Finding The Best Way To Tell This Story?


Project 1

The project deals with explorations on the design process that recognizes the sometimes challenging relationship between representation and the actualization of a project. Working in a real space vs depicting those ideas to a remote audience.

Project 2

A narrative work that depicts a future space traveler returning to Earth in search of an ancestral suburban dwelling. This project deals in themes of imagined vs real. past vs present.

Project 3

A collaboration with Jay Studer for the Last House on Mulholland Arch-Out-Loud competition. The project was awarded t-50 finalists honors for this exploring a house that allows one to project content and materiality on the inside and outside – disconnecting form from image and form from function.


Who influences you graphically?

Movies and tv have had a strong influence on my visual interests; even the hours I spent perusing the video store as a kid, studying the VHS boxes had a profound imprint on me. Each box told a little story and presented a mystery that I found fascinating. Horror and sci-fi films had the best VHS boxes and subsequently I find those films generally the most interesting. Some boxes that come to mind: Evil Dead 2, The Return of the Living Dead, Beetlejuice.

Could you explore more the threshold between representation and the actualisation of the project?

In grad school I got into the idea that we were really making pictures, not buildings. Even projects that were very much building-centric had to wrestle with the presentation of the idea, not the construction of the building. Construction documentation, for example, is a completely different type of representation, with different motives and conventions, it tells a different story about the building than what you’d put together for a project review (typically). Somewhere in this thought process I got it in my head that the medium through which we explore the ideas has an impact on the ideas themselves. If one were able to explore ideas in full-scale built form it would be a very different process than coming up with drawing/modeling iterations of an idea. Even choosing to do an ink drawing vs. a collage influences the concept being presented. I became very interested in the relationship between image and reality, and have tried to do work with this as the underpinning idea.

Looking back at your early work and where you are now – how has one influenced the other? Are you still concerned with the idea of process?

I’m far less stubborn about the whole thing, less dogmatic than I was in grad school. I’m much more inclined to simply enjoy the idea of telling a story, or exploring an idea and using whatever means appropriate – could be a collage, a movie, a CD set I suppose. Not one piece is more right than the other. I’m much happier exploring interesting ideas (built or imagined) than I am about trying to convince whoever that there’s an important distinction between representation and actualization.  That’s where process comes in. What is the process of finding the best way to tell this story?

What defined the shift from analogue to digital? What are the biggest implications of this choice?

Probably convenience and efficiency initially shifted me from analog to digital. Most office jobs and clients are not accustomed to seeing a piece of drywall with book clippings pasted to it. In the end though I think the biggest difference between them affects the author as much as the audience. With an analog collage approach you have to let it develop, let it sort of guide itself to completion – a bit like making a puzzle. I’m never sure what it will be in the end. In a digital piece the challenge is knowing when to stop. With virtually limitless images available and software being ever more advanced, only your skills limit your ability to create so for me it’s more about editing and looking for those moments of surprise and then knowing when to call it quits.

How do your digital montages differ from the more analogue collages? To what extent do the tools offered by the computer affect the composition, use of fragments etc?

Mostly in the ability to infinitely manipulate an infinite amount of available imagery in the digital vs celebrating the differences and disjunctions in the analog collage. I realize you could just as easily emulate the analog process in the digital realm, but I find that really hard to do for myself.

As an architect what is/are your favourite tools through you operate? (can be both conceptual and tangible)

Storyboarding the idea is an essential step for me. Sketching or otherwise making images that map out the story you are trying to tell in order to hone in on what beats you are trying to hit, what is superfluous, what is essential, what are the right techniques to employ in the representation of the idea. A storyboarding process has resulted in project presentations in the form of a movie, a children’s book, and even a cake.

What are you currently working on?

I’m teaching visualization & storytelling classes as an adjunct at the University of Cincinnati, School of Architecture and Interior Design. I am also an architect at GBBN Architects in Cincinnati where, among other work, we’ve been pushing towards ways to incorporate storytelling in the design process. Outside of that I try to do a competition here and there – have had some success over the past year or so working together with Jay Studer (instagram: @jlstud2) on the ArchOutLoud: Last House on Mullholland and Non-Architecture: Eating competition entries.


Sean Cottengim is an architect at GBBN Architects and an adjunct at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Architecture and Interior Design in the college of DAAP.