No one would look at the work of Seattle-based Robert Hutchison Architecture and call it traditional in style. But the firm is especially open to considering the needs and wishes of its clients. Sometimes those wishes are more emotional than tangible; sometimes they have more to do with the past than the present.
Such was the case with House for a Mother and Daughter. “The mother is an artist and is tapped into the symbolic meaning of things,” Rob Hutchison explains. “She came to us and said, ‘I need a gable roof.’ She held up her hands to form a triangle, and said, “I want a New England gable roof and square windows.” She did not want the almost-flat roofs other architects wanted to give her. We’re open to working with people in whatever way works best.”
Rob, too, is tapped into the symbolic meaning of things and the profound emotions that architecture can elicit. He’s just back from a six-month stint at the American Academy in Rome, Italy, thanks to winning a slot in this year’s prestigious Rome Prize program. The prize is a paid fellowship that endows accomplished professionals in the arts and humanities with the time and creative space to pursue their best ideas. While there, Rob did some heavy lifting on his Memory Houses project, which will culminate in an exhibition at the Gallery4Culture in May next year and ultimately, he hopes, a book on the same subject.
“What is a Memory House?” you might ask. For Rob and his firm, they are a series of eight conceptual projects that will be fully conceived and executed to the point of construction—but not built. Well, they will all be built as detailed physical models and rendered in a number of other different ways, but they will not be constructed on site. So far, the firm has completed four of the eight structures and, although they are not all strictly for human habitation, all explore the idea of shelter.
The idea for the long-term exploration began with a very personal experience for Rob. His father, with whom he was very close, developed dementia as a side effect of a rare illness. For Rob, who lived 3,000 miles away from his parents, this meant a quicker unraveling of their relationship—as they were without the aide-memoire of physical presence to prompt his father.
Struggling with how to stay close from afar, Rob thought of an unbuilt project he had designed for his parents some time ago. It was a plan for a winery building his forward-thinking father had wanted to construct on their scenic riverfront property on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. At the time, just a few residents had ventured to grow wine grapes in the region known best for chicken farming. Sadly, his parents decided to sell the property and the winery was never built.
As Rob stood on the precipice of losing his father, it occurred to him that he might direct his thoughts and emotions into a new building designed for the former family property—this one conceived as a purely conceptual project but with the rigor of a client-driven commission. The Chapel and Columbarium followed.
“What I decided to do, was have a conversation with my father in a way I could not in life,” Rob explains. “I decided to design a new building adjacent to the winery, but the rule was that we couldn’t change anything about the winery.”
The theoretical Chapel and Columbarium became an actual crucible for Rob’s feelings of loss. “It was an exploration about what memory means,” he says. “And it opened up interesting conversations about the role of memory in all of our lives, and in my own place as an architect. After we had just finished building the chapel to a high degree of resolution (we knew all the materials and how the materials would work), my father passed away.”
The chapel’s roof is covered in black pine tar like the churches in Norway. While in graduate architecture school at the University of Washington, Rob spent time in Norway on a research scholarship, assisting on some projects for architect Einar Jarmund (who became a mentor) and traveling extensively throughout Scandinavia. Both experiences continue to influence his conceptual and constructed work, most obviously manifesting in his fondness for dark exteriors on buildings, perhaps ahead of the current vogue. “The darkness of those buildings has always been very powerful to me. But I’m not going to say that’s why all our buildings are black—I’m not interested in validating all of these things,” says Rob.
With the project complete, after a fashion, the architect continued to follow life’s course and settled on his next allegorical project, Memory House for a Widow. It imagines a duo of buildings at the water’s edge and explores the journey from life to death as a boat ride from one shore to another.
Despite the highly personal origins of the Memory Houses, Rob’s goal is to construct a framework for each that invites the public in. The Rome experience of networking with professionals from diverse creative disciplines underlined the need for each “house” to have a narrative or allegorical story that’s accessible to others.
Given how ethereal this current research project is, it’s a surprise to learn that Rob’s initial education and training was as an engineer. His first career was for a structural firm that specialized in renovations to existing buildings, many of them historic. His favorite part of the job was the “reverse engineering” process it required of him before he could devise a plan for repair. In some ways, the detective work also laid down a narrative about the original construction.
The work whetted his appetite for further immersion in architecture, and so he pursued a graduate degree at the University of Washington. His next move was to the stellar Seattle firm of Miller/Hull, where he managed a variety of residential, commercial, and public projects at all scales. He continued his theoretical explorations on his own time, and eventually founded a general practice firm with classmate Tom Maul.
They split amicably in 2013 after 12 years together, in part so Rob could nurture his special mix of the theoretical and client-based pursuits without imposing upon a shared firm. Also in the mix is his work as an affiliate professor at his alma mater. “I started realizing that it wasn’t fair to a partner to be doing other things focused on individual experience,” Rob notes. “And I have an amazing family and wife excited about doing such things—including the travel.”
Real clients, conceptual architectural investigations, teaching at the university, and international travel for commissioned work and scholarly research constitute a gratifying recipe for 360-degree inspiration. Each inevitably informs the other, and the built work certainly benefits. “All this work ends up playing back into my practice on a realistic level,” says Rob. “The chapel plan became central to Dadu Dadu house [an accessory dwelling unit designed for a neighbor]. The fantasy houses actually do have us think about things independent of a client that can roll back to our work.”
His scholarly savvy keeps Rob abreast of fellowship opportunities to endow the unpaid work. And his small office of three fulltime staff is happily along for the ride, working on both the client and conceptual commissions. “I’m not going to say I’m an incredible businessman,” Rob admits. “But we try to keep the installation and conceptual projects to about 25–30 percent of the work, and the real work at about 75 percent. I’m not interested in just doing the fantasy work.”
That’s a good thing, because the “real work” is gathering steam, with the firm earning recognition for Courtyard House on a River and other evocative projects. Yes, many of them do have blackened exteriors. Those Scandinavian houses are deeply embedded in Rob’s memory as he helps weave new memories for others.
–S. Claire Conroy
Other work by Robert Hutchison Architecture.
Courtyard House on a River
Studio for a Writer
Studio for an Architect
Decorated Shed (Installation)