Philippe Rahm, born in 1967 studied at the Federal Polytechnic Schools of Lausanne and Zurich. He obtained his architectural degree in 1993 and currently works in Paris, France and Lausanne, Switzerland. In 2002, he was chosen to represent Switzerland at the 8th Architecture Biennale in Venice and is one of the 20 manifesto’s architects of the Aaron Betsky’s 2008 Architectural Venice Biennale. In 2007, he had a personal exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. He has participated in a number of exhibitions worldwide and was a resident at the Villa Medici in Rome (2000). He was Head-Master of Diploma Unit 13 at the AA School in London in 2005-2006, Visiting professor at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Beaux-Arts of Paris in 2003, Mendrisio Academy of Architecture in Switzerland in 2005 and 2006, at the ETH Lausanne in 2006 and 2007 and at the School of Architecture of Paris-Malaquais in Paris in 2008. He is currently a Professor at the ECAL Lausanne and is working on several private and public projects in France, Poland, England, Italy and Austria.
Answers translated from French to English by Sarah Jazmine Fugate
Philippe Rahm's work can currently* be seen at the Guggenheim NYC , Pratt Manhattan Gallery, and at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture in Toronto. * at the time of publication
In this two-part feature Archinect's Aaron Plewke chats with Philippe Rahm. The first half of this interview discusses Rahm's leap into practice after graduating from architecture school, his work as a product of his unique set of guiding principals, and touches on his day-to-day responsibilities as the leader of a contemporary architecture practice.
Before we discuss how you began your private practice, Philippe Rahm Architects, I'm interested in discussing briefly your early partnership with Jean-Gilles Décosterd.
What gave you the confidence to initiate Décosterd & Rahm, associés immediately upon obtaining your architectural degree?
I studied architecture at the federal polytechnic school of Lausanne in Switzerland and also in Zurich for a year in the atelier of Miroslav Sik. When I sucessfully defended my thesis project and was awarded my diploma in 1993, we were at that point in a time of crisis in the building industry in Switzerland and it was very difficult to find a job. I had the opportunity almost immediately to become employed in a loval office in Lausanne. In parallel, I started doing some freelance work under my own name with Jean-Gilles Décosterd who was a friend with whom I shared an apartment. We started to make ourselves known by winning a couple of competitions in Switzerland and we opened our own office two years later, in 1995. This work as Décosterd & Rahm associés started from certain principles that I had defined during my schooling: the idea that architecture is organic, that it is inscribed within ecological cycles, that it is one of the links in the mineral, chemical, and biological chains, and also the food chain, which form and deform materials and substances over time and through space.
This work as Décosterd & Rahm associés started from certain principles that I had defined during my schooling: the idea that architecture is organic, that it is inscribed within ecological cycles, that it is one of the links in the mineral, chemical, and biological chains, and also the food chain, which form and deform materials and substances over time and through space. My hypothesis from the start was that architecture is entropic because construction is submitted inevitably to the dissipation of its energy, the corruption and the degradation of its form and its materials. There is first of all which, which tends to make heavy, to pull down, to undo, to the point of ruin, the whole of the light movements which the architect directs toward the heights. It is, furthermore, heaviness which is given the leading role in the status of architecture according to the German philosopher Hegel. Because of its dependence formally upon this natural force, precisely because of its heaviness, Hegel demotes architecture among the Beaux-arts, putting it at the lowest level of art. If Le Corbusier talked of architecture as "a pure creation of the mind" in a typical aspiration of the modern aesthetic for dematerialization, weightlessness, and the disavowing of the connection to the ground. Hegel, on the contrary, called architecture "the imperfect symbol of the mind" because weight gives architecture its physical laws, threatening at every instant to make its forms which were so painfully erected toward the sky fall to the earth. In the system of arts conceived by Hegel, architecture is placed at the lowest level as the poorest art because it is the least free to represent ideas. Architecture is described as the first of the arts, primary, because it is too strongly constrained by the external forces of nature which impose its lines and its forms. If walls are straight, if the column is vertical, it is above all because the force of gravity is vertical, and not because the architect decided that it should be so. For Hegel, the forms of architecture are above all the outcomes of the perceivable world, of weight, of the physical properties of the materials used, independent of human will. The architect, without room to manoeuvre, can only prescribe its forces, and be their agent according to the rules of symmetry, proportion, regularity, as classical architecture was able to do. Hegel's system of art is based on a hierarchic system of value, simultaneously