Seattle's Next-Wave Design Firm?

A year and a half ago, while on sabbatical from Olson Kundig Architects, Kevin Scott conceived of Röllerhaus Pictureworks & Design Co. A mix of design firm, artist/designer collective, and advanced illustration company, Rollerhaüs is trying to blaze a new trail for what a design firm can be. "The practice type I’m trying to create doesn’t exist so I don’t have any sort of model I can work from," says Scott. "What I’m trying to do is blend a kind of idea-based practice, as embodied by an IDEO, with the artistry and communication of a visual effects firm (like Industrial Light & Magic) that operates primarily in architecture and urbanism." Curious to learn more about Scott's work and vision, I asked him a handful of questions—about his eclectic background, his favorite rendering tools, and Seattle's design scene.

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Seattle Center Memorial Pavilion & Gardens by Rollerhaüs
Rollerhaüs's proposal for the Seattle Center Memorial Pavilion & Gardens includes a wetlands, observation deck, open air performance space, and rooftop community gardens.

Tell me a bit about your background.

My background is really all over the place. At a very young age, I went from trading options out of my dorm room, to programmer at Microsoft, to the Army, to graphic design, and finally, to getting my master's in architecture—all in a relatively short amount of time. In hindsight, it felt like a totally natural progression but really, it was the military that turned everything upside down. I was so unhappy and it was because my sole purpose in life had become to defend and destroy. So I made a conscious decision to do a 180 and I’ve never looked back.
What inspired you to start Röllerhaus?
I started it because I see such a disconnect between the design community and communities at large. It's as if we have no idea how to talk to anyone but ourselves anymore. Seriously—half the words we use in competition proposals aren't even recognized by spellcheck! Maybe I'm just sick of clicking "Ignore All" but I really want to engage non-designers in our projects. I want regular people who wouldn't ordinarily be taken in by design to look at our work and see themselves in it—and then stand up and clamor for it. That’s where the "Pictureworks" part comes in. Gen pop will never get excited by a plan or a section. But show someone a breathtaking alternative to their current way of life and you'll see how you don't have to slow the bus down before turning it—they'll fasten their seatbelts and slam on the brakes themselves. To me, lending a fighting chance to that kind of bottom-up engagement is really exciting—but impossible so long as we produce visual narratives that only speak to our peers.
Where did the name Röllerhaus come from?
It's the name of my grandparents' house which was this really incredible four-story colonial bursting at the seams with art and artifacts from all around the world. It was a big deal growing up. Commercial air travel wasn't what it is today, and it was a collection of stuff that as a small-town kid from Iowa, I never would have otherwise been exposed to. So every few weekends my sister and I would snoop around, losing ourselves in all the different stories of that house—and there were many. When it came time to give name to what we do, I couldn’t think of any bigger inspiration—not because it represents an ideal architecture but because as a building, it was this character-driven framework that allowed its people to grow, shrink, hide, shine, redistribute, cordon off, exhibit, and, yes, clutter. It furnished physical space to the full spectrum of human emotion… and then took it back when you no longer needed it. And that's what we aim to accomplish at Rollerhaüs. For us, it’s less about purveying and more about facilitating the human experience. Frankly, making something beautiful is the easy part—but making it soulful, representative of its people and their core values, and a place where those people feel free and able to contribute, is a far more difficult, not to mention delightful, task.

Chicago for the Living Future Institute by Rollerhaüs
Rollerhaüs created this image of Chicago for the Living Future Institute. "We tried to imagine what the next architectural or urban language might look like," says Scott. "Part of that approach was to come up with a series of design possibilities for retrofits so that existing buildings could begin to operate in a passive solar capacity."

Tell me how you typically work with designers. Why/how do you get hired, and what are you tasked with doing, typically?
Thus far, nearly all of our work has either come from approaching potential clients and planting a seed, or in competition form—which as you might imagine is a much tougher pill to swallow! We're a small shop though so we team up with other designers on a regular basis. I have roots in the software industry where the spirit of collaboration is a bit more honest so I feel right at home sharing credit and slapping everyone on the back when they’ve done something really cool. In any case, we don't take on projects unless we're either leading the creative process or contributing to the big idea in a way that's significantly more than just pretty pictures. It's the design at its initial concept that we go nuts over. To that end, most of our work right now is either spatial prototyping or sustainable futurism. And that's because we want to get to clients before the money does. That's when the idea is in its purest form and when our imagery is most likely to become an essential tool in fund-raising.
Urban park plan illustration by Röllerhaus Pictureworks & Design Co.
Another major component of the Chicago project, according to Scott, "was to imagine the countless ways in which we can adapt our existing automobile infrastructure into the largest urban park network known to man."

