MDC Exclusive Series: Architect InterviewsThe Poetic Traces of Rand Elliott, FAIA
By Tibby Rothman
The portfolio of Rand Elliott, FAIA, Elliott + Associates Architects, exhibits breathtaking width of building type and client. Route 66 Museum, Chesapeake Boathouse, Ballet Oklahoma, Marfa Contemporary Gallery, Heritage Hall Athletic Facility. Concurrently, no matter the complication of site, budget, or program, each are distilled into essentiality—the modernist ideal, perhaps, but Rand hues his glimpses of light, color, structure to embody a connection to humanity. (Tellingly, the Elliott + Associates website offers a “Community” portfolio category rather than heading it “Institutional.”)
We were interested in how the Oklahoma City-based architect could execute such an undercurrent in one of the most oblique typologies possible—the public parking garage. But, first we were compelled to ask Rand about his Word Paintings, as in the written word, rather than the poetics of his buildings.
Rand is a prolific wordist. A notebook with 562 such evocations sat on his desk as we spoke to him. Sometimes the designer returns to a completed building to record its impression in a Word Painting, but more frequently, he begins his design process considering, and writing them.
Rand Elliott: These are my abbreviations. What is important for me in the work is to put in words what this project is going to be before I ever draw—that’s really important. The words are a function of trying to capture the spirit of the project, the essence of it. They are created to understand what the potential of this project can be. So, this early discussion with myself, is a very important part of every project. It begins there.
MDC: You were sixteen-years-old when you started writing poetry? Why did you become interested in this medium?
RE: It came from my English teacher, Mrs. Wiser, who had a hairnet and a bun, and was just this incredible English teacher. I wrote several when I was sixteen, most of them were fairly poor because I was struggling to express myself. It picked up speed as I got old enough to figure out how I would apply it to my own work.
What I try and do with them is to communicate with people. I take information when I begin a project: “You told me these things that you want to accomplish. These are your goals, these are your aspirations, and I’ve listened to you, and I’ve thought about it, and here are my responses to your request and I want to discuss it before we ever build a building.” So it starts with the words, and then the sketches, and then the architecture evolves from that. So it is my tool, Tibby. It’s digging into your gut, it’s trying to find the things that matter. How do you find the essence of a project? I start over each time. It’s challenging. And, I also find it inspiring.
MDC: When did you become interested in architecture?
RE: I think I was 8 or 9. My brother is ten years older than me. He grew up around Elvis and Buddy Holly and we would go drag racing in the dark. What I loved about that was: the pinstriping, I loved the mag wheels, I loved the hot cars, I loved the candy-apple red, I loved all of that—and so what does that translate to? It’s about form and color and shape. We’re going to talk about color in a minute but here’s one example. Where would my appreciation for color come from? It came from hot rods.
MDC: You renovated a 1940s service station, reprogramming it into a gallery, restaurant and foundation in Marfa, Texas, the town sculptor Donald Judd made famous in the art world.
RE: The Marfa Contemporary project is a Gulf Gas Station. For the most part it’s a historic preservation project. I’ve done three hundred historic preservation projects, and here’s the point when you do them: You leave your ego at the door.
It requires you to bring forward this incredible discipline. You don’t do what you want to do, you do what’s appropriate—and there’s a big difference. So, it was about doing the right thing. We knew about the Gulf blue and orange, we knew that that building had been there for decades, we knew it was a Studebaker dealership, we knew about the family.
At the same time, as a matter of transforming it into a gallery to be used in the twenty-first century that would be appropriate for Marfa, Texas, it was about making, literally, one move. One move. And, that was to take the entry point, which is on the east side and was part of the original Studebaker dealership (which for some reason, had been gutted but left as a roof, as a three-sided shell), and the idea was that that would become the main entrance into the new gallery space.
In the effort to make one move that says something about this building, in this place, in this time, we chose to use blue polycarbonate as the roof. That blue polycarbonate takes advantage of the intensity of the light in Marfa. It bathes that entire space in blue light, which is stunningly beautiful and connects to the blue of the Gulf gas station.
That’s enough. That’s the right solution and the right touch and this delicate moment when you say, “That’s it.” That literally enhances and brings it to today. The Marfa Contemporary focuses on contemporary work. What does contemporary mean? It means: of our time. So, use light in Marfa, which is timeless, but capture it at this moment in our time—it makes that solution so powerful.
