Washington People: Kathryn Dean

Dean views architecture through the lens of psychology

David Kilper

Kathryn Dean (right) critiques work with graduate student Jonathan L. Stitelman. “Kathryn is like a force of nature in her enthusiasm, passion and dedication to teaching and practice,” says Bruce Lindsey, dean of architecture and the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration. “It is contagious. She has helped lead our graduate program in new directions and worked with the faculty to improve its strengths. Her work has a Zen-like grace coupled with something unexpected that, like her signature laugh, makes you smile.”

Location. Budget. Materials. Architecture is the art of negotiating constraints — to say nothing of clients, zoning and the unique history and particular characteristics of a given place.

“There’s no such thing as a blank slate,” says Kathryn Dean, a principal of Dean/Wolf Architects in New York and director of the Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

“There’s always a site, there’s always light, or a texture, or a client’s personality, or your personality,” Dean says. “There’s always something.”

Over the past two decades, Dean/Wolf — which Dean founded in 1991 with her husband, Charles Wolf — has earned a national reputation for its thoughtful approach to residential architecture. Now Princeton Architectural Press has collected two-dozen projects, from elegant loft renovations to bold new constructions, in Dean/Wolf Architects: Constructive Continuum (2011), the firm’s first monograph.

“In many ways, it’s a book about desire,” Dean says. “Over time, we’ve come to realize that we work by intuiting things about each client — from the site that they’ve chosen or the space in which they live — and internalizing their desires.

“It’s a slightly risky point of view,” she adds. “We look at architecture through the lens of psychology.”

Structuring lives

The eldest of three sisters, Dean was raised in rural North Dakota. Her mother, Kay, was a dedicated musician and teacher. Her father, John, had, as a young man, won a full scholarship to veterinary school. But when his own father suffered a stroke, John instead assumed responsibility for the family’s struggling farm.

“My father was extraordinarily driven,” Dean says. “The farm was $17,000 in debt, and he couldn’t get any loans. But by the time he retired, at age 53, he’d built it to 6,000 acres.”

Dean’s first exposure to contemporary architecture came during high school, while visiting two residences by Fargo firm Mutchler Twitchell & Lynch.

“They weren’t famous architects, but they were good, and it makes sense that I’ve remained interested in houses,” Dean says. “I was — and continue to be — fascinated by how people structure their lives, their families and try to be … happy.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree from North Dakota State University in 1981 — one of only three female architecture students in the class — Dean entered the master’s program at the University of Oregon. Several of her professors, notably Gary Moye, previously had worked for Louis Kahn.

“You can still see the Kahn influence in my own work,” Dean muses, “the verticality, the importance of materials, the way he thought about detail.”

Dean met Charles Wolf (who had completed his undergraduate work at WUSTL) in Moye’s studio. The pair dated briefly, but, after graduation, Dean returned to North Dakota and prepared for a move to New York.

Once in Manhattan, she found Wolf living just across the Hudson River, in Morristown, N.J.

“A lot of life happens through will,” Dean says with a laugh. “But there’s also a lot of luck.”

Inside Outside

Still, with the economy in recession, Dean spent months looking for work, taking jobs with landscape architect Martha Schwartz and urban planners Cooper Eckstut before landing a position at Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF). She credits Bill Pedersen with suggesting she apply for the Rome Prize Fellowship. She did, and won.

Living at the American Academy, Dean befriended a who’s-who of contemporary artists, including Bruce Nauman, Jackie Winsor, Martin Puryear, Alex Katz and Vito Acconci. She also met her first client, a painter and South Dakota native who commissioned a small artist’s studio.

Dean enlisted Wolf as partner and, in 1988, the pair decamped for Northern California to oversee construction of Inside Outside Studio, an ambitiously volumetric structure executed in stucco, wood and copper. Then, returning to New York, Dean resumed work with KPF, running 14 projects in 17 months.

Equal partners

In 1991, Dean was invited to teach at Columbia University. Then, thanks to an introduction by Columbia colleague Robert McCarter (now the Sam Fox School’s Ruth & Norman Moore Professor of Architecture), Dean/Wolf received what would become a defining commission.

Spiral House, located in the hamlet of Armonk, N.Y., is a case study in transforming constraint into opportunity. The site — sandwiched between wetlands and a 30-foot rock formation — was considered unbuildable.

