News & Publications
The College Magazine - Fall 2008
A SENSE OF PLACE
François Lévy (SF87)
François Lévy (SF87)
Born in Paris and raised in the U.S., François Lévy graduated from the Santa Fe campus in 1987. He'd come to St. John's at the tender age of 16, and left without a clear direction. "I thought architecture sounded interesting, so did diplomacy and foreign service. So I applied to a lot of different grad schools, and the architecture schools accepted me." This Aristotelian accident led him to a career he loves.
Lévy moved to Austin (where he still lives with his wife and three children) to attend the University of Texas' first professional degree program for students who, like him, had not studied architecture as an undergraduate. It was during a six-month internship in Australia that he "finally fell in love with architecture—before that we were just dating." After graduating with his master's in 1993, he plied his new trade with several noted Austin firms, while also teaching at UT and, in 1995, working briefly in Paris on a new line of the Métro.
Architecture, says Lévy, is as much science as art—perhaps more. "While you make use of your artistic faculties, in the end, you have to end up with a building that people can inhabit." The most gorgeously conceived structure is useless if it doesn't stay up. But there's certainly a creative dimension—"pure functionality leads to things like strip malls. There's a really fine line you have to walk between self-indulgence and practicality, between ego and humility. You have to invest yourself in the building or it won't be any good." On the other hand, when an architect becomes too self-centered, "you get buildings neighbors love to complain about."
In May 2008, Lévy received another UT graduate degree, this time in architectural engineering. He'd returned to school for a variety of reasons—for one, he says, "I've always been a frustrated scientist," and the refinement of techne offered by the discipline was "a way to scratch that itch." But he also, in the progress of his career in mostly residential architecture, found his concerns shifting from buildings themselves to their interaction with, and impact on, the environment. "I was working on an 8,000-square-foot house for empty nesters—it wasn't even their primary residence. I kinda felt like a fiddlemaker for Nero."
Built around two relocated rooms of a German Homesteader's cabin, François Lévy's MoonRise Ranch
was designed to exist in complete harmony with its site in the Texas Hill Country.
Lévy's attraction to the trend of sustainability comes from his concept of architecture as beholden to place, "the intersection of climate, technology, and society." Houses were formerly built of necessity, using materials at hand—earthen structures in desert New Mexico, wooden cabins in forested Wisconsin, half-underground sod houses in treeless, humid Kansas. Without climate control or artificial lighting, buildings were oriented to take advantage of sun and wind; the size of a residence depended not just on the comfort of the inhabitants, but the practicality of heating, cooling, and maintaining the structure.
Technological advances in building techniques and materials have meant that, provided with the means, homeowners can impose any look or style they want on their dwellings, ignoring landscape and climate. At its most innocuous, this attitude leads only to incongruous eyesores, but as American houses get bigger and families get smaller, resource and energy consumption per capita explode, negatively impacting the disregarded environment. In a worst-case scenario, the sudden re-introduction of the outside world can make ill-suited houses the cause of needless human suffering. Lévy sees this as one of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina: "I saw a connection between how we choose to develop on a large scale and the inevitable effect of natural disasters. When you build responsibly to the climate, when you don't have conveniences, it's less of a hardship."
His master's project was entitled "Indoor Air Quality Engineering Challenges in Lunar Habitats," based in part on a paper he delivered (with J. Fardal) at the 2007 Rutgers Symposium on Lunar Settlements, exploring the impact of radon-emitting lunar soil in the hermetically sealed environments future settlers might live in. Concerns like these, though currently theoretical, are a logical extension of the idea of responsible architecture as subservient to a location's available resources.
Though Lévy has been practicing in his field since 1993, with his own firm since 1997, he feels his career is just beginning. "One of the really beautiful things about architecture is that you don't really hit your stride until you're 50. You peak when you're 70. Hot young designers may be the darlings of the magazines, but their work isn't necessarily profound—the profession's not like football, more like baseball. Or curling."
More about Lévy's design philosophy and photos of his work can be found at francoislevy.com.
By Anna Perleberg (SF02)