Interview: Rayford Law
Shortly after joining Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects in 1983, Rayford Law found himself working on a project of vast proportions, the Hynes Convention Center in the historic Back Bay section of Boston, MA. The project, which featured extensive use of stone on the exterior and interior, was a large-scale introduction to the stone industry, and virtually all of his work over the past two decades has included stone in one form or another.
Law has been a principal at Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects since 1994, and he has acted as a senior designer on all of his projects since joining the firm in 1983. He studied architecture at North Carolina State University College of Design, where he received a Bachelor of Environmental Design in Architecture, Summa Cum Laude, in 1978. He then received his Master of Architecture with Distinction and Design Studio Honors from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1983.
In addition to teaching thesis at the Boston Architectural Center, Law served as Teaching Assistant at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design from 1980 to 1983 where he studied under professors, Michael McKinnell and Gerhard Kallmann.
Some of the projects undertaken by Law with Kallmann McKinnell & Wood include the Performing Arts Theater, Reading Area Community College, Reading, PA; the Olin Library, Washington University, St. Louis, MO; Physical Sciences 1 Building, University of California, Riverside; Biomedical Engineering & Research Building MR-5, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; the World Headquarters Building of the Organisation for the Prohibition for Chemical Weapons, The Hague; The National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University, Republic of Singapore; the Bass Center for Molecular and Structural Biology, Yale University, New Haven, CT; the U.S. Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand; and the James S. McDonnell Hall, Natural Sciences Laboratories, Washington University, St. Louis, MO.
Over the years, Law has developed a working knowledge of stone by visiting the quarries as well as working with some of the leading stonemasons in the field. Recently, Contemporary Stone & Tile Design sat down with the architect to discuss his experiences with natural stone.
CSTD: How did you first develop an interest in architecture?
Law: I wanted to be an architect when I was a young kid. I was drawing the typical things that a boy would draw in the early and mid-60s - boats, trains or planes - and the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft were great things to draw. I allegedly was good at drawing, had taught myself perspective, and was always interested in buildings. My parents were very active in the theater in Raleigh, NC, and the Raleigh Little Theater was a wonderful 1930s WPA building and Rose Garden. There were other exciting buildings in town: Matthew Nowitzki had designed what was called the Dorton Arena; an amazing structure that Edward Catalano had designed, a house with a saddle shaped (hyperbolic parabaloid) roof, and there were many impressive buildings at North Carolina State. So I was tuned into theater and dramatic dynamic buildings at an early age. And when I went to college, my interest in architecture was renewed. We also would go to New York City every year to visit friends of my parents, and growing up in the Carolinas, one didn't have the chance to see real extended urbanism, so it was always exciting to go there.
CSTD: What were some of your first design experiences as a professional or as a student?
Law: My undergraduate exposure was in a School of Design (now College of Design), so â€œdesignâ€ was a pretty broad spectrum of activities - painting, sculpture, printmaking, product design, landscape and architecture. So you could be designing a building, a chair, or a whisk.
The first real professional experience for me is right across the street - the Hynes Convention Center. This came along and was going to be a huge project, particularly in terms of stone. It was going to be a large civic building in Back Bay, where there were ample precedents - whether it was the McKim Mead & White Boston Public Library or the various churches down the street.
I did virtually nothing but draw the exterior and the Boylston Street hallways of the building for about 16 months, and it was to be all stone. It was an exciting program, because you could very clearly isolate the exhibition part as a black box from the part that was on the street.
Once word was getting around that this was a building of 750,000 square feet that would be clad in stone, it was amazing to see people come from all parts of the world hawking their wares. It has a gray variety of Cold Spring granite from Minnesota, along with some red granite called Osage from Oklahoma. And there is also Burlington slate on the inside.
We had the luxury to develop a design for an urban building that would be somewhat independent of the practical aspects of the function and program behind it, which as designed was a series of long public halls stacked over each other and an entrance at one end. Of course, it was built over railroad tracks and an interstate highway, so we had to deal with all of that, but for 16 months, it was wonderful to look at the design through a variety of drawings. This was before computers, and it was an opening into what the capacity of design could be through drawings. I don't think anyone would have that amount of time these days because of the technology to make the drawings and the electronic immediacy of most information. We saw representatives for French limestone; for granite from Quebec; and even some of the sandstone representatives from Colorado and Texas. We were on Tremont Street, and I had a desk near the front window with all of these stone samples laid across the floor. We were starting to get worried about the structural capacity of the floor beams to hold it all.
