Jennifer Bonner is an Assistant Professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Design and Director of MALL. Bonner was born in Alabama and attended Auburn University, where she received an AR Award for Emerging Architecture in 2005 for her undergraduate thesis project, Cedar Pavilion.She also attended Harvard University GSD where she was awarded the James Templeton Kelley Prize for her project Assemblage of Twins. Modelo had the pleasure of meeting with Jennifer Bonner and learning more about her approach and philosophy on design.
On becoming an architect
Growing up in Alabama, I’d probably never heard the word “architecture” before enrolling at Auburn University. The summer before declaring a major I visited my father in Las Vegas who was working at the casinos for Steve Wynn. Somehow I ended up with a copy of Learning from Las Vegas in one hand and course catalog from Auburn in the other hand. That fall, I entered into the department of architecture heavily influenced by a recent shock-factor from time spent on the Las Vegas strip. The second thing in alignment, which happened to be pure luck, was that MacArthur Fellow, Sambo Mockbee founded the Rural Studio, an outpost from Auburn located in the middle of rural, west Alabama. The program had already received international attention as students were making a lot of noise by designing and building projects for an under-served population. So, by the time I was 21 years old, I had already built my first building — a pavilion. At that time, most students didn’t leave an architectural education with a building under their belt. Nowadays, with all of the fabrication and installation research in academia, it is more common for students to leave school with some kind of physical construction in their portfolios. At that point, I knew I was going to be an architect, but I really needed to move somewhere even more exotic, so I headed to London.
On how her firm got started
Out of necessity, due to the recession, I started my firm after finishing graduate school. No architecture firms were hiring. My original plan was that teaching would financially back me as I started working on conceptual projects in practice. I envisioned academia as the place to “hide out” while the global economy took its course. Prior to my graduate studies, I worked in London for 4 years during the construction industry’s boom. I worked for Foster+Partners and David Chipperfield Architects. In the UK, they don’t call recent graduates “Interns”, but they are given the title of “Architectural Assistant.” They were sending all of us to countries to work on various projects, so Architectural Assistants would be flying all over Europe. I lived in Istanbul working on a project in Kazahkstan with Foster+Partners and at Chipperfield’s I went to Moscow to pitch a project to the head Rabbi of Russia. As you can imagine, coming down from this boom, it was a little frustrating to start out as a single, one-woman band. It’s also really exciting because it forced me to make a leap that I might not have taken until a few years later. I began teaching at Georgia Tech, then moved to West Coast to teach at Woodbury University, later I went back to Atlanta for another stint at Georgia Tech, and now I’m here in Boston.
About how the practice works
The last few years have been more of a series of experiments than what you might call a model for practice. One of these experiments was to form a joint venture with Christian Stayner of Stayner Architects based out of LA. Posing as public artists, we applied to 100 public art callings across the country. Out of 100, we were shortlisted for 7. These projects allowed us to work through a series of ideas while making new work in cities such as Miami, Palo Alto, and Boston. During each pitch, a Public Art Committee would sit across the table patiently waiting to see our artistic interpretation for a sculpture, instead we insisted on using these opportunities to work through architectural ideas. We were awarded one commission through an NEA Our Town Grant for a community north of Miami called Opa-Locka that was dealing with a lot of foreclosure. Our plan was ambitious; we designed 11 structures (although the public art brief called for a single gateway sculpture to be placed in a cul-de-sac) to create micro-businesses attached to single family homes and turn houses into public spaces. Other projects include perfume infrastructures that release conceptual scents for a park in Canada, flooding a gallery in Hollywood, and designing a series of cabins for a children’s camp with furry walls. With these kind of projects, challenging the brief for each project is fundamental to how the practice works. Another research/design project looks to the ordinary as a conceptual driver for the work. Hacking ordinary roof typologies led to an assemblage of proposals titled, “Domestic Hats”. And we are completely bored, we make stuff up.
On her influences as a designer
The experience at the Rural Studio is the single most important influence on my career, but for reasons you wouldn’t imagine. It didn’t inspire me to start a design/build practice in a similar way that Mockbee had set out, but it did give me a lot of confidence as an architect and as a woman practicing in the discipline. It also taught me to misbehave in architecture; Mockbee was King of misbehaving. Misuse of materials, misuse of forms and in search of an architecture that never quite fit into the context. Another southern duo, Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam have been tireless mentors who are obsessed with storytelling, imagination in architecture, and make really weird buildings. I make it a point to travel to look closely at buildings by southern legends like Mockbee, Scogin and Elam, and Portman. Lastly, I am really inspired by my peers at the moment, because the conversations about architecture is really strong at a national level. Having lived on the West Coast, the Dirty South, and East Coast, I’ve participated in a lot of these discussions about ideology.
