Published March 30, 2020
Murat Soygenis, recently elevated to the FAIA, has spent that past four decades bringing a discipline of drawing and contextual design into his teaching and practice, from Buffalo to Istanbul.
The School of Architecture and Environmental Design was in its third iteration in 1982 when Murat Soygenis enrolled in the M. Arch. program, a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Turkey in his pocket.
The “band of renegades” who founded the program had come and gone (1969-1974). Harold Cohen’s initial cohort, led by George Anselevicius and featuring Peter Reyner Banham, had also passed through (1974-1981). The “Class of 1982” brought in a new and younger cadre of faculty: Lynda Schneekloth, Yehuda Kalay, Dennis Andrejko, and Atilla Bilgutay with Bob Shibley as the new chair in architecture.
“Sketching encourages the designer to regulate his/her thoughts while thinking about what the design is going to be. The designer thinks in many layers and puts all ideas that come to mind on many layers of paper. Ideas evolve into concepts or initial projects as the hand sketches record what one thinks and sees.”
Soygenis gravitated to the program in Advanced Building Technology led by Gunter Schmitz and supported by Bilgutay, Andrejko, and others. ABT was, in a sense, an echo of the Building Systems Design program initiated by founding Dean, John P. Eberhard. It focused on the industrialization of architecture with interests in new structural principles, new materials, components, systems, and processes –all with an eye toward meeting the spatial needs of society more efficiently than in the past.
After earning his degree in 1985; his wife, Sema Soygenis, earned her M. Arch. degree the following year; he worked as a project architect at a series of private firms in Maryland. Along the way, Murat and Sema hung out their own shingle as Studio Soygenis Partnership, later renamed S+ ARCHITECTURE, a practice commitment they have maintained for more than three decades.
In 1995 he and Sema returned to Turkey where he was appointed lecturer in architecture at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul. There he quickly worked his way up through the ranks to full professor and in 2010, Dean of Architecture. In all, he taught more than 5,000 undergraduate and 500 graduate students. In their practice they realized more than 150 projects.
His was a classic architectural career with one foot in the academy and another in the atelier. And in 2019 he was installed as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects for “...realizing a vision of architectural education binding academy and practice, community and global context, and intertwining research with analog-digital exploration.” He “has inspired students and emerging professionals to local and international leadership.”
“From his very early years,” Steve Badanes, Professor of Architecture at the University of Washington, recalled, “... Murat’s design process has always been experimental. His office has always provided this experimental platform.”
It is typical of the best scholars to integrate teaching, research, and practice, something Soygenis worked hard to do across classroom, studio, and office. But always at the center of this work was design, and at the core of the process of design was the role of hand sketching to evoke and express the architect’s ideas.
“Sketching is a passion of Soygenis,” says Gabriela Goldschmidt, Professor of Architecture at Technion in Haifa, Israel, “but it is also his systematic way of conducting the most thorough search for the best possible design outcome: Soygenis believes that designing is an experimental cognitive journey, for which sketches, interim and final, are the most effective form of representation.”
What he understood was that something hard to describe happens between brain, eye, and hand when the designer puts pencil to paper.
“Sketching encourages the designer to regulate his/her thoughts while thinking about what the design is going to be,” Soygenis wrote. “The designer thinks in many layers and puts all ideas that come to mind on many layers of paper. Ideas evolve into concepts or initial projects as the hand sketches record what one thinks and sees.”
This process was one of the key topics of his research, but Soygenis went beyond a concern with sketching to consider how analog methods and digital technology might create design synergies, and further, how both might be reinforced by connecting verbal and visual ways of thinking, text writing and sketching.
This interest marked Soygenis as a constructivist, which is to say that he believed that knowledge is constructed in the individual through experience and that students learn best when they participate actively in their own education, not so much when they merely listen. It’s not hard to see why this would be especially important for students learning how to design. Likewise for a professor whose teaching focused on the studio.
Soygenis was also an administrator and educational leader. Among his major achievements as Dean at Yildiz was to reshape their program to meet the “substantial equivalency” requirements of the National Architectural Accrediting Board, meaning YTU graduates would have greater access to professional opportunities in the United States and elsewhere.
