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Designing Architecture Beyond the Limits

An Interview with Architect Sean Gallagher

Architect Sean Gallagher discusses design workflows and strategies for competitive architectural design.


"Our studio, over the years, has developed a strong culture of sketching and debating ideas. We encourage arguing and putting all ideas on the table."

Sean Gallagher - I am the Director of Sustainable Design at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a 115-person interdisciplinary design studio that integrates architecture, the performing arts and the visual arts.

I am Adjunct Faculty at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, with a research focus on re-evaluating the traditional relationships between public and urban environments to develop new strategies to increase social space through sustainable design.

Net Zero Urban Housing: Exterior Perspective

As an architect designing for competitions, what are your primary design goals? How is competition-based design different from other focuses in architecture?

We rely on Design Competitions to provide us the majority of our work. Most competitions are structured as short charrettes where you pitch a vision for the client’s project. The key to a charrette is having the ability to quickly communicate your ideas through sketching in front of consultants and clients while thinking through the vision of a project. It’s this fast pace, on-the-fly workflow of communicating ideas that makes competition work most different from other architectural practices. 

What makes a successful competition entry, and what, in your view, sets your work apart from other entries?

I think our studio, over the years, has developed a strong culture of sketching and debating ideas. We encourage arguing and putting all ideas on the table for discussion. It’s not a very structured process, rather more fluid and nimble, where everyone gets a voice around the table and is encouraged to speak up. Some of the things built today were generated by the youngest members of our Studio, because through debate, their ideas rose to the surface as the strongest.

Museum: Interior Perspective

Congratulations on your winning designs for the University of Chicago and U.S. Olympic Museum, they are stunning buildings. What is your design process like for architecture like this?

The design process for projects like these is a roller coaster. First, you are faced with the reality that your design proposal, the architecture itself, can never be as inspiring as the people for which the place is conceived. Then, if you are fortunate enough to have found an idea that feels inspirational, you are quickly thrown back into the trenches trying to satisfy all the detailed needs of the many stakeholders. During this process, you realize that architecture can not be everything to everybody, no matter how hard you try. It’s a real roller coaster of failures and successes. But I love this roller coaster.

David Rubenstein Forum Project: Building Massing Sketch

In the end, to be successful, these projects require designing up to the last minute, all the way through occupation of the building. Our studio never puts the pencil down, always in pursuit of that impossible desire to make the concept as inspiring as the people it represents.

David Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago, Photography by Brett Beyer, Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

What are your preferred design tools? How does Concepts fit into your workflow?

I do not own a desktop computer, laptop, or even a sketchbook anymore. I evolved my entire workflow over to the iPad in 2015. The iPad gave me a newfound freedom to draw at any scale, in any place, at any time inspiration came to me. Whether I was in the studio, on a plane, or in front of a fireplace with whiskey, the iPad empowered me to sketch in that moment with great detail and precision in any desired medium. 

My workflow incorporates multiple apps for different drawing techniques. However, Concepts is currently the workhorse of my creative process. Concepts was early to the market with a vector-based engine that captures the motion of my initial, sketchy pencil strokes, and embeds the data in a way that lets me modify those successful strokes post production. This ability to refine my drawings over time from sketch to client presentation illustration was invaluable to my fast-paced charrette workflow. It improved my drawing abilities.

Jersey City Research District: Masterplan Sketch

How have mobile design tools like the iPad, Concepts and other apps affected your creative process and productivity?

We, as architects, draw through our critical thinking process. Drafting and modeling with a computer mouse or pointer tool will never offer the same fluidity between mind and hand that has evolved within our species for over millions of years. I wrote a piece for AD Architectural Design Magazine (AD 247 WORKFLOWS) in 2017 where I discussed how the invention of these new apps that draw on glass will improve the design process in a more meaningful way than any other computational advancement. These new drawing tools take the power of computation and place it within the cultural construct of creative people. It’s a game changer for the art of Design.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Academic Building: Sustainable Design Diagram

I would also like to mention that the iPad and Concepts have greatly improved my work-life balance. I am no longer tethered to a desk or computer to develop my ideas. I can work just as productively in transit to different cities or from the comfort of my home, as I could from staying late in the studio. This new ability to work on drawings around my own schedule results in my family seeing me a lot more than they used to. And since I am no longer feeling guilty choosing between work and family, it has made the times I am focused on work more fruitful. It fundamentally gave me better control over my life.


Sean A. Gallagher is an Associate Principal and Director of Sustainable Design at Diller Scofidio + Renfro. He has presented his research and work on industrialism, urbanism, and sustainable design at national and international conferences, providing the keynote lectures at the International Congress of Bioclimatic Architecture “High Technology and Sustainable Design” in Mexico City, the Green Building Council's “Buildgreen Argentina + Expo International Conference," and the AIA’s “United States Goals for LPOE: Design Excellence, Sustainability, Security and Transit.”

Sean is faculty at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and New Jersey Institute of Technology School of Architecture. He is a member of the Jersey City Arts and Architecture Committee as well as the Embankment Preservation Coalition Board Member that is transforming Jersey City’s abandoned Pennsylvania raised rail into a naturally rooted urban downtown forest.

Cover: United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum, Photography by Jason O'Rear, Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Interview by Erica Christensen


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