All of Architecture Explored with Antoine Predock
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on November 19, 2018 |

To the world of architecture, Antoine Predock may be known as the eccentric master behind such iconic structures as the College of Journalism and Communication in Qatar, the Padres Ballpark in San Diego, and, recently, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. At the 2018 Vectorworks Design Summit, he referred to himself as a “walking Vectorworks commercial,” given his firm’s long-standing use of the BIM software for its design work.

Antoine Predock giving a keynote presentation at 2018 Vectorworks Design Summit. Behind him is a collage of images representing various aspects of New Mexico. (Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. Image courtesy of Vectorworks, Inc.)
Antoine Predock giving a keynote presentation at 2018 Vectorworks Design Summit. Behind him is a collage of images representing various aspects of New Mexico. (Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. Image courtesy of Vectorworks, Inc.)

Predock gave what the majority of attendees would likely agree was a fascinating, if somewhat unique, look at architecture during his keynote address. Engineering.com had the opportunity to pick Predock’s brain a little further in an interview with him and executive senior associate at Antoine Predock Architect PC, Paul Fehlau. We did discuss the use of BIM software, but, given Predock’s propensity for instantly inventing on-demand idioms, we learned about a lot more.

Physical/Digital

What one will immediately pick up in a conversation with Predock is that, for him, architecture is about much more than creating a neat looking building. Words like “soul” and “aura” come up frequently. And Predock is sure to consider all of the elements of the project’s site, leading to words like “deep time,” representing the geological history beneath the ground, as well as references to the people who once lived or will visit that land.

This is in part because Predock’s practice is informed not just by his educational experience in engineering and his degree in architecture, but also by the various artistic media he explored in school, the dancer who was his first wife, the sculptor who is his second, and his many motorcycle trips across the U.S. and Europe. Antoine Predock is the quintessential lateral thinker.

An example of the collage work Predock’s firm performs during a brainstorming session. (Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)
An example of the collage work Predock’s firm performs during a brainstorming session. (Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)

For this reason, Predock and his team will begin a project by collaging ideas, a practice he picked up when taking art classes as an undergraduate student. For instance, with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, images might include swooping dunes of snow, the wing of a dove as a symbol of peace, and pictures of limestone from Winnipeg.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights features cloud-like glass on its exterior and the tower of hope reaching toward the sky. (Photo by Aaron Cohen. Image courtesy of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.)
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights features cloud-like glass on its exterior and the tower of hope reaching toward the sky. (Photo by Aaron Cohen. Image courtesy of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.)

After some percolation, Predock will turn to drawing and molding blocks of clay. The clay is cut to dimensionally accurate blocks, ensuring that this activity isn’t completely unbridled, let loose entirely into the intangible realm of the imagination. However, it does keep one foot anchored there.

Per the firm’s website: “Antoine Predock working on a clay model for the Student Activity and Recreation Center atThe Ohio State University en route, 2001.” (Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)
Per the firm’s website: “Antoine Predock working on a clay model for the Student Activity and Recreation Center atThe Ohio State University en route, 2001.” (Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)

“When he says ‘working on a clay model,’ there are a couple of people with laptops, rulers and cameras watching [the process] and, at the same time, building [the model]. He’s looking at what they’re doing and it’s a feedback process,” Paul Fehlau explained. “Once we get to a certain point, we might 3D print a portion out and lay it over the clay model. He might make some adjustments, or we might adjust what’s on the computer.”

This process, which Predock refers to as “digital/physical,” works for them and has resulted in a wide array of stunning buildings. It also contributes a large amount of “soul” to the work, which is enabled in part by the very tactile nature of working with clay and paper and pen.

Working as a Team

This physical/digital practice demonstrates an obvious amount of teamwork, as well. Predock is clearly the name behind the firm, but he works with a number of other architects—at one time numbering over 30—but now only a handful. Predock clearly brings soul to his work, so we asked how this translates to working as part of a team.

