Architecture, according to English writer G.K. Chesterton, is a good test of the true strength of a society. The reason, he says, is that the most valuable things in the human state are irrevocable, and architecture, more than any other art, stands the test of time. “A building is akin to dogma; it is insolent, like a dogma.”
It is this permanence through space and time that drew architect Elizabeth Kostojohn to the time-honored profession. As a child, she remembers traveling to Scotland with her mother and running through crumbling castles, wandering through the ruins. “There was an amazing quality to the small, dark spaces or the open, echoing rooms, and I felt such a sense of excitement and fascination with the different structures,” says Kostojohn, who is a project architect with Sasaki and Associates, Inc., of Watertown.
Kostojohn specializes in institutional architecture, particularly campus buildings; in her 12 years as an architect at various Boston area firms, she has helped design student housing, recreation center, dining halls, and classrooms. “Every university is different, and you need to understand the personality of the institution as well as the aspirations for the building – its shape, character and intent,” says Kostojohn. Architects are involved in every detail of construction, from evaluating the subsoil conditions, water table, and building orientation to the laying out the mechanical systems and planning sustainable materials. “As architects we work in the abstract, focusing on every little corner and piece, so when we see the foundation and steel laid out, it’s amazing to see it coming up and taking form,” says Kostojohn.
Q: What are the key influences in your work?
A: I’m shaped and inspired a lot by my travels. I spent a lot of time in Japan and Finland, and the sights and sounds of these places unconsciously gets folded into my repertoire of understanding.
Q: Have you ever made a pilgrimage to visit a specific structure?
A: I went to Japan to see the work of Tadao Ando, who is known for his crafting of concrete. I’ve never seen anything like it in the states; the concrete has a satin, iridescent, shimmery quality.
Q: Becoming an architect requires five years of study and passing seven different exams. Why such high standards?
A: When you’re creating a building, there are life safety issues, just like becoming a doctor or lawyer. You need to demonstrate you can meet a certain standard of abilities and understand building codes and how buildings are put together.
Q: What are some misconceptions about the field?
A: That it’s glamorous and architects make a lot of money. It’s a very intense job with long hours. Those in the profession are very dedicated to it and love what they do. But architects don’t have a social life. We tend to look tired because of lack of sleep.
Q: What are some trends in architecture that you don’t necessarily like?
A: When I first started in the field, there was a lot of drawing and model building, and now it’s switching over to 3-D computer modeling. I appreciate the new sinuous forms that computers can generate, but sometimes it’s too much and a building loses its relationship with people.
Q: Many of your buildings are in the public realm. Do you ever go back and visit your work?
A: Absolutely. I have such intimate knowledge of the buildings I’ve done, and it’s sad when your job is long done, and the security guard doesn’t recognize you and you’re no longer allowed inside. I want to say, ‘Don’t you understand? I know every nook and cranny of this space before it even existed, and now I can’t even go inside?’