Interview with Vis. Assoc. Prof. Mark Paul Frederickson, Department of Architecture.

We met Prof. Mark Paul Frederickson to talk about the design process and sources for inspiration. We discussed their relationships with us as students and with the design field in general.

The interview in itself was inspiring and just the “cup of tea” we needed on the last working day of a rather hectic week.

We would like to thank Prof. Mark Paul Frederickson for his valuable time.


Niha Zahrah Ladiwala: Is there such a thing like “inspiration will come to me” or do you think we need to make the extra effort to find it on our own?

Prof. Mark Paul Frederickson: Rarely…rarely. The main thing I try to teach in the studios is to be aggressive about design. I try to teach students methods to go out, particularly find and develop good ideas. So I don’t believe it’s a passive process. I believe that it should be an aggressively engaged process. I do not mean a “mean” aggressive but active and so every once in awhile along that trip, moments of eureka will occur. I was working on a project when I was a student. I remember this very well. For about 5-6 weeks every day I was going through the process and trying to get all the different information. I was raised on a ranch so I was -(out in the barn)- and I was cleaning the carburetor of my father’s tractor and while cleaning … I got an idea by just looking at the form of the carburetor. I would not have gotten that idea if I hadn’t been prepared. I prepared my mind to receive that moment of eureka.

NZL: You used the term “method”. Is the search for inspiration really that mechanical?

Prof. MPF: Oh yeah… very much so. It is like a checklist. Like when a pilot checks his/her plane before the takeoff. It is what best designers do. Frank Gehry was my teacher and I learned from some really good guys. The media would make you think that they are geniuses and they go into a dark room and ask the design gods for ideas or magic or whatever.

NZL: So no moment of truth?

Prof. MPF: Well, there is …like the carburetor …it comes along the way but you need to prepare your mind to receive those moments and understand the relevance of those moments so I give my students a lot of methodology and some of them are like checklists. I try to make them realize that good design is not a sudden jump so I gave them a list of sources of form. If you have a white piece of paper and it does not have anything on it, you can look at these things and begin to think and those elements begin to tell your pencil what to do or your mouse what to do. We talk a lot about socio cultural determinants, economic determinants, environmental determinants, and functional determinants, of course, and then there’s all these sources of form. Louis Khan, for instance, began his designs with a square and so if Louis Khan found out that there is an unbelievable view here, he would ask himself “but why does my building not want to be a square?” and then all of a sudden this square becomes this combination. If I have really good ventilation and sun angles over here then the building changes a little bit. There are many sources that you can go to in order to get this.

NZL: How much do you believe in a designer’s block? Would you say that it is just an inhibition?

Prof. MPF: No, I believe in it but I believe that it is out of ignorance. The sources of form are a great way of getting out of a writer’s block. I think sometimes the teachers forget to teach you how to design. They just teach you what good design is but they don’t teach you how to get there and I had some really good teachers that taught me how to do it.

Adouj Abu Saadeh: Is the design process for us university students different than that of the professional life?

Prof. MPF: I think it is much more collaborative than school. Actually the reality is that in school it is good to do some group work and some individual work. In an office, it is kind of like that but there is maybe more collaboration than you have in school. In other words, in the good offices there will be a table and they might put each of their ideas individually and develop a concept and then they will look at all the ideas that they have and begin to synthesize and hybridize the ideas. They will draw on top of each other’s drawings and it’ll begin to happen. Those are the good offices. The bad offices …

AAS: They all want their own work to stand out?

Prof. MPF: Exactly.. You know offices aren’t going to pay you money to be -(sneaky and secretive)- (hides face behind the book). They pay you to be -(a team player)- (Gives the book confidently to us). And so that’s a little different from -(school)-

NZL: What is the most unexpected thing you were inspired by?

Prof. MFP: The carburetor. All I can promise you is that the good architects I have been around, prepare their minds very well before they get that very inspirational idea. Frank Gehry, yeah he did this (crumbles piece of paper and throws it on is desk) and said “ahhh Bilbao!”. You know… it wasn’t like that at all. He hired some aerospace engineers from Donald Douglas aircraft, he brought in all that new software  and he did a lot of research on titanium panels and digital fabrication.

AAS: How can we turn our inspiration and apply it to our projects?

Prof. MPF: There are hundreds of things that I am trying to teach the students about those lists. If I give that list to you -(Adouj)- , and then I give that list to you -(Niha)- and I give you the same site and building program, every item on that list, you will make a different decision. It’s just how it starts to happen. There are a million different things and that’s the really cool thing. You don’t need to worry about elevations and creativity and individual expression because it will happen. I also encourage students to have multiple reasons for everything they do. So that’s another thing that’s different in the real world. If you have a client here and you say.. well I think it looks cool that’s why I did it. The client will respond saying :“Well,that cool thing is costing me a 500 dollars. I want some more reasons!”.

ABS: I think we see it in the studio aswell,  because in the beginning we all get the same project but eventually we all come up with really different master plans.

Prof. MPF: And that’s what I love about this profession. It is really cool.

NZL: One advice to someone looking for inspiration?

Prof. MPF: Work hard. I talk about Einstein. Truly, one of the most creative things I have seen in my life. Most things are or have been done before, in a slightly different way. But E=Mc2 ,that was pretty innovative stuff. But the truth is that he had been thinking about that issue since he was 14 years old. Did you know that? When he was 14 years old he actually thought what it would be like to ride on a point of light and he began to try to figure out the mathematics for that. So if he has been working since he was 14 years old, E=Mc2 didn’t just happen. And I know you want to find a quick way but I’d be a liar if I told you that good architecture can come really quickly. I just don’t believe that.