“A team can have a collective soul, if you will, a collective morality,” the architect explains. “I just think you have to believe it so fully and demonstrate it in your work over and over again that people will join you. It’s like a subtle sales job to bring people and your team together to get on the same page with you and believe.”

Executive Senior Associate at Antoine Predock Architect PC, Paul Fehlau. (Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. Image courtesy of Vectorworks, Inc.)
Executive Senior Associate at Antoine Predock Architect PC, Paul Fehlau. (Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. Image courtesy of Vectorworks, Inc.)

The team may have a collective soul, but Fehlau was quick to point out that, in most good architecture firms, a strong vision and leader may be essential.

“You’d like to say that everyone’s voice is honored, but good design is not fully democratic and does need to have an author. Antoine is actually an amazing leader of a team because, unlike a lot of people, he’s not quick to compromise. He’s very good at analyzing a situation and saying these things are the things that are critical to this design. These are the things that we have to hold on to.”

Down to earth, Predock has a way with people, including Rubina Siddiqui, Product Marketing Manager for Architecture at Vectorworks. (Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. Image courtesy of Vectorworks, Inc.)
Down to earth, Predock has a way with people, including Rubina Siddiqui, Product Marketing Manager for Architecture at Vectorworks. (Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. Image courtesy of Vectorworks, Inc.)

He continues, “You’ve probably heard the rumors about different architects that are well-known and, well, Antoine actually has a good sense of humor most of the time.”

Predock interjects, “I try so hard not to be a d—.”

“It may not be a democracy,” Fehlau finishes, “but we all have a shared vision of creating something that’s important and that lasts and travels through time after we’re all gone. In the moment, there might be some yelling, but not a lot.”

Multiple Clients

The team extends beyond the immediate firm and to the clients, users, engineers, contractors and subcontractors involved in a project and the community where that project will exist. To work properly on a building in a given location, Predock’s organization taps into the locals, who provide unique insights into the site.

The Indian Community School in Wisconsin was the solution of three local mothers to address the poor educational environment faced by indigenous students in Milwaukee. The private school turned to Predock and his team to create its facilities.

The interior of the Indian Community School. The firm’s website describes the site: “A cross-pollination arises thorough the connection of learning spaces with the natural environment, allowing elements and phenomena outside to become a didactic influences within.” (Photo by Tim Hursley. Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)
The interior of the Indian Community School. The firm’s website describes the site: “A cross-pollination arises thorough the connection of learning spaces with the natural environment, allowing elements and phenomena outside to become a didactic influences within.” (Photo by Tim Hursley. Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)

On the idea of a non-native person designing a school for native students, Predock responded, “We make the point when we go places like that with that kind of climate to say, ‘We’re honkeys, we’re gringos, and you really want us to do it? We’re going to tune in—you know that from our work—but you have to be sure you want to do that.”

To ensure that the design did honor the community it would serve, the school required the participation of a Native American architect on the job. Predock’s firm collaborated with a young architect from the Oneida Nation named Chris Cornelius, who acted as the project’s cultural consultant.

Fehlau elaborates on the firm’s philosophy toward addressing client needs. “When talking about the client, there’s literally the person who’s paying the bills, but there are also the people who are going to use the building,” he said. “You have to remind the people who are paying the bills that there’s a bigger project here affecting the community, and you want to bring the community in to show them that we’re actually listening.”

“You’ve got to be a negotiator,” Predock added. “You’ve got to be honest, but blunt. And you do the service you’re hired to do. It can be a challenge. Acquiesce, if it doesn’t comprise things too much. There are two kinds of compromises. One is a sell-out—you’re selling your soul and you know it’s morally wrong and you do it. The other is a team player attitude about compromise, involving an actual dialogue.”

Practicality vs Imagination

Seeing Predock’s buildings, you may notice impossible angles, whimsical windows and dramatic plays of light and dark that can whisk you away to realms not typically visited in an ordinary day. But a building is a physical thing, a massive assembly of precisely aligned components that, if installed incorrectly or designed without structural integrity, can compromise life safety.

