Montana State University

Practical projects take architecture grad to another level

May 5, 2011 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Joe Procunier said that working on actual architectural problems, such as designing housing solutions for Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake, took his work and thinking to new levels. The MSU grad student from Bozeman has won international and local awards for his work. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Don't look for Joe Procunier's name to be in front of a big fancy building any time soon.

Even though MSU architecture professors rate the talents of the master's graduate from Bozeman along with top students in the country, big buildings are just not his style.

"I like to solve a problem that responds to people's needs," Procunier said.

Those include solutions to big problems, such as housing for Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake. Procunier has never been to Haiti, yet the country and its needs ignited his imaginations. His designs for Haitian housing have placed him in advanced stages of two international design competitions.

Procunier was a semifinalist in the Building Back Better Communities in Haiti competition, a remarkable accomplishment since he placed as a student and the competition lured entries by professional architects from throughout the world.

Also, Procunier as a single entry was one of the top 29 teams in another international competition for students. Procunier continues to improve the design he submitted to that contest -- a permanent bamboo-based form system to be used for concrete blocks that could be used to rebuild after disaster, such as in Haiti or Japan.

"I like entering competitions as a school project," Procunier said, contrasting them to the imaginary or theoretical problems that are part of most architecture classes. "It's more challenging because you need to understand another culture, how your design would affect that culture and how it could help."

Jack Smith, an MSU adjunct architecture professor and architect who has taught architectural students since 1964, said that Procunier actually finished all his requirements for his degree in December, but enrolled in the spring semester and paid extra tuition so he could work on the building form project and enter two more design competitions. In addition to another Haiti competition, Procunier is submitting a design for a ballet/martial arts studio in a steel company-sponsored competition.

"He's an extraordinarily talented, amazing guy," Smith said, adding that he doesn't think that professors can teach talent such as Procunier's. "Our job is to uncover it."

Smith, along with professors Ralph Johnson and Bruce Wrightsman, served as advisers on Procunier's Haiti project. Smith said that Procunier is "a really hard worker and also a really, really humble guy."

As an example, Procunier didn't tell fellow students and teachers until he was just about done that his part-time job throughout college was working for the sculptor Deborah Butterfield and her husband, artist John Buck, both world-class artists.

Procunier said that he does a variety of jobs for Buck and Butterfield, ranging from feeding horses to helping them with building projects at their studio outside Bozeman.

"It's been great to see really creative stuff outside school. They are both really inspiring," Procunier said. adding that he's enjoyed talking to Buck about art and design. "They've given me insights into the world of world-class art."

Procunier is now learning to ride the horses at the Butterfield-Buck complex after years of taking care of them. Procunier said he likes learning new things, which is one of the reasons he likes architecture.

"What makes it so hard and so interesting is that you have to know so many different things if you want to solve a problem," he said. "From computer applications to how bamboo grows, there's just so much information that you have to know to have a successful project. I like that."

Procunier said he was always interested in architecture. From the beginning he has liked its problem-solving aspect. But his passion for his career really caught on when he entered his first Haiti competition. It was then, he said that he learned that his education was not just something to use as a stepping stone for a career, but something that could be used as a resource for his ideas and projects.

"When I started on the Haiti project, it took me to another level," Procunier said. "I wish that I would have had that mindset from day one. But I've enjoyed my time here and the work with other students and professors."

The feeling is mutual. This week Procunier received the MSU Architectural Research Center Consortium Award (Arcc.org), given to a student who shows promise in success in profession. It was one of four honors given out by the MSU School of Architecture to its graduates.

Procunier says after a few summer commitments, he'll begin looking for a job, mostly likely at a firm in a larger city that will allow him to solve practical problems rather than work in high-end architecture.

"With his portfolio, he can go anywhere he wants to go," Smith said. "His education isn't over. It's really just begun."

Jack Smith (406) 994-7353, jacksmith@montana.edu