Profiles in design: Seattle architect Stephen Van Dyck

Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.

Stephen Van Dyck is a partner at Seattle-based LMN Architects, whose projects range from a school of music in Iowa to a convention center in Cleveland. After starting his career on the East Coast at SHoP Architects and Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, he moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009. He spoke with Doggerel about Legos, cathedrals, and the frontier spirit.


I see a lot of models around the office here, some that are finished but a lot in progress — is it safe to say the process of making things with your hands is fairly important at LMN?

I’d say in this day and age, it’s really difficult for people who remain only digital to understand the architectural supply chain. But that supply chain can exist on your desk if you know how to go from a sketch to a three-dimensional model to a laser cutter or a 3-D printer, or even just printing it out and cutting out chipboard and foam core. That’s a microcosm for what ends up happening in the supply chain of making buildings.

The craft of making is revelatory. In the way we work, the artifact itself — the model — isn’t precious. There are a lot of architects who treasure the artifact, treating it like a jewel. At LMN we create buildings and spaces for cities and people — lots of people. That can be inherently messy. Our prototypes and our models are not clean and beautiful because we need to test, tear apart, and try new things interactively together and with stakeholders.

It’s kind of funny actually — one night, my oldest son, who’s five, was refusing to go to sleep. He wanted to make a machine that poured him milk so that Mommy and I didn’t have to do it in the mornings, and he wanted to build it out of Legos. So I figured, “All right! Whatever it takes to get you to just calm down.” So there we were, playing with Legos, and he asked me, “That meeting you had with those people, did they like the Legos?” He remembered that we use Legos in our office.

Today kids have Minecraft and beyond, and a lot of kids can even play with SketchUp and Rhino and things like that, but kids still play with Legos, as simple as they are. And so do we — I think it’s a really important part of stretching your spatial imagination. What architects do, it’s the simple process of having an idea and figuring out how to get there. It’s problem-solving. Of course the problem-solving that we do is also social and technological and technical, but it’s all a problem-solving exercise, just like having an idea and trying to build it out of Legos. It’s important to remember that simplicity.

University of Iowa Voxman Music Building

So I’m guessing you played with Legos a lot as a kid, subconsciously learning this revelatory design process?

I did, and somewhat randomly, I loved to build cathedrals. I always thought Gothic cathedrals were really interesting. I started singing in choirs around the age of seven, and we sang in churches and cathedrals throughout North America and England. So that’s where I was first introduced to cathedrals. Even as a child I realized there was a relationship between space and sound, even if I couldn’t really articulate that concept.

Looking back, though, I think cathedrals were just the perfect symbiosis between function and form and sound, and the buildings somehow physically manifested the way they sounded. I still to this day think that music and architecture are the most profound gifts that religion has given us, and to me you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the experience.

Gothic cathedrals are also particularly interesting to me now because of the way they were made over generations. They were constantly evolving. That’s a crazy construct — that you can have a general idea for a building, but it sometimes doesn’t manifest itself for hundreds of years, and ultimately the result is likely a lot different than the original idea. Just like a city. That’s so cool.

Is that kind of function-and-form aesthetic something that drives your work?

My interests have always been in performance-driven design, approaching each opportunity as, “Let’s solve the problem and figure out at a later time what the aesthetic result is.” And nine times out of ten, the best solution also winds up being beautiful, culturally and socially.

Every single one of our projects is a prototype. We don’t repeat them. We’re not building chain stores or buildings with a one-size-fits-all generic function. While those types of buildings are inevitable in certain circumstances, I really see each of the projects I work on as an opportunity to optimize the design of the space for the function it will serve and the people who will use the building. Because that’s the end goal, right, to make great spaces that people will want to use?

A great example of this, although it’s not a building, is a sailboat. I’ve always loved boats because they are just what they need to be — a good sailboat is just trying to solve the physics of going upwind or downwind and being safe and dry. And, like I said before, often times the best design also ends up being aesthetically pleasing as well. So yeah, performance-based design has always been the most important thing for me — keep it simple and solve the problem.

Credit: LMN Architects

Hyatt Regency in Seattle, Washington (currently under construction)

Is there a lot of the Seattle personality in your work?

Our one and only office is here in Seattle, and that’s intentional. It’s our home. Everyone is here together and we’re all really connected, which helps with our growth and the continuing education of our employees. But only about half of our work is happening in the Pacific Northwest at any given time and the other half is in other parts of the country, so those projects are influenced by their program and local context more than any specific aesthetic.

But Seattle definitely has a strong spirit that is impossible to miss if you live here. I moved to Seattle nine years ago, and it’s incredible how much this city has evolved and changed, just in the last few years. I think that we, as a firm, embody what I see as that iconic Seattle spirit. It’s a can-do, perhaps somewhat bullish, frontier attitude — an optimism really, about what we can accomplish together with new ways of working and with new technology. Seattle is definitely poised at the edge of a very exciting future, for the design industry and beyond.

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