For Stella Betts and David Leven, prior experience in construction and fabrication has helped to refine their interest in materials and detailing, always with an eye toward clarity and lightness. “We’re very interested in a distillation process, in focusing,” Leven said.
Though they will, on occasion, install elements themselves, as in the CCO1 house in upstate New York where they hung metal cladding, they do not consider themselves a design/build firm. “Our goal is to keep the material and details very simple. We always want the diagram to be legible in the built work,” Betts said. “We’re interested in fabricating components or details, but we don’t want to do all the construction ourselves,” Leven added. “We are fascinated by our design/build friends and our architect/developer friends, but we’re not interested in that kind of practice.” For the husband-and-wife principals, their involvement in construction is a means to an end, not an end in itself. “Design/build can be limiting, in terms of scale, in terms of the time devoted to design,” Betts said.
While much of LevenBetts’ work thus far has been relatively small-scale—houses, a gallery, retail spaces, a small office and printing facility—they are increasingly turning their attention to urban-scale projects. Many of these projects are competition entries or research-based. Their 2003 Chicago Filter Parking—a garage, bike path, pedestrian bridge, and hanging garden in one—stands out as a milestone for the firm and one that they hope to eventually see built. “We worked through the program and started to think about how you could turn it into an amenity for the city,” Betts said. The delicacy and polished quality of their work might seem to run counter to the tough programmatic concerns and size of a 1,000-car parking garage, but they see their approach as a way to rethink one of the most utilitarian and ubiquitous elements of the contemporary urban landscape. “We want to graft something onto the city so that it becomes this very light sort of machine,” Betts said.