INTRA-VIEWS: Tom Hurlbert

Inter implies between or among, whereas intra implies within (the profession).

The dynamic of this exercise is the following: The architect selects one image of their choice and a brief description of their personal understanding of the profession. While the image serves more as a subjective expression, the introductory text is meant to convey a declaration of intention. Together, these two, form a self-portrait that serves as an introduction or cover for the interview. The interview that follows is based on the text provided, the architect’s work and their area(s) of interest.


Brief description of their personal understanding of the profession:

When I was a 1st year architecture student at Montana State University, they would team you up with a thesis student to help them build their thesis model. I helped my thesis partner build this big elaborate physical model of a fire station in Calgary. It was blending all his ideas about design and community in a very successful way. But I remember feeling challenged in first year studio after a critique and my thesis partner, Greg, I think was his name, said, “don’t sweat it, that’s normal. But by second year if you’re lucky, or at least by third year, you need to get it. If you don’t, you probably never will and you’re never really going to enjoy this. And you’d be surprised how many people around here don’t enjoy architecture.” I was pretty relieved, but when I reached third year, I recalled that conversation and was a bit anxious.  In Physics or Structures classes you might have a specific right answer, but in Studio there are these theoretical and esoteric questions to answer.  One particular project in third year, it was a Norse Viking Museum thing I think, or some other wildly fantastic project, and I really worked hard and immersed myself in it, and my prof, who I respected a great deal, critiqued me and described it as “poetry”. High praise. It was sort of my personal epiphany. And my old thesis partner was right, it’s pretty surprising to see how many architects that don’t seem to really enjoy architecture. But I’m one of the lucky ones.

How do you approach your projects?

TH: In school and as a younger professional I might’ve started first with trying to find a strong concept to inspire the design.  But now I follow the traditional process that seems to drive most successful projects, I try to understand the site, I listen to the client, and develop the program.  Usually we do very quick basic sketches and move into Revit pretty quickly and then redline back and forth between the plan and 3D model.  We’re constantly working internally as a team and with consultants and engineers.  Usually as you work through the process a very strong and authentic underlying current emerges.  In our shop we always want to offer some ideas that come from left field – creative and unexpected solutions.  Sometimes the owner buys into them and sometime the owner tells us to jump off a cliff.  We’ve got some broken bones from jumping off lots of cliffs.

In which stage of the design process of a project, do you find the most architectural freedom?

TH: Day two.  Day one you meet the owner.  Day two you start trying to drop into their head.  You think, “how would they need to do this, do they really need that here?”. 

To what degree is the competition format and the emphasis on the production of “eye-catching” 2D renderings affecting contemporary practice?

TH: Competitions or RFP’s with design requirements have the creative elements of the school experience that attracted me to the profession in the first place – but without the x-acto knife injuries and the glue fingers.  The part we get grumpy about is when we do lots of conceptual work that doesn’t follow good design process, in that the client really hasn’t shared their needs, priorities, and values, and instead we try to blow them away with fancy graphics and a big logo of their business in lights.  The owner might fall in love with something that might not be the best solution for them.  So it’s hard to design that way from an authenticity standpoint and a business standpoint.

What architects/practices have had an influence on your work?

TH: Some architects that are doing good work right now that I like to check in on are Snow Kreilich, Olsen Kundig, Lake & Flato, Marlon Blackwell, and Hacker.

Do you think a concept such as, “originality,” is possible in our profession? If so, how would you explain it?

TH: I’m less concerned with originality as I am with creativity and authenticity.  New for the sake of new doesn’t make good architecture, and it’s probably not that new anyway.

How would you describe the relationship between architecture and politics?

TH: My dad was a sweet and funny guy, a general contractor by trade who was my hero.  He used to say, and I despised it, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  There was I time when I thought the best design would always win.  That was a long time ago.  I didn’t always listen to my dad, and sometimes I still don’t.  I say why not give the best a try?

What are the biggest challenges of designing/building in South Dakota? How do you address them?

TH: In a way, we’re lucky in South Dakota.  There’s not a strong architectural vernacular, so we get to be the ones to define it.  It’s also not nearly as litigious as some states and the vast majority of the clients we work with are very thoughtful, kind, and pleasant to be around.  There’s work to be had.  The more we elevate and promote design and architecture, the better the quality of commissions that will come.  It’s corny to say, but I really feel like it’s good and only getting better

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