A conversation with John Brittingham, award-winning architect and longtime professor at Montana State University.
By George McClure
ARCHITECT JOHN BRITTINGHAM HAS HAD A LONG AND VARIED CAREER. A graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine and the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, he has worked with such prominent names as Sasaki and Associates and Antoine Predock, and taught at the University of New Mexico, the University of Arizona, and for 25 years at Montana State University in Bozeman.
We recently sat down with him and discussed some of his favorite projects, his design philosophy, sustainability and more.
GEORGE MCCLURE: Tell us a little about your path.
JOHN BRITTINGHAM: When I was in graduate school I worked for Sasaki Associates, a prominent, worldwide firm. Then, the day I presented my thesis, the chair of the department asked me if I wanted to work for him. That was a firm called, at that time, Machado-Silvetti and Associates. I worked for them for two years, and then my father re-bought this ranch in New Mexico. I thought, wow, if I could go to New Mexico and work for Antoine Predock, whom I’d met while I was at Harvard, that would be the best of both worlds. And I was able to do that.
Antoine and I are still close friends, and he’s currently listed as one of the top 40 architects in the world. I was his right-hand guy — traveled all over the world and country for, and with, him. Got a tremendous amount of experience there. It was the kind of thing where he throws you into deep water, and if you can’t swim then you drown [laughs]. I got to run some amazing projects for him. Managed anywhere from three to 25 people, depending on the scale.
Working for him changed my life, changed the way I thought about design and architecture. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go work for him, because I did really well in graduate school, but I always felt too uptight. I knew working for him would loosen me up. It was a great experience, but I was never home. I was working 70 hours a week, and always someplace else. When my wife and I had a daughter, I decided I was going to go into teaching, so that I could see her grow up.
GEORGE: I applaud that decision.
JOHN: After working at several different schools, I realized that I needed a tenure-track job. I ended up going to Montana State as an associate professor and was granted tenure and promoted to full professor five years later. I was there 25 years and I taught, almost exclusively, design studios. I enjoyed it, but it was exhausting, eight hours a day straight in a studio. It’s like trying to meet with 25 clients in a day. It’s the same kind of deal, and it’s very tiring.
My first five years were focused on competitions. It’s the publish or perish thing. I did an exhibit on an undocumented Richard Neutra house in Montana that went to Architectural Digest.
GEORGE: I saw that when I was researching this piece.
JOHN: Yeah, they asked me to write that article for them after I did an exhibit in the Chicago Architecture Foundation on that house. But anyway, right after getting tenure, I was called into the Director’s office one day — it must have been in the fall of 2003. His name was Clark Llewellyn, and he said, “Hey, I think I’ve got something for you.”
There was a very prominent firm in Bozeman named JLF, Johnathon L. Foote and Associates, and the head of that office was actually a student of mine the first year at MSU. He was involved with the Yellowstone Park Foundation, and they came to him and said, “You know how messed up the park system is. We have all these assets and resources, but we have no money to take care of anything. Will you help us do some things down here?” Clark said, “Well, I’ve got a much better idea. I’m going to get the School of Architecture at MSU to do this.”
So I was asked to take the reins on that. What we did was I set up three charettes over the course of a number of years, master planned charettes. The first one was at Lake. The second second one was at Old Faithful. And the third one was at Mammoth. Each of those locations suffers — I mean really suffers — from over-visitation and lack of planning, right down to the traffic, with assets that are falling apart. You can imagine it’s a huge undertaking.
I invited some of the best architects in three separate times for a week, and they did pro-bono work. We would present that to the Park Service on the last day, and everybody would give me a flash drive of their work. And then, I’d spend the next two to three months putting a book together about the outcome of that charette.
GEORGE: What’s that word, John?
JOHN: Charette — it’s a French word, which basically means intense brainstorming or, “We’re going to throw down and work 24/7.”
GEORGE: Got it.
JOHN: With these firms, I invited them in. And then, I got professional illustrators to come in and join those teams. And then I put graduate students on all those teams. It was a collaborative environment of design professionals, representation professionals and students.
The park would bring in consultants, and they’d give a two-day download on every single important issue for every location. The firms would self-organize with the students and the illustrators, and they would put on a full-on presentation three days later with a typical package of architectural renderings, and diagrams, and so on. So, I did this for about 10 years with the park.
GEORGE: So then at some point would they implement some of these designs and plans?
JOHN: The Foundation underwrote the expense for these things. They were expensive. They were $20,000 to $30,000 a pop. The idea was that they would use bits and pieces of what was designed, and they did use bits and pieces. They didn’t have the money to do a full-blown overhaul of any of those areas. They typically would take the things they could do, and the most sensitive things, and try and improve conditions for visitation and the park itself.
GEORGE: That’s great.
JOHN: The next thing I found was an organization on the Big Island of Hawaii called the Kohala Center, which was based in Waimea. They’re all about sustainability from a social standpoint, an environmental standpoint, an energy standpoint, a cultural standpoint. I got lucky enough to get involved, and I did three big projects for them. Again, all with graduate students.
We’d fly out for a week and they would organize an information download from any consultants and specialists that were relevant to the particular project we were doing. And then we would do our homework for a week, come back to Montana, work through the semester, put a book together. Again, another book, and then I’d take two graduate students and fly back out in February.
