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Building Blocks for Success

Building Blocks for Success

This interview was conducted with FIS class of 1976 alum, Gilles Depardon, who has put STEM subject areas into practice in his successful New York architectural and design firm that he co-owns with his wife, Kathryn Ogawa. 
How important are math and engineering in your work as an architect?

I use math every day. The gist of architecture is three-dimensional thinking, so geometry is particularly useful.
What about digitalization?
It has completely and radically changed architecture, everything has gone digital. I’m a bit of a dinosaur in the office in that I still draw with pen and paper because I like it. Almost everyone now works on the computer.

Do you still make models before a building is constructed?
We work old fashioned and so yes, we still build models. You can build three-dimensional models on the computer, but I find the physical models more instructional. It’s very easy to fake specific views on a computer, but not with a model.

Your website mentions “innovative environments.” What do you mean by that?
Rethinking the way we design and build based on the way we live or work. Most people, when they think of houses, envision the traditional separate rooms for different purposes. I lived in Japan for one and a half years and my wife is Japanese-American. We like the Japanese aesthetic where you open up space, bring nature in, and combine the kitchen, dining and living rooms into one space. This reduces the house’s footprint and better models the way we live today. 
You also mention the “integration of architecture, landscape, urban design and planning.” What does that mean to you?
I believe our environment is shaped by everything we do and touch. Los Angeles and New York, for example, are very different in how you perceive them, partly based on whether you are driving or walking through the city. That’s one level of it. The other is small details that you may or may not be aware of, but your senses are picking up and affected by.
Your firm is “exploring the potential of sustainable materials and technologies.” Can you explain?
Twenty years ago we didn’t talk much about sustainability, but now it is radically different. We’re also using new materials in so many ways. Currently we’re building two “net zero” houses, meaning they don’t require energy to be heated or cooled, or very little, by the way you design them. We use a hyper-insulated shell and solar panels. The panels generate more electricity than used in the house and the excess will feed into the grid. It’s all about health and not creating carbon gases.
What challenges do you think architects will face in the future?
Being environmentally intelligent is going to be the wave of the future for a long time because it’s so crucial and so resolvable. There’s no reason architecture, buildings, and cities, can’t be more energy efficient. The issue is, how do we take what we’re doing and scale that up to the level of a city.
Were your favorite subjects in school related to math and engineering, or were you more interested in art?
Most definitely art, but math was interesting, too, specifically geometry. There is a tremendous amount of three-dimensional thinking in geometry and I still work with that. I did higher math for the IB and hated every moment of it, but it stuck with me.
What would you recommend for someone who wants to become an architect, what would be important advice?
Learn to draw, “draw, draw, draw!” Three-dimensional thinking and being able to visualize something is important.

  • Alumni