Design The Future podcast
PARABOLA Architecture principal Carrie Meinberg Burke was a recent guest on the Design The Future podcast, where she talked with hosts Kira Gould and Lindsay Baker about her design philosophy, career trajectory, and thoughts on the future of the sustainable design movement.

You can listen to the podcast here, and a full transcript of the interview is available below.

I’m so excited about our guest today, we have Carrie Meinberg Burke with us today. Welcome, Carrie.


We’re so glad you could join us today. I’m going to start with a little introduction of Carrie—Carrie is an architect, an artist, a designer, and an inventor whose work operates at the nexus of art and science. Honed through decades of experience, her analysis/synthesis design methodology has been applied to challenging design problems to uncover unique forms of intrinsic performance and enduring beauty. Her work is infused with research into light, ecology, health, human-sensory perception and biomimicry.

After practicing on her own, she launched PARABOLA Architecture with Kevin Burke in 2011. PARABOLA’s built projects include 1212 Bordeaux, Google’s first completed ground-up building and prototype for their future workplaces. Carrie is also co-developing an innovative heating and cooling unit that applies biomimicry principles to optimize form for thermal comfort and energy efficiency, and she’s going to tell us more about that.

But first, Carrie, I wonder if we could start off—if you could tell us a little bit about how you got interested in architecture and sustainability. Really, what has been your path?

Thanks for having me, and asking these very provocative questions. It’s been great to reflect back on how I really got here for this podcast, and I think it’s really useful for all of us to do that now and then. It starts, of course, for me, with very supportive parents. They always supported my creativity and encouraged me, and there’s probably some significance to the fact that my mom is very much an intuitive creative person and my dad is a very methodical budget analyst. So I definitely come with a type of mind that I found was very fitting to architecture.

Growing up we lived overseas for a couple of years, so in the absence of media I used to keep myself occupied by doing things like growing salt crystals—I would super-saturate some salt water and I would get out the magnifying glass, and every day go and watch these crystals forming. And I’m bringing this up because I can see this as a type of observational curiosity that I had as a very young child, sort of seeing an order in nature and a sort of order in randomness that appears from that kind of study.

1981 Film | Persistance of Vision | Carrie Meinberg Burke | PARABOLA Architecture1. Stills from Persistence of Vision film by Carrie Meinberg Burke (1981)
I also used to make dolls and cars and just build things, but the doll part was really specific for me, because I was designing joints for the dolls and I would create joints out of pieces of wire. And there was always this part of me that has joined the idea of humans and human nature with the making of things. These dolls were something that were very anthropomorphic for me, both in terms of the structure of the body—which has always remained an interest for me, with health and well-being—but also a kind of analogue to how I understood structure as an architect.

Also, [there is] the idea of infusing a type of user personality in this process when I was little that I do find very relevant to imagining people who might occupy the buildings I’m designing. And that certainly has come more into play as the world focuses more on user experience, particularly through the internet, which has really brought forth that.

But architecture is really something that has that physicality built into it, the human scale built into it, and I just realized in my background that I really wanted to design the experience more so than the object. I almost went into film at a certain point after undergraduate school. Then I realized that maybe I could develop a design method that was more akin to filmmaking, where I would design the experience first, and then the artifact around that that would shape the experience.1

So I decided to go to grad school—this is after practicing for eight years and getting licensed—so I went into the post-professional program at Yale, which enabled me to bypass the technical requirements of the program, since I was already licensed, and really take anything I wanted from the college.
Theory to Practice | Museum of Light and Shadow to Timepiece | Yale | Carrie Meinberg Burke | PARABOLA Architecture
2. From theory to practice: Timepiece is a built exploration of Meinberg Burke’s theoretical work at Yale.
I found that it was really a time for me to uncover the black holes in my education, and to fill those in with things I hadn’t learned when I went right into architecture school in undergraduate school. So I ended up very focused on finding ways to deepen my design method and support it with coursework that would help to expand my thinking. I took courses like ‘Infinity and Perspective’ in the philosophy department. I took a seminar where we actually read Vetruvius and Alberti—the original texts—and had a lot of great seminar conversations about that.

At the same time, I was taking a course with Mario Gandelsonas that I expanded into three independent studios with him. And in part it was because I felt that the four semester structure would be a constant process of re-starting new each time. Again, grad school for me was a process of expanding and deepening my understanding, so I really wanted to push through walls that always come up in creativity, and find tools for breaking through those.

