Design Manifestos: May Poon of Wilson Associates | Modelo Blog Series

Design Manifestos: May Poon of Wilson Associates

May Poon (Photograph by William Bichara Photography courtesy of Wilson Associates)

May Poon is an Associate Principal and Design Director at Wilson Associates. Her 13 years with Wilson Associates at the Dallas, Texas and Los Angeles, California offices have yielded a portfolio of highly awarded and successful properties across the globe. Clients and colleagues revere May’s natural ability to close her eyes and place herself in a space as she designs. From the back of the house to guest reception, May knows what the operator needs on every level. Fluent in English and Cantonese, her unique cultural ties to multiple countries and cultures give her a broad understanding and empathy toward a vast international client base and humanity as a whole. Modelo recently spent some time learning about May’s progressive designs and her unique approach.

On becoming a designer
I’ve been interested in art and design since a very early age. When I began discerning my major in college, I chose architecture and followed that path through five years of college, two degrees and my licensure. After school, I followed my calling to a firm in London, England and worked there until an opportunity to move to Dallas, Texas arose. For the last 15 years I have called Dallas home. Initially, I continued my profession as an architect until an amazing opportunity at Wilson Associates came my way. As an architect, moving to Wilson was a shift in my career, from pure architecture to interior architecture. It was an exciting challenge and I am now celebrating my thirteenth year at Wilson.

Sofitel Dubai Lobby Entry (Photograph by Sofitel courtesy of Wilson Associates)

On discovering her voice as a designer
During my career as an architect, I studied the “masters” of architecture as they inspired me in ways that affected my voice as an architect and now as an interior architect. The first “master” is Japanese architect Tadao Ando, a very conceptual, self-taught minimalist who designs with light to create space in a Modernist way. Another one who inspires me is Paul Rudolph. His architecture is created from forms and shape, and still influences how I create spaces today. This inspiration translates into my design through geometry and patterns that define space. Finally, the third one who inspires me, and contrasts the other two, is Santiago Calatrava. I had the chance to work with this Spanish icon when I was in London, who combines the study of nature, architecture and engineering disciplines into his aesthetic. His architecture and art inspire me to listen, observe and incorporate the natural world into my designs.

On how her role has evolved since joining Wilson
I came from an architecture background. This means I focused on the spatial form of buildings and how they created communities, cities, and urban and suburban environments. I took the same approach when I started practicing interior architecture. Everything has a meaning to it. It begins with the story, the concept, spaces, and finally the interior architecture. The aesthetics and feeling fall into place when you have a strong story.

Sofitel Dubai Prefunction (Photograph by KEO Lighting courtesy of Wilson Associates)

On specific principles she strives to adhere to
In everything we do, we try to make sure that we understand where the client is coming from, what his or her desire is and then we build a script around it, before we even put the pencil to paper. Everything must have a meaning behind it.

On her role as a designer at Wilson Associates
My truly functional role is the story-teller and creator of design. I believe in building a strong and solid foundation with every client in order to understand them deeply. A project is a journey with our client, and we must come together as a team to develop a strong concept and ultimately a successful project. Together we ensure the story is good on day one of the project, prior to assembling the team who will do the work. This is the most important role I have in the context of Wilson Associates and the Dallas office. I lead the team through all stages of the project until the day the property is opened.

The 31 at Sofitel Dubai (Photograph by KEO Lighting courtesy of Wilson Associates)

On recent projects that represent the firm’s unique approach
Right now, I am working on the Sofitel in Mexico City. The client is Grupo Eco from Mexico City and the operator is Sofitel. I love working with Sofitel because they always have a very strong design brief, which helps to kick-start the concept.

The Sofitel Mexico City concept is centered on two iconic architects from the twentieth century: Le Corbusier, a Swiss-French architect and Luis Barragan, arguably the most famous Mexican architect. Working closely with Grupo Eco, the architect for this project, we are designing the interiors by taking inspiration from the two icons and Grupo Eco’s architecture of the building. The inspiration plays out by architectural forms, spaces, colors and patterns. Art has been a strong driver for this project with architectural sculptures, lighting sculptures and contemporary Mexican art. We view art as an integral piece to the project, not an accessory. This project is an excellent example of that approach. Everything is designed together to compliment each other.

An interesting challenge on the Sofitel Mexico City is its location. It’s immediately adjacent to the American Embassy, making it prime real estate, but also making it challenging in terms of access. The street lobby of the hotel is placed on a long interior driveway through the entire length of the building.

The street lobby is the first impression of the hotel for most guests when they arrive. We worked hard to find solutions that impress the visitor and transform the drive into an experience. The design includes 3D mapping, architectural art and light projection to bring light and interest to what could be a long dark tunnel.

The 31 at Sofitel Dubai (Photograph by KEO Lighting courtesy of Wilson Associates)

On her design toolkit
I’m very old school. I always start with a pencil. I work with the client to understand their vision and come back to the studio to brainstorm with the team using images and ideas. We use Pinterest to curate images of space, feeling or color. Once we have a concept, we sketch, and use AutoCAD, SketchUp or 3ds Max. The tools vary upon the project or the concept.

