The Future of Cross-Disciplinary Practice

September 7, 2018

Published in Shaping the American Interior: Structures, Contexts, and Practices; Routledge: p. 195-204

The design professions are in transition. The era of Starchitecture is drawing to a close as a new generation of designers recognize that they need to address urgent environmental, technological and social justice issues that have spatial consequences. These include climate change, war and migrations, making accessible and safe public spaces for diverse communities and considering the transformative impact of digital technologies on the spaces of our everyday lives.

But the nature of professional practice driven by the demands of consumer capitalism frustrates this goal. Star architecture rewards eye-catching form over social responsibility, encouraging name brand architects and interior designers to craft signature photogenic trophy buildings and interiors that can be disseminated in the mass media. This mentality represents the last gasp of the now discredited image of the heroic Modern architect, exemplified by Howard Roark as depicted in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, an invincible white male who single-handedly can save humanity through design. Modernism, for all of its arrogance and heroic delusions, at least rooted itself in utopian social ideals.

The challenges posed by contemporary global culture are far too complex, wide-ranging and interconnected to be solved by a single author representing one design field alone. Instead they require cross-disciplinary problem solvers from allied disciplines – architects, interior designers, and landscape architects – to work together to craft a new way of thinking and working, an integrated conception of environmental design that regards interiors, buildings, and landscapes as linked interactive systems.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is easier to achieve in theory than in practice. The first hurdle is to dismantle the silos that divide these three overlapping fields into separate professions each governed by their own systems of education, training, licensing and codes of professional conduct. But to do that we first must acknowledge the deep-rooted and often problematic cultural and ideological values and prejudices that led to this disciplinary segregation in the first place. In the same way that individuals work with therapists to outgrow engrained patterns of behavior received from the past, the design professions are in need of counselors who can help them see and ultimately transcend the inherited cultural baggage that inhibits cross-disciplinary alliances.

Hence the value of design history books like Shaping the American Interior: Structures, Contexts, and Practices. Rather than recount the usual story of lone male geniuses who craft signature masterworks, this book departs from convention and shifts its emphasis from practitioners to practices, looking at how the designed environment is shaped by networks of individuals whose ways of working are dictated and shaped by the structure of professional practice.

While I am not a design historian, as an architect and a professor I have grappled with some of these questions, teaching history seminars and writing articles like this one that look at the way history can shed light on issues confronting contemporary practice. These forays into history and theory came from my own experiences as a designer wanting at different times in my career to bridge three fields – architecture, interiors, and landscape – that have been professionally segregated since the late nineteenth century. Why was I never taught to think about how the layout of furniture and the choice of fabrics and upholstery influenced the way people occupy and interact with each other in a room? Why did my education leave me unequipped to expand my materials palette to include living materials – trees and vegetation – as space-defining elements? Why was I trained to conceive of the building envelope as the limit where architecture ends rather than as a porous membrane that facilitates the transition between interiors and landscape, both precincts understood as intercommunicating designed spaces that foster social interaction?

Considering these questions from a historical and social perspective, has led me to conclude that the seemingly straightforward differences in design approach and professional conduct between architecture, interiors and landscape stem from deep-seated cultural values often rooted in class and gender. Over the past 20 years, I have written papers that treated the relationship between architecture and interiors and architecture and landscape as independent subjects. In this essay I will attempt a synthetic overview that explores the affinities and differences between them. After examining the issue of professional segregation from a historical context, I will conclude with proposals about how we might go about overcoming the obstacles that divided the professions in the past with the goal of forging productive associations in the future.


My longstanding interest in uncovering the foundations of disciplinary segregation began in 1996 when I edited Stud: Architectures of Masculinity, a book that invited a group of architects, critics, and artists to explore the role architecture plays in the performance of male identity.[1] Stud borrowed the notion of gender as “performance” from queer theorists who argue that human identity in general, and gender identity in particular, are not inborn biological traits but rather culturally constructed, learned modes of behavior. Theorists like Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam, then known as Judith, frequently referred to drag queens and drag kings whose exaggerated gestures, make-up, and costumes expose how gender is not innate but performed.[2] But the performance of gender identity depends, at least in part, on space: impersonation relies not only on the materials that clothe the body but also upon the designed environment that frames it.

