Part of an ongoing series highlighting the amazing people in the Portland creative community.
Aaron Whelton is an Assistant Professor in the Portland State University School of Architecture. He is a registered architect whose design research focuses on urban and infrastructural questions that are primarily investigated through his firm Whelton Architecture. His #botjoy tweet from Gary Hirsch’s talk last month caught our attention.
Your portfolio presents a balance of interdisciplinary intersections with architecture, ranging from urban transit infrastructure, to single family dwellings, to the David Campbell Memorial on the Eastbank Esplanade. Would you say you’re considering the public life of architecture on the pedestrian scale and values of the urban dweller?
I am interested in opportunities to engage with clients about the design of the built environment and how their contribution to architecture can improve their own needs while also contributing to the greater good of the community around them. Those two notions are not in opposition in my thinking about design. I have been very fortunate to design a broad spectrum of project types from small private residential additions to larger civic institutions and more theoretical investigations about the future of cities. The commitment to both the individual and the collective remains a key motivator behind my thinking and design decision-making across all those scales. I also frequently collaborate with artists, community groups and other creative and curious individuals who are interested in exploring new ways of inhabiting the city.
Could you tell us more about how architecture may be presented (in the spirit of Gary Hirsch) as incomplete work, as an invitation to participate?
There are two ways that come to mind. The first is the space that develops through the design process between the architect’s intention and the user’s inhabitation of space. Despite the architect’s best efforts to design every moment of a project it is inherently open-ended because of its dependency of external agents to bring it to life. It will inevitably be used in idiosyncratic ways that can be either inspiring or horrifying depending on your point of view.The second thought has to do with architecture’s lifespan and how its use and meaning are mutable and evolve over long periods of time that transcend the initial intention. The architect Aldo Rossi wrote eloquently about this idea of architecture as a “fixed stage for human events.”
You are Assistant Professor at PSU’s School of Architecture. What do you enjoy working on with your students?
The focus of my research and design work at PSU explores the application of digital technologies in the built environment. I enjoy working with my students on integrating computational strategies into their architectural design workflows. I am specifically interested in promoting hybridized graphic representations that blur the assumed distinction between digital and hand notation. I also work with the students to familiarize them with new digital fabrication and physical computing technologies in order to expand the set of tools at their disposal for interacting with the people around them and the environment they inhabit.
What is exciting to you about architecture right now in 2015?
It is an exciting time for architecture now. In Portland, Skylab and Allied Works Architecture are producing phenomenal work that is making profound, positive changes to the city. But, thinking more broadly, I am intrigued by the flurry of activity in architecture around the idea of an object oriented ontology. Specifically, I think Jason Payne’s writing on ambivalent objects is both entertaining and incredibly insightful. I am also excited by the computational design and fabrication work of Achim Menges at the Institute of Computational Design which is challenging many concepts about how robots might participate in the making of architecture.
Who inspires you?
I am inspired to design architecture in new ways by the creative individuals I collaborate with on my projects. I recently completed Fire Station 21 in collaboration with the architect David P. Suttle. The project is located on the east bank of the Willamette river immediately north of the Hawthorne bridge and despite (or because of?) its numerous challenges - site, program, etc - the end result is a clear reflection of each of our design sensibilities and motivations.As another part of that project I also had the opportunity to work with the artist David Franklin on his project ’The Rippling Wall’ which was installed in front of the catwalk on the station’s west elevation. Franklin and I are working together on another project now and hopefully will continue to do so in the future.
I am also inspired by the work of my students at Portland State University who produce design projects that exceed my expectations and challenge the way I think about architecture.