Deep in the Midwest, in what might be called the heart of middle America — a small town presents an architectural surprise: Swiss-style residential and commercial designs that line the town’s main road, giving visitors an impression that they’ve arrived in a region of Switzerland.
This is the village of New Glarus, Wisconsin, a town settled by Swiss immigrants more than 150 years ago. Its design is the subject of research and a traveling exhibit created by Jonathan Louie, assistant professor of practice and Nicole McIntosh, assistant professor of architecture at Texas A&M University.
McIntosh, originally from Switzerland, and Louie, a Hawaii native, came across New Glarus on a cross-country road trip, and inspired by the intersecting of the Swiss-American worlds, an idea was born.
The pair debuted their New Glarus research in an exhibition called Swissness Applied in 2019. It documents the village’s unique architectural history and shows the combination of Swiss and American building characteristics. The exhibit is still traveling, and the research has now evolved into a book, to be published Fall 2021.
“The exhibit brings together two distinctly different audiences and it’s personal for us too, given our Swiss and American backgrounds,” said McIntosh.
“Swissness Applied” is part of a larger research project that focuses on the transformation of European immigrant towns in the U.S. and contributes to the ongoing discussion about cultural heritage and appropriation in architecture and urban design planning.
New Glarus is an example of one of these towns. Its’ architectural elements accessorize the buildings to create an attractive Swiss appearance for visitors. To curate this setting, the building codes describe typical elements of the Swiss Chalet style that evoke certain associations with familiar traditional Swiss building types. The exhibition questions the translation of the cultural image in architecture and illustrates through representational means the results and potential outcomes of embracing this image.
Along with their current research in New Glarus, the duo has had award-winning success in other projects, such as an experimental design for a co-workspace called ShareCuse that creates custom mesh and metal cubicles to allow someone to be both alone and private, while still being able to see others in an office. This unique design inspires both interactive and independent work within an office.
Another example of their work is a nonprofit organization and restaurant in Minneapolis called All Square that focuses on social justice as well as explores the relationship between mirror images and reflections. The restaurant’s mission, centered on professional development, racial justice, and economic inclusion, is to employ and uplift formerly incarcerated individuals. The restaurant was also selected by Times Magazine as one of the Top 100 Great Places in 2019.
Louie knew at a young age that he wanted to be an architect. Raised by an architect father and a host of mentors, Louie earned a Master of Architecture degree at UCLA before he joined the Texas A&M faculty.
“I knew I was interested in architecture from watching my dad,” he said. “But what really inspired me were the mentors in my life that got me thinking about all the possibilities.”
Half a world away in Zurich, Switzerland, McIntosh earned a Master of Science in architecture degree at ETH, a world class research university. She found a passion for art early in life and attended an art high school before going to college. She wasn’t fully satisfied in her art programs, however, and quickly moved to study architecture.
“I wasn’t satisfied being an artist,” she said. “Art and architecture are similar, but I found more excitement by interweaving complex teams and relationships.”
Early in their careers, Louie and McIntosh met at Syracuse University through colleagues when Louie was teaching and McIntosh was visiting for a final review. They found each other again a year later at the University of Pennsylvania, and already having a connection with similar architecture passions and career trajectories, they began working together.
“We entered a competition together, and that’s when we really started clicking,” she said. “Our partnership took off when we lectured together for the first time in New York after winning the 2017 Young Architects Prize given by the Architectural League of New York. We knew then we wanted to work together, both in practice and in academia.”
In 2015, the pair launched an architectural practice, Architecture Office. Inspired by their backgrounds and a passion to see art where art isn’t always recognized, the firm’s work embodies interdisciplinary efforts from artists, fabricators, and photographers, all working to realize their clients’ visions.
“We love working with many different kinds of people, cultures, and art forms,” McIntosh said. “I think that’s why Swissness Applied is one of our favorite projects.”
When the duo isn’t working hard at their studio, they enjoy working with and teaching design students.
Both professors teach architectural design studios as well as upper level seminars and focused research classes. Similar to their view of New Glarus, in their courses they enjoy exposing students to new ways of seeing and understanding the culture of a place.
The duo likes to test ideas borne in their classes in their projects, so students can gain experience both in and out of the classroom, and have the opportunity to see their handprints on some of the work that comes out of Architecture Office. Swissness Applied is an example of this, it began as a research seminar, then they hired previous students to help develop the exhibit.
“There’s a great reciprocal relationship between being in practice and being in academia,” Louie said. “You’re challenged in the best ways by colleagues and students, which in turn inspires your own work.”
“It’s always fun working with students that have so much passion for art and architecture.” McIntosh said. “It fuels my own passion and keeps me always thinking critically on how to best teach them."