First, if architects tend to consider buildings as photogenic objects, the notion of “performance” encouraged me to shift my attention to the interplay between human bodies and space and to embrace a conception of the built environment as a “stage” that enables people, like actors, to perform various roles. Second, Butler’s analysis of the way drag performers rely on costume to construct identity led me discover the affinities between clothing and cladding – the ephemeral elements like wallpaper, paint, fabrics, curtains upholstery, and furniture – that interior designers use to dress the interiors designed by architects: both are culturally coded applied surfaces that we use to fashion identity.


Discovering the crucial yet overlooked relationship between clothing, cladding, and human identity while editing Stud sparked my interest in architecture’s devalued sister discipline – interior design. In 2002, I wrote an essay, “Curtain Wars: Architects, Decorators and the 20th Century Interior,” that explored how the conflicts that pit architects against decorators, “wars” that are waged over something as seemingly innocuous as curtains, are bolstered and sustained by broad cultural stereotypes and anxieties about the nature of gender transmitted through a variety of “high” and “low” cultural discourses from architectural theory to Hollywood films.[3]

“Curtain Wars” explored how problematic assumptions about gender and class shaped both design approaches and professional identities. Ever since the emergence of the interior decorator as a design professional in the mid-nineteenth century, interior decoration has been dismissed as a superficial pastime associated with economically privileged upper and later middle classes. By the
twentieth century, interiors, a field practiced by women and gay men, became tainted by its association with femininity and homosexuality. It was thought that architects, typically men, worked conceptually, organizing space by manipulating durable materials and elements (structure and walls), while decorators, typically women and gay men, worked intuitively, adorning rooms with ephemeral materials (fabrics and upholstery) linked with fashion and domesticity. In contrast to architects who think in abstract terms to solve practical programmatic and technical problems, interior designers create spaces that cater to corporeal needs, the material body considered a female principle, as opposed to immaterial male intellect.


Ten years after completing “Curtain Wars,” my academic interests converged with my professional practice, leading me to consider the obstacles that kept another one of architecture’s allied disciplines at a distance – landscape. The emergence of Green design at the turn of the millennium put pressure on architects to think in a new way. My studio, JSA, received commissions to design residential and institutional projects that encouraged and sometimes required architects to incorporate what at that time was a new set of LEED certified green building standards that, while focused on buildings, also included ecological landscape techniques as well.

At the same time, I became interested in the work of progressive ecologists who underscored how climate change required us to recognize that nature and civilization, although not the same, have always been intertwined and are becoming more so. There is not a square inch of the planet that does not in some way bear the imprint of humans. Landscape and culture intermix in various combinations; while constructed elements are more common in urban areas and natural elements predominate in rural zones, organic and synthetic operate as a gradient of differing intensities that forms a continuum across the surface of the earth.

If the design disciples were to pursue the design consequences of this interconnected conception of humans and nature, then they needed to integrate their efforts. However, sustainable design, although driven by commendable goals, stymied this goal. Taking for granted the long-standing professional division of labor between architects and landscape architects, it was largely driven by a product-oriented mentality that evaluated materials and techniques on the basis of their performance and efficiency while rarely taking into consideration issues of form and human use. How could the two fields join forces to forge an innovative landscape/architecture design vocabulary that could tap into the formal and programmatic potential of sustainable design principles?

