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The philosophy of architecture

By Amy Lohmann '14
April 9, 2012

As an architect with the nationally renowned firm VJAA, Nathan Knutson '89 has designed buildings around the globe using innovative techniques and technology.

And there hasn't been a dull moment along the way. He watched as Hurricane Katrina severely damaged one of his projects mid-construction, and was working on another in Beirut when Israel bombed Lebanon.

Nathan Knutson '89 is managing principal at the architectural firm VJAA, which recently received the prestigious Architecture Firm Award from the American Institute of Architects.

It's exciting work that Knutson is clearly devoted to. Having practiced at VJAA since the firm's founding in 1995, he's racked up several awards and recognitions throughout his career — including the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Minnesota Young Architect Award. And VJAA was recently named the recipient of this year's AIA Architecture Firm Award. The prestigious award recognizes a practice that has consistently produced distinguished architecture for at least 10 years, in VJAA's case for clients ranging from American University in Beirut , Tulane University, the University of Minnesota, and Saint John's Abbey, to private apartments and cabins.

Knutson's 17 years of experience have been a key part of VJAA's success. After graduating from St. Olaf as a philosophy major, he earned a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Minnesota. Knutson (now a Northfielder again) dishes on his design philosophy, the most challenging project he's worked on, and his favorite building on the Hill.

What sets this award from the AIA apart from the multiple awards your firm has already received?
Part of what makes this special is that we are the only firm from Minnesota to ever receive the award. Our other national awards were received for our designs for individual buildings. However, the National Firm Award was determined by a jury of our peers (other architects) and was based on our firm's approach to practice.

Your firm is known for using innovative research for architecture projects. What are the processes involved with this, and how do you know if these new technologies will be successful?
Our initial ideas are generated by fairly substantive research into relevant history, behavioral sciences, the environment and/or climate, and their impact on a given site or architectural program. We also use a lot of 3D digital and physical modeling to study design alternatives throughout the design process. During later stages of design we do a significant number of full-scale mockups to develop and confirm material and technical details. We believe that an iterative process of idea development, grounded in these various forms of research, allows us to test these new ideas rigorously. That, coupled with hard work, hopefully results in a successful outcome for the client.

What is your firm's design philosophy when confronted with a project?
VJAA is a very collaborative design studio with a commitment to producing high quality architecture that engages social, cultural, and environmental issues in a knowing and creative way. While working on a wide range of building types and in a diversity of locations, we strive for innovation and design excellence through a synthesis of research and design. The result is an office culture that values all aspects of practice — from architectural theory to material craft and technical resolution.

What is the most challenging project you’ve worked on thus far?
I would have to say that the most challenging was our University Center project for Tulane University. It was a significant remodel and addition project that was 50 percent complete with construction when Hurricane Katrina hit. They had just put in the last window the Friday before the hurricane hit. After having worked on the project for almost eight years, it was hard to watch the destruction and direct impact to all of our friends and associates in New Orleans.

Nathan Knutson '89 found himself in the midst of Lebanese turmoil while working on the Charles Hostler Student Center at American University in Beirut. Photo by Paul Crosby.

What are some memorable experiences you have of your international work?
The assassination of Lebanon's prime minister, the subsequent Cedar Revolution, and Israel's bombing of Lebanon all occurred during the design and construction of our project for the American University of Beirut. Also while on that project and proving you are never too far from Northfield, I was having dinner with our local architect and some of his family members, and quickly learned that his cousin was headed to the U.S. the next day to visit his in-laws in Faribault — and that they were meeting at the Ole Store for breakfast the next morning! In the end, the kindness of the people and close friendships abroad are most important to me.

Speaking of Northfield, what is your favorite building on the St. Olaf campus?
I miss the old Art Barn and its carvings [which is currently being reconstructed on the western edge of campus near the wind turbine], and there were a number of rooms on campus that I always enjoyed — the warmth of the sunlight through the big windows and old radiators in the reference room in Rølvaag Library and the simplicity of Urness Recital Hall.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or