Lone Ranger

Architect Dan Hisel dishes on teaching, working solo, and using Chinese food to fuel the creative process.

BOSTON HOME: You’re a relative newcomer to the Boston area. What’s it like to be a modernist architect working in a region with a conservative streak?
Dan Hisel: A lot of architects moan about the entrenched traditionalism of New England, but there is great architecture here. It comes in large part from the schools where people like Sert and Gropius established a base for modern design. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve published a few projects, so my work can remain an exploration of what contemporary architecture is and how it engages us.

BH: What are some of your favorite buildings here?
DH: Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard. Steven Holl’s dormitory building at MIT. That’s a very controversial building; a lot of architects don’t like it, or say they don’t like it. The ICA? It’s either loved or hated. I think it’s pretty great. And I love the BPL, a classic and just so beautifully done. Except for Phil Johnson’s addition — I wish they hadn’t done that.

BH: Any local landmarks you’d love to redesign?
DH: I’ll leave that up to the thesis students. They seem to tackle City Hall with unending vigor. I don’t have any grand aspirations to do skyscrapers or big fancy buildings. I’m trying to keep it simple, trying to concentrate on what’s in front of me.

BH:
How does your generation differ from the architects who came before and after you?
DH: I’m 43, and my class at Yale was one of the last to go through there without a computer. Everything we did was by hand; we were trained in the craft of making, of handling physical objects. I think in some ways that colors your vision.

BH: Which of your projects best represents your design philosophy?
DH: The three projects I’m best known for all do a good job of representing my interests. But the practice of architecture, the practice of getting things built, is hard: Finding clients willing to take risks and contractors willing to attain a certain level of craft isn’t easy. So I think that my project’s still out there. If it weren’t, I’d just become a painter.

BH: Your Z-Box project got a lot of buzz for being what you’ve dubbed “furnitecture,” which incorporates things like beds, shelving, and closets into structural design. What’s the thinking there?
DH: Furniture typically mediates our interaction with architecture. The Z-Box and, now, the Z-Loft are a form of architecture-furniture that’s immediately interactive. You engage with it directly, and I like that. If I could do a furnitecture house that had no furniture, it would be fantastic.