Drawing From and For Architecture
A Profile of Luben Dimcheff, from the Spring 2017 Issue of AAP News.
Having begun his career in architecture as a Cornell student 22 years ago, Luben Dimcheff's recent appointment as the Richard Meier Assistant Professor of Architecture is a kind of homecoming. "Of course, it is a great honor, and for me, it is also quite personal," he commented. "Both as an academic institution and a community, Cornell embraced me — a young immigrant from Bulgaria. At AAP, I received an exceptional education, made many lifelong friends and mentors, and perhaps most important of all, found a purpose and the craft to pursue it."
Prior to his arrival in Ithaca in 1994, Dimcheff attended the prestigious Romain Rolland High School in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, where he grew up. He left the country in 1991 as part of the first wave of people that were welcomed to the West after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc countries. He landed in Seattle, Washington.
"It was quite sudden and unexpected — at the time, I was preparing for entrance exams to the School of Architecture in Sofia. And in a fit of teenage optimism, I entered an international competition in fashion design and submitted some old drawings torn from the back of my math notebooks," recalled Dimcheff. "I sent the original drawings of costumes in colored pencil on ruled paper, because color copies were too expensive."
He won first prize — a full scholarship to the Art Institute of Seattle — and briefly studied fashion design and textile science. "Those drawings were essentially my ticket to the United States," Dimcheff added. "Thinking back, I can say I was very excited for the opportunity, even though by then I had no longer planned to pursue fashion professionally." He quickly transferred to the Department of Interior Design and learned some fundamental skills — such as how to draw a plan and section — and remained open to where it would lead as he completed the program.
"Despite the fact that I had fallen in love with architecture before leaving Bulgaria, I was pondering the likelihood that I might actually enjoy designing yacht interiors in the Pacific Northwest," says Dimcheff. "It was then that a fellow Bulgarian immigrant, who was studying math at Cornell — also my best friend to this day — suggested that I look into their architecture program. I visited the campus, and was immediately enamored with the Rand studios and Fine Arts Library in Sibley Hall."
Dimcheff again credits his drawings for his offer of admission with full funding to Cornell's Bachelor of Architecture program. And even now, he remains passionate about drawing. He draws virtually every day regardless of whether there is a deadline, a project, or a client. In addition to courses in architectural design, Dimcheff has also taught several courses in drawing at both Parsons and AAP NYC.
"Drawing for me is the innate ability all architects should master at the outset of their education and refine in perpetuity so that they can create freely, meaningfully, and with intent," says Dimcheff. "It is the language of the architect — it changes as we do and with the times we live in. Drawing is the instrument that harnesses our imagination and brings it into view and onto paper — it is specific and precise, also daring and open to interpretation. How we draw, what we draw and what we don't, and of course from what we draw, are to me how architecture emerges."
After graduating from AAP in 1999 with a bachelor of architecture degree, Dimcheff immediately went to work in New York City, where he was a designer, project architect, and eventually a senior associate at the office of Henry Smith-Miller and Laurie Hawkinson for 10 years. "Both Henry and Laurie are established practitioners and dedicated teachers," Dimcheff says.
"They lead graduate design studios and run their office as one — continuously weaving practices in teaching, learning, research, and architectural practice into a singular mode of operation." Dimcheff kept their model in mind as he set up his own design practice, and at the same time joined the faculty at Parsons to teach in the departments of architecture, interior design, and lighting in 2009.
Further expanding his role as an educator, Dimcheff was thrilled to accept an offer from Cornell to teach for the Introduction to Architecture Summer Program in 2012, and since has become instrumental to its operations. The curriculum consists of an intense eight-week program, often attended by students who are exploring the discipline for the first time. "It's a rigorous course of study for all involved, both the students and the faculty. To witness the critical leap in the work of those young students over a relatively brief period is quite rewarding," he commented.
Concurrent with his teaching roles, Dimcheff has continued to develop projects at the New York City office he established in 2009. The firm, Luben Dimcheff Studio, has completed projects in numerous locations including New York City, San Francisco, Mumbai, Sofia, and Rio de Janeiro. "In a very literal sense, my work is global — not so much far-reaching, but rather foreign to what I know. I draw from cultural and building practices from around the world," says Dimcheff. "In the places where I have made a mark — even if it is minute in scale, I see my recent work as a basis for meaningful and impactful collaborations to build on in the near future. I have drawn immense knowledge from master builders, carpenters, and masons, near and far. In those conversations, and the infinite layers of translation, I have resorted again to drawing — a language and a code that is innately universal yet idiosyncratic, immediate and slow, precise and flawed — and always potent with opportunities for invention."
Dimcheff says he intends to maintain his practice at its current location despite plans to spend the majority of his time in Ithaca, and hopes to take on projects that are more focused, selective, and critical. And regarding the balance he'll maintain going forward, Dimcheff sees an organic and essential relationship: "I came into teaching directly from practice, and while in practice, I never really left the perpetual motions of teaching and learning . . . I cannot see myself separating the two."
Dimcheff currently teaches the first-year architecture studios with Associate Professor Val Warke, and is working on a house in San Francisco, which happens to be for the same close friend who had suggested Cornell as an option in the 1990s. He is also building a set of interpretive models of the Parisian Arcades for the Jewish Museum in New York City, a short-term project that he sees as a natural extension of his recent joint publication titled Model Perspectives: Structure, Architecture and Culture (Routledge, 2016). The book, which took years to complete and was released in fall 2016, is a collaboration with lead authors Mark Cruvellier, architecture department chair and the Nathaniel and Margaret Owings Professor of Architecture; and Bjørn Sandaker, professor of architectural technology at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design.
At the present moment, Dimcheff is as excited about teaching as he is to continue to learn. "At Cornell and AAP, I have been very fortunate to work with a number of inspired colleagues and enlightened students across many disciplines and departments," he says. "From the visceral turning of the press and smell of ink at Olive Tjaden Hall to the enigma and promise of virtual reality and advanced computer graphics at Rhodes Hall, and of course in the context of a constant state of invention in the Milstein studios, I hope to continue my study of the generative language of design and drawing, and help each and every student find their own hand, and own their craft, so they can speak their mind."
By Edith Fikes