On how her approach to design has changed
My approach at MALL is project-based, so you won’t find a meta-signature sketch or an overarching formal process. Individual projects really shape the way I work, meaning, themes or experiments last for short periods of time. For example, when I was working with Christian, we were doing all of these projects in the public realm, but the projects were varied with no specific type or scale. Our first pitch for a legitimate professional commission was a $1.4 million proposal at Zoo Miami, which was an 80,000 square foot paving scheme for the entrance. And, this was considered public art, but we thought it was an idea about creating artificial atmospheres at the level of landscape urbanism where we were critical of surface. I imagine at some point all of these individual experiments about a series of ideas might mount up to a larger trajectory for my approach to design, but at the moment, they seem to fit in other categories.
On ‘Dirty South’
In 2012, I was hired as the TVS Design Distinguished Studio Critic at Georgia Tech which was kind of a “homecoming” for me to be back in the South after a decade of being away. I had previously lived in Europe and on the West Coast, and took on graduate school on the East Coast. So, I was conflicted about all these different coasts and what it meant in terms of the discipline of architecture as well as my approach to pedagogy as an educator. Upon arriving in Atlanta, I founded ‘A Guide to the Dirty South’ which is a series of guidebooks that take a close look at the architecture of southern cities. I’m clearly borrowing the conceptual idea and language from the rap industry and hip-hop artists like Goodie Mob and Outkast that were in Atlanta in the mid-nineties and who coined the term “Dirty South” and branded themselves as a collective. At the time, there was a lot of rivalry between the East and West Coasts: drive by shootings and lyrical retaliation. Goodie Mob and Outkast started to outsell the East and West Coast record labels. Applying this analogy towards architecture, the same divides holds true: there’s clearly a West Coast and East Coast camp in terms of academia and the profession. The Dirty South is overlooked. I put all these things out on the table to the students and ran two studios: Atlanta and New Orleans. Now that I’m teaching at the GSD, I’m figuring out what this means for the Dirty South research project. Down the line, I think it’s time to start a new school of architecture in the U.S. and Atlanta might be a good place to do just that.
On the architecture in Atlanta
John Portman Jr. is a prolific architect/developer that has built a lot of the city. His major contribution to the discipline of architecture is the invention of the super atrium typology found in buildings such as the Hyatt Regency and the Marriott Marquis. There’s also a deeply rooted history in Atlanta of tearing things down, which goes back historically to the Civil War when the whole city was burned. I got the feeling that the general public aren’t really nostalgic about hanging onto their buildings. One could view this as an opportunity, which means new things can get built!
On the future of architecture in next 5–10 years
Since we’re out of the recession now, I think the younger generation is really eager to build. It will be exciting to see what kinds of forms, attitudes, and approaches everyone takes post-meltdown, post-digital era that we are in. Historically, there has been a divide amongst architects that do really professional work (I don’t want to label it as “corporate”), and others that are pushing experimentation. The majority of folks in my generation have been building small things: pavilions, mockups, installations, etc. Maybe it’s a way of experimenting, but people like Sylvia Lavin on the West Coast claims the frantic-pavilion-building inside the discipline has the tendency to turn into a specialization where in a lecture in Los Angeles she compared the trajectories of a “pavilion architect” to a “hospital architect.” Obviously, I’m referring to a narrow group of practitioners, researchers, and those that are teaching.
On her approach to software
We primarily use Rhino for both 2D and 3D work. Back in Atlanta I had a 3d printer, (brand to not be mentioned here) sitting on my desk. So last summer I used it every day and was just spitting things out. Then it broke. Sometimes I work solely in 3D, a project might be finished and I never produce any orthographic drawings. For instance, in graduate school, I made a series of projects in Louisiana along the Mississippi River and I presented the entire project without any orthogonal drawings. Software does not drive the work in the office, rather representation of architecture is a far more interesting launching point for us.
On advice before starting
Young architects should embrace naivety. By being slightly naïve when approaching the architecture project this allows the imagination to wander. If you already know the answer before beginning a project, you quickly become a problem-solver in the profession. But if you start out questioning things, you might make more of a mess — which is a creative mess — that usually ends up producing interesting results. The exciting part about our profession is that you’ll never know everything about a building type, a building system, or properties of a material, so architects are constantly learning new things during each project. If you chose the path of an architect who designs multiple types of buildings instead of focusing on a specialization, then we are never truly experts. In a way, by embracing this disciplinary problem of endless, vast knowledge in architecture, if armed with curiosity there is a lot of potential for invention.