Monday, June 21, 2010

A Wedding in Washington (and Virginia): Tektonics Design Group

Tekton: from the Greek, meaning one who works with their hands. -Wikipedia

For the intrepid 11-member Richmond, Va.-based Tektonics Design Group, blazing trails into D.C. territory with a local office helmed by architect and LEED AP Will Teass, working with their hands has little to do with memories of Mr. Connolly’s freshman shop class. In fact, it has everything to do with the marriage of custom fabrication and cutting edge design, with which the firm is fast becoming synonymous. In short, Tektonics is in the details.

“There are two sides of our practice that merge,” Teass said, explaining with Principal Damon Pearson that the group, which started in a Connecticut garage, is not a signature style design firm. “We’re not a signature style anything,” Pearson affirmed, alluding to Tektonics’ maverick modus operandi.

Founded in 2003 by industrial designers Christopher Hildebrand and Hinmaton Hisler, the two principals had worked together in a New England fabrication shop before partnering and relocating to their garage digs. With backgrounds in fine arts, sculpture, blacksmithing and metal working, Hildebrand and Hisler tackled projects head- (and hands-) on with the same vision and acumen they later brought to their Mid-Atlantic practice. When joined in 2007 by architect Damon Pearson, Tektonics quickly developed a reputation for its execution of complex commercial and residential design challenges.

The View from Here

Sometimes viewed as the architect’s architects and (industrial) designers, Tektonics Design Group is often retained by the architect of record as a key component in the design and building processes. In this respect, the primary architect’s vision sets the stage for a collaboration which results in Tektonics’ quest for materials and methodology that will completely transform a space, or a particular element of that space, something Teass calls “things that are designed discretely within the context of the overall project.”

In the case of the design for a new, mixed-use church and office building near the Convention Center at 10th and G Streets NW, in downtown Washington DC, working under the aegis of Cunningham Quill Architects in D.C. and Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in NY, Tektonics is charged with cladding a column that has particular significance for the church. Tod Williams Billie Tsien had clad the fa├žade of NY’s American Folk Art Museum with white bronze panels wrought from sand molds taken from the texture of concrete. The result was an irregular shape and texture, which is also the objective for the column that will become the symbolic icon for the D.C. church. While not looking to replicate things entirely, Tektonics’ goal is to decide how to meet the primary architect’s (or builder’s) vision with appropriate, even locally-sourced and sustainable materials when possible, and to determine a casting process within the parameters of the client’s budget. The group also prides itself in successfully reducing cost in many cases. At a project’s inception, “…sometimes the drawings for a particular project can be an abstraction,” Teass said, admitting he didn’t want to sound pejorative. “But they can be drawn in such a way that can be very expensive, and because we’ve done so much of this before, we have a really thorough understanding of a level of detail most architects haven’t had exposure to.”
The View from Within

Operating from a nearly 11,000 s.f. warehouse in Richmond with a full millwork shop that includes CNC milling equipment and a metal fabrication shop, the group’s dexterity with metal, wood, glass, synthetics, stone and concrete has facilitated the design of such entities as a servery ceiling in the form of an overturned boat at Annapolis’ Naval Academy, a 300-ft curved stainless steel guardrail for Richmond’s Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and a staircase for Richmond’s Reynolds Crossings building. “Every time we present this (Reynolds Crossing) project, people want to know what it looked like before,” Pearson and Teass recalled. The staircase, cantilevered off a beam inside the wall, required that Tektonics fabricate the steel cantilevered treads that are about 50 inches out. A glass guardrail sits in a bracket at the end of the cantilever. Teass explained that glass as a material “can be intimidating, but it’s actually remarkably strong, though very sensitive to movement and deflection” resulting in cracking. With this in mind, the firm ended up developing the connection detail and having the glass prefabricated with the use of templates, then installed.

In possibly one of their most rigorous design challenges, under the auspices of Rand Construction, the group has recently begun work on the redesign of a solarium – to be sited in the interior of P.J. Clark’s, the NY-based restaurant coming to Washington. The 19’ x 29’ornate metal solarium with Victorian overtures, curved roof and flat glass skylight, acquired at auction, reflects the restaurant’s vocabulary but must be modified to fit within its space. Originally designed to be outside, the solarium will arrive at Tektonics’ Richmond facility where the group, among everything else, will scale it down and fabricate the roof – its most complex component. Working under its own roof, something the group promotes whenever possible, precludes time spent in the field where laborers and materials may be subject to such variables as changing working conditions, weather and more.

A View to the Future

For Teass and Pearson, who each graduated from the University of Virginia and received masters degrees from Princeton’s School of Architecture, working in the hands-on realm of fabrication plus design was a natural expression of their respective philosophies. Teass, who spent high school and college summers employed as a millworker, believes the chasm between drawing/designing and building is a result of the intellectualization of architecture in the past 120 years, when it began to exist as a profession. People like Vitruvius and his successors were master builders, he explains, decrying the 20th and 21st century’s “disconnect” with the people who actually do the work. He does acknowledge a more recent shift, however, to a hands-on approach with the evolution of programs such as Auburn University’s Rural Studio, brainchild of architects Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, where students build homes for rural west Alabama communities. “I don’t see why they (schools) don’t all mandate it,” Pearson said.

With immediate plans to expand into a 30,000 s.f. office and fabrication space in Richmond’s Old Manchester district, and a move this month into brand new offices in D.C., Tektonics Design Group’s future appears as ambitious as its thinking.

“We are really focused on how things are put together,” Teass maintained. “It’s about the process.”


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