historical and artistic, between a lowly material art--architecture, and the highest art, intelligible and pure--poetry. The purpose of art is clearly articulated by Hegel as the transformation of the exterior world perceivable to man into a representation of himself. Through art, man projects the forms of his mind beyond himself, in the manner of the 17th century French gardens where the human force of mathematics of composition, of symmetry and regularity come to contradict--through pruning, alignment, and through perspective--the irregularity and natural instability of the forms and the vegetal materials generated by the climatic and geologic forces upon which they depend. At the lowest level of Hegel's system of arts is, therefore, architecture, because it is dependent upon weight and material constraints. Above, because it is more free formally, is sculpture. Above sculpture is painting, where matter progressively makes itself less resistant and more malleable, for example the oil colors of classical painting which one mixes, which one masters until matter and pigment disappear to the reveal only color and light and an image. In this implacable progression towards the pure intellect, by the historical overcoming of its carnal condition, art loses little by little its materiality in order to become sounds and waves in music, then only words with poetry, before dying, replaced by scientific prose and religious thought.
If Hegel classified architecture as the lowest of the arts, it was also because the materiality of architecture is submitted to the corruption of its material state according to the uncontrollable and involuntary processes of pollution, contamination, alteration. The development of the life sciences and of ecology in the 20th century invalidates the hierarchical system of Hegel, which is founded on an ontological separation of man from his environment. Biological, chemical, and electromagnetic exchanges tie man to his environment through the intermediary of ecological, physiological, and neurological processes, though respiration, ingestion, through conduction, and through radiation. Furthermore, the extension of the domain of knowledge of the invisible, at the microscopic or nanometric scales, transforms the validity of an aesthetic judgment which is happy to distinguish only the phenomena which can be perceived by own five unaided senses. The field of art and artifice deploy themselves in the invisible dimensions, imperceptible to the eye, which emerge from, for example, genetics or the study of electromagnetic forces. In the case of the French garden, a garden can have a disorderly, irregular, or natural appearance and be nonetheless a pure construction of the mind by being composed of genetically modified plants. The principle of the dematerialization of art, a sign of the elevation of the mind according to Hegel, is no longer valid today when even the notions of thought and morality are incarnated forevermore in the baseness of material, neurological, and physiological processes. Similarly, the ecological sciences have made visible the invisible chemical and biological mechanisms which are necessary for life and for our own survival. Accordingly, the landscapist Gilles Clément, through his praise of decay and of weeds, renewed the aesthetics of the garden by pushing the rails of the visual reading towards the biological: weeds acquired a positive value for their presence and their growth attests to a neg-entropic dynamism of the living and to the augmentation of the richness of the ecological exchanges of a place.
This trend from the visual towards the invisible is also at work in a line of thought on entropy in architecture which concerns the degradation of its materials. In the same manner that the form of architecture is submitted to natural physical forces like weight, its materials are submitted to a slew of exchanges with the environment and of modifications of its substances, the most evident of which--chemical, physical, and biological--are erosion, corrosion, oxydation, and rotting. If Hegel classified architecture as the lowest of the arts, it was also because the materiality of architecture is submitted to the corruption of its material state according to the uncontrollable and involuntary processes of pollution, contamination, alteration. If music and poetry come out as the highest of arts for Hegel, it is because their material dimension is reduced to almost nothing and almost to purity: a sound, a word, a wave.
What can be kept of the Hegelian system of the arts today is not its dimension moral or philosophic but the precision of the designation of the field of action of each of the arts. Architecture is characterized then by its submission to the force of weight, and to the corruption of its materials, its material baseness, its heavy and tangible incarnation in the perceptible world, its chemical, biological, and electromagnetic links with the environment. What comes out of the aesthetically poor and negative in Hegel, the unpure and the lowly, can today be interpreted in the inverse and positive fashion by way of an ecological and physiological reading. Rather than tending toward a false dematerialization of architecture, as a certain form of modernity has done since El Lissitzky, we remain jubilantly--and in contradiction to Hegel--among the lowly, the material, the unpure. The natural forces rejected by the field of classic art according to Hegel such as weight, photosynthesis, or oxydation, become the efficient forces of the project of archtitecture.
