The Zawistowskis learned lessons about creative problem-solving on a budget at Auburn University’s Rural Studio in 2001 and 2002, which has led the couple to two highly coveted French architecture prizes—and the opportunity to reintroduce design/build to a new generation of French architects.
From 2008 to 2015 they developed those lessons for Designing Practice, a class they co-taught as the first professors of practice at Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture + Design, which garnered a National Council of Architectural Registration Boards prize for curricular rigor and application. While distinct, Designing Practice was aligned with another course they taught: a design/build lab for third-year architecture students.
“Rather than teaching students how practice works, we taught them that their future is a design challenge like any other— that they should be as creative about their approach to practice as they are about the buildings they design,” Keith says.
Scott Poole, FAIA, former director of architecture and design at Virginia Tech, likens the pair to the fervent young founders of Modernism in the 1920s. “They’re unusual in the sense that they operate at a high level in how they negotiate difficulties and get the public excited about their work,” says Poole, currently dean of the College of Architecture + Design at the University of Tennessee. “They are high-level professionals at a very young age.”
The Lucy House
These two thirty-somethings met at Rural Studio as part of a team of six students working on a project that became known as the Lucy House, for the woman who would live in the home they designed and built. “Lucy had been living in a shack, a house with no running water,” Keith says. “There were two things she asked for: a place to pray and a storm shelter.”
She got them both—no problem. The team poured a concrete basement for a shelter and designed her bedroom as a chapel, with a skylight for its only window. They created walls made of stacked carpet tiles salvaged from office buildings and donated by Interface Americas, the world’s largest modular carpet manufacturer.
“It was life-changing; it transformed her life, and it transformed our life, too,” says Marie, a native of Paris who studied at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture Paris-Malaquais before crossing the ocean to experience Rural Studio. “As architects, it was incredibly empowering. We made a positive impact on the world around us.”
Theory into Practice at Virginia Tech
After graduation, the pair followed up with more residential design/build projects out of the practice they called onSITE, including a rammed-earth house in New Mexico; a farmhouse in Covington, Va.; and an addition to a cabin in Stuart, Va. Their strategy was to take on one project at a time, and they ended up having a three-year waiting list. “Clients that are willing to wait are good clients,” says Marie. “They’re patient.”
From onSITE, they created a design/ build teaching initiative to engage students at Virginia Tech in nonprofit community-service projects. They called it design/buildLAB, and blended creative problem-solving, fundraising, design, and hands-on construction. In essence, they urged students to create the conditions where architecture can succeed, and with them they’ve established a legacy of civic architecture in southwest Virginia.
“They brought an educational dimension that subsequently generated a ‘service to Appalachia’ component,” says Jack Davis, FAIA, Virginia Tech’s Reynolds Metals Professor of Architecture and dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. “Their greatest impact was making a connection through design education to a community in need.”
For Virginia Tech students, the pair were also the source of an infectious entrepreneurial spirit. “It was like, ‘Take this project and own it from concept to realization,’ ” says Virginia Tech graduate Brent Sikora (class of 2014), now working at HKS Architects in Richmond, Va. “They bring a passion to what they’re doing, and it rubs off on all the students.”
The pair takes an artisan’s approach to their teaching. “We like to work with our hands,” Marie says. “We know it’s important for them to see the process. As a consequence of the way they draw, they will be better architects.”
Students in design/buildLAB managed a budget while learning to value local resources, context, craftsmen, and precedents. They were taught to consult with community leaders and prioritize projects—and line up for funding from grants or sponsors.
They did that first in Covington, where they designed and built a new permanent farmer’s market downtown. A year later students created an amphitheater in Clifton Forge, Va., following up with a bridge that serves as connective tissue between two sections of downtown. Both projects spurred revitalization, and two more classes designed and built a Little League fieldhouse and community ballpark.
“They were enormous ambassadors for the value of architecture and architects,” Keith says. “Consensus and momentum were extremely important; they organized the community around them, and then gave hope to that community.”
Two Prizes in Paris
The couple’s work did not go unnoticed, especially in Paris. By April 2014 onSITE had won the prestigious AJAP, or French Young Architects’ Prize. In November 2014 the firm won the Prix Françoise Abella from the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. Members of the juries for both prizes cited onSITE’s “achievements in practice and in teaching.”
