Interview: Craig Hartman FAIA of SOM (Spring 2000)


Stan Francisco Internation Airport (courtesy SOM) View from vehicular arrival

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View from rooftop of San Francisco Airport International Terminal  ©SOM                         View to skylights from terminal interior ©SOM


COMPETITIONS: What led you to the study of architecture?


HARTMAN: It wasn’t so much architecture, as what architecture is about.  When I was a kid I loved to draw and paint, loved science and, to a certain extent, math.  Growing up in the sixties, when NASA was in the news, I was probably one of the millions who thought that space and science was the greatest thing.  So I did all these science fairs and was even invited to some schools which had engineering programs.  When I saw what it was actually about—the curriculum—it seemed very dry to me, not nearly as exciting as I had imagined it to be. My father was absolutely adamant that I not become an artist.  At about that time one of my cousins, who was taking a course on architecture in college, came home.  I saw the work and felt it was really interesting stuff.  Initially to me architecture as an idea was more the pieces which made up architecture rather than the excitement of designing buildings.  In fact, my understanding of architecture as a kid in Indiana was that of an arcane profession—certainly not cutting edge. When I discovered through one of my teachers that Ball State University had just undertaken the first architecture program in the state, I felt I should check it out, especially since our family finances precluded my going to an out-or-state school.  It turned out to be an incredibly great experience.


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San Francisco Terminal: vehicle approach to airside (above, left); plan (above, right) and structural concept (below)


COMPETITIONS: That was still when the program was based in quonset huts?


HARTMAN: It was. And those were great times.  The school was all in one place, and I believe that students often learn as much from one another as they do from faculty.  We had some very energized young faculty there at the time, and that was a huge part of it. Tony Costello, for instance, was a huge influence on me.


COMPETITIONS: It was a great experiment.

HARTMAN: It turns out that there were some subliminal things you don’t recognize at the time which end up being very influential.  It was many years after I had been out of school that I realized that the history class was taught with a certain amount of propaganda—on the modernist movement—and I feel that my thinking about architecture has been and continues to be strongly influenced by that professor, David Hermansen.  It was the history of architecture seen through the filter of ‘the ultimate evolution of architecture being modernism.’  Gothic cathedrals, etc., that all led up to the modern age.


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View of Oakland Catholic Cathedral from lake (above, left); Cathedral interior (above, right); structural concept (lower, left); plan for original site (lower, right)


COMPETITIONS: So it wasn’t a big theoretical jump from Ball State to SOM?


HARTMAN: The reason I went to SOM was that several of the SOM partners had been involved at Ball State over the years.  That was largely due to the influence of Nat Owings, who grew up in Indianapolis.  As he had a special interest in the school, he encouraged the partners to go teach seminars and do design crits.  In my fourth year Walter Netsch was an adjunct professor, flying down from Chicago for a day every week.  I can’t tell you how glamorous that was for us, having someone flying in from Chicago to teach a design studio. As was the case with most students then, I was not particularly interested in large firms.  My aspiration was to work for a couple of years, go to graduate school, have my own small, so-called serious design firm, working with a couple of partners and teaching.  That seemed to be the ideal lifestyle. Walter Netsch had the commission to do the extension to the Art Institute and was very busy.  So he asked Charley Sappenfield, Dean of the School of Architecture at the time, to recommend someone.  The Dean recommended that I follow up on this, which I was reluctant to do for the reasons mentioned.  So I finally decided it wouldn’t be bad to go to SOM for a couple of years to work under Walter, whom I regarded as a serious architect and was doing non-commercial, institutional types of projects.  That’s how I landed at SOM.


COMPETITIONS: In the interim you were in London.


HARTMAN: Ball State had established a program in London (with the AA) where you could apply based on your design portfolio.  About 8-10 students were selected to go to London to study at the Architecture Association, which I did during my fourth year.  Cedric Price was our main tutor while we were there—when the ArchiGram movement was still very hot.  He had the idealized lifestyle of an English architect, with a studio in a brownstone—where there was no evident sign of work anywhere.  It was never quite clear to us how he was able to support this, though one might assume that it was most probably through his professorship.


