Architecture firm offers insight on modern building trends

The founders of Austin+Mergold LLC spoke to Temple engineering and architecture students about their unique project, SURAL.

With its numerous old farmhouses and barnyards, Central Pennsylvania is not necessarily the place one might think two young architects would want to be implementing their modern ideas about construction.

However, the founders of Austin+Mergold LLC, Jason Austin and Aleksandr Mergold, believe Central Pennsylvania offers much more than just cornfields and silos. In fact, they said they think the landscape and existing architectural structures provide the perfect setting and inspiration for their unique design approach, otherwise known as SURAL.

Austin and Mergold, both graduates of Cornell University, spoke to Temple architecture students and other faculty members in a lecture last Wednesday night to present their ideas about SURAL and discuss their new exhibit, which is currently located in Temple’s Engineering and Architecture building.

According to A+M, SURAL is “a confluence of rural, urban, sub- and semi-urban conditions that coexist, cross-pollinate and collide, often resulting in truly surreal design situations and opportunities.”

In other words, the convergence of these vastly different landscapes allows plenty of room for limitless creativity and originality in the planning process. Using this method, A+M is currently working on mixed-income housing in rural Pennsylvania.

Austin, who is an adjunct faculty member in Tyler’s department of architecture, and Mergold, who teaches at Cornell, also spoke during the lecture about their past projects in great detail.

By the time A+M was established in 2007, the pair set out to do residential, commercial, landscape and urban design. Projects have ranged from creating and/or renovating a farmhouse, golf clubhouse, restaurant, pump house, a mini golf course and various types of homes.

When asked about the issue of the present condition of suburbia at the lecture, Mergold said, “I personally hate it but it doesn’t matter, really. You kind of have to embrace it because it is an opportunity for something. You can’t just walk away from it.”

Mergold gave the example of vinyl siding, a traditional staple of suburbia. Although it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing material, it’s cheap, durable and easily recyclable.

“[Vinyl siding] is cheap, so cheap. It is both a blessing and a curse,” he said. “If you take down a building, it usually goes straight to the landfill, but at the same time, it is also very durable — it can actually be recycled forever. Apparently, there are now companies that make 100 percent post-consumer recycled siding.”

But to avoid disasters such as suburban sprawl, A+M has another major design philosophy, which is the idea of “slow architecture.”

“Slow movement is founded on the appreciation of local, sustainable, straightforward yet powerful ideas – be it food, design, social interaction – the simple ways that, in our busy and hyper-active world, have fallen to the background,” Austin explained in an e-mail interview.

Essentially, it is the principle that it’s a lot more practical and beneficial to rethink an area’s existing resources and to reconstruct it in a way that betters the region’s aesthetic value. In other words, why waste new land when you can renovate old land to better serve a neighborhood or community?

“Before reinventing the bicycle, we try to see if one was already invented locally and only needs a tune-up,” Austin said.

To fix both the financial and environmental crises America faces today, the architecture duo believes it is best to take time intelligently mapping out how an area should be built up, using the latest technology and available resources, as to not misuse land or money. A+M tries to understand local methods of building but still wants to use modern technology to construct a site.

According to Austin and Mergold’s Web site, their “goal is to inject diversity and variety into the homogeneity (and mediocrity) of our contemporary environment – be it a building, landscape or an object.”

Although this kind of work is difficult, A+M is not afraid of a challenge. Its projects often face many obstacles, including constraints on time, budget and materials. Zoning laws, geological boundaries, local infrastructures and development and water rights also have to be taken into account to determine how much freedom A+M will have when working on a new project.

“When the economy is the primary driving force behind clients’ intent and our own aspirations reach far beyond the cookie cutter solutions, each design problem is equally challenging, regardless of scale,” Austin said. “But the results can be rewarding as well.”

As far as future plans go, A+M was selected to go to the Baer Art Center fellowship in Iceland in the summer of 2010. While there, Austin and Mergold will survey a part of the harsh Nordic landscape and create a land-scaled earth drawing depicting the area’s natural topography.

But in the meantime, Austin said, “[A+M will] continue working on affordable housing projects in Pennsylvania and pursuing built and speculative work elsewhere in the U.S. and beyond.”

To view the SURAL Exhibit, stop by Rm. 124 in the Engineering and Architecture building before March 26.

Laura Fanciullacci can be reached at

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