So, how do you balance the world of the imagination with the laws of physics? That’s where engineers come in. Almost as soon as he hears our domain name (engineering.com), Predock asks, “Can I preach to engineers for a second?” With permission granted, the high priest of architecture begins:

“Hey engineers, I’m preaching to you now. We love what we do, engineers and architects. We’re committed to it. But, please understand that architects dwell in a slightly different realm of fantasy, of dreams, but not always pragmatism. The pragmatism can support all of that, but we dwell in a different place. When you consult with us, we treasure your expertise, but you need to understand that you need to be fully onboard spiritually because that’s where we’re coming from in our work. It’s not about practical problem solving. You can be a poet engineer even though you’re really seemingly so distant from those origins of making something. Be a player that way. Jump in. Join us.”

The Logjam House in Colorado. On the left, the exterior of the home shows fallen Ponderosa Pines piled against the home. On the right, the interior shows the pines projecting through the walls. (Photos by Robert Reck. Images courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)
The Logjam House in Colorado. On the left, the exterior of the home shows fallen Ponderosa Pines piled against the home. On the right, the interior shows the pines projecting through the walls. (Photos by Robert Reck. Images courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)

The architects discuss some of their favorite engineers who have worked on projects with them, often highlighting people they know from international engineering, design and project management company Arup. These seem to be the ones who Predock describes as “poet engineers.”

“We wouldn’t have buildings without engineers,” Fehlau said. “They do so much that we don’t have the aptitude or patience for. A lot of these bigger structures that we’re working on—they have like a weather system inside them. They have to have smoke evacuation systems, and our buildings give challenges to engineers that maybe they didn’t sign up for, and a great engineer looks at that and says this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really solve a problem.”

By working with engineers, the team is able to ensure that pragmatism meets the passions of the architects, but Predock and Fehlau reminded us that functionality isn’t just a matter of cost and utility.

“Not everything is pure dollar and cents because, if you go out of your way to figure out what the most practical building is, it’s probably a Walmart—a big box,” Fehlau said. “But that has no human values. Human values are practical in a different way.”

Austin City Hall and Public Plaza, with its “armadillo tail” reaching across the street on the right side of the picture. (Photo by Tim Hursley. Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)
Austin City Hall and Public Plaza, with its “armadillo tail” reaching across the street on the right side of the picture. (Photo by Tim Hursley. Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)

He used the example of what is referred to as the “armadillo tail” that juts out of Predock’s Austin City Hall and Public Plaza. The copper element seems almost random as it extends from the building out over the street below, so random that you might say that it serves no purpose.

“The armadillo tail—yeah, you know it was about aesthetics, about dreaming, about whatever. But it also creates a sign for the city hall. If you’re looking down either side of 2nd street from anywhere in the city, there’s city hall; there’s a sign. It IDs it,” Fehlau explained. “And, if you’re walking along the street on the other side, there’s a little rivulet of water that travels along that when it’s raining and drops down at a certain point. Because it’s copper, the water has formed a little green circle on the sidewalk. You look down and see the green circle, and look left [and] you’re looking at the city hall. Is that practical? I don’t know.”

Predock likens it to ideas developed by Roman architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who is only one among perhaps 10 historical figures he has referenced in an hour’s time. “You know Vitruvius, right? Roman architect who said there need to be three elements for a well-designed building: commodity, firmness, delight. What’s delight?” Predock answers the questions by referencing the armadillo tail, “What the hell is that thing sticking across the street? When something happens that’s unexpected and totally nonfunctional in any practical way, there’s a value in that, for sure there is.”

Sustainability as a Fetish

It’s clear that, to Predock, the indescribable and intangible quality of a building—what he refers to as the “spirit”—trumps every other aspect you might consider. This includes “sustainability,” which is in quotation marks not because he doesn’t take protecting the environment seriously, but because the idea has come to take on a superficial meaning.

“I hate when my architecture students fetishize sustainability and call it ‘architecture,’” Predock said. “[Sustainability is] nothing but the supporting actor to the star, which is some vision, some powerful, profound construct that somebody or a team has made.”

