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Two Lehigh architecture alums move into national spotlight

Actor Brad Pitt, left, is cosponsor of the competition. Copyright Getty Images.

Two former Lehigh architecture students were recently named finalists in the Global Green USA Sustainable Design Competition for New Orleans. The nationally publicized competition is co-sponsored by actor Brad Pitt.

Matthew Berman and Andrew Kotchen, both 1994 graduates of Lehigh, joined members of their Manhattan-based design firm, workshop/apd, in the design of a plan titled “Green O.L.A.: Permaculture and the Rebuilding of Life and Verdancy in Holy Cross.”

It was submitted in the competition designed by the national environmental organization founded by former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev to “create a new approach to solving the world’s most pressing environmental changes by reconnecting humanity to the environment.”

The pair’s architectural firm went head to head with 160 others to emerge as one of only six finalists. This is the pair’s second winning entry in a major international New Orleans rebuilding competition. In April 2006, the firm’s entry was selected out of more than 500 submissions for a “High Density on the High Ground” competition co-sponsored by Tulane University and Architectural Record magazine.

“The competitions do take a lot of time and require a significant allocation of resources,” says Berman from his Manhattan office. “But you do them because they allow you to explore ideas and get outside your realm.”

Plus, he concedes, they afford his firm considerable exposure.

“It was pretty exciting seeing Brad Pitt talk about our project on the TODAY show, which created much more of a splash because he was involved,” says Berman. “It’s been noted that he probably would have been an architect if he hadn’t been an actor, so his involvement in this whole project has really offered much broader, mainstream exposure for the concept of sustainable design.”

Adds Kotchen: “It’s certainly a bit of a drain on our firm’s workforce, but we’re more than willing put in the extra time to give a project like this the attention it deserves. We’ve been working to this point for the past five to seven years, and it’s all beginning to pay off.”

This latest development, Kotchen says, “certainly is steering us in a very exciting direction.”

The finalists for the Global Green USA competition traveled to New Orleans for site visits and community charettes, which are intensive, on-site efforts to refine the design. Their final project was to be presented publicly in the city of New Orleans, a year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area, on Aug. 29. The next day, the jury will announce the winner.

A complementary partnership

Berman and Kotchen founded their architecture firm in 1999 with design offices in Manhattan and Nantucket. Together, the partners work toward “synthesizing the problematic restraints of context with a progressive understanding of contemporary living.” Their work has been featured in numerous publications, including Architectural Record, Interior Design, Metropolitan Home, House Beautiful, Boston Home and Garden, InStyle magazine, the New York Times and the Boston Globe.

Tony Viscardi, the art and architecture associate professor who played a significant role in nurturing a love of the discipline in both Berman and Kotchen, remembers the two as having very distinct but complementary approaches.

“Matt was always the more outgoing of the two,” he says. “He was involved in theatre, very gregarious. Andrew was more reserved, very inquisitive and extremely thorough.”

Both left lasting impressions, Viscardi says.

“Matt actually developed the prototype for a publication that still lives on here at Lehigh, a publication called eyelevel, which was a critical journal of the visual arts,” he says. “And Andrew really stands out in my recollection as the perfect counterpoint to Matt. They both went onto graduate school – Matt to Columbia, which is more theoretical, and Andrew to Michigan, which trains architects as a professional school. The combination of their skills is ideal.”

Viscardi’s nurturing influence is still felt by both former students.

“He had a profound impact on me and how I view architecture,” says Berman. “I really remember him encouraging us to look at design in a different, almost radical sense. And he’s incredibly committed. He has more enthusiasm and energy for what he does than any other professor I’ve ever had.”

Kotchen offer similarly effusive praise.

“His energy and enthusiasm were invaluable to me as an aspiring architect,” he says. “I can honestly say that he is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever worked with.”

For more information, visit GlobalGreen.org.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Monday, August 28, 2006

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