write your senators…

The Honorable Joni Ernst

The Honorable Charles Grassley
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senators Ernst and Grassley:

I am writing to urge you to vote against the proposal in the current House of Representatives tax bill that would tax tuition waivers for graduate students.

As the Director of Graduate Education for Iowa State University’s Graduate Programs in Architecture, I work with two dozen student Teaching Assistants who receive 1/4 tuition waivers in exchange for ten hours of work per week.  Their work is vital to our department, and their enthusiasm and dedication enable us to continue offering a full range of courses to undergraduate students.  Tuition waivers are also a vital recruiting aid.  As prices for public education increase, we must offset tuition costs if we are to compete for top international students, especially.  In many cases, they choose to come to America, and to Iowa State, even when they can attend graduate school for far less—or even fully subsidized—in their home countries.

Today’s Des Moines Register notes that the current House proposal would effectively add $1,100 to a typical graduate assistant’s tax bill.  My experience with recruitment and working with our graduate students tells me that this would gravely damage our ability to recruit good students, to retain students who rely on assistantships to ease rising tuition costs, and to keep our department running smoothly after more than a decade of budget cuts.  The damage to our program and to Iowa State would be profound, all, according to the Register, for about $3.68 million dollars of new federal tax revenue per year.  This is, interestingly, less than the amount our State has just decided to pay a head football coach—yet this provision would gravely damage public universities and the billions of dollars of revenue and economic activity they generate.

Please do not sell out institutions that have been important contributors to the economy and life of Iowa for over 150 years.  I urge you to vote against any provision that discourages graduate student enrollment, and particularly the penny-wise, dollar-foolish suggestion that we tax some of the hardest working, most promising young scientists, entrepreneurs, designers, and engineers on our University campuses.



Thomas Leslie, AIA

Morrill Professor and Pickard Chilton Professor in Architecture

Iowa State University

Ames, IA


’tis the season

These two got it done last year…a Strunk and White presentation if there ever was one…

Review season approaches.  (What, there’s some other season that happens in December?)  For several years now I’ve issued my design studios a list of helpful advice as they’re preparing their final projects, and I think it’s reached a critical mass that might be helpful elsewhere.  It’s not quite the Twelve Days of Christmas, but reading it year after year it does have a certain rhythm.  Consider this public domain if it’s useful to your colleagues or students.  Or if you see Comic Sans showing up anywhere within fifty paces…


How Not to Get Killed on a Final Review:

  • Show the site. Your ground level plan, every section, and every elevation should all be extended past the adjacent streets to show the relationships between your scheme and the surrounding buildings and streets.  These should also show the shape and scale of the outdoor areas around your building.


  • Animate your drawings and models. I can’t emphasize this enough.  Show the project as you imagine it being occupied—not standing empty.  Put dozens, if not hundreds, of people in your auditorium, your lobby, and your plaza.  Put cars in the street.  Put furniture and material joint lines in the plans and sections.  Your goal should be to put so much intuitive information in the drawings that text labels seem superfluous.  People should be in groups of 3-5 (this sounds ridiculous, but you’ll be surprised how much more friendly this looks).  And show trees, site furniture, and paving patterns in outdoor areas, including sidewalks.


  • On a related note: to clarify, add detail.  In other words, if a material in your plan or section has a grain, or has standard fixings, or comes in standard sizes, indicate those.  You may need to do this with very light linework (or linework that is a mid-tone gray instead of black), but these details communicate information intuitively.  Tilework in bathrooms, handrails, door handles—all of these help the observer see the building instead of trying to figure out the drawing.


  • Think about graphic coherence. All of your drawings are going on a wall, together.  They should relate to one another.  If you use color, or even a palette of grays, the same color should mean the same thing on every drawing.  Text should be in consistent, legible fonts and sizes.  Not sure which font to use?  Gill Sans, Avenir, Century Gothic, and Helvetica are bulletproof choices for clean, modernist designs.  For designs that are more traditional try Palatino or Garamond.  Use light versions for notes, bold for titles.  If you use Comic Sans, I will do everything I can to kick you out of our program.  We have standards.


  • Make a Storyboard. Think about what the logical presentation order will be, and take some time to compose your drawings so that they fit into a grid on the wall.  Put a cartoon set together on 11×17 and use this to design the presentation.  Where will you stand?  Will the boards tell a story from left to right?


  • Line weight, line weight, line weight. Plans and sections should have 4-5 distinct line weights on them, ranging from plan-section cuts through structural walls (heavy) through plan-section cuts through partition walls, doors and fixtures, furniture, and animation and material joint lines.  BE SUPER RIGOROUS about these.  If you are, your drawings will read.  Want your plans to look organized and thoroughly worked out?  Include overhead structural elements as dashed lines—this makes your drawings look tight and thorough.  Elevations should be flatter, but even here you can distinguish between structural elements, cladding elements, and animation with subtle distinctions between line weights.  Glass façade?  Show animation behind it with grey lines.  Multiple layers of cladding or columns?  Show people walking between them to make the layers “pop.”


  • Bonus points?  Add shadow to your elevations.  If it’s done right, the drawings will read like three-dimensional views, and the massing will seem crystal clear.


  • Most importantly: “Strunk and White” every drawing.  The Elements of Style is the best book on design ever written, even though it’s a handbook for writers.  Don’t know it?  Get a copy.  It’s five or six bucks online and it’s full of advice that can be boiled down to this:  say what you need to say as clearly and as briefly as you can, and then get out of the way.  Don’t use unnecessary words (or lines).  Try to explain, don’t try to impress.