We would present the materials live and leave them with the book. And they, again, used books to implement strategies that were affordable, necessary and manageable. Those were big vision projects, as were the Yellowstone projects, very comprehensive, very complex.
After some other projects I went on to the Center For the Arts in Jackson Hole. You’ve probably seen that or been in it.
JOHN: I got a call from a gal named Nona Yehia, who’s a very talented architect in Jackson, saying, “We want a comprehensive master plan for the Center for the Arts, because it’s never been done. We’ve got a lot of landscape issues. We’ve got programmatic issues. We’ve got circulation issues. We’ve got way-finding issues. We’ve got leaking building issues.”
With another group of students — there’s a different group on every project — we did a book with some solutions and gave the Center the boards, which they still have. They were on exhibit for a couple months.
"Charette — it’s a French word, which basically means intense brainstorming or, 'We’re going to throw down and work 24/7.'”
So, that’s the kind of work I’ve been doing since 2003. It’s about work for the greater good.
GEORGE: That’s great.
JOHN: Well, I learned this lesson relatively late in life — it’s all about giving back. Basically, what I’ve been trying to do is teach my students to learn it when they’re in their twenties. A lot of this stuff has changed people’s view of architecture, and education, what they want to do. It’s been really gratifying. It’s not the Hollywood jet-set stuff I had been doing, in fact, very different. But I realized one day that by teaching I can affect architecture more than if I’m in professional practice, because I get to color people’s minds.
GEORGE: What are the most important design principles to you?
JOHN: For me, understanding the site. And, when I say understand the site, I don’t mean the topography and where the light’s coming from. Of course, those things are important. But, understanding the history, the culture, even the mythology, the materiality to geology, the morphology, the pattern-making of a place. That is where I begin every time.
GEORGE: It’s almost like the spirit of a place, in some sense.
JOHN: That’s exactly what it is, really, fully understanding it. I will confess that, I mean, this was something that I learned specifically from Antoine. He’ll turn over any stone. Any stone that leads to magic, he will turn it over. If he finds something, he’ll use it. I learned that from him, and I’ve tried to emulate that in the rest of my professional career, and certainly my academic career.
Another thing, for me — and this is very personal — I believe in paying deference to the site, and approaching design, and whatever I do in a given site, from a standpoint of defining the site, not putting an object in the site. It’s more about edges and making the existing space of the site amplified. Another way of describing that is I try to do things that are more background, and not foreground.
And then, something which I believe more and more of now, is performative design. That is understanding how you do things as they perform and make something happen which improves the quality of the building and improves the quality of the experience of the building, improves the economy of the building, improves its sustainability, its resilience. So, performative has become a lot more important to me, and that’s because of all the things going on in the world, you know?
JOHN: The chaos, the climate change, the crazy things that people do, like shipping materials from the other side of the planet. So, performative design plays a much bigger role in my thinking now. But the site is where I always start. Understanding the history, culture, mythology, materiality, morphology, everything you can understand about the site. That gives clues about where I want to head with something. Or, how I want to push students in a certain way. I try to practice what I preach.
GEORGE: I find that very interesting, the way you put that, because it’s almost like instead of imposing your will on a site, you’re discovering what the site tells you. Instead of saying, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to put this thing here,” it’s like listening to it.
JOHN: That’s a very good description of how I feel about it. Again, I want to be clear that this is something I learned with Antoine. I had a sensibility about it, but when I worked for him, it’s vitally important to him. It’s where he starts with everything. Nothing begins without that, and it rubbed off on me, and I’ve carried it forward. It’s taken me to a lot of great places.
GEORGE: That segues into the idea, and you’ve discussed it a little bit, of how important sustainability considerations are in today’s projects. It seems to me those are related, because discovering the site, and doing things that are ecologically responsible, and responsible in terms of resources, go hand in hand.
JOHN: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. Sustainability was a catch word in the 70s. It got polished a little bit in the 80s. But, the thinking back then, it was like sustainability was about, “How can we make things less bad? How can we do less damage?”
Antoine was a big proponent of sustainability, too. A lot of experimentation with stuff. One of his very early projects is beautiful. It’s called La Luz. It’s in Albuquerque. It’s an adobe project, and the adobe bricks were made right on site.
GEORGE: Just like the old days.
JOHN: Yeah, obviously that’s a very important feature of what we should be doing, and what we should be doing architecturally. But, I think things have moved on from there. Things are more sophisticated now. It’s not just about PV panels on a roof, or harvesting water off of a roof, or something of that nature.
I think that stuff has moved in different directions. There’s a litany of words that I would use, from regenerative architecture, to biomimicry, to biophilic design, active design, to resiliency. And of course, we have all new technologies that help us address these issues now. Sustainable design was about, in the '70s, '80s, '90s, how can we do something less bad? How can we do something that harms the earth less? Whereas today, if we’re talking about concepts like regenerative design, or regenerative architecture, it’s a systems-based approach, which basically means that everything is at play with one another. Nothing is operating in isolation. Everything affects something else and is affected by something else. So, there’s a web of interconnection. And that systems approach is about, “Let’s do more good, not less bad.”
I think that’s the simplest way of saying it. It seeks to do not merely less of a harm, but rather through design and construction, to work as positive forces to repair the natural environment and the human environment.
We'll be featuring Part 2 of this interview in the Spring 2022 edition of Technology Designer.