Those three semesters were focused on the work that eventually became our house and the studio for PARABOLA, which we’ve called Timepiece.2 And that work was really uncovering a way to shape form with light, and to shape the experience of architecture through more of an understanding of human perception.

In that process, I also developed a tool which I still use to this day, which is a process I call building little thought experiments.3 It’s something I do sometimes to explore an architectural idea without being burdened by needing to be architecture or a building. It might isolate a particular question or thought about architecture. I’m also using it to create some bench test experiments that will inform the convective unit Kira had mentioned that I’m working on with an engineer colleague that I’ll get to in a few minutes.

Thought experiment | Anamorphic Alberti Box | Yale | Carrie Meinberg Burke | PARABOLA Architecture3. Thought experiment: Anamorphic Alberti Box (1991) "...in that a row of columns is nothing other than a wall that has been pierced in several places by openings.
The other exposure to architecture and sustainability that was very important was that my husband and partner, Kevin Burke, was Bill McDonough’s partner for a number of years, so his parallel path working deeply with Cradle to Cradle and uncovering some of the very early solutions to sustainability—and uncovering questions—was happening concurrently with the work I was doing on our house, Timepiece.

As it turns out, Oberlin—the Oberlin building [McDonough + Partners] designed, that Lindsay actually studied in, was concurrent with the design and construction of our house. All of that was pre-LEED, there were really very few guidelines for how to achieve this important work.

Lindsay Baker:
I have to say, it’s cool to hear the mention of Oberlin, it reminds me of when I first  met you both. It just feels like such an experience, and you in particular I feel have lived so many lives in that time.

So this is a hard question that I want to ask you, because your work is pretty unique, but can you talk a little bit about people going into the field of architecture—what you think they should be good at or interested in? And maybe, if people are interested in particularly the path that you followed, what tips would you have or what guidance might you have?

Yes, that’s a great question. I did teach a semester with Kevin at Berkeley—which is another time that I got to know you—and I think in that process it really did help to solidify the way I feel about what it takes to prepare for this profession. One thing I’ll say is that I know that mine is a very unconventional, non-linear path, and that’s really by design. I have always felt that I needed some balance between introspective, quiet, focused work on my own and collaborative work with others, or working in obscurity at times, without scrutiny, and just developing an idea. And then, when it’s ready to hit air, feeling like that’s when I could really share it.

So I think that as people prepare for this profession, somehow maintaining connection to why it is you choose to be in the profession you’re in—like, what in your heart is really driving you to that interest—maintaining that and cultivating that work in parallel with what you’re learning with others in collaboration. I think it’s really important—and it’s played out in my work over time, how important this is—to uncover design principles that drive the design decisions. That design is so much about decision-making, and the clarity in that process often comes from having some sort of touchstone you can go back to to evaluate whether the design is on track, and if it’s really optimizing for the issues or kind of conundrums that it’s being asked to solve for.

Analysis-Synthesis design resonance | This - Not This | PARABOLA Architecture
5. PARABOLA’s design process (left) creates resonance between analysis and synthesis, in contrast to conventional processes that separate the two (right).
The other thing that I’ll say—and I learned this from Mario Gandelsonas when I was in grad school—he described the importance of switching gears between analysis and synthesis.5 His point was that you need to create a resonance in that that is so rapid it’s almost like a tone—so at some point you don’t even feel yourself switching gears as much. You’re just basically analyzing, and then making something, which then raises new questions, which you then analyze further, which then gives you more input—and you go back and forth.

That’s in comparison with something that you might consider a rush to form, which is to take all this information and make something quickly from it without building this resonance back and forth. And I’ve seen this in situations where I’ve been teaching or on a review, where I will see that a student has just spent most of their time analyzing, and then whatever form they present after that really has very little input from the analytical work they’ve done.

That’s so cool. I’m just reflecting on how the way that you think about your work—the way that you got to take a break from practice and go back to Yale and take classes in all these fascinating things, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is what that can lead to.’ I feel like there’s also something there about what it means to go back and think about process and think about theory.

So with that, we want to start talking a little bit more about the products, I guess, of your work, and wondering if you can tell us about some of the most meaningful accomplishments in your work life so far.

