August 3, 2018

Heather Roberge: A Leader in Architecture Education

Alum Heather Roberge talks with Knowlton about her career as a designer, architect, and educator.

As a freshman engineering major, Heather Roberge enrolled in Professor Jacqueline Gargus’s Architecture Survey course and Arch 202 Introduction to Design. Engaged by the material, she applied to the architecture program. Roberge received both her Bachelor of Science (’93) and Master of Architecture degrees (’95) at The Ohio State University, where she received the AIA Certificate of Excellence and graduated summa cum laude.

Roberge is now a nationally-recognized designer, architect and educator based in Los Angeles. In 1999, she co-founded the design practice Gnuform and, in 2008, founded the award-winning practice Murmur. She is currently the Chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA, one of the top-ranked graduate architecture programs in the country.

Roberge has received numerous accolades including the 2017 Teaching Award of Excellence from the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture. Other awards include the prestigious 2016 Emerging Voices Award from the Architectural League of New York, a 2015 AIA LA Merit award (En Pointe), a 2011 AIA Next LA design merit award (Succulent House) and selection as a Finalist in the 2006 PS1/MoMA Young Architects Program (Purple Haze).

Roberge has remained connected to the Knowlton School having twice presented as part of the Baumer Lecture Series, in 2010 and 2016. Her exhibit, En Pointe, an array of architectural objects that reflects on the historical and spatial significance of the column as both object and series, appeared in the Banvard Gallery in 2015-16. In 2018, she was a keynote speaker for the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) 2018 Midwest Quad Conference, hosted by the AIAS Ohio State.

In our alumni profile, we ask Heather Roberge to reflect on her time at Ohio State, and offer insights into her practice and teaching activities in Los Angeles. 

Can you catch us up on some of the anticipated or recent work coming from your award-winning practice, Murmur?

My design office is currently working on three residential projects, reflecting one of the busy markets in the city. The high cost of housing in Los Angeles is an incentive for homeowners to improve existing homes rather than to relocate. One of these projects, A Room with a View, is currently under construction in a middle-class neighborhood in East LA. The project is an addition and new accessory building on a flat lot adjacent to a scenic hillside neighborhood. In LA, a view significantly impacts the desirability and value of a property. Our design imports an expansive view of the adjacent hillside into the new master suite at the rear of the lot, a location where it shouldn’t appear. A large sky lit periscope not only reflects a beautiful view into the space but allows the room to appear like a detached villa surrounded by a new outdoor living space and garden.

Your research and design work ranges between exhibited pieces that explore dynamic spatial experiences and larger-scale commissioned work, such as Vortex House. How does your more traditional client-based work interact with or serve as an extension of your gallery-based work?

My work explores the intersection of computation and material production to transform architectural spaces, assemblies, and objects. Combinations of digital information and material shape design production and its physical realization. It is through design methods the various scales of my work are linked. Digital tools yield precise geometric control of my work coaxing material into new states. My work embraces a broad array of material traditions in fashion, metal working, ceramics and various building trades importing knowledge of material behavior, geometry and construction. This material insight informs my work with an interest in challenging the conventions of architectural assembly and opening new territories for disciplinary investigation. When intersected with computation and digital fabrication, these material traditions produce work that informs contemporary tools with a broad history of material practice.

How has the urban environment of Los Angeles informed your approach to architecture in practice or as a discipline?

The city has changed rapidly in the fifteen years I’ve lived here. Initially, I was fascinated by the diversity of neighborhoods, geographies and cultures in Los Angeles. Growing up in Central Ohio with little experience of the West, I found the natural landscape most striking. I’m taken by the foothills for its dramatic presentation of landscape as elevation and the role of time in shaping geography. This ecology presents an ideal image of Los Angeles and represents its urban missteps. The reality of Los Angeles is quite different. Despite a robust economy and low unemployment, stagnant wages, addiction and lack of affordable housing have multiplied the city’s homelessness population. LA’s urban fabric is quickly changing as new housing, infrastructure and public transportation projects take shape, providing a fertile site for testing and proposing futures for a city in need of alternative forms of development.

You were appointed chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture a year ago. What are the qualities that you feel distinguish it as one of the best in the country?

At UCLA Architecture and Urban Design, we are optimistic and motivated champions of ideas and their expression. We teach future architects, urban designers, educators, curators, scholars and creative artists to interrogate, define, articulate, and express their ideas. These ideas are grounded in a critical engagement with the history and theory of our discipline, and explored through the intersecting perspectives of design, technology, media and urbanism. These ideas reflect our observations about the rapidly changing world with its accelerating technological invention, mass urbanization, new modes of transportation, and social and environmental flux. These ideas reflect the potentials afforded by the media we use to describe and engage these realities. We interrogate contemporary issues and propose possible futures with equal measures of expertise, optimism, and vision. Like all forms of creative expression, architectural ideas reflect the external worlds we learn to recognize as well as the internal disciplinary knowledge that is ever accumulating and transforming. At its best, architecture imagines new futures. These possible futures are expressed in a variety of forms: from the design of spaces, objects, buildings, urban environments, urban strategy, and images to the writing of a compelling story or scholarly text.

How have shifts in culture and technology changed the study of design since your time in the architecture programs at Ohio State?

It has been over twenty years since I finished graduate school. I was a student during the first digital turn which largely impacted design technique. Orthographic and axonometric projection as the site of design was unseated by design in three-dimensional, virtual space. The next digital turn explored fabrication with computationally controlled machines. Now we are witnessing rapid changes in visuality and field of view as optical instruments, and media more broadly. These changes dislocate experience from the constraints of the body. We can inhabit worlds virtually, augment environments with projected media and surveil the surface of the Earth from above. These environments are a radical departure from imagining space as represented by a handmade, basswood model.

What aspects of the architecture programs at Ohio State have been valuable in your practice and role as an educator?

My professors taught me how to think critically and analytically. Whether the problem at hand was conceptual, formal, or technical, I was taught to understand the significance of the question and to critically evaluate its relationship to other concerns in a comprehensive and disciplinary way. My education at Ohio State developed my ability to dissect and evaluate architectural projects. I apply what I learned at OSU regularly as a teacher and professional. The curriculum at Ohio State was both broad and deep, laying a conceptual foundation that defined the disciplinary, material, and tectonic influences on architecture and unpacking these influences in detail in history and technical courses.