Aaron Bruckerhoff is a Principal at Anmahian Winton in Cambridge, MA. He holds a B.F.A. and B.Arch. from the Rhode Island School of Design. His diverse experience in all phases of project development includes designs of varying complexity and size for institutional, commercial, and residential projects. AW Architects has won awards such as the American Architecture Award in 2011 for the Joukowsky Institute at Brown University and the 2014 Institute Honor Award for the Community Rowing Boathouse in Boston. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to meet with Aaron and learn more about his philosophies and approach to design.
On becoming an architect
I’ve always been interested in building things and understanding how they go together. Growing up in Rutland, Vermont, I became involved in the theater, doing lighting work and carpentry for stage sets and productions. Through some connections, I ended up working for a small architecture firm, called NBF Architects. I was quickly enticed by the idea that architects need to know a little bit about everything. That got me really excited about the profession, about building and construction. It was a good environment to be designing, experimenting, and working in.
From there I went to Rhode Island School of Design, which fosters a community of artists and designers who are all working together in interdisciplinary ways. I was able to explore all kinds of things, glassblowing, blacksmithing, printmaking, and sculpture. That broadened my perspective on how different disciplines might influence buildings or design in general. After college I went to work at small firms. I’ve found that at a small firm you get exposed to everything. You get exposed to all types of projects and all levels of project interaction. You have to be adaptable and you have to work on all scales of architecture, often at the same time. That’s always been a good experience for me.
Here at AW it’s the same, we’re relatively small and we don’t have one type of project that we work on. Everybody works at different scales; everybody’s drafting, everybody’s modeling, everybody’s working on all aspects of the project including schedule, project management, or budgeting. Even at the Principal levels, we’ll engage in drafting. We work the spectrum and collaboratively.
On how his approach to design has evolved
My role has evolved more directly to design issues, how they can be solutions, and how collaboration influences design. At AW, we tend to be very focused on how details go together, how materials work, and how those details can work in the end. We’re not just creating renderings that look good and then trying to figure out how it works. We work backwards, where we’re looking at the details, developing them and then looking at how their development can contribute to the larger project goals. And during this process, we collaborate with various experts — our clients, engineers, builders, fabricators, landscape and plant specialists — to uncover the best result. So I suppose in that way, my approach has evolved, and continues to evolve, to be a bit to be more thorough and collaborative to ensure architecture is treated as a comprehensive practice.
On core principles in the firm’s approach
Every project brings with it unique challenges. We try to approach every project in a unique way. Whether it be challenges from the client or the site or an existing condition, we tend to reconsider all those things carefully and thoroughly to figure out ways to come up with solutions to those challenges that are unique; or optimize them to improve upon what you might expect to be the status quo. For instance, if you’re working on a department building for a college university, it’s faculty offices, it’s classrooms and workspace for students. But how you arrange those or how they might interact with each other is what we often reconsider. We approach each project and try to understand it on a deep level and then consider how we might address the problem.
On AW’s work at Brown University
The client was the Archaeological Department at Brown University and they wanted to create a program that was forward thinking and shed the notion that archaeology is this dusty, old-fashioned pursuit. At the same time, they were given a historic building on the main green. We had to work within the confines of that. On a programmatic level, we arranged programs so they enveloped one another or they interacted with each other, within the shell of the existing building. For instance, the library space in the building is actually a liner around the outside that has window openings coming through, and within that we placed workstation carrels. Outside the faculty offices, there’s a glass-enclosed space that allowed this interaction between the two. It’s translucent glass so there wasn’t a direct visibility but there was awareness that faculty was in or out, and students were in or out. That was one unique project that was challenging in a lot of ways. Working with the openings and with the structure of the existing building, then inserting within that an entirely different and new architecture.
On the American Indian Center in Duluth, MN
We worked closely with the program director of the American Indian Center and with a local American Indian architect. Every aspect of the building needed to relate back to Native or American Indian cultural significance or issues. That included movement through the building, orientation, and connection to landscape. Programmatically, we arranged the building around a ceremonial stair. That stair became an organizing element for the building. As you came up through the building it set up different views along the way out into the cardinal directions or portions of the landscape.
The stair also connected the key program elements — a small library collection, gathering spaces, faculty offices and classrooms. So all of those spiraled off this one ceremonial stair. At the end it culminated into a large, East-facing gathering space that looks out over Lake Superior and Madeline Island. It was very important culturally. This was both a building for students studying Native American culture as well as the Native American people that are local to the area. Their program has significant outreach into the American Indian community and they have an academic program with a resource center. It worked both ways. It was located on the campus, near the entrance, near the public side of the campus as a gateway to the University of Minnesota Duluth.
On the future of the firm and architecture in the next 5–10 years
The firm in 5–10 years will continue to build on our approach — we reconsider things. We take advantage of technology; we embrace it and utilize it. Things will change in the future because of the data sets and information that is being gathered, and the tools that you have to use are evolving so fast. Some days they’re here and then they’re gone two to three weeks later. There’s great information out there and it’s readily available. Google tells you where you should put solar panels on your roof and Nest is keeping track of where and when you walk around your house.
These kinds of things don’t solve problems — they still rely on architects to come up with solutions to address them or utilize the data in some way that is useful and is informative to design. We’ll be seeing more and more of that data being available for us to use. We were just talking with a client about office space or conference space usage. They have a large facility for which they are tracking all of the scheduling of meeting and conference rooms and how frequently they are in use. It’s basic conceptually, but to actually have the data is valuable for the company. You can organize your program around that and reconsider what shared spaces you may have or what personal spaces you may have. Overall, data will be incorporated more into design from the outside. There are scripting tools that would allow you to do that in an automated way. But it still comes down to how you control those and what you bring as a designer to the solution.
On advice he would give himself early in his career
would tell myself not to dismiss things early on if they’re in the ugly phase, or un-figured out phase. You should tinker with those ideas and if you have a notion there continue with it and work at it a little bit to see if you can draw something out of it. It’s not to say that every little idea that might pop up is worthy or should be revered in any way. But, a lot of those can be developed and sometimes it just takes a little extra effort and hard work to get it to a place where it can become something successful. Often, if I look back, there are kernels of ideas that didn’t get developed for me that probably had potential. You can go back to those always, which is a good thing.