Since joining Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in 1998, David Murray has successfully integrated design, technology and sustainability in a number of the firm's most notable university and urban projects. From Apple’s first overseas store in Tokyo to consecutive projects at Georgia Tech, David has explored alternative project delivery methods, innovative structural and envelope solutions, and design for high tech research and collaborative STEM education.
A graduate of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, David strives for elegant solutions that integrate of all aspects of a project brief: collaborative engagement with the client, innovative and sustainable building technologies, and a dialogue between site and building. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about David's unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
As a kid I was fascinated by sailboats: how the forms of these beautiful machines responded to the forces of wind and water, but at the same time were designed for human control and habitation. Their elegance seemed to arise from the efficiency and purpose of each element in harmony with the rest.
I didn’t realize until much later that I could find in architecture a way to engage that interest. I spent some time trying to be a physics major in college, but wasn’t very successful. Fortunately I was exposed to enough art and design as an undergraduate to help me find my way to architecture. I spent a couple of years working on the public policy side of design after college, and then went off to graduate school.
On discovering his voice as a designer
I attended Penn at an interesting time. Some of Lou Kahn’s disciples were still teaching there, so the centrality of light and material to experiencing architecture was a key lesson. At the same time interest was evolving into a lot of other topics, from Carlo Scarpa to post-structuralist theory. I think all of this helped me understand how buildings could be expressions of their making, rather than of abstract form.
Not long after graduating I spent a couple of years in the early nineties working in a small firm in Tokyo; which of course was an amazing experience both personally and professionally. The real estate bubble was collapsing, but I was able to experience the architecture that came out of that frenzied creative period firsthand, as well as visit traditional buildings around the country. I think the way of living in Tokyo--where the incredibly intimate size of the neighborhood streets and storefronts act in counterbalance with the massive scale of the city---has also affected how I think about the experience of architecture.
I managed to find opportunities for a fair amount of travel early in my career. I feel very lucky that I was able to do so, as it has had a strong impact on who I am as an architect. It gave me not only the irreplaceable firsthand experience of great buildings and places, but especially from my time in Asia and Africa, a broader sense of the possibilities of what architecture can be and do.
On joining Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
I came to Bohlin Cywinski Jackson fairly early in my career, not long after returning from Japan. This was also a time that the practice was growing as well. I had enough experience to lead projects early on, but I think this was the place that I really learned to be an architect.
Probably the most important factor was the opportunity to work with Bernie Cywinski, one of our founding partners. He not only drew beautifully, but he was very generous with his time, and truly seemed to enjoy working side-by-side with younger architects like myself. Bernie’s commitment to his work was inspiring, and he helped me understand that I should never stop trying to improve what we do.
On specific principles he strives to adhere to
This is a frequent topic of discussion among my colleagues. Although we do not try to advance a particular design aesthetic across our practice, there do seem to be underlying principles that tie our projects together into a coherent body of work. We talk about design that arises from each project’s “circumstance”: the site, the people, the materials that give rise to a particular work of architecture. For example, although we build at many scales, and I think you can see this integral relation of building and landscape in our houses as well as our campus architecture.
On his role as a designer at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
We are an interesting and maybe unusual practice: sixteen principals and associate principals spread across five locations. Like many of my colleagues, I am not tied to a particular project role: sometimes acting as principal in charge, sometimes as design principal, sometimes both, sometimes just as a peripheral advisor. We all market, and all help manage the firm. Most of my projects over the years have been in higher ed, but I have worked on retail, corporate and residential projects as well. This might not be the most efficient model, but like many architects, I enjoy being a generalist, and so it works for me.
On projects that represent the firm's unique approach
Our most recent project for Georgia Tech, the Clough Learning Commons, embodies some of our core design principles. The challenges of an awkward, steeply sloping site led us to design a building that engaged the hillside, developing a system of three-dimensional internal circulation in parallel with the campus pathways that we re-established at the exterior of the building. These in turn framed the students’ experience of the building: a key element of the program was the creation of informal study spaces, which we distributed around the building at multiple scales and always in relation to daylight and viewshed connections. Despite the building’s size, students experience it as a series of linked connections between these common spaces, each marked vertically and horizontally by daylight. These elements in turn define the building’s exterior form and the adjacent landscape. It has been very gratifying to see the popularity of this building far outstrip even our initial hopes.