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
Architecture and design are moving in a direction that we have never been before. There are so many new technologies that affect our industry, such as new computer programs, 3D printing, or innovative construction techniques. We are truly pushing the boundaries and making shapes, forms and spaces that we’ve never seen before. Technology, design, art, architecture and interior design are all coming together. It’s very exciting right now.

Sofitel Dubai Ballroom (Photograph by KEO Lighting courtesy of Wilson Associates)

On the future of Wilson Associates in the next 5–10 years
We have a group of extremely passionate designers in our organization in eight offices worldwide. I have just started working with our Los Angeles office, which is interesting because every office has their own culture, but the passion we have for design is the same. It’s good to work for a company that has a vision to understand that interior design is not limited to interior design. Interior design should encompass everything from architecture, art, interior design, graphic design, etc. All these components should always be considered, and having the support of the company for us to explore these different ideas is a huge plus.

On advice she would give her younger self
I would say to myself, ‘do not be afraid to try new things.’ I did pure architecture for more than a decade. When I was younger I never thought I would be anything other than a pure architect. But here I am, an interior architect! It allows me to see and understand architecture holistically. Before my vision was limited. I wish I had taken the plunge a little earlier but I’m here now.

Design Manifestos: Peter Pennoyer of Peter Pennoyer Architects| Modelo Blog Series

Design Manifestos: Peter Pennoyer of Peter Pennoyer Architects

Peter Pennoyer (Photograph by Jay Ackerman courtesy of Peter Pennoyer Architects)

Peter Pennoyer established Peter Pennoyer Architects in 1990 and it has since grown to include four partners, fifty associates, and four interior designers. The firm is an award-winning practice in traditional architecture recognized as a leader in classicism and historic preservation. Based in Manhattan, New York and with an office in Miami, Florida, the firm has built a substantial and varied body of work across the country and abroad for residential, commercial, and institutional commissions often involving historic buildings. For the past twenty-five years, Peter Pennoyer and his partners have grounded the firm’s projects in a forward-looking interpretation of history. They believe that architectural practices in the past leave us potent lessons that are relevant to contemporary architectural challenges. Modelo spent some time learning about Peter’s unique historical approach and the inspirations behind his modern and classical designs.

On becoming an architect
Growing up, New York City was a natural place to think about architecture. In the ’60s, New York was in trouble. People had moved out; thousands of buildings that were empty — repossessed by the city in tax lien proceedings. Many people and companies ran to the suburbs. Real estate was almost worthless, not significantly appreciating from 1932 until basically the 1980s. There was very little being built, but people were thinking about how to fix the city. My parents were involved with New York, with politics and with social issues. And they felt that they had an interest in trying to help people who were impoverished. Growing up in a house where social activism and mindfulness about what makes a good city brought idealism as opposed to pure aesthetics. Aesthetics came later.

I also happened to have neighbors and friends of my family who were architects. I admired our next-door-neighbor, an architect who was working at Skidmore Owings & Merrill when I was very young. He was full of passionate fire-in-the-belly of Modernist zeal. And he was working with Gordon Bunshaft designing the Chase Manhattan Tower near Wall Street. He raved about an architect named Le Corbusier. At that point I was interested in Modernism because Modernism looked very different in the 60s then it does today in New York because there were only a few International Style buildings. You could walk down Park Avenue and it was all masonry, all of these buildings that actually fit into the vision for Terminal City around Grand Central. Then there was the Seagram building and Lever House. A stark, invigorating contrast. I knew then that I wanted to be an architect.

Diamond A Ranch (Photograph by Peter Aaron courtesy of Peter Pennoyer Architects)

On discovering his voice as a designer
When I went to Columbia College, I was interested in older buildings. I wanted to study architectural history and I found that the architecture school courses weren’t really referencing history much, so I began taking courses in the preservation school. The preservationists were studying older buildings. Then I enrolled in an undergraduate studio with Robert A. M. Stern. He was and is a great teacher, a very thoughtful architect and a champion of New York City. He led us to look at the sense of place and the importance of studying precedent. He wasn’t doctrinaire about it — if a student was interested in Modernism, he’d say ‘fine, but go look at the source, read the books, go see the buildings and measure them.’ But in my case, it led me to a real fascination with historical architecture. Because of my interest in the city, I began to realize that the buildings that most appealed to me were buildings that connected to other buildings, that became part of a streetscape, or part of a neighborhood, or established an identity that was greater than just one building. This became an important part of my approach to design.

In my senior year I went to work at Bob Stern’s office. I started out organizing his slide library. This is a man who carried a camera around everywhere he went for decades, taking pictures of every building that interested him — in each one the architect, the location, the building would have to be identified. Those slides gave me a window into the power of a visual library. After I graduated from college I moved from slides to designing interior architectural renovations — and began to design in earnest.