The irony is that their design/build work in the United States had triumphed in a country where it was against the law. “We talked to representatives from the minister of culture, and said that we’re doing it in the U.S. because it’s illegal in France,” Keith says, “But its roots are in France, from the origins of the profession through the time of Garnier.”
That’s Charles Garnier, who designed and built the Paris Opera, or Palais Garnier, from 1861 to 1875. That lavish Beaux-Arts structure served as a model for 19th-century design/ build. Garnier actually built a temporary office on site so he could collaborate with artisans as they executed his design.
It was a practice that would not last in France. In 1895 the Code Guadet, the first French code of ethics for architects, declared the architecture profession a servant of the public interest, incompatible with that of a contractor, a servant of commercial interest, and in 1940 that code was written into law. But by 2014 an economic crisis, along with a diminishing role for architects, were calling the law into question. Attitudes were beginning to shift. “Public commissions had long been the lifeblood of French architecture, but the money for large social projects has dried up,” Keith says. “Adapting to this new reality has literally become a matter of survival for the profession.”
When the Zawistowskis won their prizes, architecture in France was on the cusp of change—and the couple would be influential in helping to guide that change. “The question was, ‘How do we make sure that the law allows young architects to shape the future of their own profession?’ ” he says.
One answer was the French minister of culture’s creation of a “National Strategy for Architecture,” a series of cultural and political initiatives for legal changes that favor architects and architecture. The first phase was the creation of three committees with names derived from action verbs: Innovate, Sensitize, and Develop. Each was co-chaired by a late-career winner of the French Grand Prize in architecture and an early-career winner of the Young Architects Prize. “There was one person who’d been around a long time, and one with an ideology of how architecture could be,” Marie says.
She represented onSITE on the Innovate committee. “Our work here was definitely an important reference,” she says. “It showed the value of what we were proposing.” Out of that committee came measures designed to pave the way for initiatives similar to their Designing Practice course and design/ buildLAB.
In fall of 2015, the pair left Virginia Tech and headed for Paris to help shape laws and policy, and to initiate design/build in teaching and practice. They visited with friends, colleagues, school directors, and faculty, exhibiting their work and giving lectures, seeking to identify an entry point for design/ build in the public architecture school.
One result of the three committees’ work was that the French legislature revisited its architecture laws and revised them. It inserted a new clause that allows for exemptions that enable demonstration projects that might include the concept of design/build. That legislation passed this July.
Creating Dream Jobs
One of the couple’s favorite teaching points for students is that their dream job doesn’t exist: They have to create it. In France they’ve taken their own advice, moving both themselves and onSITE to the little stone village of Soleymieu near Lyon and Les Grands Ateliers (The Big Workshops), a resource that Patrice Doat, a giant in French architectural education, was instrumental in creating. They’ve worked with that resource, one shared by all French public architecture schools, to identify partners and raise funds to create teaching positions for themselves. “The schools of Lyon and Grenoble are each contributing half of one of our salaries,” Marie says. “The regional government is contributing the other halves.”
So this fall they’ll be teaching a group of about 40 first-year master students from Lyon and Grenoble at Les Grands Ateliers. That first group of design/buildLAB students in France will be assigned a one-of-a-kind exercise in creative problem-solving. “They’ll design and build the Co-Creation Lab, which will serve as the base of future public interest design/build student projects,” Keith says.
The 5,000-square-foot structure—with lab space, research offices, and an auditorium—will be sited next to the existing 15,000-square-foot Grands Ateliers, a building prefabrication space large enough to accommodate the fuselage of a commercial aircraft. If their impact at Virginia Tech and Appalachia is any indicator, the French architecture students soon will be engaged in groundbreaking architectural experiences. The Covington farmers market earned a 2011 Design Excellence Award from AIA Virginia, and it was not just a one-off community success. It was followed by four more student-led projects in Clifton Forge.
“That whole community of Clifton Forge now values modern architecture in a way some cities don’t, because they saw the value Keith and Marie brought to their community, with the amphitheater, the bridge, and the ballfield,” says the University of Tennessee’s Poole.
Et voilà! The pair recently incorporated onSITE for practice in France, which means that now, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, anything can happen—anything at all.