Robert McCarter on Architecture, Teaching, and Writing
Robert McCarter first came to WashU in 2007. During that time, he’s had no shortage of accolades and projects: he was endowed as the Ruth and Norman Moore Professor of Architecture, was selected as one of the ten best educators by Architect magazine, exhibited in the Venice Biennale, renovated his historic University City home, and published, on average, one book per year. On the occasion of his 25th book release, McCarter shared his reflections on architecture, teaching, and writing.
Writing for the Architects
When he was first interviewing at WashU, McCarter was asked who he writes for. “If I had to prioritize it,” he said, “I write for four primary audiences. First, other architects, because a lot of what’s written about architecture isn’t necessarily useful. Architects understand that buildings are never designed to be analyzed using art historical methods. It’s about inhabitation, it’s about space, it’s about function,” he said. Students of architecture are a close second audience, for the same reasons, followed by the general public — those who commission and live in architecture — and finally other scholars.
It’s important to McCarter to write from the perspective of the working architect, more than the biographical or art historical perspectives. “Some writing is all hero-worship or hung up on their personal lives,” he said, “but Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, spent 16 hours a day working on architecture. And that working perspective is what I’m interested in.”
That perspective benefits practitioners today. “About once a month, I get an email from an architect and they tell me my book isn’t on the shelf, but open on the table in the office, being used every day,” he said. “And weekly, I get emails from people who are not architects who tell me they enjoy having a book that talks about the real building, real space, things everyone can see if they open their eyes. That means a lot to me because it’s the point of my writing, to inspire people to visit buildings — otherwise architects simply become historical figures.”
A Moment in the Sun: Robert Ernest’s Brief but Brilliant Life in Architecture
Part of McCarter’s emphasis on writing is to bring forgotten figures into contemporary architectural discourse so as to continue learning from them, as is the case with Robert Ernest. “It’s quite clear to me,” he said, “that if Ernest had lived longer, he would have been the equal of any of his contemporaries.”
McCarter first heard of Robert Ernest in 1991 when he began teaching and directing the architecture program at the University of Florida, where colleagues frequently mentioned the short-lived architect. “By the time he was 28, Ernest had built three buildings and supervised the construction of a very important house by Paul Rudolph,” he said. “His last project was a youth center that utilized a folded plate roof similar to those Louis Kahn had proposed, but had not yet built.” It went into construction the same month Ernest died. Since his death in 1962, Ernest’s work has had a significant influence on the use of concrete block in Florida.
“For architects, it’s equally as interesting to look at built projects and unbuilt projects and engineering ideas,” McCarter said. “One of Ernest’s projects I was very interested in that didn’t get built was a shopping center that was just amazing. It had central columns supporting long cantilevered canopies. It was quite space-age, and would have been right on the bayfront in Tampa. It suggests a completely different kind of shopping center than we’re used to. And you could say that it was a design that touched the earth more lightly — to use the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt’s beautiful phrase — because it didn’t have as much construction, as much structure, which would have been very appropriate to the delicate ecology of Florida.”
Pencil & Paper
While writing a book on Louis Kahn, McCarter redrew many of Kahn’s sketches and drawings to better understand them. “From an architect’s perspective, it’s about looking at a building in terms of how it’s experienced. Understand the structure. Understand how the materials affect your experience as you move through the space and how that’s choreographed. That’s what architecture is really about, wanting to create a certain experience related to inhabitation.”
“There’s nothing that a computer can do that a pencil can’t,” McCarter said, “and much a pencil can do that the computer cannot do. The modest pencil has an absolutely astonishing range.” While today’s architecture students are working primarily digitally, he holds that hand drawing provides a physical and emotional experience of eye and hand working together, resulting in a much more developed understanding of the building.
McCarter is quick to balance architectural history with contemporary thinking. “If designers don’t understand history, they’re just going to repeat mistakes — so it’s about making history relevant to them,” he said. “However, this is not always easy, as students are looking on their computers at things made only days or even moments ago, and this must be balanced with the analysis of buildings that have undergone years of use and inhabitation, and can therefore more comprehensively assessed than something seen on the screen.”
Last year, McCarter led a studio based in Italy and focused on a 1930s design called the Danteum by Giuseppe Terragni. “The building attempts to construct a spatial narrative of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is a strange and interesting idea — commissioned by Mussolini — but never built, and the site in downtown Rome is still vacant,” he said. The studio imagined the Danteum had been built, and their assignment was to create an international writing center on the same site.
This spring, McCarter is considering focusing his studio on the unbuilt Salk Meeting House, which would have been part of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. “This is interesting to me because of the client Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine. He went to Louis Kahn and said, ‘I need 250,000 square feet of labs, and I want a building I can bring Picasso into to meet my scientists.’ Salk understood that breakthroughs don’t happen if scientists are talking only to other scientists — you often need someone who has a very different worldview to come in,” he explained. The Meeting House would serve as that space where the scientists and others could gather and discuss their respective work and worldviews.
McCarter emphasizes sustainability in his work and with his students, starting with the principle that conservation and reuse of existing building fabric is the most important kind of sustainability. “My attitude is that we don’t make freestanding buildings anymore, especially on demolished sites; rather, we only have additions to existing buildings and sites, whether urban or rural,” he said. He went on to define two aspects of sustainability in architecture: “One is the idea that we have to maximize the use of the energy, starting with the energy that’s already there — that’s why you never demolish a building. You always save it, you might have to add to it, you might have to do some serious rennovation work on it, but if you can save the majority of the embodied energy that’s already in that building, and it’s a big plus for society.”
“The second aspect of sustainability, which is perhaps the more important,” McCarter said, “is that people have to want to inhabit the building. Unfortunately, there are a lot of sustainable buildings that are very poorly thought-out in terms of the comfort of the people who are in them. If you asked Frank Lloyd Wright what his motto was, he’d give a one-word answer, ‘repose,’ and this incorporated his idea that the building was ‘a background and framework’ for daily life. He wanted to give people repose and a sense of shelter. I think we’ve lost a lot of that with the overly technological solutions that do not address Wright’s ideals of ‘use and comfort.’ In the end, the most sustainable building is a building a person wants to live and work in.”