Jeffry Burchard is a principal at MACHADO SILVETTI, an award-winning architecture firm started by Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti. The firm has won the Citation for Design Excellence | Boston Society of Architects and the Merit Award | AIA New England, just to name a couple. Burchard holds two Masters degrees in Architecture, the first with Honors from the University of Idaho, and the second a post-professional Masters with Distinction from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Burchard’s work and writings have been featured in publications such as CLOG, IntAR, Competition, Platform, StudioWorks, and Architect Magazine. Since 2012 Jeffry has been a visiting faculty member at the Harvard GSD. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to meet with Jeffry Burchard and learn more about his approach and philosophies on design.
On becoming an architect
For as long as I can remember I wanted to be an architect. I spent most of my time on two things when I was growing up: playing music and drawing architecture. I wasn’t drawing figures or sketching, I was drawing buildings with a T-square and a triangle. When I was 10 or 11, my mom and I started going to the Parade of Homes in Idaho, and we would tour all of the ”fancy” new suburban homes, you know, the McMansions. They’re fascinating when you’re a kid from the suburbs.
We’d go and look at these houses and then I’d come back and I would lay out trace paper on the counter and try to reproduce them and then tweak them. I still have these books and binders full of these really horrible houses but that’s where I got started, I just enjoyed it. My mom says it was the only thing that kept me quiet for hours at a time, so it was highly encouraged. I was given drafting tools for my twelfth birthday. Then I knew I was going to be an architect. I didn’t know much about the field or the discipline, I just knew that architects made buildings and that excited me.
On starting his career as an architect
I’ve been at MACHADO SILVETTI for a little over 8 years. I came to the office straight from the GSD where I studied in the M.ARCH II program, the post-professional program. Immediately prior to that I did a 5-year Master’s program at the University of Idaho. The U of I is really one of the best schools in the Northwest but it is very regionally focused, so the students who go there tend to stay fairly close to the Northwest. But when I was in my fourth year, I started looking at a magazine — it may have been Architectural Record, the Design Vanguard issue. I think ten out of twelve of the Design Vanguards went to the GSD, which quite frankly I didn’t know much about.
I thought that it seemed like a good idea to go to Harvard: there were clearly very smart people going to a graduate school at the highest level getting a Master’s Degree. So I applied to a few schools and got into Harvard. I didn’t take a break after Idaho I just jumped right into the GSD. I worked at a couple offices in Boston during my two year stint as a student — for Kyu Sung Woo and Koetter Kim. When I was a student I gravitated towards certain professors, among whom was Jorge Silvetti. Around graduation time he mentioned that the office was doing some large cultural projects in Abu Dhabi and they were hiring. I’ve been here since then.
Just this year the office has undergone a rather significant transition. Jorge and Rodolfo were the founding partners for 25–30 years and this year they’ve added four new principals and partners to the office: Craig Mutter, Ned Goodell, Stephanie Randazzo Dwyer and myself. We all have different levels of experience and expertise and interests. And through this new partnership and the change of the office name from Machado Silvetti and Associates to just MACHADO SILVETTI, we’re making a company and an identity that has longevity. You should expect to see the office having more of an expanded repertoire of projects. It situates us very well. But in a weird way we’re both a very established firm and a new firm. We feel the tension of both of those and we’re currently navigating this to make the best use of both.
On how his approach to design has evolved
Architecture school is very interesting because it gives you this moment of idealism in your life. There are always struggles you have with your professors or teachers, with the ethos or the pedagogy of the school. But it’s an opportunity that encourages you to have a voice. It happens at the same exact time that you’re starting to develop skills, which is a weird conundrum for a student. It gives you this idea at the end of it that you have a project, or it should give you an idea that you have a project. For most students, the next step is to go to a firm where it’s not your project that anyone cares about: it’s the project of the principals or the designers or the ethos of the firm. Many students, especially coming out the GSD are fortunate to select within a range the kind of firms that they want to work for and the kinds of projects that they want to do so they can carry on at least some of the lineage of their project. But, it’s different because immediately you’re working for someone else, so a boss says you have to do x, y, and z and this is what we’re going to do.
When I came to Machado Silvetti we got a project for NYU, for the Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life. It is a building on Washington Sq. Park in New York, right at the end of Fifth Ave. It was to be a building for all of the various religious faith groups on campus to hold meetings and gatherings. The building needed to have no iconography or identity specific to one religion. I worked with Jorge on this project and he very early on had an idea about spiritual growth and the tree of life — a symbol that actually meant something across just about every religion.
My role in that project was to take Jorge’s ideas and sketches, take some of the ethos and the ideas I had in school, and merge them into a project. The project centered around the façade given that the form of the building had been pre-determined by a feasibility study. Our work was about developing a parametric program to the facade — it was all manual actually, it wasn’t done parametrically — but it was a parametric project in the sense that variables were linked. Really all architecture is parametric, all architecture is about things that move and result in reverberations across projects, so that’s nothing new. We designed a system of perforated and laminated stone panels that were numbered and went in very specific places that created variation, variability, and the abstracted image of growth and the tree. It was in 2008 or 9, this kind of fabrication project was hot in the academy at that point and some firms were doing it for a few very prestigious and wealthy clients around the world but the technique really hadn’t met more of the mainstream construction industry quite yet. We were able to engage with some great contractors to pair our design ambitions with the capacity of a unitized curtain wall system that gave us the requisite precision and control of fabrication and installation.