Soygenis was in Buffalo only a few years but he got involved. He was part of a team that won a merit award in the Buffalo Urban Retail Core International Design Competition, a competition created by then-chair, Bob Shibley to envision a new shopping district in downtown Buffalo. His master’s thesis was an energy analysis and re-use proposal for the Villa Nova Hotel – more commonly known at the time as Fisherman’s Wharf.
Over the years, Soygenis has endeavored to keep in touch with his alma mater. His memories of his time in Buffalo are thick: Walter Bird’s riveting lectures on the possibilities of tensile membrane structures; the computer course he took from Yehuda Kalay, a pioneer in computer-aided design; field trips across middle America as part of the Advanced Building Technology curriculum; his first taste of chicken wings.
Challenges, inspirations, projects
Many of Soygenis’ projects, spanning a period after they graduated from the University at Buffalo until today, are inspired by regional and global challenges. The refugee crisis, displaced people, earthquakes, and many other problems pose challenges for architects. Sema and Murat Soygenis continue to develop a low-rise project, namely ‘Modular House’, as a social responsibility initiative with their architectural group S+ ARCHITECTURE, providing minimal housing solutions for the refugee population and natural disaster survivors. “Economically feasible, modularly produced housing units offer suitability to living and cultural habits, compatible for use in earthquake zones,” Soygenis discussed in an AIA Architect article. Another social responsibility project, ‘Growing House’, is designed to be built in steps to parallel growth needs, and offers easy adaptability to medium-density settlements making the concept a compatible scheme for use in earthquake zones.
In the last more than forty years, Soygenis’ projects displayed fine examples of minimalism, contextualism, simplicity, and timelessness transcending often changing trends. The ‘Restaurant in Chora’ is a colorful example of a minimalist touch to an existing space in a historically significant district. ‘Textile Chemicals Plant’, an industrial production and administration building is highlighted with a serene atrium space, neutral colors, and finishes. Balmumcu studio and Kurtulus loft are both examples of renovations adding fresh and simple aura to existing spaces. The keyword of design for these two projects can be invisible intervention. ‘School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering’ is a good example of contextualism. In this case, the context is a historic campus with existing military barracks at the center of the campus. The design decisions were based on harmoniously placing the new academic building next to the existing historic barracks. To reach this goal, the new building height is kept at the same height as the existing barracks, and all existing trees on the site are preserved by siting the new academic building around existing clusters of trees creating a few activity courtyards shaded by these trees. Other projects, all experimental, playful, innovative, and engaging, offer opportunities to experience vivid colorful walls, modularity, flexibility, and integrity.
Below Murat Soygenis reflects on his time at UB, the role of architecture and the design professions in addressing climate change, and the enduring importance of hand sketching.
Sketching encourages the designer to regulate his/her thoughts while thinking about what the design is going to be. During all phases of design from early phases of the project until design development and construction details, the designer thinks in many layers and puts all ideas that come to mind on many layers of paper. Ideas evolve into concepts or initial projects as the hand sketches record what one thinks and sees. This process of quick thinking while sketching is an interactive process involving coordination among the brain, eye and hand. I always use hand sketching as a visual thinking and design tool, as most of us do, in my teaching and practice, of course besides the digital tools. In the undergraduate and graduate studio environment, all of my students are encouraged to use hand sketches at all phases of their projects through design charrettes and workshops. These charrettes vary from site design to building design, urban context analysis, construction details to wall sections. Computers are always with them to be used as designs develop. Thinking with sketches is vital in my practice. All projects start with sketches, charrettes and discussions of the initial design ideas. One of the advantages of hand sketches is that they are developed and communicated quickly allowing to experiment many options in a short time and shift directions in design when necessary.
The school environment and our office have always provided an experimental platform for design research. I strongly believe that analog and digital design and representation techniques complement each other and if utilized together strengthen the design process. The opportunities provided by new digital means open new ways in design thinking that may not be achieved by analog means, but they lack the mind-eye-hand coordination that can be naturally found in sketching. I encourage hand sketches because they reveal the thoughts and feelings of the designer more and are more open to interpretation due to their vague nature.
