The Found Condition: Gerard Damiani Designs with Context

Interview by: Jakob Uhlenhopp

For Pittsburgh architecture firm studio d’ARC, run by Gerard Damiani and Debbie Battistone, designing with context means more than just mimicking style—as Damiani says, there is a poetry and philosophy to it.

As an architect and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Damiani strives to build a stronger architectural landscape in western Pennsylvania through both his teaching and practice. His philosophies of sustainability and sense of place are highlighted in twenty years of work in the region, offering ideas and interpretations on how to breathe new life into postindustrial and rural landscapes. Collaborations with influential architects such as Glenn Murcutt and Texas Ranger Werner Seligmann have helped him craft a finessed engagement with the work. With Battistone, studio d’ARC analyzes local conditions, both physical and cultural, to produce work that is thoughtful and intrinsically linked to its context while going beyond mere stylistic form making or pragmatic problem solving.

This philosophy shows in the office itself (shown above). studio d’ARC’s renovated workshop in Pittsburgh’s worn Uptown neighborhood celebrates the vines on the wall, revealing the layers of time and intervention in the space. Over a table made of rafters from the building’s structure, Damiani reflects on the early childhood experiences that have influenced his practice, the rise of merchandise culture, and the potential that lies in the architectural landscape of Western Pennsylvania.

Jakob Uhlenhopp: What inspired you to become an architect?

Gerard Damiani: I grew up in the Catskills north of New York City in a strange region on the edge of the commuter line of New Jersey Transit. Growing up, I experienced a duality of being introduced to opera in Manhattan while also working on a farm and putting hay bales on tractors.

My first architectural experience happened when I was twelve or thirteen. I remember hunting squirrels, and I got disoriented in the woods. I came across probably a football field-sized grove of pine trees planted in an exact grid. I found it really mesmerizing, becoming completely disoriented in a landscape I knew really well. Pine needles fell on the ground and created a mat that didn’t allow ground cover to grow because of their acidity. It seemed sublime and unnatural.

It took me years to realize that this was really my first moment of understanding that materials and environment can create a provocative atmosphere. I think when you’re young it’s hard to make these connections at first.

What about Pittsburgh has allowed you to continue these explorations?

My first experience with Pittsburgh was going to Fallingwater. I had the quintessential experience of approaching the city through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, and was able to see the threshold of the city emerge through the tunnel. I really began to understand that there’s something unique about this place and its topography.

Years later, after teaching at Syracuse, I wanted to start a practice somewhere. I had something like $8,000 saved, so I decided to come back to Pittsburgh because I could afford it. I thought it would be a good idea to become a bartender, garner up, meet some people, and start my own practice.

It was 1996 and Pittsburgh had something special going on then. A lot of people were leaving the city at the time, but to me it looked like a place that has a lot of potential. I spent about $4,000 renovating my first apartment space. I convinced my building owner on Carson Street that I would pay for improvements, and he would cut me a break on rent. It gave me a place, an atmosphere that I could design. The only way I was going to make this practice happen was by doing projects first to show people.

Gerard standing and pointing at some drawings in his studio - a space with white walls and shelves stocked with small organized cardboard boxes and a table with material samples. Three primary colored lamps come down from the ceiling.
Gerard enjoys the original drawings of the Eglise Saint-Pierre made by José Oubrerie, one of Le Corbusier’s protégés, in studio d’ARC’s Uptown office in Pittsburgh. Photo by Jakob Uhlenhopp.

How has the architectural landscape in Pittsburgh changed since then?

It has really changed. I was attracted to Pittsburgh because of the topographical landscape, not the architectural landscape. What interests me about the architectural landscape are projects in western Pennsylvania that I’m jealous I didn’t get to do. It’s a challenge for the local architectural community. The work we do here should challenge and motivate other architects. This hasn’t been happening lately and that’s too bad.

It’s amazing that when I first started doing projects here, you could still find contractors who used to be mill workers. They were used to working in a mill or a machine shop, and when that industry went away they began building houses. They had a high level of strange craft. This was really neat. My early projects were all about meeting these people and thinking, “why can’t we do something out of this, because you’re really good at it?” They’d say, “Well, no one ever asked me. Let’s do something out of these ordinary materials and try something.” That’s gone away, and it’s sad.

Inspired by the surrounding barn structures, thin strips of larch disguise imperfections in the original concrete block structure of studio d’ARC’s Cottage Industrious on Lake Erie. Photo by Matthew Williams. Courtesy of Dwell.

a wooden door on a façade made of strips of aged larch - the typical material you'd find on the outside of a barn

You did a master class in Sydney with Glenn Murcutt, who has received praise for his attention to local climate and culture. What did it teach you about working in a city like Pittsburgh, which many consider a quintessentially American city?

I think the agenda of American architecture, when you look at it, is about merchandise, which is the classic problem that Glenn Murcutt talks about. It’s all about the products that are being marketed to the architect, and the architect is the assembler of these products. It’s the safe path.

When we look at the work in western Pennsylvania, it’s very much derived from this idea of merchandise elements. You can look at any new building today and literally understand the product specifications because it’s that clear. You collage your building together through these components. That’s not a regional thing. That’s a national thing. The regional thing is looking around you and understanding what’s locally available and what’s locally harvested. That was something that was here when I came in 1996, and now it is way gone.

