Elizabeth Whittaker, AIA. Photo: Porter Gifford
Elizabeth Whittaker, AIA. Photo: Porter Gifford

Elizabeth Whittaker, AIA, is a 2015 AIA Young Architect Award recipient who explores uses for unconventional materials in her work and develops new methods of production that combine digital fabrication and the handmade. Whittaker’s Boston-based firm, Merge Architects, works closely with clients, fabricators, artists, and engineers to produce residential, commercial, and installation projects, often with modest budgets. “Materiality, craft, and the social space of architecture,” she says, “we combine as a conceptual economy of means.”

Economic constraints are a reality for most firms. Architects struggle with budgets and the responsibility to spend someone else’s money wisely. Around my office, when we talk about an economy of means, it’s about the budget—sure—but it’s also conceptual. It’s about having a clear approach to the problem at hand, even if the act of making architecture—the craft itself—adds complexities related to resources, time, energy, precision, technique, and so on. Resources, time, and energy are just as much a part of the craft of architecture as is the design itself.

There are a lot of ideas that we take on that neither we nor the fabricator are initially quite sure how to execute. Throughout the process we establish a mutual reliance on expertise and research to execute a project. It’s a real-time process and there’s something original and authentic that occurs on-site with real-time collaboration.

Our Marginal Street Lofts project in East Boston is a good example. We ordered a standard-size mesh from a company out of Germany, but it had to be cut into trapezoidal shapes and sewn onto a frame at the jobsite. We found a former boatbuilder—a guy who had experience with boat nets—and he became one of our closest collaborators on the project. We developed the assembly in detail in our studio, but it wasn’t until we were there, on site, facing the reality of the façade, that we realized we needed an expert who could help us with nets. For that reason, among others, the realities of construction are as illuminating as the process of discovery you undergo on the computer. To be fair, every construction project with any team is a collaboration—a word that is overused, but fundamental. There are many ways to define it, and this is just how we define it.

We are a firm that’s invested in thinking through the process of making, in engaging the city through our buildings, and inventing social space in architecture. We are very interested in thinking about how people interact in our projects and how these spaces may impact their lives and the city around them. This process is not necessarily an effort to achieve a highly developed final rendering, but rather about studying material properties and their impact on form. This is often not a linear process, but instead manifests in a continuous feedback loop.—As told to William Richards