Yet by resolving such issues, Dean arrived at a strikingly distinctive architectural form. The rock, partially dynamited, became a visual and conceptual anchor, its rough-hewn weight playing dramatic counterpoint to the floating, cedar-clad upper story.

“Just as rock erupts from the ground, so the house spirals upward and cantilevers into the forest,” Dean says. “That gesture is very powerful and releases a huge amount of energy.

“Site and the buildings are always equal partners,” she adds. “It’s almost a kind of dance.”

Materials and strategy

Completed in 1995, Spiral House won awards from the American Institute of Architects and was designated a “Record House” by Architectural Record magazine.

Yet Dean remained frustrated by her inability to implement a more ambitious approach to interior materials. So, pooling resources with four friends, Dean and Wolf purchased a dilapidated Tribeca warehouse. The result was Urban Interface Loft (1995-97), a grandly conceived live/work space pairing original brick and artfully framed sky views with copper sheeting, sandblasted glass, maple cabinetry and other unexpected touches.

“That was our first real project in the city, and the first to use materials exactly the way I wanted to use them,” Dean says with a smile. “The strategy was, ‘if we can’t get anyone else to do it, we’ll build it ourselves.’ ”

Urban Interface Loft further cemented Dean/Wolf’s reputation and led to a series of innovative commissions. Operable Boundary Townhouse Garden (2003-05) united interior and exterior spaces with a continuous 30-foot-long table. Virtual Light Loft (2005-06) employed laser-cut resin panels to replicate the dappling of the forest canopy. Inverted Warehouse/Townhouse (2004-09) excavated an interior courtyard from the building roof, pulling natural light four stories below.

A practice-based tradition

Today, Dean divides her time between the Sam Fox School, which she joined in 2008, and Dean/Wolf in New York. Yet geography can overstate the distance between the two halves of what is, after all, one professional life.

“I’m always moving back and forth between teaching and practicing,” Dean says. “Things I do in my practice, I also implement in the school.”

For example, her Residence of Sinuous Substance (2006-07) featured custom handrails fabricated with innovative laser-cutting technology. More recently, she worked with Carmon Colangelo, dean of the Sam Fox School and the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Collaboration in the Arts, and Bruce Lindsey, dean of architecture and the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration, to expand the school’s digital fabrication labs to include laser-cutting.

Dean also credits her predecessors — Adrian Luchini, the Raymond E. Maritz Professor, and Paul Donnelly, the Rebecca & John Voyles Professor — with establishing a strong practice-based tradition.

“When our students walk out the door, they not only know how to design a project but also how to construct it,” she says. “That is very unusual in American architectural education.”

She credits Lindsey with expanding the graduate school into new areas. Last fall saw launch of a new Master of Landscape Architecture program, the first in the state of Missouri, led by professor Dorothée Imbert.

“Kathryn is like a force of nature in her enthusiasm, passion and dedication to teaching and practice,” Lindsey says. “It is contagious. She has helped lead our graduate program in new directions and worked with the faculty to improve its strengths. Her work has a Zen-like grace coupled with something unexpected that, like her signature laugh, makes you smile.”

Reflecting the sky

Dean’s current projects include Ephemeral Sky, a 2,000-square-foot home located on a large pond in upstate New York. Designed for a pair of longtime clients, the structure cuts a graceful, undulating arc that echoes the curvature of the shore.

“The water makes a beautiful, inverted reflection of the sky,” Dean observes, noting that lines of shore, floor and roof all converge at the main entrance.

Perched on low concrete pylons, the home sits directly over a large existing rock. Front windows frame mountain views.

“That’s a theme that runs through a lot of our work,” Dean says, “the difference between the distant, which tends to be visual and intellectual, and the close-up, which is tactile and sensual.

“We try to play with both of those qualities,” she says. “They’re both human.”

Fast facts about Kathryn Dean

Education: BA, architectural studies, 1981, North Dakota State University; MArch, 1983, University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts
Selected honors and awards: Rome Prize Fellowship, American Academy in Rome, 1986-87; Young Architects Award, Progressive Architecture magazine, 1993; Emerging Voices Award, Architectural League of New York, 1997; Honor Award, American Institute of Architects, for Urban Interface Loft, 1999; Honor Award, American Institute of Architects — New York State Chapter, for Operable Boundary Townhouse Garden, 2007
Publications: Forty Under Forty (1995), The New City Home (2002) and Dean/Wolf Architects: Constructive Continuum (2011)
Family: Husband, Charles Wolf, and daughters Carolyn and Elise.