From the modern struggle to go beyond weight to the erasure of physical materiality in favor of the narrative sign in post-modernism, architecture can today inverse its movement which tends toward a dematerialization of its appearance, in order to reengage in the physical world, take on thickness again, sink itself into the responsive ground, in the obscurity and the humidity, a certain lukewarmness, a rate of emissivity of matter. Architecture becomes then geological and mineral, but of a reformulated geology. Second geology, second minerality, which is built by taking certain mineral substances from the natural ground, certain ecological and physiological linkages, often impoverished, reduced to a few elements but nevertheless efficient. From an entropic status, architecture becomes neg-entropic. Accepting to no longer be the end end of the ecological chain as the moment of consumption and unproductive expense, architecture becomes a link, it acquires a nutritive, physiological, and intermediary status in the whole of the movements and processes of transformation of matter and of forms in time and space.
This theoretical point of view generated the first part of my work, from 1993 to 1998. After 1998, this point of view expanded, integrating additionally the question of the inhabitant, and opening itself to the idea of a "physiological architecture."
What types of projects did you undertake in those early years (1993 through 1998) with Jean-Gilles Décosterd? Were you working primarily on competitions and speculative projects, or did you also have clients (in the traditional sense)?
But very few of these projects got built, all for different reasons, but they helped us to make a living for all those years and to have our office. When we got out of school in 1993, we worked on competitions immediately and we won two and we had a commission from the city of Lausanne for the landscape design of a neighborhood. We found success in French-speaking Switzerland, as a young development office, with a project conceived as an ecosystem and a project on the physiology of matter. We also had commissions from private clients and then other prizes in public competitions in Switzerland. We were also one of the teams competing for one of the arteplages for the Expo '02 at Neuchatel. But very few of these projects got built, all for different reasons, but they helped us to make a living for all those years and to have our office. And it was then, around 1996, that we started being more demanding, to distance ourselves from certain Swiss models of architecture, to invent new processes. And then it was no longer in competitions that this work was getting done, but in expositions, in publications, and with this interest for the links between architecture and biology, science, hormonal and electromagnetic relationships, all of which can be found in the book Physiological Architecture published by Birkhauser in 2002 which presents all this work from 1997 to 1998. For certain people, these years were risky and provocative with respect to a local context which was forcibly a little bit sensitive and even my associate Décosterd found it painful to follow me. But in reality, everything developped in an exponential manner and another type of success arrived, which was more personal, more important, and more international, to the point of being invited in 2002 to represent Switzerland in the Venice Biennale. My goal at the time was not to cast myself into the mold of the architecture of the moment, but to invent new modes of composition, to redefine new elements of architecture. For me, architecture is not only a practice, it is not only building buildings, doing projects, it is also inventing a world, opening new fields, discovering new spatial qualities, writing a theory. Architecture also has a theoretical side. You've got to do architecture projects, but you've also got to do architecture's project. For me, architecture is doing architecture projects, but it's also doing the architecture of the project, in other words thinking the language of architecture, redefining its elements. In the USA, it is possible to do that in the universities who accept and encourage research because it permits the invention of the forms of tomorrow, to be in the avant-garde of what is going to happen later. And this worked well, with digital architecture, and the paperless studio. This was not the case in Switzerland at that time where the university was very oriented toward the practice and the professional. This has changed a bit since, at the ETH in Zurich, for example, where people like Gramazio and Kohler were invited, which success, to do real research work. The physiological architecture that I defined during these years remains active in my current work.
For me, architecture is not only a practice, it is not only building buildings, doing projects, it is also inventing a world, opening new fields, discovering new spatial qualities, writing a theory. It seems clear that the work you pursued in the late 90's led to you being asked to represent Switzerland in Venice's 8th Biennale of Architecture. How did the prestige of the invitation, the exposure the event provided, and the Hormonorium project itself affect the trajectory of your practice?
