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Building Conscious Urban Architecture

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Internationally renowned architect and owner of Neil M. Denari Architects, Neil Denari. Photo by Doron Serban.

A big name in the world of architecture stopped by Academy of Art University on Nov. 14, but he didn’t start his lecture by talking about architecture. Neil Denari, internationally renowned architect and owner of Neil M. Denari Architects, kicked off the night speaking about The Ramones, modular synthesizers, along with horses and zebras.

Denari dished out metaphors to introduce the main message behind his two-hour lecture—that sameness comes in many different forms and that architecture in the urban setting can have an unconventional dialogue with its surroundings.

But before he got started, Dora Epstein Jones, coordinator of graduate history and theory for the School of Architecture, gave the Los Angeles-based architect an esteemed introduction.

“Drooling over Neil’s drawings is a part of the maturation process of becoming an architect,” she said. “He is a painter in the medium of buildings. He’s a master of composition, effect, color and light. His work exemplifies the power of architecture to draw from and affect its settings and to excite us.”

A hearty round of applause from the audience in the atrium of the 601 Brannan building exemplified Epstein’s words and Denari’s influence on the industry over many decades. Students, instructors and community members filled every seat in the house, with some attendees standing.

As he compared zebras to horses, Denari began to explain sameness, differences and repetition of architecture in the city grid. As he introduced some of his projects, he instructed the audience to try and see both the unusual and traditional elements of his work.

“I’m going to ask you to look at the quirky things in our buildings and the things that seem beautiful, regular and cool and how they clash about in very fine-grained ways,” he said.

Audible “oohs and ahs” could be heard from the audience as Denari shared a variety of his projects from across the globe, some built and others just drawings. For each project, he provided insights into his design decisions, limitations and how the buildings agree and disagree with their environment.

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Photo by Doron Serban.

His projects ranged from a royal purple Beverly Hills office building and a one-million-square-foot cruise ship terminal in Taiwan, to twin tower apartment buildings in Vancouver, Canada, and drawings of his remodel for the California Institute of Technology.

When showcasing one of his prominent projects, HL23—a 14-story residential building in New York City—which garnered a write up in The New York Times, Denari explained that in order to create a great building, one must understand how it operates in an urban environment.

“It’s important to understand the project of the urban situation in the city and how it operates on the work, rather than treating it either like a political piece of graph paper or strictly like a substrate to do weird things with,” he said.

Denari’s discussion on the need to have a deeper understanding of the way architecture fits into the urban setting was something many audience members found interesting.

Stig Fenger, a Danish transfer student working on his master’s in architecture, has only been with the Academy for about 13 weeks, but made sure to make the Denari lecture. Fenger took interest in Denari’s consciousness of how buildings interact with their surroundings.

“His perspective on the relationship between the city and architecture was very valuable,” he said. “He talked about not just dumping architecture anywhere, but instead being conscious and having a deeper understanding of how it fits into the cityscape.”

Another audience member, Clifford Minnick, a part-time architecture instructor for the Academy, got a shout out from Denari during his lecture. The two worked closely together when Minnick was a master’s student at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and Denari was his thesis advisor.

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Photo by Doron Serban.

Some of Denari’s design philosophies have made their way into Minnick’s classroom, who said Denari has been an influential figure in his professional career. One of those philosophies is allowing a building to be unique and stand on its own.  

“In my design studio, I try to get the students to really look at trying to fit their projects into the fabric of the city while letting the program of the building stand out and be itself,” he said. “I tell them to not be afraid of letting the building be different.”

Minnick is just one of many architects Denari has influenced throughout his career. He and his team at NDMA, have played an influential role in the culture of contemporary architecture and are pioneers of the use of computers in the industry. The firm and Denari alone have won multiple awards including most recently, the Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

To conclude his lecture, Denari had some words of appreciation for the future architects in the audience.

“I ask my students ‘Why on Earth do you want to get in a profession that takes six or seven years to make a project?’” he said. “The answer is always the same, ‘I like making things.’”

He continued: “It takes a lot of work to design a great building, and I think it’s fantastic that you’re focusing on that and doing it in a way that doesn’t seem provincial, backward or purely reactionary. This is just the medium we have.”