Trinity Artists Interview Series: Thomas Hardy

Meet Thomas Hardy, an architect who can find the design beauty in everything from buildings and roads to the graphics of a newspaper article. Read on to learn how he deals with writer’s block, how the Large Hydron Collider inspires him, and why ravens are awesome.

Q: What is your favorite space to create?

Thomas Hardy: When I work, I switch between working on the computer, sketching, and making models of paper and chipboard. The most important requirement of the spaces where I work is that they are messy. I'm not a very messy person. However, for whatever reason, for me to properly think, there has to be scraps of paper and chipboard all over the place. Different parts of the process allow for different work environments. In the beginning it is nice to sit around with a drink and a sketchpad, talking and sketching with whomever I am working with. And during the actual construction process I get to be in the space being created, which literally is a different way of looking at the work.

Q: What is your favorite snack to eat while creating?
TH: I love chocolate chips from the freezer. That’s about the only snack I eat, really. It doesn't take many — just 5 or 6 chips. It’s especially good when you hold some chips on your tongue and drink a sip of hot coffee.

Q: How do you handle artist’s block?
TH: I like to walk both when I can't sleep and when I can't think. Mental block happens a lot for me, and walking is usually the best cure. In college, I would walk around the perimeter of the campus when I would get mentally stuck. After about a half-mile I would often work through the block. There's actually a spot on the campus about a half-mile from the architecture building where I would get a lot of ideas.
It’s also really important to dive into other fields, artistic or otherwise. I've always been interested in music and film. I've recently gotten really into infographics. Among my favorites is this one on military spending:

or this one explaining how the film Inception works


Design thinking is near universal between mediums, and being well versed in a variety of fields makes the transfer of ideas between mediums in unexpected ways much more natural. I'll really be interested to see how infographics begin to work their way into how we diagram architecture.

Q: How do you stay motivated and disciplined as an artist in our distracting society?

TH: It’s not easy. Since the artist's conference a few months ago my wife and I have taken up Monday work nights where we work in our field for fun in some way. We haven't done it in a few weeks now, because Monday nights have recently all be spent working in our field for work, but it’s really nice and a bit relaxing to set aside regular time to devote myself to a night of personal work.

Q: What is your theme song?

TH: My senior year of college I would work in studio on my thesis all night usually once or twice a week. I wanted to nostalgically remember what sunrise felt like after a full night of work (though I still get regular reminders). So, every morning at sunrise I would listen to “Goodbye Enemy Airship” by Do Make Say Think. I was hoping to brainwash myself into a vivid memory. It kind of worked.

Q: If you were an animal, what animal would you be?

TH: Crows and ravens are fascinating. I read In The Company of Crows and Ravens by John Marzluff a while back. I mean, who wouldn't like to be able to fly? Oh yeah, and freakish intelligence isn't bad, either.

Q: Who/what has inspired you lately and/or locally?

TH: Brian Simmons and I recently saw a lecture by Achim Menges on the variable uses of paper thin wood. It was really inspiring to see what a scientific approach to material study could yield. He and his students had built a canopy out of wood veneer that would open and close like a flower pedal depending on the humidity.

I also am always amazed at both Spaghetti Junction and the I-285 tunnel under the airport landing strip — such bold and ambitious design. The idea of the interstate system is pretty sublime to begin with, and then the way those things connect is beyond me.

Similarly, I'm really fascinated by CERN and the LHC in Switzerland. It’s the most audacious science experiment in history; it’s a half-mile underground laboratory machine thats a 17km loop. They've already called into question core ideas about physics and it’s only been up and running for a couple of years. It’s such an intense question they are posing. Whether or not they know Who it is they are asking, there is no denying it that the Answer, and the lengths to get to that Answer, are full of a kind of divine beauty.

Q: Have you worked in your medium in some sort of community lately, be it collaboration, brainstorming, etc? How has that environment affected the work?