The Clough Commons followed on the heels of Tech’s Nanotechnology Research Center. The Nanotech building’s size and steep site were similar to Clough’s, but the program was very different, with the major mass of the building requiring either tall windowless walls or large-scale mechanical equipment. We tried to develop an exterior assembly that could adapt to these conditions, with materials that would still reflect the building’s technological sophistication and the human scale of the surrounding campus. Our solution was a modular screen wall of perforated copper panels that could vary in height, panel distribution and perforation density, which allowed us to create a unified architectural expression around these disparate elements.
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson has been working with Apple for almost fifteen years, creating signature buildings for them around the world. I had a chance to return to Tokyo to work on their first overseas store in the Ginza. As with many of Apple’s stores, especially those outside the US, the Ginza project involved the transformation of an existing building rather than new a ground-up structure. For this one, a key element was re-imagining the building's skin. We worked closely with curtainwall and stainless panel fabricators, as well as our structural and mechanical engineers, to create a hybrid ventilated façade that was uniquely suited to the particular conditions of the site, while continuing to advance Apple’s unique aesthetic.
On his design toolkit
Modeling software has become increasing central to our work. Nearly all of our projects are documented in Revit, and for some this begins very early in the design process. We try to match the software to the task, so while Rhino gets a lot of use right now, we may turn to Grasshopper, 3ds Max, SketchUp or others at various times. Of course none of these can replace hand sketches and physical models: we get a lot of mileage out of our laser cutter. Most importantly, all of these approaches develop in parallel, each informing the others.
One of the most satisfying things about our office is that design conversations happen everywhere, with the formal conference rooms being the least likely place for collaboration to occur. We work together at each other’s desks, in the model shop, at shared video screens and at teaming tables scattered around the office. We converted one wall to a chalkboard a while ago, and even that has been a surprisingly popular place for collaborative design discussions, with the leftover images providing a reminder of ongoing projects.
On the state of design software today
I am constantly impressed by the advances in software, but maybe more so by the skills and creativity our staff brings to it. On the practical side, it seems like BIM is finally on the verge of living up to its promise of integrating data with form. Programs like Sephaira are improving to the point that we can begin to model energy-related variables into our work; hopefully that will continue to progress. We have been bringing visual reality and game-engine software into the mix as well, and have collaborated with some academic clients with amazing immersive environment capabilities. It will be interesting to see where all of this goes in the next few years.
On the future of architecture in the next 5-10 years
Given how much has changed in the last ten it’s hard to predict anything with a lot of confidence. I imagine it will be less rigidly organized, more fluid, and more diverse. We have been fortunate that evolving building technology has allowed us all to achieve advances in energy efficiency we probably would not have predicted a few years ago. Hopefully that will continue fast enough to help manage accelerating climate damage.
I expect that, as visualization and modeling software continue to advance, not only will client expectations advance along with it, but capacity and demand for integrated and collaborative design and construction processes will also probably grow as well. This may change the shape of strategic partnering among the various players (and possibly widen the field as well), hopefully in a positive way.
On the future of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in the next 5-10 years
I think this has already begun. We are a more horizontal, collaborative practice than we were ten years ago. Our early commitment to sustainable design has helped us stay at the forefront of that field. We have a broader mix of clients and project types, and are looking at a much wider range of project scales as well. This has helped us be more nimble and more flexible, which in many ways has also been more satisfying.
On advice he would give his younger self
Maybe because of my science background I always tried to solve the design puzzle up front, and was initially hesitant to really investigate solutions where I couldn’t foresee the outcome...to just start drawing and see what happens. So in retrospect I would tell myself not to worry and just dig in. You never know what you might find.