There is an ongoing debate in architectural research on how strategies in teaching and learning sketching can be improved. Verbal and visual thinking - text writing and sketching - are cognitive modes that are interconnected and when utilized together lead to developing design skills. Both of these cognitive modes are open to further research and experimentation. I think the key to a powerful design strategy lies in the integration of both tools in the process. How to integrate them may vary.
Occasionally, I integrate real-world problems into the studio. The students are given a real architectural project that is planned to be built or they participate in an architectural/urban design competition. As in any architectural office or in my own office, they analyze the site conditions; listen to seminars from engineers, architects, municipality authorities, historians; and start developing an architectural project. Field trips to similar buildings and jury reviews with invited professionals help them see the multidisciplinary nature of the design process. They understand the similarities of ‘real’ and ‘school’ projects and discover the interconnectedness among many expertise areas.
I am often invited to, or I initiate sketching workshops in Istanbul and other cities with my students, interns, associates and other professionals. This is a very effective way of observing and discussing the urban context. Through sketching, discussions and listening to other experts, they gain knowledge of contextual issues while discovering the unknowns of the neighborhoods and districts.
One such workshop that was organized as part of the AIA Continental Europe’s International Conference 2010 in Istanbul was titled ‘Utopias for Istanbul’. There were more than 450 international and local attendees to the conference and 39 people attended the workshop. AIA members, local UIA members, students and guests discovered the city's significant urban and architectural sites, discussed their ideas and sketched their utopias relating to the urban context of Istanbul. These sketches were later published as a book.
It is critical for architects and design professionals to be aware of the challenges that the world is facing; everyone has a responsibility to support actions that create a more equitable and sustainable future. Architects, planners and educators should act with professional organizations, NGOs and universities to involve themselves in challenges such as environmental sustainability, sustainable building methods/materials, climate change, global health, and the refugee crisis. Look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the ‘AIA Resolution for Urgent and Sustained Climate Action’ (which passed at the A’19 Conference in Las Vegas), the ‘AIA 2030 Commitment’ and others to see how one can contribute towards carbon neutral environments. The challenge is to design carbon neutral new buildings, developments, and major renovations by 2030.
I remember the Intermediate Technology course I took when I was a UB student in 1984. This course was about intermediate technologies in developing regions of the world where local building materials and traditional technologies were used in construction. Architects can try to learn from these intermediate technologies. It is sometimes forgotten how vital it is, for instance, to cross-ventilate a room. This can be done by simply opening the windows to allow clean air in. Instead, many architects or engineers employ energy-dependent HVAC systems that increase energy loads in the buildings damaging the global climate system.
In thirty-five years following my graduation from UB, I have always stayed connected, collaborative and collegial. I believe that I cultivated a rigorous attitude toward constructing links between the discipline and practice of architecture through my studies in the MArch program and as a fellow in the Advanced Building Technology (ABT) program.
The coursework in the program, which was directed by Gunter Schmitz, was based on a culture of experimentation and innovation focused on building technology and design. Field trips to industrial plants, health care facilities and civic centers across the Northeast were very instructive. I can never forget the fruitful lectures by Walter Bird of Birdair company, a pioneer of tensile membrane industry. Another significant experience was the trip to Miami in fall 1983 to attend an international conference on housing and to visit sites of interest en route.
My thesis project was the energy analysis and reuse project of the abandoned - now demolished - Villa Nova Hotel in downtown Buffalo. Dennis Andrejko was my thesis advisor and Beverly Foit-Albert oversaw my internship with her office in Buffalo. I had many conversations with both on design strategies and energy issues related to my thesis. I treasure my discussions with Bob Shibley (then chair of the architecture department), Gunter Schmitz (head of the ABT program), and professors Lynda Schneekloth, Hiro Hata, Dennis Andrejko, and Atilla Bilgutay, among others.
My time at UB is also full with firsts. Sema and I are the first, and maybe the only, graduate couple of UB School of Architecture and Planning from Istanbul. I had my first computer course, offered by Yehuda Kalay. My first hands-on experimental structures course experience was eye-opening. And my first time tasting Buffalo chicken wings...loved it!