Interview: Blostein/Overly Architects (Summer 2010)



COMPETITIONS: What led both of you to architecture? Was it something that occurred early on, or was it more of an evolutionary process?


BETH BLOSTEIN: Our answers will be very different. My interest was pretty sudden. I randomly decided to take an architecture class at Ohio State, and once I got into it, it seemed to be such a natural fit—for a way of thinking and making things. Even though it wasn’t something I had considered before, it seemed pretty natural.


Beth Blostein and Bart Overly


Franklinton Arts District, Live/Make Artist’s Housing, Columbus, OH
COMPETITIONS: In these times it’s pretty unusual to be able to come in as a general studies student and take a studio course in architecture.
BETH BLOSTEIN: In those days, you took a studio course and then applied. I applied for the program after I had taken an introductory class, not really sure if I would get in. After I did get accepted to the program, it did turn out to seem like a natural fit/
BART OVERLY: I can very distinctly remember when I was in third grade, we got a Crate and Barrel catalogue at the house. Everything was crisp and clean and white and black and red. I just loved the stuff. I grew up in a house with two parents with very traditional tastes, and I asked my mom, ‘Who buys this stuff?’ And she said, ‘I think architects probably buy this stuff.’ I was always very interested in the arts as a young kid, and I liked how the profession merged with so many other disciplines to effect cultural change and all those kinds of issues. That’s why I think architects are still needed in our culture today.
COMPETITIONS: You both were students at about the same time at Ohio State. Was it clear early on that a professional partnership was a possibility in the future?

BART OVERLAY: At about the end of our time at Ohio State, we began to think about the possibility. We started doing some competitions, and we were working together in a small practice. That’s where the thoughts began to emerge. If we could possibly do a slightly different type of practice—do something that’s more tailored to our own interest.

BETH BLOSTEIN: It was definitely an evolution. We matured professionally and personally, trying to figure out what was important to us and what we wanted to hear, and what we saw out there wasn’t quite in line with our thoughts. It was a process over several years to come to that decision.

COMPETITIONS: You have participated in a number of architecture competitions in recent years; but I was wondering when your very first competitions were, and if you collaborated on those early on?

BART OVERLY: I think we’ve always collaborated on competitions. We actually have come to the realization that we both bring very different strengths to the practice and the way we go about doing work which may come into the office. So we’ve always approached competitions as a collaborative thing. At the start, we may have different ideas; but it’s almost like heat-seeking missiles that slowly find their target—we find ways to draw out the strengths of a lot of intensive research that goes into a competition.

BETH BLOSTEIN: The thing that most recently that helped to keep us going—not just financially but also intellectually—is that we both teach.


New Housing New York competition (Brooklyn site)

COMPETITIONS: Your greatest success has been in housing competitions. Was this intentional, or was housing always a higher priority in your practice?

BETH BLOSTEIN: Over the years we’ve increasingly become more interested in projects that have compelling constraints or offer different kinds of issues of economy. So market housing and affordable housing in particular seems to be a program that lets us flesh out ideas that we are personally interested in. There are also projects we are dealing with in non-competition design.

BART OVERLY: They are the kinds of multifamily or residential projects that small firms can work with and build a practice with. But they are also very complex projects if you are trying to do new things with housing. A lot of competitions are really looking at ways in which are society is changing, ways in which family models are changing and the way we deal with housing in cities. All these things are very complex issues that you can find a lot in other projects outside of housing projects. It’s not that we only do housing competitions; we have actually done a number of other much more complex programs — civic competitions, for instance.

BETH BLOSTEIN: In our work we are interested in typologies in a certain way, and how you can either undermine, redefine, or invent new typologies, based on the circumstances. With housing there is certainly a vast array of typologies out there; so with housing competitions that gives us a direct way through a seemingly simple program and investigation/redefinition of typologies you can really begin to look at different ways of social interaction.

