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Leading by Design: Joe and Gail Adams

Leading by Design: Joe and Gail Adams

Leading by Design explores the work of Weitzman alumni, faculty members, and supporters of the School who are expanding the practice of art and design to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Joe and Gail Adams (MArch’73) met in the graduate architecture studios at Penn. Joe had been an All-American football athlete during his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth College, while Gail won the Silver Medal of the Royal Society of the Arts as an undergraduate at Smith College. In the years since, the honors have come for their work as Adams Architects, the Houston-based firm they opened together in 1980. Though they’re based in the world-capital of the petroleum industry, they’ve earned a loyal following and national recognition for their commitment to sustainable design, drawing notice from Architect and other industry publications for residential commissions like the home of a former U.S. attorney and state judge that generates more energy than it consumes. At a moment of profound complexity for the design professions, the Adams suggest what it means to succeed against the odds. 

Like so many of his students, you’ve talked at length about Lou Kahn’s influence. What are the lessons that have stayed with you? 

Despite the current need for social distancing and remote learning, we can’t even imagine sitting virtually at the feet of a Master architect, having once had the great privilege of sitting actually at the feet of The Master, Lou Kahn, in the Furness Building [Fisher Fine Arts Library] at Penn. Light is the key to every project we design, and a profound understanding of that fundamental possibility is what Lou gave us. And that was all tied up in techniques and poetry which are still our duel lodestars, even today. How to deploy technology, artistically, in sympathy with natural light, for the spiritual betterment of clients and environments, is, in short, our manifesto of an otherwise very complex affair, called “enlightened” design. To us, Kahn was the original artistic environmentalist.

What role did Philly play in your education? 

We sensed the importance of architecture through the built-form of Philadelphia, a place where the architecture of City Hall itself is geographically at the very core of the civic experience. Likewise, we realized, through our professors who practiced “Downtown,” the civic importance of architecture by their contributions to what was actually happening, then and there. The importance of green space, the interface of land and water, the traces of history on the University of Pennsylvania campus, and last but not least, a singular building like the Furness Building, as we called it then, after the name of its original architect, were all there. We did not take our vital urban environment for granted—not that building nor the planning of the campus, nor the rich pedestrian experience of Locust Walk or the charged-forms of the immediate surrounding. All were integral to our memorable, invaluable Penn experience.

What does sustainability mean for you, and when did it become a priority in your practice?

The spirit of being one with your environment has always been a priority to us because of genius loci (spirit of place). When Kahn asked, “What slice of the Sun does your building have?” he was asking us to question as fundamental a building’s relationship with the natural light of its specific site. For us, environmentalism is not a series of technical checklists but is embedded in the poetry, and the art, of the profession, and requires the “liberated education” one finds in studying the liberal arts at a place like Penn. We hope that Penn never loses a commitment to that breadth, and encourages its students to always grasp the “bigger picture” for architecture. 

If I’m not mistaken, you were early advocates for solar panels.

You have the city and then you have the universe to build in, and with every project, from day one, we built in solar arrays on our architectural models. It took 30 years before we ever began to employ a solar energy array on actual, built projects. We think it’s called “being ahead of one’s time!” We’re not in control of the economy, we’re not in control of a technology radically evolving, but our yearning to make this work is profound, especially in Texas, in the land of the oil/hydrocarbon economy, yet graced with abundant, energized sunshine.  And it starts out with the simplest of things. We walk onto the building site and we have in our right hand a compass. It tells us, “Which way is North?”— Magnetic North, and then we deviate for Solar North. But we’ve got to be oriented to that core fact, right from the beginning.

The Hedges’ Houston residence is striking for the use of solar panels, for example, but what about the Maryland house?