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Electronic Arts Corporate Headquarters and Commons


COMPETITIONS: How did those first years at SOM prepare you for later?


HARTMAN: It was partly a matter of the institutional culture of SOM, partly the presence of Walter, who was an extremely strong personality.  Then there was the peer group, the people I was working with. With Walter, it turned out to be less the architecture itself, because at that time he was—and still is—very much into the idea of “field theory.”  At the time I thought it very interesting, but it was an extremely difficult way to design.  On the one hand you were trying to deal with a program, site, etc., trying to make something interesting visually and spatially.  Then you had this other layer of geometry you had to deal with.  So the Miami (University) Art Museum was the first real project I basically had an opportunity to design—certainly under Walter’s tutelage.  That was based on a series of expanding geometries, plan and section.  The school was very interested in a series of spaces, some small, some large for different types of art exhibits.  So the “field theory” in my experience has always been about interesting modules. The earliest influences were Walter’s way of thinking: whenever he looked at something he seemed to turn things on their head.  Where I might look at a teapot and see only a teapot, Walter might see something completely different.  His influence on me was to find something unique in each programmatic issue or site, taking nothing at face value. The other side of the coin was the other work being done in the office.  Myron Goldsmith, although I never worked with him at the time, was a very interesting person.  The extraordinary distillation of his work resulted in beautiful minimalist structures.  The rigor of his work was really compelling as was observing the way all of these people dealt with structure and context.


COMPETITIONS: You won an award in an early NIAE competition about the time you left Ball State.


HARTMAN: That was an urban design problem in New York.  The design program was related to the  Rome Prize and was for recent graduates.  It was an urban infill project, and it was the kind of issue that was au courant at the time, looking at ways to put urban infill together with a public space.  I was working on big projects at SOM at the time, so it was a way to do a pure design problem.


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Virginia State Library and Archives


COMPETITIONS: SOM is known for doing large projects, some of which are corporate buildings.  One might argue that a corporate culture is reflected by the design of the building.  Should this ideally result in a highrise or lowrise, campus- style architecture.  Is there an ideal configuration for corporate organization?


HARTMAN: No.  There is no ideal form.  It is entirely based on the culture of the company and the kind of workplace they desire.  It comes down to a question of whether a group is interested in being in the city or not.  In any mature city, it is going to be a tall building.  If you are in suburbia, you can probably do whatever you want, although now it is almost impossible to do exactly what you want anywhere.  Early on, and I learned this in Houston, there are some really very strong constraints which govern what an office building can be.  Until then, I had been working on institutional projects, libraries, museums, etc. and had never really done an office building until I moved to Houston in the early 80s. Rick Keating, who was the design partner there at the time, gave me a building to design in Houston, where there are no rules.  The only rule—and one which I did not fully understand at the time—was the rule of the market place.  My first idea was, ‘this is going to be a building with ten or twelve stories, so what could be better than doing something like the Inland Steel building—with a series of stacked loft spaces and service core, a very clear concept of form and function.  It turned out that that was one of the most inefficient office buildings one could build.  Certainly, if a corporation is going to be in the city, there are certain expectations about the workplace, and a part of that is the very simple issue of an elevator core in the middle of the building and space wrapped around that. In the suburbs it is a very different story.  Many of the new Silicon Valley companies—the so-called companies—are highly uninterested in highrise buildings.  They typically want to be in bungalows, or, if not bungalows, then maybe loft spaces in the city.  We are now working on some new office building types I hope will have some influence.  They are more evolutionary than revolutionary.  There are some simple things—as with a project we are presently doing for a company in San Jose.  It’s in the city, so it is a mid- or highrise building.  The building will be very transparent, using high performance glass that is tinted, no-reflection, and a lot of daylight.  We are hoping to make the floor height higher than is typical to get more volume, thus more light deeper into the space.  We are creating something I call “veranda” rooms that are sections of the building that have full glass windows (from floor to ceiling) which is highly unusual in today’s office building.  The complaint in today’s office buildings is that you can’t open the windows without affecting the A/C for the entire building.  What we are doing is arranging the operable glass in vertical sections, accentuating the main entry to the building by using the green windows over the front door.  So you could be in a large conference room with the doors closed and all the windows open.  When the windows are open, magnetic switches shut off the air conditioning to that room.