Because it was a civic building that would presumably last a significant amount of time in Back Bay, we were given a reasonable budget. Ironically, it is probably going to be sold and usurped in terms of its function. There is a new convention center in South Boston within currently re-developed land in Boston. It's hard for us to believe - not from the bias of having developed it - but from the view of a tourist or conventioneer because what is more Bostonian at the moment than being in Back Bay? Of course, it's not an easy edifice to convert, but they are talking about a consortia of various schools and/or performance halls.
CSTD: Was there anything in particular about the Cold Spring granite that made it stand out?
Law: Well, at the end price was a factor. It's also a nice hard stone that had all of the natural qualities we were looking for. The traditional stone that were used for civic buildings in this part of the world were Milford Pink granite, which was used on the Boston Public Library, and some other granites from New England: Stony Creek granite from Connecticut; Deer Isle granite [from Maine], and Quincy granite.
We stayed with the traditional palette, though. There was an attitude regarding the character of the stone - its general value and color. [The Cold Spring granite] was a good choice. It represented the tradition. I don't think the layperson would know any different.
CSTD: How often does Kallmann McKinnell & Wood use stone in its designs?
Law: As often as we can. I have to admit that there are occasions where the budget does have an impact on the extent of the stonework. We've been working [at Washington University] in St. Louis for the past 20 years, and it's almost automatic that it's going to be stone: Indiana limestone, and Osage or Missouri Red granite. Early on, the original source quarry in Ironton, MO, wasn't even running. Other times, it was quarried there, and sent to Mt. Airy, NC, to be cut.
But to answer your question, we use stone as much as possible. In some cases, like Washington University, it comes with the territory. We just finished the schematic design for our seventh building on campus, and it will be the traditional palette of Missouri Red and Indiana limestone. We keep trying to enlighten [the administration] and tweak the traditional design character of Elizabethan â€œGothic.â€ Sometimes we are successful, and sometimes - for good reason - they politely decline.
CSTD: Are you using any cultured stone?
Law: We have used it. At the Bass Center at Yale University, we wanted to use a traditional red sandstone or brownstone, but the quarries weren't open. And we kept looking at Colorado sandstone as well as red sandstone from Germany, but we still couldn't afford it everywhere on the building. So we looked at a cast stone, and we used it for the string courses and trim pieces and kept the real stone where you could touch it.
So the base of the building was a split-face brownstone from Germany coursed up in a random ashlar pattern, but the sills and the jambs and so forth are cast stone. It was a good combination: it met the requirements that the client needed to get the project done particularly in terms of budget, and there were no noticeable appearance issues.
We had looked into blocks taken from railroad bridge abutments which were at the Hudson River, but there was an issue of whether we had enough, so we ended up using red sandstone from Germany, which blended in just fine. That was our first lab, which also won a National AIA Award. As such it represented a confluence of various campus architectures being reinterpreted in a laboratory. Both within the traditional context of Yale, which is perhaps the premier collegiate Gothic campus in America, but there were other more modern interventions as well.
CSTD: How would you describe Kallmann McKinnell & Wood's design philosophy?
Law: I think in simple terms, it has to do with the nexus of invention and tradition. I think that is where stone and traditional masonry techniques work for us. When one is building in Boston or on a university campus, the idea of longevity suggests a building that appears older or more ironically - timeless. But while one wants to have an understanding of tradition, one also wants to acknowledge and utilize current or new technologies. One doesn't exclude the other. That's exciting for us. When we work in a place like California, there may be a shift in those priorities. Or in Europe, where there is enough tradition such that they don't feel like they have to remind themselves of it, and thus they are more receptive towards innovation.
CSTD: How would you describe the tradition of stone use in different regions of the U.S.? Is there a tradition of stone use in California, for example?
Law: There is a tradition of masonry, including brick, but there is also a conscious desire to avoid tradition, which is wonderful because one is literally and metaphorically watching the envelope being expanded.
I think one will find a strong tradition of building stone where there is a strong physical presence of stone. At Emory University in Atlanta, the marble comes from Georgia. In St. Louis [at Washington University], the stone is coming from that area. At Yale, of course, there is a tradition of picturesque, if not High Gothic, where you use a variety of stones.
