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Front & Center: WSU’s Paul Hirzel is an architect, inside and out

Paul Hirzel takes relationships seriously.

Recalling the first time he drove a Porsche more than 50 years ago, Hirzel observed, “The relationship between the driver, the car and the road was intoxicating.”

As a faculty member of Washington State University’s School of Design and Construction, Hirzel encourages students to explore relationships between buildings and their surroundings.

“Architects tend to focus on the building. My whole manifesto is the importance of landscape to the experience of place.

“When architecture has a relationship with its environment the way a Porsche has a relationship with its driver and the road, that’s the sort of architecture I would call masterful.”

Hirzel’s design work currently is on display in Venice, Italy, as part of “Time Space Existence,” an international architectural exhibition sponsored by the Dutch-based Global Art Affairs Foundation. The show, which includes works from 65 nations, continues through November.

During a recent interview, Hirzel discussed kindergarten, professional arrogance and “the most boring highway in North America.”

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Hirzel: In Clarkston, Washington – what we call the valley.

S-R: What inspired you?

Hirzel: I’ve always been interested in architecture. When I was 5 or 6, I snuck into a construction site and found a set of blueprints. It was as if I had found the Holy Grail! To see drawings of something – in this case, a municipal swimming pool – before it was built was amazing.

S-R: What was your first job?

Hirzel: When I was around 8, I worked for my dad in our family’s store – Hirzel’s Music Center – mostly sweeping. I earned 12 ½ cents an hour.

S-R: What else do you remember about your childhood?

Hirzel: I always liked to draw. My kindergarten teacher was thrilled by everything I did. She probably smothered all her kids with that kind of praise, but it gave me confidence. I also remember building an elaborate miniature city on our property, with roads and bridges. Later, I helped by dad build the house – as much as a 9-year-old can help – where my mom, Mary Hirzel, who just turned 105, still lives.

S-R: In high school, did you envision a particular career?

Hirzel: It was going to be either architecture or medicine.

I started out in pre-med at WSU in 1964, then switched to architecture and interned with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a big Portland firm. But it was the ’60s and I was distracted, hitchhiking all over the West Coast. Eventually I got a degree in general humanities.

S-R: Then what?

Hirzel: I worked in school plan review for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia, because I had enough architecture background. Then I went back to school and got degrees from the University of Washington in industrial and art education, and taught metal shop, wood shop, art and architecture on Bainbridge Island for eight years. Eventually, the architecture virus got more and more severe, and I earned a graduate degree in architecture from Cornell, with a minor in landscape architecture.

S-R: When did you return to Pullman?

Hirzel: In 1989. By then I realized I wanted to both teach and practice architecture, and that’s what I’ve done for almost 30 years.

S-R: Your homes clearly have strong bonds with their surroundings.

Hirzel: I trace that back to my childhood, when the most severe punishment my folks could give was to keep me inside. I couldn’t go outside and play. I came to appreciate that without a relationship to the outside, architecture can feel empty.

S-R: What has changed about architecture since early in your career?

Hirzel: One of the most significant changes has been our ability to build something virtually before we build it physically. Digital technology has had a big impact on the profession.

S-R: Are students today taught the business side of architecture?

Hirzel: To some extent, but it’s never been emphasized. Very little attention is paid on how to control project costs on the assumption students will learn after they graduate and join a firm. I disagree. If the issue of cost is pushed down the line, you don’t develop the ability to be creative within budget.

S-R: How much do residential architects typically charge?

Hirzel: For full service, 10 percent of the cost of new construction and 12 to 15 percent for additions or remodels. But they’ll also work on an hourly basis.

S-R: What is an architect’s role?

Hirzel: Ideally, clients come to us without a site. They say, “These are the kinds of experiences we want to have.” The architect then helps find a site that already has the qualities the clients want, rather than manipulating a site to, say, create a jungle in the middle of a desert.

S-R: How many times have clients come to you before purchasing a site?

Hirzel: (laugh) Very rarely – maybe once or twice.

S-R: What do you like most about architecture?

Hirzel: When I design something and people say, “It feels good in here,” in reaction to the quality of daylight or space’s relationship with its surroundings.

S-R: What do you like least?

Hirzel: The arrogance of architects who assume clients don’t have the education or awareness to know what they want.

S-R: Overall, are new homes getting better or worse?

Hirzel: Worse. They’re designed for the short term and tend to be isolated from retail and other amenities. We’re too dependent on automobiles. I’ve compiled a list of what I call “the seven deadly sins of architecture”: flatness, fatness, vagueness, sameness, bigness, messiness and separateness.

S-R: How about an example of exceptional architecture?

Hirzel: There are two places where the architecture was so remarkable that I wept: the Court of the Lions at the Alhambra (in Spain) and Salisbury Cathedral (in England).

S-R: What’s your favorite city in which to meander?

Hirzel: Paris. It has all the things I’m passionate about – street life, cafés, the Tuileries Garden.

S-R: When someone discovers you’re an architect, what do they ask?

Hirzel: Usually they don’t ask me questions. They say, “Oh, well I’m designing a house,” and then I ask them a lot of questions.

S-R: What’s the outlook for the architectural profession?

Hirzel: Our job placement (at WSU) is 100 percent. And there are lots of ways to be an architect. You can specialize in hospital design and be very science-based, or choose an emphasis that allows you to be much more imaginative and artistic.

S-R: Should architects have some hands-on experience in construction?

Hirzel: Without a doubt.

S-R: Do you have any secret talents?

Hirzel: Hmmm … I’ve managed to stay married going on 50 years.

S-R: What’s on your bucket list?

Hirzel: I’d like to gather a band of scientists, artists and poets – in the spirit of the Lewis-Clark Expedition – and walk the 133-mile length of state Route 26 from Colfax to Vantage, musing over its extraordinary landscape.

S-R: Why?

Hirzel: To challenge the belief of 10,000-plus WSU students who travel each year from the West Side and insist this is “the most boring highway in North America.”

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.