Yes, and that’s always the hard part, the narrowing down. But what you just said is so relevant because so much of what is most meaningful to me has been this ability to resonate not just between analysis and synthesis, but between theory and practice.

The method I was working on in grad school really did give me a launch point for how to rethink the way I was designing. But it didn’t, at that point, give me the tools to manifest that in built form. And so that’s where some of the projects—the actual built artifacts that came out of that—are the things that really did enable me to deepen that method, and to also create much more continuity with the theory. So it really created a way for me to have the opportunity to be in design leadership roles. In part, I feel like it gave me not only tools, but a type of confidence in the type of design process I was working with. And also it enabled me to be able to collaborate better with other professionals.

That’s one of the things that has been my main transition from design leadership as a sole practitioner to launching PARABOLA with Kevin, the way we’ve had the opportunity to both keep our individual approaches to design and actually create much more of what we consider ‘binocular vision.’ We don’t blend our work or compromise in the conventional sense, but we really came to this with our own backgrounds to bring to PARABOLA a type of design process that would allow us to manifest the process into an architecture that we feel is very fitting to, again, the conundrums it’s being asked to solve for. We often get really great challenges from our clients, who really want to resolve or solve very ambitious problems. It’s helped us to design with engineers and builders, bringing them to the table at the beginning instead of as an afterthought.
Forces Evolve Form | Human Nature | PARABOLA Architecture6. Forces Evolve Form visual matrix exploring the relationship between nature and the human as form drivers.
We definitely have this method we’ve dubbed ‘forces evolve form,’ that has enabled that to happen pretty directly, because it by definition needs to understand the forces that are happening, whether it’s structural engineering, mechanical engineering, constructability, or budget—any number of factors that inform architecture.6

Those forces need to be understood at the beginning, and we view those as form drivers. It’s different than a process that might be considered ‘make the form and then make everybody else solve the rest.’ Like, ‘make a shape, let the engineers come in and structure it, figure out how to make it thermally comfortable’—this is much more about bringing them in at the beginning.

And that’s helped us also be able to work for our clients in a way that respects their budget like it’s another material. We call it our ‘pile of stones’—with our whole team, actually, we tell them, ‘We have this pile of stones, and that’s all that we have for this project, and we need to all agree upon where we’re putting it and why.’ That goes back to the design principles that we all agree upon. Our practice is a small practice that has been very fortunate to work at all scales. Again, somewhat unconventional, but part of it is this type of alchemy that has come from the opportunities we’ve been given.
7. The parabolic north roof form of Timepiece under construction (1999).
The other accomplishment that is very meaningful to me is one of the most personal outcomes from this, which is the house that we live in and work in, that’s also the home for PARABOLA. Timepiece really is the manifestation of the theoretical work I was doing back in graduate school.7

It has been an experience that I didn’t expect in the beginning. All the intellectual, theoretical work I had done to shape form with light and understand where the sun is and when, and then find the corresponding angles in architecture that would unlock a form response—all of those things were completely understandable to me. But then once we framed the house and once the oculus was installed, I remember just sitting in what we call the observatory space—you might call it a living room—sitting in there and just being made dizzy and somewhat traumatized by watching this beam of light as it moved down the wall and across the floor and up the other wall, that the earth is spinning so fast, and time is moving so quickly, and our lifespan is such a minute moment.

It was one of those moments I view as akin to what I hear astronauts feel—a much different version, on a smaller scale—but they call it the overview effect, which is that when you’re far away from the earth, there are certain profound experiences and realizations you can have about, you know, life and death and very profound things.

I definitely had that reaction at a different scale, and it came from the realization that the sun, its distance from the earth, and this beam of light coming into Timepiece was one long beam of light, and I was at one end of it and the sun was at the other. And there was this movement happening, and at this latitude we’re rotating at 788 miles per hour, so the other dizzying part was the sense that we’re spinning really fast, and we’ve just gotten used to it, like we’re on a ship.
Kevin Carrie and Ava | Mapping Equinox solar noon | Timepiece Residence and Studio Charlottesville | PARABOLA Architecture8. Kevin Burke, Carrie Meinberg Burke, and their daughter Ava mapping Timepiece's sunbeam at solar noon (spring equinox, 2000).
I bring this up in part to say that the ability to take a theoretical idea and not only build it but live in it and experience it has been the greatest learning experience. And that perspective I’m mentioning is very key to a type of understanding of nature and our place in it that has been key to our point of view about sustainability and design—and how they are truly one thing, and how critical they are in terms of the continuity of life on earth. And how our built environment has the ability to cause harm to that, or to create health and well-being from that.