Fehlau jumps in with all of the examples of green washing that try to trick consumers into thinking products are sustainable, when in reality they’ve replaced one form of conservation for some other toxic element. He uses electric and hybrid cars as prime examples, given the limited resources, toxic pollution, and inhumane business practices that often go into producing the lithium-ion batteries that the vehicles use.

For the Dubai Solar Innovation Center, the firm placed amorphous cell-thin film solar collectors on the building’s roof, which also shades the outdoor space and seals the building. (Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)
For the Dubai Solar Innovation Center, the firm placed amorphous cell-thin film solar collectors on the building’s roof, which also shades the outdoor space and seals the building. (Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)

Rather than focus on ecofriendly architecture for its own sake, the master architect suggests that ecological considerations should be built into one’s practice, more as a reflex. These include ideas such as the sustainable nature of materials or the amount of emissions associated with shipping materials long distances. They also include protecting the environment associated with a site.

“Growing up in New Mexico, [the environment performs] an assault on anything physical, your body, your car, whatever,” Predock reflected. “That was really good training ground because you’re kind of self-taught in terms of what you can get away with and you can’t in that kind of climate. Wood on the exterior of a building—you learn right away that you don’t play around with that. But you can also learn by studying climatology and the impacts climate has on buildings.”

Referencing Rudolf Geiger’s The Climate Near The Ground, Predock says, “It’s a favorite book of mine. Talks about all of the micropatterns of air movement and how you can guide air movement with earth forms and stuff like that. Not aimed at architects, but good for them to read.”

The firm also works with local experts wherever they go, ensuring not just respect for local cultures and stakeholders, but also the local environment. Ecology is definitely a part of the firm’s practice, and Fehlau suggests that Predock was among the first architects to consider it an “architect’s moral imperative to protect the environment,” a concept that forms the basis of sustainable architecture.

“I think as a country, we’ve really got to come to terms with deep sustainability, rather than superficial sustainability,” Fehlau said. For its part, the firm will have to take into account the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which suggests that humanity has until 2030 to cut global emissions by 45 percent to prevent irreversible tipping points in the climate from making most of the Earth uninhabitable. And more recent research suggests that even these numbers may be too conservative.

When discussing the prospects of designing buildings for the longterm, Florida comes up. Various estimates suggest that half of the state will be underwater before the end of the century, based on our current emissions pathway. Fehlau wonders how they would build there in such circumstances. Predock wonders if it’s even worth building there at all. Given the number of cities located on coasts globally, it’s something that architects will increasingly have to consider.

The Future of Architectural Design

Predock may not be getting involved hands-on with BIM anytime soon, other than guiding his team while looking at their screens. But the firm itself will continue to adopt new technologies as they develop.

Vectorworks already has some VR and augmented reality capabilities through its Nomad app for iOS. In particular, Fehlau hopes for a time when virtual reality (VR) is more robust: “There’s this dream we’ve had, where the more you can build in [virtual] space and experience it before you physically build it—how those 3D models can become something you can inhabit, move things with your hands. Have your clients walk through with you and manipulate things in a very intuitive way.”

But the future of architecture goes beyond technology, particularly when it comes to the soul of a building. Recently, Predock gifted his former home and workplace in Albuquerque to his alma mater, the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning, while moving his studio to another location in Albuquerque. With the launch of the Predock Center for Design and Research, students will have access to 50 years of Predock’s work, equipping them to help create the next generation of buildings.

Predock keeps his flame alive in part by riding motorcycles, including this 1990 Honda RC30. (Photo by Mary Elkins. Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)
Predock keeps his flame alive in part by riding motorcycles, including this 1990 Honda RC30. (Photo by Mary Elkins. Image courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC.)

To those creators, Predock instructs, “Keep your flame alive. There’s all kinds of ways to do that. You may be paying your dues with an internship at a corporate firm. You’re wondering what you’re doing and where you’re going. You can keep your flame alive in other ways. You draw maybe or write poetry. Don’t ever just give that part up.”


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