By Dylan Zane Glenwood Gibbs • Architecture student graduating May 2021, University of Virginia • Designs by Dylan Gibbs
I can’t read what the Sistine Chapel smells like, and I can only imagine what looking up at that ceiling would feel like. Architecture has frozen me in my tracks once, in much the same way I imagine the Sistine Chapel would.
When I was younger (I know), I would spend many of my weekends backpacking the local Appalachian mountains. Hot or cold, rain or shine, we would take our daily hike. The winter of 2012 brought hefty snowfall, and spring arrived late. Despite this, a small group of friends and I decided to backpack a snow-blanketed overnight trail. Since we were thirteen, we naturally found ourselves lost several miles in and decided to set up camp as night fell.
The following morning, we discovered our chosen location sat suspiciously close to an old mill. With the nearby creek frozen, we hadn’t heard the water that had once guided us.
While the group was excited by the revelations of geographically knowing where we were, I stood still and observed the mill.
It was a tall structure humbly constructed out of timber, sitting auspiciously on a concrete base. On the side that hugged the river, an arm extended out to catch the water, forming a dam. It had seemed that it was as much a part of nature as the trees that engulfed it. While disparate definitions would categorize this as architecture or building, I saw it as an environmental element, every bit as natural as the forest surrounding it. It had become part of the place, and the place was better for it.
Its presence did not defile the landscape nor contaminate it but rather became a sacrificial act to the place. The random and serendipitous discoveries found on these hikes always astounded me. Still, that overnight trip remains the constant reminder of what architecture can be in its purest form — to make the place better for its necessary existence. Architecture, not as an act of destruction but as a natural allegiance method, engages me.
What’s at Stake?
I believe in silence, in quiet architecture. A surface rebuttal to the conviction of big architecture, I find whispers are often louder than screams. These whispers gain identity by the groups and places they represent, and I see an increasing divergence between iconography and specificity in architecture.
Specificity in architecture is being sacrificed to global design. Certain architectural brands’ name values have become overwhelmingly influential in selecting architects for regionally transformative projects within communities.
At its best, architecture can form culture, draw attention to social mores and material details that help conceptualize a more situated architecture.
With the rise of digital forms of media, architecture has become an increasingly anonymous field — attention has been directed away from architectural content towards a contemporary style.
Fortunately, the groups of architects I find most compelling are disciplined in the architecture of specificity. Not hiding behind anonymity, they become proud users of the spaces they create, constituents of the spaces they define and are locally engaged in pride in their work.
Finding inspiration in the place rather than a Pinterest board of imposing style, I see the future of architecture, one that addresses local specificity while also works in a coeval manner with the valuable lessons of a globalized world. The solutions to complex and fundamental challenges require an architecture of pragmatism that builds an aesthetic project out of necessity. I believe my role in the future of architecture is within a team defined by incorruptible yet flexible principles.
This shift away from specificity limits the architect’s ability to involve local constituents in the design process actively — a framework can best be established through an architecture that takes the time to read a specific site. Dictated by social media’s ubiquity, specificity in architecture is becoming increasingly undervalued and replaced by a new generic aesthetic.
I am excited by the architecture that makes a place better. I understand I have much to learn in this next chapter of my education, and I do not doubt that it will be a graduate school that best sharpens my focus.
The bottom line: It is the younger generation’s responsibility to reclaim architectural specificity, and I intend to take on that exciting responsibility.
Born in Northern Virginia in 1999, Dylan Zane Glenwood Gibbs knew he wanted to be an architect when he was 6 years old. He was walking on the beach in Bethany, DE, and his mom said that someday she wanted to have a house along the seashore. Dylan said he’d build it for her, and while that dream hasn’t come to fruition, Dylan is on his way to becoming the type of architect who can do whatever he sets his mind to.
On May 21, 2021, he graduated with High Honors from the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture (UVA), a program he began after graduating with Honors from St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, VA.
Dylan spent his summers and semester breaks working for architecture firms including Garnett DePasquale Projects, Thomas Phifer and Partners, ARCHITECTUREFIRM in Brooklyn and Richmond, Lynx Ventures, Johannas Design Group, and the University of Virginia’s Athletics Department.
At UVA, he was a research assistant for the Somatic Collaborative/Collective Living and the Architectural Imaginary. He has been a teaching assistant with UVA professors Earl Mark and Peter Waldman.
An Eagle Scout and 5-time marathon athlete, Dylan has been featured in UVA magazine, has made the Dean’s list five-time and is the recipient of the 2020 UVA Arts Council Distinguished Artist Award in Architecture.
Dylan is also keeping his promise to his mom, Hope Katz Gibbs, by helping her and architects Weijia Song and Alex Yuen create the first BeInkandescent Health & Wellness Retreat Center in Las Cruces, NM. “It’s not the beach, but the high desert is a good place to start,” Dylan says.
In the fall of 2021, Dylan will be attending the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
Click here to read another article by Dylan, then 11: How Boy Scouts Saved My Life.