So again, in those “early” years with Jorge and Rodolfo, it was about developing their vision of a project while simultaneously developing some of my own interests within this framework. Now, 8 years later, I’m a principal with Jorge and Rodolfo, we still work together, but there’s more shared responsibility for ideas, principles and guiding concepts.
On the firm’s principles
Every project is unique and they’re also all the same. This office has what I consider to be the basic tenants of architectural practice. These are: an allegiance to disciplinary knowledge, an attention to the unique characteristics of a place, and strong personal interests or perhaps inspiration. The first, disciplinary knowledge, has to do with Sigfried Giedion’s constituent and transitory facts; the real lasting meat and history of the discipline and the things that are current and trendy right now.
The second means that an Architect must be sensitive to the unique characteristics of place. This is why projects are different when you’re in Vietnam, or California, or Florida, or Boston. There are significant differences: climatic differences, cultural differences, architectural differences; these places have different kinds of architectural histories. It doesn’t seem to us to be obvious that we would plant similar languages or styles in each place when the place is actually the genesis of invention and experimentation. So on the one hand you have the discipline, or the common interests of Architecture and on the other have the characteristics of place. But we also believe there’s a need for personal inspiration or prejudice or something that’s deeply within that’s just a part of your life — part of the way I think about the world or how I think about things that allows me to understand place in a very particular way and to understand what’s important in the discipline for me at this time.
Some firms today will gravitate towards one or the other of the three. At this office, there’s always these three tenants present and THAT is the general ethos of our practice. So projects are the same in a way because you look back at projects and you see the principals are the same on each project so there are recurring themes and interests. But each project is different because the place changes and the trajectory of the discipline changes. Over the course of 25 years, or 15 years in this office, there will be things that are happening in the discipline that we are constantly assessing and finding out if those are what we want to bring to the table for any given project. That’s what Sigfried meant by these transitory facts — these things that come and go — that may become the constituent facts, they may become the things that find their way into the foundations of architecture.
On the firm’s unique approach
We’re doing a project in Vietnam, it’s a new Vietnamese-German university for 12,000 students funded by the World Bank. It’s an agreement between the German State of Hessen, and the Vietnamese Ministry of Education to construct this university about 50 kilometers outside of Ho Chi Minh City. We won this project in an international competition a couple years ago and we’re just starting CDs now for phase 1 which is twenty-plus buildings. German academics in a Vietnamese context, so we’re trying to bring these two places and ethos together, but it lives 50 km outside Ho Chi Minh City. But there is also this underlying idea that a campus should look like a campus, which is personal and taken from an idea of a Western, American, or German campus, where they emerge over time. Campuses are not singular events thrown down as a single idea. They are a set of rules that govern them and over time buildings can come in and take their position.
What this meant for us was that the campus should have order and identity with clear zones, and the buildings should have difference according to their function — they shouldn’t all look the same. However the buildings needed to follow a certain rule set because we’re dealing with the Vietnamese local economy and construction techniques, and a budget for the project which is fairly low. The reality of the construction processes in Vietnam is that labor is relatively cost effective but materials are just about as expensive as they are anywhere else. Repetition of local materials becomes very important in construction. So there needed to be certain repetition, despite our desire for difference. In order to do all of this this, we organized the campus in a very Beux Arts tradition , with alignments, axis’, and proportionate order. All of the buildings are lifted off the ground, 4.25 meters, and you have basically a Vietnamese garden that runs underneath all of the academic buildings across the entire 50 hectare campus. There’s a sinuous canopy that links all of the raised buildings. Now above this consistent ground condition there are all of the buildings you would typically find on a University campus. With some exceptions they are all fairly square, fairly straightforward to build, but because of the facades and the articulation of the windows, they take on the identity of say a residential building, a laboratory building, an administration building, or a library.
On the future of architecture in 5–10 years
There is a steadiness to the construction industry and the architecture that serves the construction industry encourages a persistent plodding which is generally slow to change but always does. But what’s more is that there are so many other conversations right now that architects are trying to participate in. It makes it difficult to imagine what the future is going to be. For instance there are social inequity issues that are serious concerns in the world today and architects have a lot of ability to respond to those. The climate issues in the world today are severe and simply have to be addressed, architects have a lot of ideas about those and are responsible to address them. Architects can’t solve these issues alone, but they can participate.
But I would say that these conversations are really important right now because of the history and the predicament of the world as we see it today. These are not things that are necessarily going to be the main issues in 10 years, we would hope that we’d make progress on those things so you don’t have to address them in the same way. We certainly need to address them now, but to address them narrowly is a major distraction from the continuity of architecture that’s going to persist from now until the far future. Besides all of this, the fabrication fascinations that are we all have now and have become really interesting — they’re only interesting because we’re at a precipice of something. They’re not going to be so interesting soon because they’re going to become mainstream.
On advice he would give himself before starting
I feel like I’m at the beginning still. I hope I always feel that way. I’ve been fortunate to find myself in a variety of positions and responsibilities early in my life. It did take me a little while to learn this: it’s OK to have a strong opinion AND to be flexible. I’d say to my starting self: ‘Jeff, you need to have an idea, you can believe in it, but you need to listen when people have other ideas and be willing to change.’ This is something I think I learned at the GSD and early in the office working with very smart people and I think it is an essential trait for an Architect who must usually be the best leader and the best collaborator on any team. I go into conversations and I’ll stake a claim. I’ll defend the claim, but if you have a better argument, better reason, better detail or something, then great let’s do it that way. Architecture requires people to stake claims and then have the conversation and figure out what the best way forward really is.