The other thing with Timepiece that has been very meaningful was that we got to be our own client. I was the contractor and the resident.8 So to be in these roles, and also to do this over what is currently like 22 years and counting, it’s just a constant evolution. It’s been very much our laboratory, and it’s made me a better designer for clients by having that perspective of being an owner.

And also, I have much better communication with the builder side—my drawings are much different than they were before building this house. The communication of what’s really key for someone who’s making something, and really trying to help introduce them to why a design is the way it is, so they not only understand it but what always happens is that they contribute to it and make it better. That’s happened with every builder we’ve worked with.
North roof | Timepiece Residence and Studio Charlottesville | PARABOLA Architecture9. Exterior view of Timepiece from the north.
Ava in equinox sunbeam | Timepiece Residence and Studio Charlottesville | PARABOLA Architecture10. Ava at Timepiece (2000).
The laboratory part of Timepiece has been also a way to not only understand daylight and form, but to understand thermal comfort solutions that have led to this convective unit we’re working on, and developing a material palette that embraces weathering instead of maintenance.

One thing I want to note, too, is that the shape of the north roof of Timepiece is defined by the slope and skew of the beams in the roof, which match the angles of the sun at the winter solstice. So as the beam of light comes through the oculus, it skims the ceiling of the north roof, and the shape you see from the north is this segment of a cone. It’s just a very beautiful form, and it’s something that I didn’t draw or conjure—it’s a mapping of natural forces.

One of the things that we have is that Kevin took this very beautiful photo of the north roof, and it’s very meaningful to us that Lance Hosey actually used that photograph in his book, The Shape of Green, to accompany his epilogue titled ‘Beauty Manifesto.’9 We’ve had conversations with him in the past about how that process of making shape from natural forces results in a type of beauty that really transcends aesthetic preference.

The other note on Timepiece is that it has been so important for me, personally, to have our daughter Ava grow up here. Kevin and I both feel that the opportunity for her to not only grow up here, but also to have witnessed the construction going back all the way to the early design phases, has been significant.10

When I’ve talked to her about what it’s been like for her, she has described—and by the way, she’s 30 years old now, so she was six when we started building it—she said that her observation about living in Timepiece all her life has been that she realized that not all buildings are consciously tuned to their site and daylight, and that this building is really locked into its place. And that definitely informs the places she chooses to spend time, whether it’s a place to live, or a coffee shop, or a place to study. She learned that it’s possible to choreograph the space that you’re in and how you spend time, and she described her awareness of time from daylight as something that is a ‘background process.’

The things that Kevin remembers so much about living here are some of the moments of crisis we’ve all gone through, like the first equinox after 9/11 we had an open house and people just came here with the light and observed that and it was very quiet. The Charlottesville incident in 2017—to be able to be here while it felt like the world was in total chaos. And then for us to be able to work here during COVID and really not miss a beat in terms of our day-to-day experience—this is really how we’d been working for years—but also to realize the importance of ventilation and natural daylight and a really healthy environment.

The other project I want to mention is Google. The work that led to 1212 Bordeaux—which Kira mentioned as their first completed ground-up building—preceding that, we had been hired to work with Google by Mary Davidge and John Igoe to work on their design guidelines with Chris Coleman. This was a time when they were really wanting to communicate better with architects in terms of communicating their needs and the ways they wanted design teams to address their designs. And that process really led to the opportunity to design 1212 Bordeaux.
11. To-scale comparison of Timepiece and 1212 Bordeaux.
It was so much like the process of transforming theory into practice—this was transforming design intention from a client into a built reality. We worked closely with Josh Portner, who was the project executive, and John Castignoli, who was the project manager at Devcon, to develop a design-build process that also brought the engineers together with the design team and the client.

The key thing that’s really unique about it is that, in applying the forces-evolve-form lens to it, they asked us to solve for Googler focus, so people could actually get their work done and not be distracted. We realized that in order to do that—the elements they were asking us to solve for were light, air, and noise—those were ethereal materials, much like what drove Timepiece: light, thermal comfort, these other qualities. So much of architecture is not material.11

So working to solve for light, air, and noise, we developed what is actually a very unconventional solution to the location of a building core. The realization, or the epiphany, was that if you’re trying to design out distraction in order to let people focus, one thing that you need is some sort of buffer between buzz areas and focus areas.