TH: I almost always work in tandem with someone else. I tend to think better when ideas are bounced around between two people. I usually work with my friend Mikey, whom I graduated with. We recently donated a bat box to Architecture for Humanity for a fundraiser. It was made of cedar, copper conduit and x-ray film. We originally intended to torch the cedar to give it a dark tone to mimic the x-ray film. However, after we built it, we couldn't bring ourselves to scorch it with a blow torch, so it stayed as is and will weather to a silver gray while the copper patinas to green in a couple of years. Working with others is really vital for me. It’s really important to work with someone who thinks differently but not so differently that I can't communicate or trust them.

Though the famous architects of history have all been lonely guys — from Michaelangelo to Corbusier to Rem Koolhaas — there is actually a really rich history of two-person firms, especially in Atlanta. Many of the great small Atlanta firms are founded on two-person teams, not only where I work at Plexus R+D, but also Scoggin-Elam, BLDGS, Dencity and several others.

It’s all about communication and a diverse perspective (two eyes, two ears, two folks).

Q: What is one book/song/painting/piece/etc that has been enriching to your faith?

TH: I don't really read many novels. I generally read nonfiction apart from, more or less, one novel. I've read Moby Dick several times, and it’s an incredibly beautiful read. It’s both narrative and encyclopedia, divided into small chapters that jump back and forth between the two forms. The encyclopedic sections give the narrative minutia eternal weight. There’s a part I particularly like where he talks about how a whale's tail is easy to see and the face is all divided up: eyes on either side, mouth on bottom, ears covered up.  Then, he basically quotes Exodus 33 where G-d will let Moses see his back but not his Face. It’s these moments of big picture in small details that makes the book so rich; of coming face to (no) face with the divine in the least expected places.

Q: What is your connection to the Divine when you create? Does it resonate with you spiritually when you come up with new work?

TH: Architecture is an old man's sport. Nobody really gets good until they are in their 50’s, 60’s, etc. That said, I have yet to do anything that I feel deeply resonated spiritually. I have designed churches, so hopefully whether or not I saw the Divine in my work, the Divine founds its way into the finished space.

I would like my work to develop a sense of the comfortably eternal. This doesn’t mean having any preconceptions that the assemblage itself will last forever, rather, that it speaks of the eternal and the Divine as a witness rather than a reference. Really great architecture dances through this tight balance between site, context, material, use, light and a host of other things. If it were like a boulder, it would knowingly rest like a boulder, age like stone, and peacefully accept all the texture and shadow that make it what it is. And that, like Moby Dick, in the details of such a place, unapologetically being true to what it is and does, there would be the huge acknowledgement of a Great G-d and all the stuff he's made.

Q: Describe your process behind the featured piece.

TH: It’s a rare thing to be able to design and build a project from start to finish and then get to use the building afterwards. It’s been a huge learning and growing experience. My family and I built a small cabin on Lake Wedowee in Alabama over the course of a couple of years. It's probably 95% done, at this point. Though I have worked professionally on obviously much bigger and more complex projects, this project has been my biggest source of experience to date.

The design is fairly simple: a retaining wall of sorts is set into the existing hillside, and the program, or space requirement, is injected into the wall, making a kind of segmented sweep. A plane slides over the doors to act as an overhang, and the floorspace rolls down the hill like a tongue to allow a boat to dry dock on the hill. The 500 square-foot interior is open to the accordion doors, which look out to the water. Apart from the bathroom, every space has a great view.

The real learning experience came in construction. My mother, father, brother Nicholas and I spent two years worth of weekends on every aspect of the construction: digging footings on which the walls sit, cutting and laying floor tile, making stained glass windows,  building custom cabinets and a murphy bed, and everything in between.

Contrary to the way I, as an architect, always work, the entire design and construction process was completely seamless. That was one of the aspects new to me during the construction of the lake cabin. We didn't really design many details ahead of time. As we built one section, we worked out the details for the next. For that reason there are details we built that would not have occurred to me before being there at the site. However, there are also things that I would certainly have done different. For instance, though we built tracks into the concrete formwork for the main doors to slide on, I didn't realize how dimensionally exact our doors had to be to both seal perfectly and open easily. Had I done every drawing ahead of time I probably would have built into the formwork a bit more forgiveness.

It’s also been interesting to work with family on something so tangible. We all came to the project with a different view of what it would be and had to somehow come to agreement and work together to make it happen. I think it has been healthier for us as a family than another other single experience we have had together.

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