Professional frustrations again let me to design history. I soon realized that sustainable design recapitulated the professional segregation of landscape and architecture that dates back to the nineteenth century. In the introductory essay to Groundwork “Human/Nature: Wilderness and the Landscape/Architecture Divide,” I argued that this problematic division of architecture and landscape into independent disciplines in the United States has ideological underpinnings that can be traced to a deep-rooted Western polarity that opposes humans and nature and as a consequence buildings and landscapes. [4]

I soon discovered many parallels between the troubled relationship between architecture and interiors and architecture and landscape. Architects again enlisted problematic assumptions about the nature of class and gender to marginalize landscape and to justify the notion that buildings and nature were inherently and qualitatively different from one another. Like interiors, landscape was a discipline discredited for its association with women and the domestic realm. In the mid-nineteenth century, gardening had become a pastime reserved for upper class women and by the midtwentieth century a hobby for middle class housewives, publicized in popular magazines like House and Garden, whose title and content made explicit the affinities between interiors and landscape. And while landscape, like interiors was embraced by the mainstream media, it too was largely overlooked by the academy. Up until recently there has been a conspicuous absence of serious scholarly books and exhibitions devoted to landscape as compared to architecture, a phenomena that both reflects and reinforces landscape’s secondary status.

Moreover, landscape design methodologies, like interiors, are shaped by problematic assumptions about the gendered body. The landscape/architecture divide, mirrors the long-standing split between the spirit and the flesh, the Western binary that opposes immaterial intellect, considered a male prerogative, with the material corporeal body, deemed a female principle that since antiquity has been linked with Mother Earth. In addition, the design disciplines have accepted a Western bias espoused by philosophers and art critics including Aristotle, St. Augustine, Goethe, and Clement Greenberg, who all categorize the human senses in a hierarchy, differentiating between the immaterial higher senses – sight and sound – and lower senses – touch, taste, and smell. Modern architects like Le Corbusier famously validated this ocular-centric perspective. They privileged the visual rather than the multi-sensory dimension of architecture in contrast to interiors and landscape, two professions that work with soft ephemeral elements – fabrics and vegetation – to create indoor and outdoor spaces that engage not only sight but the lower senses, touch and smell.

The long-standing personification of nature as woman has also perpetuated the human/nature, landscape/architecture divide. Until the nineteenth century, the design disciplines mirrored a conception of nature inherited from the Old Testament that conceived of nature as a wily and temperamental female that needed to be tamed by men. But the rise of industrialization in the nineteenth century ushered in a new conception of nature as women. A first generation of environmentalist thinkers and activists like Henry David Thoreau, Charles Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt active during the second half of the nineteenth century were confronted with an intimidating prospect not unlike that which we face today – the disappearance of Wilderness. The vanishing wilderness paralleled imperiled white male masculinity now threatened by a range of emerging forces like technology, immigration, and women’ rights. But for men like Theodore Roosevelt, Wilderness, the home of the frontiersmen and the cowboy, represented a haven that sustained “vigorous manliness,” a refuge where robust individuals could resist the emasculating and domesticating forces of urban culture. If Nature was traditionally conceived of as an unruly woman that needed to be subdued and cultivated through the labor of men, Wilderness thinking now cast Nature as a virgin in desperate need of male stewardship that needed to be conserved and protected from the ravages of industrial civilization.[5]

Not only did Wilderness thinking give birth to the American environmentalist movement, but it also shaped the evolution of landscape and architecture in America from the nineteenth century until today: its dualistic conception of people and nature, bolstered by problematic gendered stereotypes, only reinforced the age-old Western conception of the building as a man-made artifact qualitatively different from its ostensibly natural surroundings. In turn, this way of thinking impacted professional conduct, reflected in the professional segregation of architects and landscape architects into parallel professional organizations: in 1899, at the height of the Wilderness movement, a new professional academy, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) was established.

Wilderness core values not only resulted in dual design professions but it also shaped design approaches: by positing that the human is entirely outside the natural, Wilderness presents a fundamental paradox: how to reconcile the ideal of untouched nature with the imprint of human design? The result is a deep and persistent suspicion of designed nature that still endures today.


Since I wrote “Curtains Wars,” the status of interior design has risen. No longer relegated to periodicals like House and Garden and House Beautiful geared to a largely female and gay readership, home improvement has expanded its reach. Internet and cable TV channels cover home design and appeal to a broader, although still principally white, demographic.