In 2002, when we were chosen to represent Switzerland in the Biennale, we were in a really exciting period. The idea of an architecture as physiology was truly a fascinating subject and permitted us an escape from the predominance of narrativity, of analogy, and of stylistic and formal reference which predominated then. This permitted us additionally to rediscover an entire side of architectural history (notably of modern architecture) which had been swept away with the discovery of antibiotics, the history of a certain necessity, an architecture in relation to the body, the history of work on the void, the history of the immaterial, the invisible, the impalpable, they had for a long time been set apart from the architectural language based on the notion of full*, immediately perceptible, divisible, composable, and manipulable. There has been, we know, a sort of misunderstanding in the history of architecture since its origins. It has been written through the history of the full*. The void, however, is the subject of architecture. The full* itself is secondary. The very mission of architecture is to define this hollow which is space, to describe a void which contains a quantity of air from which one withdraws certain properties from which one wants to protect us like rain, cold, wind. The very mission of architecture is to define this hollow which is space, to describe a void which contains a quantity of air from which one withdraws certain properties from which one wants to protect us like rain, cold, wind. Until the 18th century, the void remained a unique and indivisible element, the element of air, in the theory of Aristotle of the four elements of the universe. Along with water, fire, and earth, the air was one of the four principle elements of an imprecise and empirical chemistry. It was not until the second half of the 18th century that an understanding of the real nature of the void began, describing no longer a unique element but a fluid, lighter and more transparent than water, composed of different gases which English chemists began to break up, catalogue. This chemical revolution which followed, a century earlier, the discovery of the physical properties of air, its elasticity, would be followed in the second half of the 19th century by the biological revolution of Louis Pasteur. The French scientist showed that the air is composed of microscopic elements in suspension: dust, micro-organisms, germs, microbes. Today we are still continuing to expore the void and to discover within it other properties, be it electromagnetic or electric. This ignorance of the reality--physical, chemical, biological--of the void up until only very recently certainly explains its absence in the field of architectural history.
We had excellent working conditions for the Venice Biennale in 2002. We collaborated with the great Swiss universities--in Lausanne, in Zurich, in Bale, and we met truly extraordinary people, some doctors like Anna Wirz-Justice who really permitted us to develop our work fully. We developed the Hormonorium project within the Swiss pavillion of Giardini of the Venice Biennale.
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The hormonorium is a work on the disappearance of the physical limits between space and the organism revealed by biology and neuroscience. Going beyond visual or metric meditation, establishing a continuity between the living and the non-living, the Hormonorium opens to the invisible, to electromagnetic and biological determinations. Understanding of physio-chemical mechanisms governing organisms engenders a modification of the understanding of space and equally the understanding of our occupation of the environment.
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The Hormonorium offers itself as an immediate space, no longer resorting to semantic, cultural, or plastic methods for the fabrication of architecture. In exercising an influence on this side of the senses and of the skin, the Hormonorium establishes a synthesis of the organic, of mood, and of space by establishing a continuity between architecture and human metabolism, between space, light, and the endocrine and neurological systems.
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The Hormonorium presents itself as an interior public space, the size of a pool, a hammam, or a church: climatically determined spaces, by light, by temperature, by air quality, which imply the body but where certain functions stay indetermined: resting, working out*, breathing, meeting, flirting, discussing, looking at each other, gathering, washing, refreshing, etc. The Hormonorium gives itself as a climate, close to that of high mountains, but also as a collection of physiological devices, acting on the endocrine and neurovegetative systems. One can see in this as sort of physiological representation of the high mountains, to introduce, through respiration, through the retina, through the skin.