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U.S. Embassy Beijing: competition rendering (above, left); competition model (above, right)      Rendering (left) by Peter Little; model photos by Cesar Rubio
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Concourse between buildings (above, left); aerial view of Model


COMPETITIONS: In Vancouver, the weather is such that air conditioning is rarely needed.  Some buildings there—most notably the new Asian Institute at the University of British Columbia—are designed with air flow systems which negate the use of air conditioning.


HARTMAN: There are very few days in the year in San Francisco when you need air conditioning.  I just finished a building for Electronic Arts, a media software company, which is really a developer kind of building.  We’ve taken that same strategy there as well, and it’s become a very popular thing. There are many days you can use it (open windows) in California.  If you go to the Central Valley where it is warmer, you wouldn’t be able to do that.  So the nature of the building is a question of what the corporate culture is all about.  A lot of the companies in Silicon Valley got a kind of anti-Oedipus complex after Apple built their huge campus.  Apple went into a tailspin almost immediately after that happened.  So these companies view building large campuses like that as practically inviting disaster.  We are now really trying to find ways of dealing with a new workplace, where the buildings are much more environmentally responsive and responsible.


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California State Office Building Atrium (left); view from street (right)


COMPETITIONS: What is the building you are now working on?


HARTMAN: It’s called above.Net, and it’s in design now.  It’s a headquarters in downtown San Jose. We are actually doing two buildings for them, the other being in San Francisco which is a “server farm”—basically racks and racks of servers for companies which are startups or incubators or for companies which want their own servers but can’t afford to have their own space for them.


COMPETITIONS: Most large firms like SOM are engaged at one time or another in invited competitions—such as the San Francisco Airport competition which you participated in.  What are the criteria you look at when deciding whether or not to participate in an invited competition?


HARTMAN: There are two criteria.  Is it a project which has interesting design opportunities, and is it a competition in which we are paid an honorarium?  If it is an unpaid competition it’s highly unlikely that we would enter—although the firm may have done so in the past.  If a client is really serious about taking architects’ best ideas, they should take time to decide what kind of architecture they are going to build and pay the invited architects for their effort.


COMPETITIONS: Some medium-size firms occasionally enter competitions to investigate a new building type.  In your case, the firm has so many people with expertise in various building types that you can find somebody in the firm who has expertise in that area.


HARTMAN: I’m glad that I don’t have to secure every single project through a competition, because you put an enormous amount on the table in a competition—both emotionally and financially.  But I really enjoy the opportunity to do competitions on a periodic basis, because it gives you the opportunity to work without the immediate impact of a client’s issue or a cost issue which you might be able to work out in time.  When you are doing a project with a commission, there is always a time constraint.  In that case, if there is a system or an idea that is not really tested, and it takes time to work it out, in a normal (commissioned) process there isn’t time and the client doesn’t want to take the financial risk of researching it and taking it further.  From my experience, competitions do offer the opportunity to try some things that might take a while to work out in the end, but might be unusual and better than what you would get otherwise.


COMPETITIONS: The people who ran the San Francisco Airport Competition wanted to keep the expense of doing the competition for the firms at a minimum.  They only paid $15,000 ($5,000 per rendering).  Did the way in which they structured the competition result in limiting the scope of work for your firm?


