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Architalks #47 - Theory

May 16, 2019

I'm showing my life stresses right now by admitting to writing this post and rushing it out, more than 24 hours late. It's not often that I am late for things - I was taught that if you're on time, you're late! 


Our topic this month is about theory, and theory for me always took extra time even though I enjoyed it. It is a difficult subject and one we spent 5 years in school just to get the undergraduate version. From macro to micro scales, understanding your decisions through the lens of theory places you in relationship to all of them through a self-defined similar lens. It is through this that we are able to experience, compare, and learn about our trade and ourselves. 


One of my first projects in school was entitled "twoness". We were instructed to use a piece of bristol board (basically thicc cardstock) to represent the concept of twoness. Have you ever googled something like that? It is not self-explanatory or something that has one answer, and is also referenced as an established social construct representing facets of personalities of people of color. As  first year student, theory was not something I had ever contemplated before and Google was not the best answer. Sure I enjoyed philosophy on a superficial level, but I had not ever been exposed to architecture on a theoretical level prior to college and wasn't enjoying being pressured to argue. 


I know I don't remember my project and it really doesn't matter anyways. It was not good in any way and I probably threw it away as fast as I could. I didn't want to iterate on bristol board, but that was the material of the assignment, so I did as many little replicas as I could manage, trying to prove I was thinking when I wasn't. And, it wasn't at remotely at the right scale. Truth be told, twoness is not something you just look up on the internet either. Basically, if you boil it down to duality or two-based conceptual arguments, you could argue just about anything. People were rolling their papers into cylinders of different sizes, trying to find the right representation of air space to paper surface, most likely. Someone else has shredded theirs into what was basically geometric confetti. He took more of a cheeky route and said "I have established twoness as the following two options - one piece of paper, or many." Someone else showed up with half of their paper soaked in coffee. 


I really wanted to use a different medium, but chickened out and didn't. It wasn't worth the attention for no real explanation, and we'd already experienced the piercing stares of a room full of strangers. I had no connection to the material or the project and was discouraged by all of the other creative results that were then immediately un-copy-able after created a few desks away. If I would have realized I needed to use a 6" wide brush on a 4' roll of packing paper, that would be been much more inspiring than my fine point felt pen on tracing paper bits the size of flashcards. 


The older I got, the more discussions of theory in school were really about artfully and faithfully understanding and executing a vision. Our project prompts and the projects themselves increasingly inspired by the history of the profession and the experience of human life in all forms. They became more unique, and more thoroughly researched. All knowledge is relative to other knowledge, and tangential subjects such as those I was interested in include anthropology, biology, neurobiology, natural science, and craftsmanship. The culture and time behind past styles, ornament, and materials tell us of what their experiences were and are their legacy for us to discuss. There is a reason that the early mathematicians focused on geometry and perfectly symmetrical forms, derived from the gods, and carved out of marble and stone. There is also a reason we get the beautiful and intricate ornamentation of the Moors in southern Spain and the painted and lacquered styles of the early dynasties of the East. A lot of architecture is about the hundreds and thousands of theories behind beauty, and other admired traits of humanity's singular experiences on planet Earth. 


So after growing (slowly) first or second year, I really took to learning about sustainability and reading "Thermal Delight in Architecture" taught me both to buy a gardening hat and that how we regulate our temperature is so crucial to our comfort, stress, and happiness. Who would have thought that artfully designed and executed natural ventilation systems would have been so inspiring? There are somethings that bring beauty because of their function (another theory nugget!) and a well-functioning machine is something humanity has admired for some time now. Natural ventilation and other regenerative systems are admirable in that they function so, so satisfyingly on their own. Prior to any advanced technology, primitive life was what defined our experiences, and nature functions perfectly well without us. Using architecture to design spaces that can be effectively naturally ventilated is a question of many subjects - thermal dynamics, climactic averages and major deviations, human behavior, biological science (how we sweat?), and more beyond that. 


I designed multiple projects in school meant to be naturally ventilated, the pinnacle being a guest house/ museum near the Duck Pond at Virginia Tech. It was truly wonderful to spend lots of time out there and walking around, observing and selecting the prime location. The water was the key feature for the natural ventilation route, because (surprise) museums are highly regulated buildings due to the sensitivity of the artwork to humidity and temperature fluctuations. 


Theory still informs my practice because there is always a reason for the design to be representative of the needs of the building and occupants, whether they are thermal, functional, spiritual, etc. Using the natural environment and its non-manmade systems as inspiration can inform our culture, and subsequently our interpretation of architecture and design theory. The communal nature of a public park, the experience the bus dropping you off at school, and the atmosphere in your favorite date night restaurant are experiences that are uniquely human and are shaped by our built environment. Everything we do to understand the decisions we make helps us to understand how the design of our environment impacts us as individuals and our societies as a whole. For good or for bad, it is our responsibility as licensed architects to make sure those decisions fall within our values, as they become a shared experience of our cultures and beliefs. 


OK so - the important part - Architectural Theory Lessons Learned and continued to this day as a part of my architectural practice and my design beliefs: 


1. Iterate at the right scale 

2. The important part is the story and the connection. It is how you tell the truth of the project. 

3. Related subjects inform your design and allow a deeper connection to the primary subject. 

5. Use your experiences only as a starting point to analyze impacts of your decisions; the built environment is for all and feedback is crucial to equitable and beneficial progress. 

6. Be honest about form, the visual language, the "feeling," and the artful but universal nature of beauty 

7. Theory can be understood and applied at all scales, from macro (neighborhood, region) all the way to micro (details, human-centric design) 



 This post is part of the ArchiTalks series where a group of architects all post on the same topic at the same time. Check out some of the other posts, below! 





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