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Ferrous Park Competition, Kansas City – First Place Finalist (click on image to enlarge)

COMPETITIONS: Sometimes the powers-that-be look at affordable housing concepts and may complain that it looks too good—that the public may perceive that too much is being spent on it. Has that been your experience here?

BART OVERLY: We have run into that perception; we haven’t run into it in a way that it has shut down a project. You definitely see that. Affordable projects just have different constraints: it doesn’t affect the way you design that project; it affects other dynamics about the project. We are always trying to take either a budget or site or a program and find ways to put more into it. In the end we are trying to generate a new idea for how we think about affordable housing in urban environments.
In Columbus, one of the issues may be, ‘Why doesn’t it have more brick?’ Our answer is, ‘it’s an affordable project, and brick is too expensive.

COMPETITIONS: What do you look for when you are deciding whether or not to enter a competition. Is it the subject matter, a new site challenge, etc.?

BETH BLOSTEIN: We look for a program that has a certain level of constraint. We generally are not interested in projects that are completely conceptual in nature. We almost are drawn to competitions that almost require a swiss watch response, where it is invented internal complexity, whether it’s a small place which requires multi-modal transportation or a certain amount of density.

BART OVERLY: We look for projects that have an issue which you can immediately attach meaning to. For instance, if you take Chicago Architectural Club’s Union Station 2020 competition, which we entered, but didn’t win. We thought that was an interesting competition because it was trying to deal with a tight urban site that was planned for a transportation system that has been surpassed by transportation systems like air travel—that require megavolumes of passenger movement, big sites, etc. So the question was, how do you accommodate the massive growth of transportation on a postage stamp site that has been antiquated in a certain way. That was an unusual problem, but an important problem. So you can think that good design can affect a reading or an outcome in some positive way, even if it is an ideas competition.

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CAC Chicago Union Station Competition


COMPETITIONS: Some architects might respond that they take a close look at the jury.

BART OVERLY: We look for jurors where we respect their work.

COMPETITIONS: Part of being an architect is the factor of external stimulation — new ideas, exposure to new ways of thinking about design. One can travel to gain this to a certain degree; but part of it may come as a result of the local architectural community — even in a teaching environment at a university. When you are participating in a national or international competition, you are up against competitors from the east and west coast and possibly even Europe. Aside from the fact that we regard architecture as a global phenomenon these days, every architect cannot but help to be influenced by what they see (or want to see) on a daily basis.

BART OVERLY: When you talk about the east coast and west coast…we both went to school on the east coast, know a lot of people who both work and teach there. There is a kind of interesting nexus of design culture which is growing in the midwest. You have the University of Michigan, University of illinois Chicago,  Ohio State, University of Cincinnati, Ball State, which are interesting design programs. We share reviews and see what’s happening there,  and I think that’s one really interesting resource. Stretching even into Canada, you have an interesting group of people.



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Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts (SECCA) HOME: House Competition

BETH BLOSTEIN: Aside from the east and west coast, we have traveled individually and with groups of students abroad. Besides, we bring in people to the university from all over the world. What that makes us realize is that being here in the Midwest, and particularly here in Franklinton/Columbus, we are none of those things. Part of what we want to do, based on seeing what is going on out there and seeing how we are, is somehow like that—I guess we are all alike in some ways. It’s also about trying to understand the Midwest, whatever that may be, but in a way that certainly is cognizant of what is happening in the world.
Here at Ohio State, we always think, ‘what do the east coast schools want to be like, or the west coast schools want to be like?’ What does Columbus want to be like? For us as architects, it really a position to understand that it’s something quite different than any of those things.

BART OVERLY: As to your point, what does Columbus want to be like; we like this city because there are possibilities for what it could be. As a city it has an interesting history; but a lot it’s history is still to come. Designers and artists can help influence that in a city like Columbus in different ways.

Southeastern Cener for Contemporary Art’s (SECA) HOME: House Competition, Winston-Salem, NC – First Prize

COMPETITIONS. Has it ever been the case that one partner has been interested in entering a competition, and the other has declined, for whatever reason.

