Jennifer Yoos (LF 2003) designs architecture through a collaborative and research-based approach. Her design studio in Minneapolis, VJAA, which recently won the 2012 AIA Architecture Firm Award, is a model practice for innovating the role of architect in culture, society and the economy. I interviewed Yoos at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, where she is an adjunct full professor.
When Yoos started the Loeb Fellowship, she and partner Vincent James were beginning to develop their research-based approach to deal with social and environmental issues in an urban context. Yoos explains, "We are also interested in how this way of working can influence the artistic side of architecture. While we have worked on a diverse range of building types and scales, our clients are often quite similar in character - they tend to be curious and interested in many things.” One recent commission is an experimental art gallery and public plaza adjoining the Minneapolis Weisman Art Museum designed by Frank Gehry. VJAA adapted the covered pedestrian bridge crossing the Mississippi River into a corridor celebrating art and culture.
Yoos feels being based in Minneapolis influences the firm’s design work. "Although most of our work is outside of our region, our local climate influences the way we think about materials and how they are affected by seasonal change. We’re designing in an extreme climate—extremes of cold and heat, expansion and contraction—these conditions force you to work in a very solid and durable way. The [Minneapolis Rowing Club] boathouse is made primarily of wood, a material readily available here.”
A recent house addition and renovation designed by VJAA illustrates these influences and the team's process on a small scale. The project updated a "Cape Cod kit-house,” a prototype from the 1930s similar to those manufactured by Sears and designed to be used anywhere in the U.S. Yoos explains the driving design principles: "We originally set out with the goal to modernize and recontextualize the house and hopefully reduce its energy use by half. We used passive-solar strategies, emphasizing insulation and thermal mass and integrating a contraflow masonry heater, which when combined, ended up reducing energy consumption by more than 75% while also doubling the size of the 1000 square foot structure. The house was opened up spatially, which allows for convection currents to move air throughout. ”
VJAA derived their idea for the contraflow masonry heater from a technology created in the 1600s in Europe to solve heating during a wood shortage crisis. They were able to find a craftsman in Maine who was developing precast parts for the heater. Internal smoke channels redistribute the heat throughout the mass. The brick mass also absorbs and stores heat from the sun. Thus, the familiar house design was adapted to its specific location in Minnesota.
Yoos doesn’t believe the tools of engagement are distinct or separate from the practice of architecture. "I believe that social engagement is integral to design thinking and professional practice. It can be a big problem when you take things that are integral to design, such as daylighting, material craft, climatic response, and extract them from design thinking and from a consideration of their aesthetic impact. When these elements become a checklist - in a way what happened with sustainability - then that can also demean the practice of architecture. For example, when we work with Matthias Schuler (adjunct professor of environmental technology), he engages issues of heating, cooling and ventilation at a conceptual level. Thus these issues are integrated with a broader design agenda, such as materials, site and program.”
So does Yoos view her firm as an "intrepreneur”—changing the field from within—or as an "outlier,” operating outside the traditional practice of architecture? Yoos considers this: "We try to make our critiques within the broader practice of architecture. Our world is accelerating. Changes in technology, climate change, social conditions that have become exaggerated with globalization….all of these shifts have very rapidly changed the basic ways that our societies work, while creating a diversity of new situations and problems. As teachers, we try not to foster a singular design approach in our students. Instead, we hope to teach them to be highly adaptable with the skills and tools to respond openly and creatively to new challenges.”
I asked Yoos to reflect on the term "engagement.” After a few moments’ deliberation, she replied, "There is the social and environmental engagement that is critical to our design interests. However we are fascinated by culture as an organic form of collective intelligence. When we work in cities such as New Orleans or Beirut, we find that the spaces we encountered may have a kind of embedded intelligence—spaces that people have creatively adapted to their needs and desires, and developed for that particular context and culture. This embodied knowledge is important to engage in the design process.”
She describes a recent practice of cultural engagement for the American University of Beirut Charles Hostler Student Center. "We observed that in Beirut, there is a natural process of diurnal migration that relates social activity to building form. This shifting between lower shaded spaces during the daytime to the rooftops at night is especially common in coastal Beirut, where cool morning breezes from the mountains flow toward the sea, and breezes off of the sea flow into the city and across the rooftops at night.” VJAA used this understanding to organize the program as a cluster of interior and exterior spaces instead of a single building. The forms thus create a variety of microclimates. Says Yoos, "This approach offers a more three-dimensional understanding of how we experience space and how it relates to the environment.”
The architecture of VJAA considers social, environmental and cultural engagement as inherent in rather than apart from their design thinking. VJAA design studio is a prime case study for the discussions revolving around Public Interest Design week.