I think a building should find inspiration in its context. It can’t look like it’s been airlifted. Once again, that would be my critique about new buildings or the landscape of Pittsburgh. Does the building look like it’s been air-dropped into the community, or does it look it’s a part of the community? I don’t mean that in a quasi-historical sense. There are those who believe that buildings should look like their neighbors. My attitude is that buildings should learn from their location but not dogmatically emulate the condition.

There are two ways you can play western Pennsylvania. The one is that it’s postindustrial, so let’s make things rusty—that’s cool, that’s the answer. The second is let’s air-drop an aesthetic. I say it’s about the synthesis of the place and these different reference points. Use that as a way to make somebody who looks at your work understand that you’re pulling together these connections in a new way and let the person that’s experiencing it work it out. I think that’s important.

In studio d’ARC’s Cottage Industrious, a custom ladder made of bent steel with oak treads leads to the sleeping loft, while a white oak panel swings opens to reveal an inset window. Longtime collaborator Jeffrey Kramer crafted the home’s wood elements. Photo by Matthew Williams. Courtesy of Dwell.

an interior space with wooden walls and exposed beams - a custom ladder on the right of the image leads to a sleeping loft

You have begun preparing a book manuscript looking back at the last twenty years of your practice. In it, you note the importance of “found conditions of place as the starting point.” Are there any specific projects in which you carried this notion through?

I hope that all of them do. The Live/Work Studio II was a good example of that, where it deals with the scale of the neighboring houses, it interrogates the typology of the row house. It is a direct critique of the typical house on Pittsburgh’s South Side. It doesn’t have to be brick, it can be about horizontality. It can be about the circulation of the home with an open courtyard in the middle of the home, thus pushing the circulation to the side. Why not bring light into the middle of the house rather than putting the stair in the middle of the house? Or if a house has a stoop in that neighborhood, why can’t you reinterpret the stoop? Why can’t it be a folded condition and be a threshold from the street? This is about reinterpreting and finding a synthesis.

You have been featured in a range of publications praising your accomplishments in sustainable design. Obviously, you can’t be an architect in the twenty-first century without thinking about green building practices, but how does sustainable design transcend across the contrasting urban and agrarian contexts you operate in? In what way has your experience with sustainability changed over the course of you career and different projects?

 For me sustainability has never really been new. If I think about my past, I came from pretty humble beginnings where materials always mattered. My father scavenged stuff—we were always finding new uses for things that we had in the garage. We never wasted anything. It makes so much sense to me now, remembering a winter night, lying on the cold floor, holding a flashlight for my father while he patched a muffler with a tomato paste can. This idea of getting something from somewhere else to solve the problem is the base for how I start to think about sustainability, because it’s really always been there.

Reclaiming and repurposing things has always been a part of the work I’ve done, with the project determining to what degree and what scale I can introduce this philosophy. For certain clients you can go full tilt and go through everything with a sustainable agenda, and with other projects you can’t. Even if you don’t have a full sustainable agenda, you still need to have an efficiency when you’re thinking about materials, because buildings are pretty wasteful things. In general, if you want to be a sustainable architect, don’t be an architect. If you really want to boil it down, the whole activity of sustainability is still making merchandise. I almost feel bad being an architect because it’s kind of a wasteful operation. Labor is really inefficient, and materials are a bit of a mess.

How does your design process reflect your desire to produce architecture linked to the physical and cultural context of place?

I’m not interested in making grand architectural statements, I’m interested in buildings that feel like they’re a part of the place—once again, not dogmatically or stylistically, but rather buildings that make someone more keenly aware of the atmosphere of that place.

Going back to the beginning of our conversation, talking about that pine grove—there’s something about it that is clearly about the place, but at the same time it’s a marvel. It’s a found condition that’s there. I refuse to go back to that pine grove every time I go visit my family because I’m afraid it won’t be the same. I think the memory of it is more important that revisiting it. It’s also because the landscape has changed, growth in the region has occurred, so you don’t really want to know what has happened to that condition. I don’t want it to feel as though the architect has arrived. I don’t want to feel like I’ve seen this before. Those are things that really worry me. They haunt me. The best compliments are when your client loves what they are living in, and people visit it and are overwhelmed by it. It’s both comforting and a bit unsettling but doesn’t scare people off.  

Live/Work Studio II shows a reinterpretation of a typical house in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood. Photo by Ed Massery.

a rectangular house with a full window on the second floor, showing stairs and a bookshelf. warm light emanates from the house. Between two typical brick houses, this one has a wooden façade and a flat roof.

Featured image: studio d’ARC principals Debbie Battistone and Gerard Damiani in their Pittsburgh office. Photo by Jakob Uhlenhopp.

About the author:

Jakob Uhlenhopp (b. 1995, New York) holds a MArch from Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio and a BA from Carnegie Mellon. He has always been interested in architecture as an ambition to build but is also interested in how these acts reflect the culture and politics of place in Switzerland and the US.

Find Jakob on Instagram.

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