Interior design’s reputation within the architectural community has improved as well. Fifteen years ago, most self-respecting architects still subscribed to Modern Architecture’s disdain for interior design, seemingly oblivious to the contradiction that some of the great designers of furniture and interiors were men like Le Corbusier, Mies van de Rohe, Alvaar Aalto and Eero Saarinen. In contrast, today Stararchitects of both sexes, like Rem Koolhaas and the late Zaha Hadid, have no qualms designing interiors, furniture, and even clothing, often for fashion brands like Prada and Chanel. And unlike their Modernist predecessors who repudiated ornamented buildings in favor of stripped-down structures that employed materials associated with male authenticity like stone, wood, steel and glass, today celebrated Pritzker Prize winning architects like Peter Zumthor and Jean Nouvel create diaphanous veil-like facades of patterned glass and perforated metal that recall seductive female garments.

Clearly these significant professional inroads stem from recent changes in cultural attitudes about sex and gender. Thanks to the efforts of feminist, gay, and, more recently, transgender activists, mainstream society is gradually adopting more expansive models of human identity that has impacted design over the past 15 years. At the turn of the millennium, innovative magazines like Wallpaper* emerged that combined fashion, design, and architecture to a mixed audience that included a new breed of self-proclaimed “Metrosexuals.” Today mainstream newspapers, like the New York Times T Magazine publish an eclectic mix of fashion, design, and architecture that represents the pervasive influence of a young generation of hipsters and genderqueers who freely cross design genres and gender codes in their quest to express fluid multiple identities.

Likewise, the status of landscape has risen in recent years. Sustainable design has impacted the work of an international roster of progressive architects and landscape architects like Snohetta, Weiss Manfredi, and West who all blur the lines between buildings and sites. Progressive city agencies across the country are investing in public infrastructural projects for sustainable urban parks like the Highline, NYC and Millennium Park, Chicago. The visibility and acclaim given to these projects and to their authors like James Corner and Adriaan Geuze, are attracting a new generation of students who are enrolling in landscape programs. Meanwhile, old-school gendered stereotypes that shaped the image of landscape are shifting as well. The success of large-scale infrastructural projects designed by male practitioners convincingly demonstrates that landscape need no longer be regarded as an exclusively feminine domain confined to the domestic realm.


But despite significant improvements in the status of interiors and landscape over the past 15 years, made possible by changing attitudes in the culture at large, we still have a long way to go. Here are a few recommendations that might instigate a new way of thinking and working.

Design scholars and historians can help us overcome the constraining cultural ideologies that hold us back. Understanding the history of practice from a cultural perspective will allow us to overcome engrained cultural conceptions, often rooted in suspect notions about the gendered body that continue to shape design approaches and professional conduct.

With the help of design history, we can repudiate the problematic ideologies that brought into being binary thinking and establish an alternative design methodology based on interdisciplinary cooperation. No longer will architects prioritize buildings, relegating the design of interior and exterior as an afterthought that will be addressed, if at all, later in the design process. Instead, as soon as we put pen to paper or keyboard to monitor, we need to assemble teams of like-minded architects, interior designers and landscape architects to collaborate on projects that from their very inception employ sustainable design principles to generate designs that weave together people, interiors, buildings, and landscapes. Ultimately, teams will need to expand to include not only design professionals, but also engineers, ecologists, and computation experts. The challenge is to train confident practitioners who welcome the prospect of dissolving the already unstable boundaries between inside and outside, organic and synthetic, humans and nature, while at the same time respecting the kind of in-depth knowledge and expertise that can only be acquired from specialization. We need to cultivate a new frame of mind that merges integrated thinking with expert knowledge based on the recognition that the world’s problems are too complicated and interconnected for one kind of professional to solve alone.

