Material Impact

Paul Lewandowski on material, texture, and structure

Exterior view of Haystack Mountain School of Craft designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes.

MH+D asks Lewandowski to tell us more.

How do you think the environment’s “texture” plays into an architect’s design?

At Haystack, I was able to spend time admiring, and living in, architect Edward Larrabee Barnes’s masterpiece of architecture, a collection of wooden buildings on a hillside sloping to the ocean. All of the buildings are connected by walkways and stairs that seemingly float above the moss and lichen of the coastal forest floor. The interiors of the buildings are a simple language of exposed structure, wooden beams, and studs. I couldn’t help but think of the interrelatedness of things—how the patterns of the buildings were in harmony with the texture of the surroundings, and how the marks we make as humans are really all part of something larger.

When you work with a client, how do materials influence the design process?

I’m an architect. I’m an architect who is a materials geek. I think in spatial relationships, but I dream in the materiality of things. I often speak with clients, especially residential clients, about how the point of contact with a building is the front door handle. That is where the first contact is made. How does the handle feel in your hand? Can you feel the quality, the weight, the finish, and how it is made? As the experience of being in a space continues, opportunities for a dialogue between the designer and the occupant through material are countless; you only need to listen and feel. I could sense my dialogue with Barnes at Haystack: it was clear, a bit raw, eloquent; it was real.

You mentioned you took a tufting class while at Haystack. Can you tell us about that experience?

My experience of tufting began with a demonstration by Dee Clements, the instructor and soft product artist, of how the strange tool we were asked to purchase could create perfect, ordered loops of yarn in a woven backing. From the side you worked from, you saw small dashes of color. Once you flipped the material over to view the reverse, the plushness of colored loops formed a texture that was soft and inviting. It was a seemingly unordered mass of fiber on one side and a rigorous structure of weaving on the other. It was like Haystack’s wooden walkways of evenly sized and spaced boards that float over the magical carpet of the ground beneath them, one texture being emphasized by the opposing texture and then back. The marks that we make and those made by nature are not so far removed.

Do you think there’s a connection between the structure of woven textiles and buildings?

Thinking of structure, my mind turns to textiles and weaving. The structure of a woven basket is fascinating if you think about how flat, sinuous elements are intertwined to create a three-dimensional shape. Or how a textile is woven, and how that weave creates different structures and capabilities. Think about our garments. How often do you look at the inside of a garment? Look at the seams, the interfacings, and the way edges meet and are finished. These structures are so similar to the structure of a building. At Haystack, I found myself looking up at the exposed rafters of the men’s dorm from my bunk and thinking about the regular arrangement of the rafters, the diagonal board sheathing, exposed in all of its knotty pine glory, and how this expression of enclosure is inherently beautiful. Beautiful in its repetition. Beautiful in its clarity.

How did your experience at Haystack influence the design of the summer-camp welcome building you were designing at the time in New York?

At the Camp Schodack welcome center, in Schodack, New York, as I was seeking inspiration, I began to study the indigenous people of the region, the Mahicans. Schodack is from the Mahican word escotak. The Mahicans lived in primarily what is now Rensselaer County, New York. As the design for the new welcome center progressed, the exposed structure, my recent stay at Haystack, my memory of the Mahican baskets in the New York State Museum, and my thoughts surrounding making things were all swirling in my head. To create a building of the place, in the place, it became obvious to me that the language of making and the experience of texture and material were important. In creating gables and room separations of woven wood, witnessing the play of light through them, the embodied energy of their fabrication, like a basket, and the feel of the soft bending of the slats of wood as they moved in and out of the structure—it all coalesced into a narrative.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a student of architecture?

The experience of a building—the way we interact with it, the communication that happens—is all enhanced by material, structure, and texture. Our senses are our interface with the world. As architects, we must remember that our clients’ experience of the buildings we design is through their senses. Our message is mostly nonverbal: it is built or made form; it is in the language of design. We must tell our story clearly and carefully, because the language of design is vast.