Thinking about our work abroad, at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, we were looking for a light-colored stone. Although it was the U.S. government, there was a local aquatic and marine culture and thereby a tradition of building with certain materials and techniques. The State Department was shifting its operations to Bangkok, and although they had an embassy building there, they really needed quite a large office building. It was to be a compound, with State Department requirements for setbacks, barriers, and window opening sizes. But given the climate - being very close to the equator - we wanted it to be a light building that was clearly going to sit in terrain that was saturated in water, if not in the water itself.
We were also looking at a green stone as a base that would correspond to the lush, undercut environment. There were also some traditional ideals that we interpreted for [detailing] the stone.
We used a mixture. White stone was mixed with dark green or black inside for the floor pattern, which continued the theme of light and dark stone outside. It was an interesting â€œweavingâ€ pattern.
CSTD: How do you go about finding stones for a project like that? Is there a general contractor who finds the stone?
Law: No. In government work, particularly for the State Department, there is a requirement that heavily suggests that you use American-made products, or at least a certain percentage of the value is American made. So we started looking at American stone and American slate, but we also looked all over the globe. It was around 15 years ago, and China was becoming predominant at the time, but some of it was somewhat physically flaky. We ended up using a slate from Vermont for the base, and we also had some marble.
CSTD: Was it expensive to bring stone all the way to Thailand?
Law: Apparently not. It was less about the expense than the political importance of having an American-made product at a U.S. Embassy. We didn't exclude the possibility [of using materials from elsewhere], but we ended up with a domestically made product that satisfied the requirements.
CSTD: You've also done work in The Hague. Can you tell me about that?
Law: For the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] in The Hague, we had a program for an important institutional building set amongst embassies and the Prime Minister's residence and other international organizations. There was a requirement for a traditional palette of stone and brick. Richard Meier had just completed the City Hall, which was a large and very white building in the middle of downtown, so the city wanted to return to a more consonant palette.
We were invited to participate in the competition because of our work with brick and stone. There is a tradition in the Netherlands for masonry. We looked all over the globe for the right stone, and we ended up finding a granite from India called Hassan Green, which is just gorgeous.
We used Burlington slate on the inside. Some of the various officials from the OPCW were English, so they were sympathetic towards that finish. As the client, a Dutch developer, had demanded that I live in The Netherlands during construction so it was convenient to go to Cumbria [England] and look at the various stones.
CSTD: How do you go about choosing stone for a project? Does the industry do a good job letting you know about â€œnewâ€ materials and finishes available?
Law: I don't know, quite honestly. It is just one of those issues of becoming more aware when someone comes knocking on the door. I could look in catalogs, but after awhile, the eyes start to gloss over when comparing one stone to another. I know that some stone suppliers provide â€œlunchboxesâ€ with stone samples, which is great because there is a mini-sample set to work with, make it wet, confirm the texture and such. But unless I read about something or see a great installation, I can't say that I feel I am up to date.
CSTD: Do vendors come here often? I know that the stone industry has been trying to learn how to better work with architects, but I'm not sure how that plays out. Do you only hear from the industry when a project is out to bid?
Law: It's not when it's out it bid. Certainly, any vendor or manufacturer that does their research on what [projects are] coming out - particularly in stone - knows enough to make contact before bidding. There is the advantage to start working with an architect to develop a sense of what the scope is, and what would be some alternatives. But I can't say that people come by in general. Certainly, people from other fields are visiting very frequently: the lighting representatives and the sustainable technology representatives are consistently making their pitch.
CSTD: So I assume that would also apply to the technology for working stone? There is new computer-controlled machinery that can complete some of the three-dimensional architectural details in stone. As an architect, are you made aware of this new technology? Has it resulted in lower costs for some details?
Law: Well, I can certainly see the magnitude of the cost issue when one gets into cubic work, but it is interesting that the technology can inform the way we work with stone as well. I think I wouldn't know enough about it unless it was project specific. Every year, I get an invitation to go to [the Marmomacc Stone Fair] in Verona, Italy, and every year I say that it would be a great thing to do, but other than the occasional Building Stone Institute events where we have won awards thanks to the masons on the projects, the usual demands of time have been too much. I would like to get involved a bit more and there is a little defensiveness about not being up to date, but I am not sure it's all on our part.
If one looks at the context of stone, it is a traditional medium for building. And with the sensitivity for minimizing the utilization of natural resources, stone seems like a good fit due to its longevity. I'm not sure why there hasn't been a consistent pitch or attitude towards that. Like we said for the Bass Center at Yale, someone found old railroad abutments from the Hudson River, because we couldn't find the stone we wanted from domestic quarries.