HARTMAN: At the time they were describing the whole process, I thought it was a very superficial process.  They needed an aesthetic wrapper for this diagram they had already worked out.  But I must say that in a competition you can never work out all the details or determine the final cost of the building—unless it is a really long competition. So I think it is better to keep it short, find out what the approach of the architect to the problem will be.  It you compare the San Francisco Airport Competition, which lasted only three weeks to the (California) State Office Building Competition—we also won that—it was a much more painful process and more risky, because it was a design-build competition.  Our team included a joint venture with a contractor. It was a three-month competition where each competitor got $100,000.  But our risk was probably four times that: we had to develop a full set of specs and drawings to prove to ourselves and our client what we were building was buildable within budget. I think the SF Airport Competition, as it was structured, was more appropriate.


COMPETITIONS: So the SF Airport Competition was not subject to all the constraints that your normal government institution is?


HARTMAN: The SF Airport is subject to all the public bidding processes. The California State Office Building competition was enlightened in some ways. Although it was design-build, it wasn’t design-build in terms of ‘the lowest bidder gets the job.’ There were three finalists shortlisted in a thoughtful process, client consultations in midstream, and the state set the budget in the beginning ($169M) which was a very healthy budget.  They wanted to see what kind of quality each competitor could deliver for that price.   I found that a very enlightened approach.


COMPETITIONS: One of the major considerations in designing the circulation of any airport today is the focus on retail.  At Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington, for instance, the configuration of retail has evidently caused some problems.


HARTMAN: Retail is a huge issue here, because the airport is being paid for by revenue bonds against concessions for retail, rental cars, etc.  So there is no public financing involved.  They even decided after the bid was let to add more retail to the project.  In the Airport, we placed the retail around the perimeter.  You come into the building to the ticket counters.  Once you have done that, you go to ‘security ‘ where you pass a few shops.  After going through security, that is where the real shopping takes place.  The issue is post- or pre-security.


COMPETITION: SOM does a lot of work in Asia, particularly through competitions.  Which ones were you active in?


HARTMAN: I participated in the competition for the Commercial-Industrial Bank of China in Beijing with Brian Lee—he has now taken the project and completed it.

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Beijing Central Business District (2001) ©SOM   Rendering showing main thoroughfare (top) and aerial view of plan (above

COMPETITIONS: In Asia, competitions vary from country to country, and within countries.  In China they have a reputation of being all over the place—some quite fair in how they are managed, others somewhat questionable.  What have your experiences been?


HARTMAN: Frankly, you never know how level the playing field will be.  One of the first things we do is make sure that the competition itself takes place on a level playing field and that they are not just asking international architects to get involved for cosmetic purposes.  This particular project was a two-step process where we submitted something and they narrowed it down to two final competitors—asking us to go back and make some revisions. In those situations, it’s always hard to know how much of it is design and how much of it is that they want that particular firm to do the work. One of my partners is Chinese, Carolina Woo, and she spent a lot of time with them trying to understand what their issues were and basically reassuring them.  I feel that was as significant in the selection process as was our design.


COMPETITIONS: I visited the Stanford University campus, where there have been several competitions lately.  One has the impression that in some of the projects, they weren’t really sure just how far to go.  The new Foster building seems to push the envelope to the limit, but it seems to be rather hemmed in between two of the more traditional existing buildings.  You did a building there.


HARTMAN: We did the Graduate School of Business addition there.  You have to wonder how much of that is all about Stanford.  They are walking a very delicate balance there between a sort of contextualism, trying to honor the traditional materials and form, versus trying to do something new and fresh.


COMPETITIONS: For an architect it must be difficult to know exactly how flexible you can be.


HARTMAN: Their campus architect, David Neuman, who is a very enlightened guy, has done an excellent job.  He has tried to let architecture become a little more innovative within the framework of the campus plan; but it is a very tough balance.  Ours is a tiny project next to a building done by a local architect thirty years ago.  It is more about making a space than some great architectural statement.  It was also a competition and was about a south face facing this garden.  We originally had a wooden trellis element on the south face which gave it a garden-like quality.  Halfway into design development the Board of Trustees decided it should look more traditional.  Thus the building which now exists.