Heather Roberge, principal of Los Angeles–based architecture firm Murmur, has been appointed the new chair for the University of California, Los Angeles Department of Architecture and Urban Design (AUD). Prior to Roberge’s appointment, Los Angeles architect Neil Denari had been interim chair. Denari’s appointment came in 2016 after former chair Hitoshi Abe decided to step down. Roberge’s appointment is not the only recent change at UCLA—Brett Steele was named as the new dean of the university’s School of Arts and Architecture late 2016. Roberge has been a faculty member at AUD since 2002 and has taught widely at schools such as Washington University in St. Louis, Ohio State University, the Pratt Institute, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, among others. According to Murmur’s website, Roberge’s academic work “investigates the spatial, structural, and atmospheric potential of digital technologies on the theory and practice of building.” Roberge has helmed Murmur since 2008. The firm was also named an Emerging Voices awardee in 2016 by the Architectural League of New York. Murmur’s 2015 exhibition, En Pointe, won an AIA|LA Design Merit award in 2015, as well. Roberge worked as a partner at the design practice Gnuform prior to starting Murmur. Roberge assumes chairpersonship as wider shake-ups have infused new waves of leadership at several other Los Angeles area architecture schools. Milton Curry was recently appointed as the new dean of the Southern California University School of Architecture while Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter was named new dean of the Woodbury School of Architecture earlier this year, for example.
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“They don't rely on anything except each other to stand up,” noted Heather Roberge, principal of the architecture practice Murmur, as she wove through the leaning, gleaming steel columns of her installation En Pointe. “There is a structural interdependence between each member, showing that you can use strategies of eccentricity to produce stability.” Notions of stability and collective support—in visual, structural, and historical senses—return time and again in Roberge’s elegant and complex structure, recently exhibited at the at the SCI-Arc Gallery in Los Angeles. En Pointe featured a full-scale installation and a meditation on the column—a collection precedents drawn from of historical and contemporary projects. “We used case study techniques from industrial design for the formation of aluminum to produce surface-active shells that go beyond wrapping,” said Roberge, as she explained how the project’s structural loads travel along thin steel surfaces, without frames or internal structures, assisted by precise folding and fastening. It is telling that at the visitor’s standing eye-level is the so-called “waist” of En Pointe. Horizontal reveals for each column together create a horizon that splits them into two five-foot halves. Above, they widen and fuse to form multi-faceted arches; below, they taper to the ground. “The waist is literally the site of connection,” noted Roberge. “There's a ring inside, to which the top and bottom halves are bolted. This stiffens the column at mid-span and allows us to make the pieces in readily available sheet sizes.” From the gallery’s mezzanine overlook, En Pointe is capped by a single, multi-faceted, horizontal plane, where laterally supported sheets span from column to column, troubling their “individual” nature. “From above, you can really understand its mass,” Roberge added, “whereas below, we’ve found that people were really unafraid to approach it, to feel it, to squeeze it.” This combination of angular planes, elaborate seams, and connecting details produces a form that reads as both delicate and muscular, acknowledging its debt to machine processes as well as the work of human hands. Project components were shaped and folded using a CNC press brake, precise in its calculations but at times less predicting of the materials’ responses. “As a result,” she acknowledged, “the part is very close to the desired shape but isn't identical to it.” But it is at these rich intersections of multiple parts that Roberge is keen to speak to, treating them not as aberrations but as documents of the eccentricity and uncertainty inherent in complex metal fabrication. An associate professor at UCLA and director of the undergraduate program in Architectural Studies, her research focuses on both digital technology and materiality. Careful observation, measurement, and adjustment are clear sources of enthusiasm for Roberge and her team of UCLA and SCI-Arc students who helped construct the project. Predicting behavior is less about risk and more about an ongoing educational process. “I like how a material adjusts, how it strains, how it takes shape,” Roberge said. “Working with certain materials is always an approximation. Throughout the making process, we reached a level of comfort with revealing the contingency of the craft.” The research period that led to En Pointe was conducted with students at UCLA for a design studio that explored “the history of the spatial goals of the column.” Rather than focus on a column's load-bearing efficiency, they took a genealogical approach to examine how discrete variations on a central architectural element have come to articulate space throughout history. A pamphlet assembling the research accompanies the spatial installation, and positions En Pointe as a potential hinge in the column’s innovation and evolution. Still, Roberge is well aware that architectural pavilions present a cautionary tale as end-goals for younger practitioners. There’s a worry of getting caught in a disciplinary echo chamber. “The project is a form of research that does not discretely begin or end,” she said. “Architects don't want to be their own client, that's not how we construct our values. But with the proper support, installation becomes an amazing opportunity to treat experimentation as a form of practice.”