Among architects, the concept of "finishing" can take on multiple meanings.

"Finishing" could include a concrete sense of the word: finishing as polishing, the final treatment of a building's physical surfaces.

It also could be something temporal: finishing as the completion of a project, with room to question if the architect's role ends once the building is done.

A third meaning is the ethical dimension: finishing as conveying the architect’s ends, goals, and purposes.

These three perspectives were the focus of the sixth Frascari Symposium this spring at the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center (WAAC), the urban extension of the School of Architecture in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design. Held biennially, the symposium honors the memory of architect, theorist, and educator Marco Frascari, a Virginia Tech professor and founder of the Ph.D. program in architecture and design research at the WAAC. Frascari died in 2013.

More than 100 participants worldwide expanded on the conceptualization of finishing and discuss its practice in architecture along three "currents”: the surface, the project, and, most broadly, architectural time itself. Keynote speakers included Billie Tsien, the architect of the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago; David Leatherbarrow, recipient of the Topaz Medallion for excellence in architectural education; and renowned social anthropologist Timothy Ingold of the United Kingdom.

Architecture Professors Paul Emmons and Marcia Feuerstein co-organized the Frascari Symposium to promote scholarship on architectural history and theory and demonstrate how critical thinking as a humanistic activity is a defining part of the field of architecture.

"Architecture is often thought of as either a fine art or a technology," said Emmons, the Patrick and Nancy Lathrop Professor in Architecture and chair of Virginia Tech’s Ph.D. program in architecture and design research. "We're taking the position that architecture should also have a place among the humanities."

"In fact, we believe that architecture is and has always been within the humanities," Feuerstein said.

Frascari was an ardent advocate of the humanistic approach at Virginia Tech and the WAAC, where he served as the G.T. Ward Professor of Architecture from 1998-2005. Emmons believes Frascari's ability to see the humanistic side of architecture resulted in large part from his background as a resident of Veneto and a practicing architect in his native Italy.

"Frascari taught the art of building well is part of the art of living well that resonates with us physically, emotionally and intellectually." Emmons said. “He defined architecture as the making visible of the invisible and working between the metaphysical and the physical, and each Frascari Symposium reflects that thinking."

Considering the more concrete theme of finishing as polishing, participants discussed finishing as a physical act, where materials are polished, sanded, painted, drilled, installed, mooted, or roughened with the tools of skilled workers.

"The problem of finishing physical surfaces in buildings is central to the endurance of a building over time and the tactile interaction of people with buildings," said Emmons. "Finishes become a defining zone of the relationship between human beings and their built environment."

The symposium also addressed more conceptual questions, such as a project's ending or lack thereof. This led to a discussion about sustainability and how a building can be considered part of a circular economy, ready to be recycled, repurposed, and reused rather than a life used up and demolished. The building ages in place while transforming over time, said Feuerstein.

Participants also discussed the "ends" of architecture in terms of its principles and values.

"Why do we make decisions about our built environment the way we do?" Emmons said. "How do those sets of values reflect what we are as a society, and how can we make more just social structures through the way we construct the physical spaces that define our public lives?"

Through these subjects, the symposium challenged participants to look beyond the polarization that the concept of finishing tends to encounter elsewhere in the arts and humanities. Instead of taking on a dualistic perspective of the architect's work as either being finished or impossible to finish, definite in ending or infinite, the symposium encouraged participants to consider the concept as a state of becoming, with the knowledge that one is still in the act of working on something.

"All of the different topics become elaborations of something that Frascari set out in his work," Emmons said. "Hopefully, we examine the issue in more detail and take it further, to continue the tradition in response to our contemporary world rather than be trapped in the past. The challenge to engage with finishing in this way was a source of lively debate. There were some interesting ideas about how to get beyond that limitation."

The sixth Frascari Symposium combined scholarly and creative work with papers and presentations and exhibitions of visual works. Emmons and Feuerstein, with Negar Goljan, a Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate and graduate assistant, are editing and publishing an academic book to offer more opportunities for individuals to explore the conference's discourse.

male speaker at podium addressing a room of participants

man speaking at podium in crowded room
David Leatherbarrow, recipient of the Topaz Medallion for excellence in architectural education, delivered his Frascari Symposium keynote address at the Lyceum in Old Town Alexandria in March. Virginia Tech photo
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