Training open-minded designers that value both interdisciplinary exchange and specialization inevitably requires revamping the existing structure of design education that, mirroring the structure of the design professions, educates students in separate programs, that inevitably shape the thinking, values, design approaches, and skill sets of the students they educate. Design education and professional licensing are inter-connected, linked by accreditation boards that approve schools that can demonstrate that they adequately prepare students with the required skills necessary to become licensed professionals when they graduate. For example, only graduates of architectural programs accredited by the National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB) are qualified to apply for a license that will allow them to practice architecture in 37 states.

Curriculums are the bridge that links the academy and practice. For example, to obtain NAAB accreditation, programs must demonstrate that they offer curriculums that cover a range of required subjects in design, history/theory, technology and professional practice. Consequently, curriculums tend to be relatively uniform, leaving little room for substantial variation. We can begin reforming design education by formulating a revised NAAB-compliant prototypical design curriculum that will expose architecture students to the principles, values, and skills of two allied fields – interior design and landscape – that intersects with their own. For example, now architecture curriculums require students to take courses that acquaint them with the rudiments of technical subjects like mechanical systems, structures, and acoustics, subjects that will prepare them to work with licensed consultants representing these fields when they enter the profession. In a similar vein, why not expand architecture curriculums to include courses that treat the basics of furniture, fabric, and plant specification?

While revising architecture curriculums is a modest first step, the best way forward would be to imagine the consolidation of separate design departments into a single degree-granting program
with areas of specialization. For example, in the first three years of a five-year program, students could follow a core curriculum that acquaints them with the fundamental principles needed to think across a range of indoor and outdoor sites and scales. Then, in the final two years, they could elect to pursue majors in inclusive subjects that span disciplines like hardscape, softscape, building envelopes, sustainability, and ergonomics that would allow them to graduate with specialized degrees.

In both short-term and long-term scenarios, pedagogy will not only equip students with a broader set of skills not taught in most architectural schools but will encourage synthetic interdisciplinary thinking that will make them aware of the value of introducing interiors and landscape issues from the very inception of a project.

The existing structure of practice in which each field is organized under independent professional organizations – American Institute of Architects (AIA), American Society Interior Designers (ASID), and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) – each governed by different standards of professional protocols, needs to change as well. A modest first step would be for each organization to rewrite and to coordinate the boiler-plate legal documents that define the scope of services that each offers to clients. While we tend to take these purportedly objective descriptive documents for granted, these texts prescribe professional working relationships between client, architect, and consultants, including interiors and landscape, based on unchallenged assumptions about the nature of the design disciplines and the people who practice them.

In complex architectural projects that involve the participation of representatives from interiors and architecture, the respective division of labor that governs how the three parties will work together is outlined in three separate contracts that are written in a way that prescribes a hierarchical relationship between them. Consultants are typically retained either by the client or in many cases directly by the architect who then becomes legally and financially responsible for overseeing their work. In a typical project, the architect is the project leader, overseeing the course of the design process. During the first phase of the project, Schematic Design, the architect generally establishes the design direction. Only later in the process, typically in the second and third phases, Design Development and Construction Documents, are the interiors and landscape consultants brought in to elaborate or embellish the design concept already generated by the architect.

In the spirit of efficiency, contracts parse the work between architect and consultants into discrete tasks to avoid redundancy and ultimately save the client time and money. In the end, contracts dictate a rigid linear design process that ignores the inherently blurred boundaries between disciplines. For example, at first glance the line between building shell, freestanding furniture, and vegetation is clear. But who, architect or decorator, should be responsible for picking wall colors, tiles, and finishes? Who, architect or landscape architect, should design the outdoor hardscape elements like terraces and paths that define the perimeter of buildings and articulate the threshold between inside and outside? Moving forward we need to draft more flexible and inclusive contracts that promote collaboration. They should allow for all three parties at the beginning of a project to brainstorm design concepts. And as the project unfolds, contracts need to differentiate roles and responsibilities in a way that acknowledges that there is inevitably a certain measure of productive redundancy between the overlapping tasks that need to be shared between disciplines.

