As a child until the age of 3 or 4, I lived in Bethlehem, PA. I don’t have a lot of memories of it, but my dad tells the story of when he and my uncle built the deck on our house, and I, at age 3, stood outside with my arms crossed and pointed at things, giving direction. They thought it was hysterical. Dad always tells that story when people ask why I became an architect. If it was a job where, “you were going to stand around and tell someone how to building something, Matt was going to be good at it.”
Eventually, we moved to the Philadelphia suburbs and that’s where I lived until college. It looked like a generic suburban development in what had once been a farming area. There were a lot of kids my same age, and a big yard to play in. Behind our house was this old barn. I never made the connection until after I started working at Blackburn, but the farmer who owned it was friendly to the neighborhood kids, and we used to go exploring through that barn all the time. As we got to be teenagers and we built skateboarding ramps or hockey nets or whatever, he let us dig stuff out of the barn and use it. It was a beautiful old building because it was all mortise-and-tenon construction. There were no nails. I’m sure that was an early influence on my love for old timber structures. Good memories. For a few years, he kept retired racehorses, and they seemed to enjoy eating our garden over the fence.
How did Clemson happen?
I completed my undergraduate study in DC at Catholic University, graduating in May, 2010. Afterwards, I moved back to Philadelphia for about four months – the job market was tough – and worked part-time. In my spare time, I helped my friend Dan – who we’ll probably talk about when we get to family – renovate a house. It was a chance to apply some of what I had been learning in school. We made a mess; we probably did some things terribly wrong, but it was fun.
Then I came back to DC, worked for John for four years, and as I started to take on more responsibility I felt that it was time to get my Master’s degree because I was certain this was what I wanted to do. I looked for a school that was somewhere different and was certain that I would go to school in Chicago, until I visited Clemson and found it… unique. Perhaps because it was kind of rural. I had gotten used to city life, I think, and the small college town felt like a setting where I could focus academically. Also, Clemson offered two semesters off campus (I chose to visit Barcelona and Charleston), which were additional learning contexts; again, something different.
In addition to your Master’s degree, you met your fiancé at Clemson.
Jenny and I met the first day. At orientation, I met a few people in my program, one of whom was Jenny’s roommate. Jenny walked up beside me and we just clicked. I texted my friend Dan that day and kind of as a joke told him I’d fallen in love. Jenny and I have been together ever since, and will get married this summer. She grew up in Mississippi and comes across as a sweet, soft-spoken person, but when she gets wound up, watch out. We fit together well.
Let’s talk about how family plays such a big part in your life. You’re a very together person, so that must come from your upbringing.
Totally unbiased, my family is very special. I have two brothers, Mark and Shane, plus Dan, so that’s really three brothers. One sister, Megan. And now I have Jenny, and her family, joining mine. Family has always been a constant through my life. It’s not always been simple. As with all families, there’s some complexity to it, but my siblings and I are very close. Doesn’t mean we always agree; we certainly fought a lot growing up, but we are inseparable, and super weird, when do get together. When we’re around each other, we can be a bit overwhelming. Each of us is uniquely humorous and witty, and sometimes too clever for their own good. As for having it together, a lot of that is on my mom and dad. When I turned 14 I was told to find a job, so I started working in a restaurant. I give my mom and dad a ton of credit for pushing me. Early on I learned to balance friends, life and work. I’ve tried to maintain that ever since.
And the unique studio of Blackburn Architects fits your work life?
John has allowed me to take on a lot of responsibility. That’s huge, and particularly relevant to why I came back this past summer after finishing at Clemson. It’s tough to give an impression to someone in half an hour or an hour, but in job interviews I felt like other architecture firms didn’t get a full picture of who I was. They were just trying to fill a seat. Here, I’m encouraged to try things. I’ve been allowed to fail. Maybe not fail, but make some mistakes so that I can improve. It’s how I’m learning and growing professionally. John, and Ian, challenge the way I do things, and encourage me to defend my view. When there’s that level of mutual respect, you really feel motivated when you come into work each day.
As a young architect, do you worry about the future of the profession?
Sadly, architects in the media are often portrayed as having a kind of elitism. It’s a shame, and not true to what I’ve found in the profession. I know that small interventions can happen at an affordable price that can do a lot for quality of life. On the positive side, there’s so much information available and so many things we can now do, that, coupled with the ambition of young architects, suggests an exciting future. Growing out of our educational backgrounds that expose us to some of the more complex social and cultural challenges of our world, young professionals are finding new ways to innovate. Sustainable practice models are one example. You can also start to look at what it means to build sustainably, beginning with our post-war, and even more recent, building stock and how you can repurpose these buildings to avoid throwing the material in a landfill. Simply using green materials in a new building misses the bigger picture. We aren’t there yet, but these societal challenges inspire me.
Sports buff? Leave us with one nugget of a passion for something that’s not architecture.
I’ll give you two. Sports are one, specifically soccer. Jenny and I have a friendly rivalry. We play on the same rec team, but we follow rival pro clubs. It makes the house kind of fun on matchdays. Locally, we’re big fans of DC United. It’s an experience to go be a part of a fan group at the games; you cheer and jump up and down and act ridiculous.
The other passion is cycling. I bike to work every day, rain or shine. It gets me going in the morning. After 20 minutes of riding through the city I’m awake and ready to go.
Lastly, let’s talk LEGO, because we must.
Yep, I still play with LEGOs. There’s a Lego model of one of our Greenbarns on my desk that I threw together one day. I would like to think that 12-year-old Matt would be proud that I haven’t lost the love for playful exploration that drives me.