Nathaniel Hammitt

Rabirius Alumnus
Bachelor of Science in Architecture, 2012
Current City: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Currently anticipating Dual Masters Degrees in Architecture and Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, 2016

Sub-Nathan

Wellbe Bartsma: How did APX help you upon graduation or shortly thereafter? How did you get more involved with APX?

Nathanial Hammitt: I joined Alpha Rho Chi during my sophomore year of undergraduate school looking to deepen friendships that I had already made as part of the unique studio culture at UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). I wanted to do a ‘deep dive’ into architecture, socially and professionally, and felt that learning from students older (and wiser) than myself could help me prepare for working at firms and traveling on co-ops. One major milestone along this journey came in the form of my fraternal relationship with my Big Brother Neil McArthur, who was really impactful in this sense by encouraging me in my early involvement with APX, as well as other personal challenges I was going through during my sophomore year. While I wanted to get the most out of my architectural education, I learned pretty early on from my then-co-op advisor Liam Ream that “what you want to get out of architecture school depends on what you put into it.” In addition to bolstering my education by volunteering at construction sites around Cincinnati (through APX and a number of other student organizations), one of the biggest ways that APX helped me upon graduation was actually through the planning of a lecture series at DAAP. Jerry Larson, our APX advisor, encouraged me to embrace the mantra “Architecture and the Allied Arts” and to bridge across disciplines at DAAP by organizing a lecture series that brought together faculty who spoke for ten minutes about their particular interests and research, and then discussed amongst themselves and with the audience potential implications of their combined investigations. This lecture series, known as “10 @ 12” for the 10-minute lectures and 12 o’clock start time, prepared me for thinking beyond architecture, and also for learning how to coordinate events and appreciate the unique research that takes place across the spectrum of ‘allied arts’.

 

WB: How has APX impacted you as an individual?

NH: In my experience after graduation, APX serves as a network for connecting design professionals. But more individually, I believe it serves as a forum for connecting new and challenging ideas. I remember one instance of this, back in 2011, while representing Rabirius as our delegate to Minneapolis convention. In Minneapolis I met students from around the country who each had unique perspectives on what it meant to pursue their passion for design. In meeting these students from beyond the Cincinnati bubble I felt challenged and inspired personally to question and explore my own passion for architecture. Why was I so interested in architecture tectonics? What is the meaning of place? Embracing these questions is one reason why I’ve stayed involved with the Alumni Association after graduation. I hope that I can inspire and challenge students just as I was impacted by students from other chapters of APX while at UC.

 

WB: How did you develop such a strong interest in architecture?

NH: In undergraduate school I remember wondering why architecture school felt so introspective, while as a profession architecture seemed to be uniquely positioned to influence ways of making spaces and living together. It wasn’t enough to just have fun within architecture– asking ‘how’ questions about the ways buildings are put together– I wanted to know ‘why’ architecture is important and what it can do as a profession to influence and interpret social and cultural interaction. While discussing this personal interest with UC Professor Nnamdi Elleh, he encouraged me to really pursue my questioning through architectural theories. I was able to spend my third co-op with Luyanda Mphalwa/DesignSpace Africa in Cape Town, investigating how buildings can be used (and re-used) by low-income communities, along similar lines of the theory and practice Alejandro Aravena has explored with ELEMENTAL in South America over the past few years. I then got involved with Architecture for Humanity in the wake of South Africa’s 2010 World Cup, assisting in the design of several buildings that matched non-profits with architects to design contextually responsive community centers in Sub-Saharan Africa as part of FIFA’s “20 Centers for 2010” legacy campaign.

In the face of a 2012 graduation date, I asked myself whether I felt I had satisfied my theoretical curiosities through architecture co-ops, and whether I should stay at the University of Cincinnati for graduate school, or branch off and pursue graduate school elsewhere. In the end, I decided to complement the hands-on education I received at UC with something that pushed me to think more conceptually, and decided to pursue the Architecture and Historic Preservation dual degree at PennDesign in Philadelphia.

 

WB: What are the concepts and ideals of some of your theories/publications?

NH: One big concept I am exploring at the moment is the way architecture engages with social and political structures in a climate where buildings are built and funded by increasingly international work-flows. The University of Pennsylvania has a large population of international professors, students, and guest lecturers, which has expanded my own awareness of how architecture is understood globally as well as the implications of the ‘global’ upon more ‘local’ practices here in the United States. I repeatedly stress that architecture needs to adapt faster than it currently does in order to be relevant and responsive, since it can take years for a design concept to become a physical structure. By the time a building is complete it is already outdated—both technologically and socially—new technologies and ideas tend to outpace what was imagined at the point of the building’s original conception. Architecture should be projective or at the very least imbued with a projective capacity for future adaptation.

In an article I wrote, Radical Preservation I address the reuse of vacant schools. A distressing pattern across the United States is wholesale disinvestment in public infrastructure, and Philadelphia manifests this disinvestment in a way commensurate with other post-industrial cities in its collection of thirty vacant district schools. Architects can serve as translators and diplomats in the reuse of such facilities by understanding and interpreting existing networks of design and construction to pitch new uses for these buildings to motivated ‘actors’ across a wide ‘network’ of political and economic fields. Per Bruno Latour’s theory in social agency, the motivations of each ‘actor’ in the network of building reuse is to achieve their goals in a way which is best for them, so architects must often serve as controversy-mappers, helping to resolve and reconcile the various influences of actors involved, in a way that provides new opportunities to work with existing buildings. Architecture is a social art, and professionally architects absolutely cannot operate in a vacuum. Designers need to bridge between multiple allied disciplines, and through these external connections architects can foster new forms of agency within the built environment.

Grand Adjustments, a project I completed with OMA/AMO partners Laura Baird and Reiner de Graaf, explores the paths and patterns by which formal and informal economic practices establish spatial presence. For example, the formal processes in which Microsoft or IBM Development tech hubs in Special Economic Zones is very similar to the informal processes in which street vendors sell their goods in informal nodes throughout the city. When architects decry the informal, they by extension lose out on the potential architectural lessons which can be learned from the expediency and networks of interaction found beyond traditional architecture. This exploration recognizes that architecture cannot blindly pursue formal visions: design is less about creating a grand vision than about creating opportunities for grand adjustment.

As I complete graduate school this May I am hoping to join an architecture firm and pursue licensure. I’ve always loved the model of an architect as teacher-practitioner, and hope to continue writing, and perhaps teaching, with an intent to mix the efficiency and rigor or an architectural office with the exploratory and academic hedonism of studio culture that I first came to appreciate through APX and my own experience in architectural education.