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A luminous, dazzling false floor constitutes the sun, made of plexiglass to allow the UV rays to pass through. It is made of 528 fluorescent tubes which emit a white light reproducing the solar spectrum with UV-A and UV-B. Because of the inversion of its radiation, coming from the ground as is the case with snow, the eye lids, the eyelashes, and the natural inclination of the head no longer act as an obstacle for the luminous radiation. This very intense light, between 5000 and 10000 lux, stimulates the retina, which transmits to the pineal gland information resulting in a reduction of the secretion of melatonin. In lowering the levels of this hormone in the body, fatigue is diminished, sexual desire is likely to increase, and moods become more regular. Through the presence of UV-A, tanning happens in the Hormonorium, while UV-B permits the synthesis of vitamin D.
By raising the levels of nitrogen in the Hormonorium, the quantity of oxygen is reduced from 21 percent to 14.5 percent, which corresponds to the level one finds in high altitudes of around 3000 meters. The space with rarified oxygen engenders a slight hypoxia capable first of all of manifesting itself as clinical states such as confusion, disorientation, or bizarre behavior, but also a slight euphoria through the production of endomorphine. After about twelve minutes, it is possible to measure a "natural" augmentation of the level of Erythropoïetine (EPO), the level of hematocrite and a strengthening of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. EPO is produced by the kidneys. This protein-based hormone goes to the bone marrow where it stimulates the production of red blood cells, which increases the delivery of oxygen to the muscles. The reduction of the oxygen levels will therefore have an doping effect which could improve the physical capacity of the body up to 10 percent.
The Hormonorium was a very strong project, also because we could feel immediately the effects upon entering, but above all because it created a sort of blinding white day, a space where all visual limits disappeared, where one no longer perceived the corners of the room. One had the impression of floating in space, of no longer knowing up and down. The Hormonorium constitutes, therefore, a climate which stimulates the organism physically all while offering a new model of public space which is decontextualized, degeographized. A physico-chemical place, a partial deplacement of the climate of the higher altitudes to the sea side, for well being, for health, for the equilibrium of the organism through the regulation of the neurovegetative system, but also a place of potential transformation of our bodily performances, by doping, by physiological modification of human nature. An infra-functionalist architecture, a place for which the visibility expands to the higher and lower wavelengths of the visible spectrum, in the invisibility of the chemical composition of the air, an endocrine architecture, to breath, to dazzle. The Hormonorium was a very strong project, also because we could feel immediately the effects upon entering, but above all because it created a sort of blinding white day, a space where all visual limits disappeared, where one no longer perceived the corners of the room. One had the impression of floating in space, of no longer knowing up and down. It was very impressive and the photographs, which are much darker, do not allow an understanding of the real quality of the room. We had many positive reviews and notably Hedi Slimane, the former fashion designer of Dior Homme, contacted us to get us to do a big store in Paris for Dior.
Personally, what I would note between 2002 and today, seven years later, is that the subjects we were bringing up then which seemed very strange for certain people in the context then, have become almost normal today. Designers but also commercial companies set to work as well on these subjects where the physiological and sanitary aspects is taken into account again. I must admit that we personally have always approached this subject with a critical mind. Human liberty, free-will, its free choice are always priorities for us.
How does the nature of your work impact the size and make-up of your practice? Do you employ people without "architectural" backgrounds?
I have from the beginning worked a lot with exterior collaboration. When we were in Lausanne, the proximity of the university and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne permitted us to engage easily in dialogues with scientists. I am thinking in particular of questions related to electromagnetism, geology, and physiology above all. This dialogue was important in my work, because it validated hypotheses that I was positing while simultaneously opening me to new problems that I wouldn't have been familiar with otherwise. In my office, there are currently only architects, but they are trained on the software which we use, notably for climatic modeling. I have also worked with musicians and writers. What interests me with them, is to see how my work as an architect can be interpretted. In reality, the work of scientists is upstream from my work in architecture. The work of the musicians or writers is downstream. Which means that with scientists, I see how to open architecture to other knowledge, other perspectives, other fields of reality, to explore other dimensions. I apply that in an architectural work, without assumptions, without censure, without limits. Then I test, in a certain way, these new spaces with writers and musicians by asking them to interpret the spaces, to imagine how one could live there, what one could do there, how one resides in them.
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Accordingly, Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote fifteen texts for “Interior Weather” which interpreted in fiction the abstract climatic conditions such as: “What might happen in a space where there is 80% relative humidity, 550 lux luminous intensity, and a temperature of 36 degrees Celsius?”