“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Substitute “design” for “writing,” “drawing” for “sentence,” “line” for “word,” and “presentation” for “paragraph,” and you’ve got a powerful piece of advice for designers everywhere.  This is a tattoo-worthy credo for designers, musicians, and writers everywhere.


  • North always goes up. More or less up.  Or at least in the same direction on every single drawing.


  • No one has ever read more than five lines of text on a presentation board. If you need that many words, you’ve done something wrong with your drawings.


job posting

ISU_left_red_rVery happy to report that, after four years (!), my ‘interim’ position as Director of Graduate Education for Iowa State’s Department of Architecture is coming to a happy conclusion–we’ve just posted a listing for a new DoGE, and I expect to pass the baton this coming August.  I’ll be staying on as Pickard Chilton and Morrill Professor, and I’m looking forward to handing off a program in excellent shape and getting back to full-time teaching and research.

Our M.Arch. program enrollment has been up dramatically, with a more international student body and a truly outstanding faculty that’s publishing innovative research and coaching award winning work from students.  We’re looking for a DoGE that can push us even farther.  If you or someone you know is interested in a genuinely rewarding administrative/faculty position, please have a look at the posting in the link…

curbed’s “most iconic chicago buildings”

hancock sofitelOh, this is fun.  Curbed Chicago has recently posted their 27 “famous buildings that every Chicagoan should know,” and it’s worked a treat in terms of stirring up the commentariat.  I’ve got my thoughts on their list, and on what should be on it, but just for grins, let’s poll the readership:  what are your top ten buildings, let’s say, that are iconic Chicago?  Curbed’s list includes a lot that come to mind right away, but also a good mix of buildings (and structures) that certainly speak to the city’s history and culture, but that aren’t necessarily well known….

renzo piano in des moines

IMG_8008Des Moines has a long history of hiring international-caliber architects and getting superb work out of them–there’s a standard tour of outstanding buildings by both Saarinen’s, I.M.Pei, Gordon Bunshaft, Mies van der Rohe, and David Chipperfield that never fails to impress.  And that’s alongside great work by homegrown talent, too.


A combination of international and local talent is building this elegant bit of flying steelwork at the moment.  When regional convenience store/gas station chain Kum’N’Go announced that Renzo Piano would be designing its headquarters in downtown Des Moines it made a huge splash here and, from the looks of things, it should make an equally big splash nationally when it’s finished.  Downtown Des Moines is a rare success story in contemporary American urbanism, and the decision to relocate their headquarters from the suburbs back to downtown by the chain is a huge vote of confidence that the core’s recent history of inspired development and civic engagement is likely to continue for a while.

IMG_8032Piano’s design will connect to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which has become not only a gateway to downtown but also a symbolic open space.  The massing of the Krause Center is going to be oriented toward that space, with a ground level plaza and public interior that will be complimented by terraces on upper levels that will offer raised outdoor space for employees, and views over the Raccoon River’s valley, south of downtown.  To emphasize these connections, most of the building is glass in the north-south direction, and Piano’s office has gone to extraordinary lengths to minimize the number of columns and walls that will support these upper floors–some of the lower floors’ corners are actually suspended from above to maximize the building’s transparency.  The top floor is skewed, reflecting the change in grid from the city’s general E-W axis to one that’s perpendicular to the Des Moines River, a few blocks east.  Here, too, the structure has been packed into long-span girders and a few dense columns to open up views along both axes.  The result, even in the jumble of a busy construction site, is remarkably airy and open.

IMG_8031That glass is being set in place by local cladding company Architectural Wall Systems, sort of an MVP of a business here.  A few weeks ago I ran into ISU grad Ryan Smart, who’s working for AWS on the project, and he suggested that we organize a field trip of the job site for our grad students.  Which we did, and I think the afternoon was as inspiring as it was cold.  Two other ISU alums–Ryan Larson and Joe Feldman, who work for the contractor, Ryan Companies, and the local architect, OPN–joined the tour, and treated us to an in-depth look at some of the structural gymnastics it’s taking to realize the airiness of Piano’s vision.  The rigor and discipline is evident, too, and they described the challenges of realizing 28-foot tall insulated glass panels without intermediate supports, packing steel and mechanical systems into a vanishingly thin floor sandwich, and finding precasting companies who could pour monolithic corner pieces up to 6′ x 6′.  (Hint: you have to go to Canada).

IMG_8015Whenever a small city like Des Moines gets an opportunity like this, the questions are always whether they’ll get the superstar architect’s best work and whether the local team can keep up with the expectations of that architect.  We saw ample evidence–both in the construction so far and in the warehouse full of interior mockups–that Krause Center is going to be an extraordinary building–“the job of a lifetime,” as one of our alums told me, grinning wildly.  What’s interesting is that it’s definitely going to be a Piano building, but it looks to be unusual in that rather than the details and materials driving the design, it really appears to be the sense of the wide open spaces that will connect to the city around it that have driven it.  And that means that the structural discipline that we’re used to seeing in Piano’s work has been replaced by some truly breathtaking spans and spaces–something pretty new in his oeuvre, and exciting to see in its nascent form.


Many thanks to AWS, Ryan Companies, and OPN for showing us around.  An inspiring afternoon, both for the architecture and for the chance to see former students out in the world and doing really amazing work.