you ape?!"
Otto: "Apes don't read philosophy."
Wanda: "Yes, they do! They just don't get it!

I don't pretend to understand the Peter Eisenman's and the Rem Koolhaas's of the world. I tend to appreciate much smaller moments in architecture, the beauty of a connection, the tactile quality of a unique material. I confess that I need to become better acquainted with the work of important architects and continue to challenge myself in this regard.


10) What are your thoughts for a young professional or student to up their architecture?

I'd say, "Look beyond the office." In other words, look for opportunities to actually build something with your own two hands whether that is through a summer design/build workshop, Habitat for Humanity, or a doghouse. Design and build something thoughtfully. Embrace the fact that you will make mistakes but know that you will get stronger each time you actually finish something. Don't let "the perfect be the enemy of the good." By nature architecture students and architects are perfectionists but a less than perfect object that actually becomes a reality can still be beautiful.


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I hope you enjoyed the conversation. Please check out the website for more details, sign up and check them out on Facebook or their website: http://www.rawdesignbuild.com/RAW/Home.html

Also, we're working on future Q. & A.rch's with Works Progress, Kyle Schroeder of Archtalks.com, co-working guru, planner, designer, and dreamer Rosie Hoyem, and a number of yet to be confirmed conversations. Keep an eye out in the next couple of weeks.