BART OVERLY: We debated entering the Taipei Pop Music Center competition—which was won by Jesse Reiser.

COMPETITIONS: In reference to that competition, people ask why Taiwan is doing a lot of open competitions. My understanding is that there was a lot of corruption in commissioning large projects in the past. To change this, the decided all large projects should be open competitions.

COMPETITIONS: Is there any one competition which gave you the most satisfaction….not necessarily because you may have won?

BETH BLOSTEIN: This year’s Chicago Architecture Club competition was interesting.

BART OVERLY: The Ferrous Park project was kind of a concept for some arts district (what we call ) live/make housing, which we won in Kansas City which hasn’t been executed. It actually became a project which we used to foster some discussion about an arts community that we are working on here in Columbus. So it had a life beyond the competition. The Boston Center for the Arts was intriguing, which was a competition to do new urban advertising for the Boston Center for the Arts—currently a completely introverted arts center. It was an interesting challenge for us, for it moved between architecture, urbanism and landscape architecture.

BETH BLOSTEIN: The Chicago Union Station competition was interesting, in that it was not only a balance between figuring out a level of complexity with how you would negotiate those intramodal transportation systems, but also a level of fantasy.

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Global Green Housing Competition, New Orleans – semi-finalist

COMPETITIONS: From what I see, students normally don’t have a lot of time to do competitions, that is a faculty person decides to do one in his or her studio. Quite often the curriculum doesn’t allow time for it. Should students be doing more competitions to expand their horizons?

BART OVERLY: I always encourage students to do competitions. But sometimes they just don’t fit into the curriculum.

BETH BLOSTEIN: Or sometimes there is a deadline which may happen in the middle of the quarter. I’ve had students do independent studies during the quarter, or between the time they get out of undergraduate school and the time they apply to grad school—to bolster their portfolio.

COMPETITIONS. How would you grade the architectural I.Q. of this community? Here we are talking about clients as well as architects and local planners.

BART OVERLY: We have thought about this a lot. Columbus has a large insurance company which in some way has affected the culture of the city to be a little safer about how they view design. But I also think that is changing a bit, that there are some new developers emerging in the city that are willing to recognize that, in order to compete globally, a city like Columbus needs to have the cultural infrastructure to attract the ‘creative class.’ We’ve done a number of things that weren’t competitions, but studies about how particular important projects in the city might be thought of in new and creative ways—to promote and attract creative people living, working and collaborating in Columbus. The city has some strong arts support—the Wexner Center, and a new addition being planned for the Art Museum. I might give support of the arts here a B.

BETH BLOSTEIN: We might go back to the west coast/east coast issue too: New York is what it is because of its long history and density and cultural tradition. You can say the same thing for Boston. Columbus hasn’t really had that kind of history, so we really don’t know what we really want to be. So we look to these other things, historical models, thinking we will be like Boston and build things Georgian. So potential clients out there, it’s up to the design community to provide better options to show what we can actually be. So we can’t necessarily rely on clients to come with a vision, but we have to actually provide a different vision, a different model for what the city could be.

COMPETITIONS: This weekend you are doing a design open house here in Franklinton. What is its purpose?

BART OVERLY: Franklinton is on the other side of the river from downtown Columbus. Franklinton was one of the original settlements of the Northwest Territory, and other the years it has be sort of swallowed whole by the city of Columbus; but it’s an area that has experienced a lot of flux in terms of ups and downs. I think it’s on the upswing, because it has a lot of potential for its rebirth.
So that’s why we located our office here, and the point of the exhibition, entitled ‘Trial Balloons,’ which is to bring a very talented arts and design community together to exhibit just one project, which was either a trial balloon a developer asked them to put together and went nowhere; a project that might go somewhere. Or maybe a project that is just pure fantasy about how cities might imagine themselves in this period of economic flux where almost every design studio has been hit in some way by our current unpleasantness. So this is a way to make real projects out of projects that are stalling or not going anywhere.

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Boston Center for the Arts: Inside-Out Design Competition – 1st Prize