Contracts are not the only professional documents that need revamping. Tenders and RFQs (Request for Qualifications) and RFPs (Requests for Proposals) issued by clients looking to hire qualified designers also presume a hierarchical division of labor between design professionals. They are typically addressed to the architect, who is responsible for submitting the proposal that must include an assembled team of consultants that may or may not include, interiors and landscape. Even design awards programs and project credits in design publications presume disciplinary segregation: awards submissions are typically divided into rigid disciplinary categories and publications – both analog and on-line – typically credit the lead designer, generally the architect, listing the supporting consultants if at all, in the fine print.


Cross-disciplinary alliances ultimately depend on reworking the intricate procedures and protocols, from curriculums to contracts, which underpin the interconnected relationship between design education and the design professions. However, this ambitious project depends on a form of consciousness-raising that requires us to look at how the past informs the present. The contribution of design history is essential. A new generation of scholars needs to think across design fields to map the interwoven histories of professionalization that have come to dictate the design approaches and working relationships that have yielded the arbitrary division of labor between architects, interior designers, and landscape that we have inherited to this day. These engrained habits have prevented us from seeing that, in the end, all three fields are but a single enterprise dedicated to a common goal, the design of spaces where embodied humans can perform a variety of roles as they interact with one another in public and private space.

We rarely address this shared imperative. The names assigned to the design disciplines – architecture, interiors, landscape – are telling: they attest to the way we define them and differentiate them from one another in terms of the sites upon which they operate, be it a building, a room, or a park. More often than not, the representations that designers make and that scholars and curators reference are evidence of our indifference to the body. Human beings are either conspicuously absent from or mindlessly photoshopped into drawings, photographs, and renderings. Another even more telling symptom of this problem is that we continue to ignore what critiques of representation have been telling us for years, that images tend to see the world from the narrow perspective of a privileged few. We must not take for granted the structure of Western spectatorship that, by default, presumes the default point of view of a Western heterosexual white male, the implied but invisible occupant of the space being depicted whose body lies outside the picture frame.

Design handbooks, like the popular Time-Saver Standard series are among the rare exceptions when designers directly address the requirements of human bodies. These three manuals, Time- Saver Standards for Architecture, Time-Saver Standards for Interior Design and Time-Saver Standards for Landscape, although aimed at different audiences, nevertheless all depict men, and sometimes women, as eviscerated diagrams. These two-dimensional line drawings reduce the corporeal body in all of its diversity into a universal abstraction that illustrates the “normal” body, whose standardized dimensions determine the ergonomic measurements established in building codes that designers incorporate into their projects. Scholars from Disability Studies like Douglas Baynton have persuasively demonstrated that this conception of the “standard” body is historically contingent, a problematic product of nineteenth century science and medicine, whose supposedly objective findings were and continue to be used to uphold the oppression of those considered deviant.[6] Rejecting the convention of the “normal” body as ideologically bankrupt will allow designers to turn their attention to addressing the needs of a wide range of non-conforming bodies marked by race, gender, and disability.

In the end, design histories like this one will allow us to recognize that the triad architecture, interiors and landscape are in fact continuous practices whose common denominator is the corporeal experience of differently embodied people in the world. This recognition will allow us to refocus our energies. No longer will we create projects differentiated by scale and location (building, interior, exterior) treated as isolated commodities that can be consumed in two-dimensional images. Instead, adopting a new mentality will free us to conceive of environmental design as a single practice spearheaded by teams of individuals with different levels of expertise but all dedicated to a common goal, the creation of a gradient of indoor–outdoor spaces that combine living and non-living materials where a diverse range of differently embodied humans of different ages, races, classes, and genders can productively interact.


[1] Joel Sanders, STUD: Architectures of Masculinity (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996).
[2] Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 2010).
[3] Joel Sanders, “Curtain Wars,” Harvard Design Magazine No. 16 (2002).
[4] Joel Sanders, Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2011).
[5] William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965).
[6] Douglas Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in The Disability Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2013).