A lot of conventional buildings tend to blend those functions, and you get a low-grade—or at times high-grade—irritation from that kind of juxtaposition. So we were able to not only design the architectural core and shell but also the interior architecture, and used program elements like meeting rooms and elevators to create a buffer between buzz zones and focus zones.12

Buzz buffer focus spectrum | building plans and section | Google at 1212 Bordeaux | PARABOLA Architecture 12. Spectrum of buzz, buffer, and focus zones at 1212 Bordeaux.
And those zones also influenced the way we approached daylight and acoustics. The buzz zone allows direct beam light to come in, it’s got the cafés, people can choose to be in direct beam daylight, and it’s a bit more buzzy acoustically. And then the focus area is all lit from above, and it has very rigorous acoustical mitigations, and beautiful daylight with no direct beam whatsoever.

So these are intentions that go into the design, and yet what we realized, I think, working with this idea of designing the experience, is that it can’t be so rigid that people feel like the architecture is trying to direct them in a certain way. It’s an idea of giving people a range of choices and allowing their preferences to guide the way they use a building.

Carrie, I love all that. It’s so interesting—I have not had the good fortune to visit 1212, but I have been in Timepiece, and it’s so interesting hearing you talk about the two of those together, and the connections between them. That’s just fascinating.

I do want to give you the opportunity to talk about a project you’re working on now that you would like listeners to know about.

Yes, it’s this ongoing work in Timepiece to develop a mechanical system optimized for thermal comfort and acoustics—which is to say, quiet thermal comfort. I’ve been working closely with Galen Staengl, a local engineer we’ve been collaborating with for years now, and we have worked off and on on this idea of a convective unit.

It’s work that’s ongoing, so I look forward to sharing more of that as we are able to share more of it, but in essence it’s a type of element that will allow the space to be cooled using convection, designing out fan energy—the energy and the noise of that—and creating a type of adaptive thermal comfort that feels much more akin to walking along a stream in the summer, where it’s very warm but you have this kind of plume of cool air that goes up your body. It’s essentially the physics of displacement ventilation.

When we lived in the house before implementing this type of design, we had been using a type of fan coil unit that’s noisy. It’s our temporary solution, which has been useful because it prompted us to not just keep going with it, because sometimes the irritants of those things can really prompt us to improve the situation. That allowed us to test this idea in our house, because we do have geothermal and a water-to-water heat pump, so we have all the equipment here that drives our radiant slab floors, and we were able to create essentially a branch off of those pieces of equipment to feed our convective unit prototype.

Galen and I built the initial prototypes literally out of fin tubes and garden hoses and clamps. It was dubbed our ‘Frankenstein’ but it was very much an opportunity to put a number of different types of sensors in the unit and get a lot of data that enabled us to optimize through two prototypes.

But I think the main thing for me, that has made me stick with this idea—and it was up in our studio while we were doing prototyping and I sat near it—was that the sensation of the cooling was so wonderful and different than what I had experienced, and it was very quiet. It felt like something that was a unique way to bring a natural property of convection into the built environment in a way that was very subtle and with a lot more variability than when you try to heat or cool the entire volume of air.

Of course what we’ve learned since then, too, through this optimization process, is that we can reduce some of its physical elements—so we’re trying to sort of dematerialize it, to make it more affordable but also just find that sweet spot for the correct amount of material to the results needed. So then coming from that analysis is the realization that it saves a lot of energy, as well. Our goal is to continue prototyping that in Timepiece.

We worked, for a brief time, with an NSF grant with a team at UVA a few years ago, and the work we did then was to see if we could use computational fluid dynamic models to help us optimize from the initial prototypes. But what Galen and I quickly realized is that in order to really solve for this device and make it something that is different than the way most forced-air mechanical equipment is designed, we really needed a different method. And computational fluid dynamic modeling cannot give you answers, it can only tell you what you ask it.

