Lisa Moffitt (M.Arch 2005) Interview

By Carl Lostritto | Feb 26, 2013

This alumni interview was conducted in February 2013 by Camila A. Morales (M.Arch 2013). Lisa Moffitt graduated from the Masters of Architecture program in 2005, in this interview she shares her experiences at risd as well as her current work post-graduation.

C:What has changed since you were at risd?

L: This is a hard question to answer because I have not been directly involved with the architecture school since I graduated. But from what I gather, John Maeda has encouraged the use of empirical methods for structuring design methodologies across disciplines. This emphasis is something that I feel was present at RISD when I was a student, but perhaps it was not as explicit as it appears now. As a student at RISD, I learned how to form a design inquiry and to adhere to a clear design methodology which I was not as explicitly taught to do in my previous undergraduate degree.

In terms of digital fabrication, when I was a final year MArch student we got our first lasercutter and that was very exciting as it marked the early stages of incorporating digital fabrication techniques in studio. I was also the last year that was not required to purchase a laptop so I was at the tail end of an analog era so to speak and can imagine that this is something that has changed quite a bit. I don’t know what the impact of this shift to digital fabrication has been in the last few years. I imagine and hope that the transition has gone well because my experiences at RISD were always embedded in material production and tectonic explorations and I hope that the transition to digital modes of fabrication haven’t sacrificed the sensibility of working materially.

The promise of interdisciplinary exchange was one of the things that drew me to RISD but I found it difficult to make those connections outside of winter session. It seems that interdisciplinary opportunities have opened up in the last few years. This is encouraging as having an architecture department within an art school offers remarkable opportunities to glean insights on creative practices of related disciplines.


C:how did risd allow for you to grow as a designer while you were at the university?

L: There are two things that come to mind that impacted me most as a student in terms of gaining new sensibilities that I wasn’t previously familiar with. The first was something that was stressed very early on in Design Principles, which was the idea of thinking about the generative capacity of drawing and model. We were taught that drawing is not a technique or a method for representing a mental image of an idea, but it’s a generative tool for developing new spatial propositions. I now teach at The University of Edinburgh and the way of working materially and the sensibility of working between drawing and model is something that I try to teach my students.

The other thing I learned at RISD that I also try to teach students is that the design process involves developing a clear and coherent inquiry. How you develop a design thesis for your work and how you test that thesis by making is something that I try to instill in my students. These are two things that I learned early on and still carry with me.


C: what have you been doing since you graduated from risd?

L: I graduated in 2005 and moved to Toronto and started working for a practice called Plant Architect  and I also started teaching part time at the University of Toronto. At Plant, I worked on a number of interesting hybrid architecture and landscape architecture projects, as well as a number of civic projects, including the redevelopment of Toronto City Hall.

In 2008 I left Plant to start an independent practice called Studio Moffitt because I had a commission to design a single family home in rural Canada. It was an off-grid design-build project and I moved to the rural community to oversee construction of the house. That project was completed during the summers of 2009, 2010, and 2011.

In 2010 I started a job as a Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and I have been teaching here full-time since. I am also completing a part-time PhD and still running the practice. I am in the process, along with other colleagues, of setting up a design-research office at the University of Edinburgh. I try to do a lot of things and I find them all fascinating, but it’s difficult keeping up with everything as you can imagine!


C: what are you currently making ?

L: I am always making something. In my studio right now I have an odd menagerie of things including 3 acrylic paintings in process, a half-finished cross stitched “tapestry”, a couple of origami light shades. I also have a matchbox pinhole camera that I like to carry around and take photos with. These are not serious projects obviously, but I do find that they inform ways of thinking about making architecture. I have found the transition to digital to be difficult, so I always have ongoing hands-on projects in progress because it gives me a tactile outlet that I don’t think I would have otherwise.

I work on competitions and these allow me to test spatial ideas and the relationship between analog and digital ways of working. Most recently, I worked on a renewable energy landscape competition sited in Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, which is designed by James Corner. In that case, I developed a technique of merging painting with digital drawing.


C: are there key questions you ask yourself when creating your work?

L: I think it is important to both know when to ask questions and when not to ask questions in the design process. On the one hand, you have to give yourself freedom to not know exactly why you are doing things that you are doing, but just to work intuitively and do them anyways trusting they will lead somewhere. But you also have to know when to pause and critically assess your work, to read it for cues, to ask what ideas are latent and to align what you’ve made with a bigger conceptual agenda for a project.

I teach issues related to sustainability, which raises technical questions in my work. So some of the questions I would ask now would be how certain design decisions impact environmental performance. I am interested in how buildings weather and how weather impacts building, which raises issues of orientation and configuration, microclimate modification and passive heating and cooling. These are verifiable ideas, not intuitive ones.

I am suggesting that it is important to have both sensibilities, to give yourself the freedom to play and just make, but also to be able to critically appraise your work and know how to evaluate it according to an agenda, whether that’s theoretical or technical. There should always be a critical dialogue between the two modes of thinking and working.


C:who is on your radar right now?

L: The person whose work I am quite interested in right now is Philippe Rahm because he conceives of projects according to different methods of thermal exchange and I am interested in the dialogue between immaterial and material conditions and how interior thermal environments can shape space.

There are architects I have always been fascinated by and continue to be such as Peter Zumthor, Alvar Aalto, Alvaro Siza, and Enric Miralles because of their respect for material sensibilities, loose contextual response and a certain robustness and understanding of materials and weathering


C: do you have any advise to prospective or current students at risd?

L: Learn patience and resist the rate at which ideas tend to change in the world. We have ready access to so much visual material and we have modes of production that are rapid-fire in nature and aren’t accumulative (control-z is deadly). Because of this, it’s easy to work impatiently and superficially. Invest in ideas that matter. They will persist long past your formal education. I would remind students of the luxury of time that they have to invest in ideas now; it’s a luxury that few ever have again in their lives. I would also encourage students to learn to communicate visually and all those other cliches  which I think are true, like take risks, balance confidence and humility, learn to accept that real growth involves some failure along the way, and be nimble.


House on Limekiln Line North Elevation. Photo: Shai Gil


House on Limkiln Line West Elevation. Photo: Shai Gil




House on Limemkiln Line South and West Elevation. Photo: Shai Gil


House on Limekiln Line Kitchen. Photo: Gabriel Li




House on LImekiln Line (L) View to Bedroom (R) View to Living Room. Photo: Shai Gil


Limekiln Grid (L) Installation (R) Topography Plan.


Clouds, Vortices and Plumes. Competition Image.


Exothermic Landscape. Competition Image.


Nathan Phillips Squre Revitalisation Project. PLANT Architect Inc. Photo: Lisa Moffitt


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