Also, there needs to be more of an understanding of why stone costs what it does. My parents built their own house, and they used recycled or â€œoldâ€ brick from an old movie theater and marble paving taken from a demolished mental hospital. It was brilliant, and it was about sustainability but was done for the sheer economics of the situation - not sustainability in the current use of the term.
CSTD: You mentioned your visits to some quarries around the world. Can you explain a little bit about what you do at the quarry as an architect. Are you getting a feel for the material and what its options are?
Law: Generally, this is the final selection of the stone, which is a conventional time and role where the architects would go. As I said earlier, you don't generally have the luxury to just take a nice trip just to see what is coming out of the ground. For example, when we were picking the slate for the embassy in Bangkok, it was a mottled green/purple, which was going to be used on the outside of the building. We were worried that it would be completely purple or completely green, and that depends on where they are working in the quarry. So we were looking at the stone as it was being pulled out and pointing to different areas, and they would show us pieces. But it was at the point where they were getting ready to begin cut and ticket.
CSTD: You've worked on a range of university projects. Typically, how much influence do the university administrators have on your designs? How does the design process usually work?
Law: I find that they see the big picture pretty well. They don't try to be architects or designers. I think everyone in some way portends to be an architect; in that we've all lived and worked in buildings, so we think we know what they're all about. But I find that in most cases, administrators are very enlightened enablers who are there to try and help us achieve what they want, knowing that it does take a team to succeed.
Quite honestly, a lot of university administrators are looking for the designer to bring something tangible; a materiality and a vision that allows them to go and raise some money and publicity as well.
CSTD: Would you prefer to work with a developer or a university?
Law: I worked with a Dutch developer on the OPCW, and they were prudent with financial matters. This developer hadn't quite done a building like this, but it really made us fine tune our thinking of where to spend the money, what was really appropriate, and where one had to be bare bones. There was no glossing over of those distinctions.
I think university administrators work along the same lines, but the bottom line for them is a bit more intangible. They are looking at the presence of the building, and they are thinking in terms that it is going to be there for 100 years. Not to mention that typically, it has someone's name on it.
So I would be remiss to say one over the other. I think the complement of the two is important, and one of the best university administrators I have worked with is at Washington University in St. Louis and is a former developer. He is a very good client who knows buildings inside out, but also knows the importance of the larger role of university buildings.
CSTD: In other interviews I have done, I've heard that you learn a lot of things in architecture school, but no one really teaches you very much about stone. So how do you learn how to detail stone properly? What are some of the ways in which you detail stone to make it read as a three-dimensional material?
Law: In college, we learned about brick, wood, steel and glass. But there was no other education about stone, and stone by default comes with the imagery - if not the reality - of tradition. [Philip Johnson's AT&T Building] had just been finished, and despite all of the various opinions about its imagery, there was a lot of technology involved with how to clad a building in stone. The Beinecke Library at Yale was still a phenomenon, where they used a stone which was thin enough so that light could pass through. There were some exciting things happening that showed the potential of stone. Coupled with the thought that stone is traditionally used to evoke some sense of memory and tradition, one could mix the two together.
At the GSD Michael Flynn [of I.M. Pei's office] taught a course called â€œFlynn Skin,â€ so we did get some aspects of how to detail stone - in an innovative and lofty sense of the word. One didn't have to conform to some textbook conventions or institute boilerplate for how to use stone.
CSTD: Is it tough to teach some of the younger associates how to detail stone so it reads as a three-dimensional material?
Law: I think one of the great things about stone is that it forces one to think in very simple terms in three dimensions. There is an incredible capacity of computers to quickly simulate three dimensions, and they offer terrific renderings, but to actually think about the material that is associated with those renderings seems to be [another matter]. I think there is a renewed focus on the topic in some of the schools. To legitimize the pursuit of an idea, one has to get into the materiality.
CSTD: You have been working with the firm for more than two decades, and you have also worked as an educator. What advice would you offer to a young architect about keeping designs fresh? Law: The pursuit of architecture is labor intensive. What I try to tap is a student's ability to generate the passion, the energy and the enthusiasm for design, regardless of material. In this current era even with the efficiency of digital technology, it is still probably going to be more than a 9 to 5 proposition; it's going to be an engagement. College professors used to say that one had to live, breathe and eat architecture, but to be fair, what they are referring to is the energy to be extended and the constant learning process. Thereby the origins of a good design might happen during or after dinner. So my advice for a student: look at oneself in the mirror and check for the energy level and passion and then pursue it.