Summer Studio in Retrospect: An Interview with SSCA Alum Jarrett Thomas
Jarrett Thomas attended the ICAA's Summer Studio in Classical Architecture during the summer of 2018. He is currently a student at Hampton University. Here, he shares some of his experiences at the Summer Studio that have helped him in his academic career.
What do you feel has been the most valuable skill or lesson that you developed and honed during Summer Studio?
The Summer Studio showed me how the design process really works. To start, I learned how to observe existing works of architecture and actually understand why certain elements worked in a particular project compared to another project where different design choices worked. I learned how different qualities of built works evoked different feelings. Through these observational skills, I was able to really know what attracted me to classicism, which in turn allowed my mere interest in the design language to grow into a full-blown passion. In addition to those observational skills, I learned how to quickly and efficiently develop an idea. By coming up with a big picture concept during our two-hour esquisse drawing session, and sticking to that idea and narrowing things down as time went on, I learned how to effectively focus my time and energy while completing a project, which was something my first year, pre-Summer Studio self struggled with.
What was something impactful or surprising that you learned about classicism while at Summer Studio?
During the many informational lectures and city walking tours, I learned that classicism is a language that builds on architecture in its purest form. For example, the sciences all build on each other. Some say psychology is just applied biology, biology just applied chemistry, chemistry applied physics, and physics just applied math, with math being the purest concept from which everything else is derived. After studying classicism during the Summer Studio, I learned that classicism is almost like if there was a design language that emerged from and was shaped by the purest form of architecture. It is essentially post and lintel construction, which is about as simple as architecture gets, but through time it was perfected into what we see today. Classicism to me is a language built by architects using what was available to them, and really pushing the boundaries of the idea of conceptual simplicity. Nothing is unnecessary, yet there is still so much room for creative freedom in classical design. Every element, measurement, shape, and so on is a solution to a problem, whether it be a physical problem like weight distribution, a perceptual one like column spacing, or an aesthetic one like the orders. Classicism was early architecture’s way of moving forward from absolute purity while still being grounded in it. As a result, today we can study and learn from a timeless method of creating beauty in architecture.
What has been a project you’ve worked on since Summer Studio where you have applied what you’ve learned from Summer Studio?
I recently worked on a proposal for the ACSA Housing Competition with my studio professor, Laura Battaglia. The competition called for a home for the 21st century that was inspired by context and used innovative technologies to change our views on domesticity. Our proposal was an artificial intelligence, generative design system that planned and programmed simple live-work homes using modular prefabricated volumes. Our site was in suburban Williamsburg, Virginia, which meant we had a wealth of traditional Virginian vernacular architecture to guide us along the way. The proposed artificial intelligence system would aim to create sustainable spaces by sticking to certain rules based on techniques used throughout history to keep southern homes cool and comfortable, such as dogtrots, wraparound porches, and one room deep homes. The system begins with our modular volumes, which start as 12 x 12 x 12 cubes that can be connected to other modules or expanded or shrunk to fit the program. For example, a standard module could be a bedroom, or a kitchen. Or two modules could be combined to form a large studio. Modules could also be cut in half to form corridors or small bathrooms. The modules would be arranged and programmed by an AI based on a series of client answers to questions about their home and work lives. Completed homes would essentially be longhouses, as one rule of the system is to keep the home two and a half modules wide at most to allow natural daylighting and passive cooling of the building. Another rule is that the system would separate the live and work modules of the home with a dogtrot breezeway to create an outdoor living space as well as a channel for natural ventilation. The Summer Studio with the ICAA definitely gave me a large amount of understanding of and appreciation for classicism and traditional design, which helped me to ensure the design didn’t stray from the historical Virginian vernacular. The project was contemporary, but the information and skills I learned at the Summer Studio provided a lot of insight on how to organize a building well, and how to make tasteful decisions for the project.
Has there been a project that you’ve seen recently that has made you particularly excited about the field of traditional and classical architecture and its contemporary applications?
The Hong Kong Golf and Tennis Academy by Robert A.M. Stern Architects is a project I saw on RAMSA’s Instagram account one day, and it completely captivated me with just one image. The juxtaposition of its subtle elegance along with its organized and robust forms creates a stunning composition that leaves me nothing but excited for the future of classicism. The building really captures everything I personally love about classicism with its simple beauty, rich materiality, and commanding presence. I cannot wait to see future works like this one that push the boundaries of design while staying true to the classical framework.
As a young professional, what is a piece of advice you would give to future Summer Studio students about how they can make the most of their time in the program and prepare to enter the workforce?
Try to learn as much as you can while there. The program is saturated with extremely knowledgeable and experienced people who are there to make sure that we as students are able to learn what truly goes into classical design. Ask questions, ask for feedback. Try to soak in as much as you possibly can because what you learn during this experience will serve you in your journey as a designer for many years to come. I still look back on the Summer Studio as one of the most amazing times of my life as an architecture student, and it gave me a glimpse into the professional world which really solidified my passion.
2020 Driehaus Summer Studio Retrospective
This interview is presented as part of the 2020 Driehaus Summer Studio Retrospective, a four-week series of daily online content inspired by the ICAA's Summer Studio in Classical Architecture program and the many students who have been impacted through its unique course of study. You can find additional programs in this series here.
The ICAA expresses gratitude to The Richard H. Driehaus Charitable Lead Trust for its sponsorship of these programs.