Spartan Means, Splendid Spaces

From Harvard Magazine:

Space In the summer of 1991, as a new North Carolina State University graduate in environmental design in architecture, Elizabeth Whittaker, M.Arch. ’99, wore a hard hat, pouring concrete over rebars at Arcosanti, a planned community in the Arizona desert designed by the celebrated architect Paolo Soleri. “It was a hippie-throwback place,” she recalls. “Living off the land in a progressive, communal atmosphere. A hilarious place.” Today, as principal of MERGE Architects, Inc. ( in Boston, Whittaker still dons a hard hat occasionally, but now she’s overseeing the pours, and the buildings under construction are her own designs.

The hard hat suggests the hands-on, intimate involvement with details of a project that Whittaker specializes in, a way of working that she calls “extreme collaboration.” It’s a modus operandi that took form in the early days of her firm, which she founded in 2003, when “we were flying by the seat of our pants, doing these small, quick, needs-to-be-built-in-three-weeks-for-10-dollars kind of projects,” she explains. “We would be inventing the construction details right in the shop or on site with the artists and craftsmen—the steel fabricators, woodworkers, structural engineers, concrete fabricators. Every architect collaborates; this is extreme only in that it is so immediate. We’re inventing it with the tradesmen. I’ve built a practice on learning from these people—it’s more inventive when there are more voices.”

More here.