Each place that you come to, each location, isn’t yet a place architecturally speaking until you sense its essence and make it a place. That Maryland site was just a forgotten suburban lot in a subdivision that was left behind because there was a drainage ditch—which we called a “brook”—that separated it from a standard neighborhood, and we had to first construct a bridge, just to access the property. What a great metaphor that is! The whole property is organized as a transition from the city to nature, to the sky and beyond, all in about 150 linear feet. But we are dedicated to respecting the sun. We rotated the house 45 degrees on the property, unlike all the other neighborhood residences, so that it faces absolutely due South. In the winter, sunlight floods into the house. In the summer, when the trees burst into leaf, it’s all about shade. We would do something different in a different latitude. We build differently in Texas than we do in Maryland, but the motives are the same: Respect the realities of nature. Design with Nature (i.e. reality). Thank you, Penn Professors, both Ian McHarg and Lou Kahn! 

You’ve talked about practicing “no-holds-barred” architecture for the range of commissions you’ve taken, from home interiors to large-scale urban planning projects.  What’s satisfying about that range?

Penn encouraged this. At Penn, architecture transcended the drawing of a particular building. One has the opportunity to do more than to just get all the “stuff” into a building. But, of course, this is another “gift” from a great teacher that leads to trouble, “good trouble.” It is not an easy or conflict-free way to practice the profession of architecture, to be the provocateur who always asks the question-behind-the-question, the motive-behind-the-motive, the issue-behind-the-issue.

What’s your experience been like, having such different clients?

Joe had been on a Penn Thouron British-American Exchange Scholarship when we came back to Texas directly after three years in England, which was a big leap to say the least: London-to-Houston. And the style of the times there in Houston was, look at the design magazines, find out what’s happening in LA and New York, the design zeitgeist, and then do your best to be the first person to know about it in Texas and get your building built to that reigning style. And we weren’t interested in that at all! And people in Houston didn’t understand us, except for the few clients we signed on early. Slowly, it came across that we were doing something else, different, something better, and it has been a worthwhile ride ever since, though sometimes rocky!

You find a way to ask either the materials or the essence of the problem, or the site, what it wants to be. In other words, you are not thrusting modernism or some other “ism” upon this project but you’re asking the fundamental questions. And as to the difference in clients, we find we work best and most productively with the intelligent ones, having ourselves acquired four Ivy League degrees and a British post-graduate degree between us!

You designed the Ronald McDonald House for the Texas Medical Center in Galveston, Texas. What were some of the unique challenges and opportunities of that project? 

Finding the essence of this problem was an ideal test of Kahn’s proposition of the program versus the “form” of the project, what a project "wants to be”, which we understood to mean the deep motive for building in the first place. Our Ronald McDonald House design indeed made all of Galveston and the University of Texas a better place, answering an immediate, critical, practical need for the public good, by first asking the Kahn-ian question, “Can a building itself actually help in the healing process?”

And what about the opportunity to re-plan the residential campus at UCLA, how did that come your way?

A Penn and Dartmouth classmate, Charles Oakley (MArch’73), who gravitated toward the planning end of the architectural spectrum goes to California and finds himself as the head university architect for UCLA, in a position to hire other architects. He really wants a holistic architect, remembering his planning and architecture days at Penn, who will give him far-reaching answers to his questions establishing a sense of place, a real, “there,” there within the campus, in a way he didn’t find accessible through local California architects. This is to say, the pedagogical philosophy that underpins one’s education at a place like Penn absolutely makes a difference in formulating your architectural world-view in later professional life! And the UCLA of today without a doubt is a far better place for that Penn-California connection and that unique collaboration having once-upon-a-time been made!     

What advice would you offer architects who are just starting out in practice? 

Resist specialization, or being “pigeon-holed,” even though this is what most in the profession would say you must do to establish a niche to be successful. We have heard it said that architecture is the only profession where, to be successful in delivering a specific “niche” product, one has to have first done work in that area of specialty before. This is, of course, absurd logic. Picture a dog chasing its tail, or the proverbial Gordian Knot.   

And for architects thinking of starting their own firm? 

Simple: All you need is a strong stomach. And then you need to be a glutton for punishment.  And finally, desirably, it would be good to have a sympatico companion as close company for that inevitably rough and rocky ride. It’s also advantageous to maintain an innocence and a depth of heart to find gratification in building, or aspiring to build, that elusive, near-perfect project, which will always be, “The Very Next One!”