How would you characterize the Seattle design scene?
I think, more than anywhere else, we embrace the idea of design transparency—that is to say, meaningful work doesn't need to slap you across the face to make a difference. There's beauty in ubiquity too. But that comes at a cost. More than most, I think we cling to modernism out of a fear of the 'other'—or worse, the feeling that it's all we've got to hang our North Face jackets on. That's probably the most discomforting thing about our region. We have the right values but we're too conservative to push them in ways that might offend the Pacific North Westerner's more sedate sensibility.
Which landscape architecture and architecture firms in the Seattle area do you think are doing some of the most interesting work today?
Well, it's not simply because I'm an alum but for me, embodying the best of the PNW is Olson Kundig. They blend design, cultural engagement, and built work in a way that few others approach. So while Jim and Tom can throw down 100 different lessons in how you'll never be able to create something as beautiful as them, Alan and Kirsten introduce a kind of off-the-wall genius and stunning pragmatism to the mix. It's a totally fascinating leadership.   I'm also a big fan of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol. There's an interesting work exchange happening right now between architects and landscape architects with more and more interesting ideas coming from the latter. In a way, landscape architecture is the new architecture. I think it'd be awesome if the model were flipped on its head and landscape architects were in charge. Imagine how much our entire ethos would change if our first thought went to creating outdoor space and then creating the buildings that took advantage. Heads (and eyes) might roll and our GDP might suffer but there’s more in life, right?
Guggenheim Museum open-air market proposal Rollerhaüs
Scott undertook this project while at Olson Kundig under the leadership of Tom Kundig and Alan Maskin. "There's of course a backstory to it, but essentially it boils down to the extraordinary opportunity that still exists when buildings reach the end of their initial lives," says Scott. "In this case, we turned the Guggenheim Museum's spiral into an open-air market and pavilion—two things of which I'm fairly sure Frank Lloyd Wright and the Guggenheim Family never dreamed their museum might become. But it's a testament to how buildings can have incredible lives of their own outside of what their creators originally imagined if we just allow ourselves to step away from the sanctity of design for a moment."

I get the sense that, with advances in technology and the expectations of clients, traditional forms of rendering and communication are, in many cases no longer enough. Any thoughts on this?
I wouldn't say that. Design illustration as an industry is pretty mature now which means we’ve seen nearly everything. Do we really want to strap on 3D glasses and run around a chamber that’s meant to project our new abode? Where's the sex appeal in something so limited to the superficial? We need to take our clients and our audiences on an emotional journey and one that not only centers on design but involves their own imagination just as much as ours. So at some point, you have to stop doing because it's cool and instead, do because it soulfully communicates your idea. There are plenty of examples of where a great sketch or water color has done this far more effectively than its digital alternative.
The Balena Project by Röllerhaus
The Balena Project evolved out of a conversation Scott had with Graypants and Kurt Wolken of Studio Gypsies. "We just started trash talking—literally talking about oceanic trash and crazy ways to clean it up. An hour later, I was back at my office storyboarding the imagery. Basically, we wanted to look at the problem of plastic debris in our oceans and render it visible in a way that it becomes as much performance art as it is activism. Right now, the problem sits just below the surface. We want people to be confronted by that—but not in a way that makes them so uncomfortable they run. We wanted people running to the problem."

What tools do you use to produce your images?
All the usual players—Sketchup, Rhino, Revit, Max and pretty much every renderer known to man. We’ve played with them all in production. I will say that 9 times out of 10, it comes down to how you composite—either in Photoshop, After Effects, Nuke, or what have you. A good compositor is worth his/her weight in software—which as you might imagine is a lot of code.
Balena Project bot balls by Rollerhaüs
Scott continues: "So the idea is that these little bots, roughly the size of an automobile, skim the ocean's surface in each of the five trash gyres. The plastic, already broken down by UV, is collected, melted, and then formed into a ball which is then filled with hydrogen and released into the atmosphere. Over time, the hydrogen dissipates and the ball returns to the ocean’s surface where it eventually finds its way to coastlines (and clean-up crews) all around the world. I call it the most poetic homecoming ever!"

Are there any new rendering tools or programs that you're excited about that you'd like to mention? 
I just got a new camera! And some oil paints, too.
Balena Project Plastic Balls by Rollerhaüs
A view of the Balena Project's plastic balls at sea.

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