So Galen and I have been recently embracing more of a biomimetic process to uncover not only the problem set that we’re solving for, but the actual form drivers for how this unit will become shaped and optimized. So we’re right in the middle of that now.
South Terrace exterior view | Resilient Workplace | PARABOLA Architecture 13. PARABOLA’s concept design for a new workplace typology, focused on providing occupants with safe air under airborne pandemic and wildfire conditions.
Resilient thermal chimney design | Daylight and natural displacement ventilation| PARABOLA Architecture14. Thermal chimneys with angled skylights provide natural light and displacement ventilation.
The second thing we’re working on right now at PARABOLA is something that we had the opportunity to work with a long-term client on, during COVID actually, to evaluate their [existing] workspaces to understand COVID and how the workplace might be affected by the pandemic. It became a collaboration with this client and Eric Solrain of Integral to work on a naturally-ventilated building typology that is something between a flexible loft and a lab.13

We’re calling it ‘Project X’ for the time being, but it was a full study that was really proof of concept that natural ventilation and displacement ventilation not only are key to reducing airborne pathogens like COVID—or any other airborne pathogen—it also allowed a type of energy-savings overlay, and an understanding that indoor environmental quality, when designed correctly, is really a process of using displacement ventilation and natural ventilation to rethink the assumption that buildings should have fixed air systems.

We started with that initial concept, and working with Eric and his team on form factors for ventilation, we developed inspiring-looking forms within the building that were thermal chimneys and skylights, and they created separation between these loft-like spaces.14 That work is something that’s ongoing, and we hope will become a built project at some point.

That’s fantastic, Carrie. It’s so interesting to me to see some of the through-lines here, and I’m just taken with this idea about starting with the human experience and letting the artifact come after that. You can just see that thread through so many of these things.

But I want to shift gears just a little bit, and talk a bit about the industry in which you operate. The green building industry is often thought of as a movement, and I’m wondering—do you feel like you’re a part of an industry or part of a movement, how do you think about that for yourself?

I’d say I definitely feel like part of a movement, because I think even the term movement implies a type of change and action. I think it’s less about it being a label, and I think the other part of it is that I think the movement has become more and more clear about how design and sustainability should be one thing. I definitely feel part of that because we were doing things similar to this before there were the terms or the protocols, and I think that tools have really become so sophisticated—like Living Building Challenge. And obviously LEED has managed, in its history, to influence a lot of buildings. But I think that I consider it a movement because there’s a lot more to do.

The other thing I feel fortunate for is that we, in our involvement with the movement—even in our small practice—have had the opportunity of collaborating with Google, and as a client at scale they have significantly moved the needle on sustainability and health. Working closely with Mary Davidge and John Igoe—and obviously we’ve worked closely with Lindsay as well, in that capacity—just the heavy lift it is to make buildings transform in order to be more sustainable and to provide healthy environments for people. It does take a significant number of people and a significant amount of expertise, and Google brought all of that together.

Thank you so much for that, Carrie, and thank you for being somebody who is always moving the needle in that way. I think it’s something that’s really critical.

I want to ask you now a bit about the future. I’m really curious, from all the thoughtful and visionary work that you do—where did you think we would be in the 2020s, or in the year 2020, even though that’s a couple years away? I remember that’s a year we talked about at Oberlin. But where did you think we would be at this moment, in the field and with the work, and how does where we are compare?

I really thought that we would be further along. Based on the strength of the early thinkers, and the amount of information that was getting out there—whether that’s through David Orr, or he’s described the thinkers that influenced him, I mean this goes way back—and just the way, unfortunately, that things became politicized around sustainability, I just thought we’d be further. I didn’t think we would have to keep stepping back so far, and that’s unfortunately where I feel like my anticipation would have been more optimistic than where we are.

Yeah, exactly. I’m with you. I do think there’s something about being around somebody like David Orr, who’s trying to kind of rally everybody, that made me feel that sense of deadline and that sense of obligation that you probably felt, too. So specifically, where do you think we’ve done well in progressing the world of sustainability in buildings, and where do you think our major areas are that we haven’t made enough progress?

Well I do think there are major areas of progress, because the number of tools we have and the progress we’ve made on fabrication methods and building science has really driven solutions that are new and different. But I have to say, part of what I really appreciate, especially when it comes to something like building science, is that it’s about remembering things we’ve forgotten.

When you really look at Vitruvius and Alberti, they understood these principles way back then. And we’ve just kind of forgotten, over and over. So I think it’s just a process of remembering and understanding the value of beauty and aesthetics. And certainly, biomimicry and biophilia as acknowledgements—specifically, biomimicry as a tool-set and way of thinking—is really informing things. It seems to be informing, at the moment, a lot more in the realm of industrial design than architecture at scale, but that’s what I strive to understand better, or to try to leverage more.