MDC: The firm’s Car Park Two, Three, and Four, deal with the era of the present day automobile. Though they store hundreds of vehicles and cover an entire block, they are beautiful pieces of architecture. In particular, Car Park Two feels more cloud-like, than a bulky garage.
RE: We’ve all been to parking structures that were horrible—scary, dark, smelly. We’ve all had rental cars in an unknown city in a parking structure, and you can’t remember where you parked. You can’t remember what color the car was! You’re going up and down the ramps trying to figure out where it was.
In this particular instance, I spent twenty-five years of my life working on the Chesapeake Campus, every building. We did a hundred and eighty buildings, Tibby, in twenty-five years. And this building [Car Park Two] is a work of architecture taking a typology that most people ignore, and have no interest in, and turning it into something important. The idea was to attack every single problem that we could see that occurred with the typology, so that we could make it unrecognizable as a parking structure. The idea was that it could be something more than the typology. We had a client that was willing to allow us to reinvent that experience. We said, “We are going to reinvent the parking experience and, we are going to reimagine and reconsider parking as art—it’s not just a functional thing. There’s a goal to make the parking structure add value to a campus.” It had to be more than some big static, stoic, stationary object because people are in and out of this building at least twice a day.
There’s a very important thing to think about for you, who are in California, and for me, in Oklahoma. We live in our cars. The experience when you go someplace starts with the parking area and ends with the parking area. It’s not about the building. It is the parking lot! Your experience begins there. It can be horrible or great. And yes, we can ignore it, and yes, we can act like it doesn’t exist, but it does. So here’s an opportunity.
These people are in and out of these parking structures every day. Therefore that experience needs to be really good. It needs to start a positive attitude. It needs to put them in a good mood. It needs to get them excited about their work that day. So there’s a psychology to that experience above and beyond just the fact that we’re going to store their car.
In Oklahoma we have this amazing climate, at the tip of the jet stream. The climate, Will Rogers would say, “will change instantaneously,” and it does. So, there is this opportunity to create a skin—which is woven stainless steel, in this instance—that truly does react to the circumstances of the climate and the sky. Whether we have thunderstorms or whether we have rain or whether we have bright sun or whether we have clouds, this building is reacting to it. There is this handshake between this building and this place. It’s about capturing that mood.
That inadvertently, helps us to deal with this massive scale—most parking structures are giant, this is a square block. So how do you take a building like this and reduce its scale. How do you make it feel approachable? How do you make it feel like a place you would enjoy being in? By putting this skin on it, which reacts to the sun, disarms it as a heavy, big-block building, it reduces the scale. It gives it a personality.
MDC: Could you talk to me about the sculpture in the atrium? Was that a public art requirement?
RE: The center atrium is 13 feet wide. Its intention is to bring natural light into the center of the building, to create air circulation so that it’s fresh and clean and crisp. It pulls air through the skin of the building into this atrium. But the atrium could be more than that. The sculpture is a direct function and reaction to the notion of way-finding, trying to make sure you know where-in-the-world you parked.
We simply created a color for every single floor. There are four parking structures on this campus. They are all signed and colored exactly the same. So you can always park on the red level—which is level one. You can always park on the second level—which is yellow. You can always park on the third level—which is green. The fourth level is always blue. You don’t have to think about it. Rather than remembering the level, which is very hard for people to do, you just remember the color.
Then we said, “Why can’t the color, the way-finding become something really special?” We chose to make the atrium a piece of sculpture. The colored light is truly a representation of simply saying, the red is on the first floor, the yellow is on the second floor, the third floor is green, and so on. It takes a simple idea to a very, very different level to make it art.
The other detail that I want to bring to your attention is on the outside, on the south side of the building.
I got worried that the skin might be too industrial. I started thinking about it differently: It’s really important for a building to suggest what’s inside. Even though I wanted to disguise it on the one hand, what can I do, that will make it look beautiful and might give you a hint, if you looked hard enough.
The outriggers extend out nine feet and are eighteen feet on center on the south facade. If you look carefully at the shadows that they cast on the skin, they’re parking stripes. It’s telling you that what is inside is automobiles. It’s sharing a little hint about how the inside might be organized. So few people would know, yet, there is a connection to its purpose. That’s so powerful.
This interview has been edited, condensed and re-ordered for clarity and brevity.