Interior Weather was a study of the possibilities of introducing, into the interior habitat, concepts from meteorology as formal and programmatic elements of architecture. The interior of the house is here no more composed as an artificial, homogeneous, and functional space, but as an atmosphere, a climate, fluctuating and sensual. Onto the concepts of colors, structures, materials, we superimpose the concepts of temperature, light, relative humidity, which become new tools of the architectural design. If the space looks neutral in appearance, in reality, the variations of light, moisture, and temperature actually create a true richness and spatial diversity. Interior Weather was presented the first time to the Canadian Center of Architecture in Montreal in 2007 and in 2008 in Italy for the International Biennial of Contemporary Art Manifesta 7. Marie Darrieussecq wrote a history of ghosts on a project for an apartment in Japan where explored other dimensions. Ghost Flat is a project of living in unknown dimensions by amplifying the current spectrum of the perceptible to new extents, dissimulated in the folds of time and space. Bilocation, ubiquity, channeling, it’s through the synchronic presence of various spatial dimensions, but in wavelengths other than the visible ones. Occupying at the same time the same surface, intermingling their mass and their volumetry, each part of the program (bedroom, living room, bathroom) spreads itself in a specific fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. The bedroom appears between 400 and 500 nanometers, the living between 350 and 400 nanometers.
I have also worked with musicians, such as the group AIR or Syd Matters, recently at the 2008 Architecture Biennale.
How do you organize and manage projects within your office?
In reality, I have a work structure which is rather classic, in other words I work according to the mandates and commissions that I receive for different programs, different situations, different sites. But what makes my approach singular I think is that there is a sort of permanent internal development of my work according to the problems and a philosophy which is mine and which uses different projects in order to grow. That is to say, for example, that between May 2008 and May 2009, all the projects that we did were linked to the principal of thermodynamic asymmetry that we began to define with the installation “Digestible Gulf Stream” in the 2008 Venice Biennale.
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Digestible Gulf Stream
Likewise, the house for Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster or the competition for a new museum in Wroclaw in Poland were based on this same principle of an architecture which is no longer built of spaces but of temperatures and atmospheres.
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Museum in Wroclaw
The idea is to have two radiators which are deployed at two different heights. The radiator on the bottom heats to 28 degrees Celsius. The radiator on the bottom cools to 12 degrees Celsius. Like a miniature Gulf Stream, their positions generate a movement of air by the natural phenomena of convection where the rising hot air is chilled by the cold plate above to descend again then heat up again on the hot plate, creating in this way a continuous thermal flux as an invisible landscape.
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Museum in Wroclaw
What is interesting for us here is no longer to create homogenous and determined climates but on the contrary to create an airborne plastic dynamic, to put into place forces and a polarity which generates a landscape and to conceive of architecture as the construction of metereologies. Between 12 degrees Celsius and 28 degrees Celsius, the inhabitant can migrate within this thermal landscape and to chose freely a climate as a function of his desires for clothing, food, sports, his social desires, and his activities. Architecture is structured here literally on a current of air deploying a fluid airborne, and atmospheric spatiality.
This idea is found again in all the projects of the year. It has become an element in my architectural language, in the same way that melatonin and light which I studied from 1998 to 2002, water vapor or the values of the thermal coefficients that I approached between 2005 and 2008, among other elements on which I worked. Today, two subjects interest me: urban form as a consequence of physiological necessity and food as a source of heat or cooling, as a form of edible architecture. We use, therefore, projects as a place to research new problems all while applying those that we have already studied, trying each time to ameliorate them, to do them better, to arrive at a perfect project. At the moment we are working on a project for a cinema in Berlin and an exposition in Copenhagen which bring up the question of food. In Slovenia for a sports hall or for a housing competition in Genova, we studied the question of the quality of urban space as a function of ecological and physiological values.
→ Continue to Part 2
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Aaron is an architect, designer and editor living in Brooklyn. He has practiced architecture since 2005, working in Florida, St. Louis and New York, on projects ranging in size from small art galleries and academic suites, to large institutional buildings and master plans. His work has been ...