Circular economy Cradle to Cradle thinking is obviously something that was a major fulcrum in moving things forward, and there’s a lot more work to be done there but that’s another area of great progress.

As far as lack of progress, at this point I think that sometimes I feel sustainability is still a bit of an overlay in a design process instead of integral or at the front-end. And it’s partly missed opportunities that I see in that, and it’s partly that sometimes it forces teams who take a heroic form and figure out a way to put people into it, and to make it energy efficient or thermally comfortable. So I think that’s something, to me, that still goes on and I point to a little bit of the Instagram, social media realm we’re in, where buildings are meant to look great and flashy in that medium, and not necessarily in reality.

I would say that it’s so important to see buildings in person, or to experience them in person, because the representation of an image is just a different read completely than the reality of a building.

I think back to one of the best things I heard about 1212 when we designed it and built it is that Josh Portner said that ‘it’s a building with a soul.’ Like, that’s the kind of thing that you can’t get really from an image, you have to really feel that. I think it’s a resonance with the human condition that’s really inspiring when that happens, and I think it makes connections back to nature and other larger topics.

Oh man I love that. Such a good point, it really does feel like social media is really exacerbating some of that issue of, ‘who are we designing for?’ But having a building that people feel has a soul—there’s probably no checklist for that.

That is so true. Although I’m sure it’s worth trying to find one.

Well we are almost out of time, but we have one question that we like to wrap up on, Carrie. So I’m very excited to hear your answer for this—who are you most inspired by these days, in terms of leaders of any kind? They could be past or present, they don’t even have to be people, but what is it that keeps you going?

Ptolemy's Quadrant | handheld sundial | Carrie Meinberg Burke | PARABOLA Architecture 16. Ptolomy’s quadrant.
I actually find that it’s still kind of the rear-view mirror that I find most inspiring as I’m going forward. And that’s the historical thinkers like Ptolomy, who designed the quadrant that’s a handheld sundial that takes the universe, makes it legible, and fits in the palm of your hand.16 That, to me, is an inspiring object that I have in front of me all the time, with the aspiration of, ‘I wish I could think like that, design like that, observe like that.’

I mentioned Vitruvius and Alberti—there are these fundamental tomes that were written about the built environment that have a lot more wisdom in them than we often remember, and I think that reading the original text was very enlightening to me, to realize how relevant they always are.

There are certain givens in the built environment, and for human beings—the way we are, our sensory perception, our scale—that continue to be relevant. But also, Mario Gandelsonas told us that if you really want to innovate, you really have to understand history. You can’t go forward with significant contributions without understanding what was behind.

The experience of being at Yale and being able to go into a couple of Kahn’s buildings, and visiting Kahn’s buildings over time—his work is really inspiring to me, and to us, especially the Kimball, which just recently turned 50. So I think that there are lessons in those buildings, especially if you think about—and ideally, visit—the Kimball, and perceive the sense of human scale with this vast scale that happens concurrently, and the way daylight and material is so simply, beautifully, and elegantly manifested.
17. Homage to Duchamp's 1927 Readymade "Door, 11 rue Larrey.” Duchamp challenges the French proverb "a door must be either open or closed." Translated as drapes and doors in Timepiece, redundancy is "designed-out".
And I’m also inspired by Duchamp’s work.17 I always have been, since I learned about his work—but especially the idea, again, of mastering somewhat of a classical training, as he did, and really rethinking what art is. Just tackling such a big topic through the initiative of the work itself. Not just talking about it, but doing work that was provocative.

In terms of other movement leaders, I think that Christine Williamson is doing a great job educating architects and contractors and others about building science. Christine has a great gift in explaining and simplifying the physics behind building science so we can understand the ‘why’ behind a wall section or a type of material assembly. And I still admire Janine Benyus for what she’s been able to do in translating the concept of biomimicry into an actionable process.

Yeah, that’s a good one to end on. Janine Benyus is wonderful and inspiring in so many ways. Thank you for that, for really bringing it back—I’m also a believer that we’ve lost some of the wisdom of the past. And thank you so much for being on the show, Carrie. It’s been such a pleasure, such an expansive conversation.

Well it’s really been a pleasure for me, and I really admire what you’re doing with this podcast and I look forward to listening to everyone.