Within Stern’s office there was always an opportunity to explore architecture. There was a high level of ambition about design in that office and that gave me a great boost and confidence. Now mind you, it was this odd moment when Modernism was trying to squeak into Post-Modernism and we produced some bizarre things. Everyone was having to learn again — it was like all the books had been thrown out. Many had been taught that history was destructive to creativity and beauty. Actually, that’s not right because the word beauty itself was taboo in architecture school along with proportion and harmony. If you mentioned these qualities you were thought of as being just eccentric or bourgeois. I worked for Stern for almost two years before I went to Columbia graduate school where there were some faculty who were moving past modernism The brick wall of orthodoxy was crumbling; people were sensing that there other ways to look at architecture.

Working and studying under Bob Stern I met Gregory Gilmartin, a fellow employee and student. He was working with Bob writing New York 1900 and New York 1930. the great books on New York City architecture and history. Gregory has been a friend and colleague in my firm ever since. My work in graduate school was continually informed by history. Every time I understood a great building — by traveling, by reading — it seemed to enrich my designs. Some friends who were doing very cold Modernism seemed to have a bottomless well of intuitive impulses about design. My mind doesn’t work that way. I don’t think that it’s a bad thing to design that way but there are very few people who are good at it. You actually have to be a kind of genius. I don’t think I am. Very, very few architects are.

Drumlin Hall (Photograph by Jonathan Wallen courtesy of Peter Pennoyer Architects)

On starting the firm
I started sooner than I should have because a classmate in second year proposed that we partner on designing a loft for a famous model (movie star). This was an opportunity presented to me on a platter. I said ‘of course I’ll be your partner and I’ll help design Isabella Rossellini’s loft, I’ll do Keith Haring’s Pop shop and meet you at the Warhol Factory.’ His name was Peter Moore and he was brilliant at connecting with the fashion and art worlds in New York; and convincing people that what they really needed was an energetic, architecture student as designer.

So we started off really fast with absolutely no professional credentials. New York was a great place to make this happen because it was full of people who were actually interested in new ideas and willing to take risks. We had some fascinating projects and even a client who brought us in as their in-house architects. They rented us offices in their hotel (now known as The Mark), which we renovated, learning about construction, learning about design, and we also built an art warehouse for them. We built a store in London. This one patron, who is still a friend today, had the confidence to let us do all his projects. This was very rash. But it worked out well for him and for me.

In the meantime, my friends — people who care about architecture like Gregory Gilmartin, who is the Director of Design here — helped me continue to learn and act as though in some sense I was still in school. After Moore moved on we grew and quickly learned that we had to be professional. It’s been almost 30 years and I now have four partners: Tom Nugent, Liz Graziolo, Jim Taylor and Jennifer Gerakaris. Together we have built up a practice based on mostly residential design but some commercial and institutional work.

Drumlin Hall (Photograph by Jonathan Wallen courtesy of Peter Pennoyer Architects)

On principles that he strives to adhere to across projects
The first principle is may seem like the least interesting one — making the building work for the client. In residential work this means actually getting to know people at a deep level. Not only people but in some cases what they own — what paintings or books or furniture they have. This isn’t the sexy part of the architectural profession. But making the building work really well is important to us and I enjoy the process.

Making the building feel right to people is essential — anyone coming to a house we design should feel welcomed. It sounds trite but anyone walking into that living room should feel comfortable and anyone sitting at that table having a conversation at dinner should feel that the space is a good place to do that. And our clients feel a sense of joy in the architecture; delight in the details and the spaces and the proportions. Underlying that is knowing how to achieve the best design. We don’t design in an off-the-cuff way. If we’re going to do paneling we have looked and thought about how the masters have done that particular kind of paneling. We would never do exactly what an architect has done before but we’re aware of the best examples. That’s the knowledge part and that is exhausting because it’s easier to put blinders on and think that you have all the answers in your head. But we think we can always do better. We’re constantly learning and that’s a lot of work.

We also love building technology, we like to know how things are made, and we love knowing about materials. We don’t specify windows unless someone here has visited the factory where they make the windows. We like to work with craftsmen, we like to talk to contractors and we like to think about best practices. We even love the forensic part of it — understanding old buildings that have problems and figuring out why. We also embrace new materials and methods but we’re very careful to understand anything new before we use it in our buildings.
Symphonic is a word that I think is most important in our work. Because I use traditional sources, precedents and ideas, I could risk having a building feel like a collection of quotations, of styles. Instead I harmonize these inspirations into one complete, coherent work of architecture.

Federal House (Photograph by Brian Vanden Brink courtesy of Peter Pennoyer Architects)

On recent projects that represent his unique approach
We are working on a house now that’s under construction that is influenced by Czech Cubism. There are very few examples of this style, yet there we were with the client in and around Prague tracking down every single one. This was practically like learning a new language because it’s all about angles and facets. The design is symphonic because it’s pulling unusual influences together into one work of architecture. We are also furnishing the house and very involved in building the collections.

We recently built a house in Dutchess County, north of New York for a collector of 19th century American art. That was fascinating because she had such a great vision for her interest in the period of American history, furnishings and fine arts. She allowed us to make a building that was very traditional in its outward guise, but had quite an open plan — it’s a very special project that addresses the landscape, the collections sing in that house and our collaboration with the interior designer Thomas Jayne, made it ideal. .

A recent commission in Maine is extraordinarily interesting because it’s trying to evoke some of the peace and serenity of summer cottages that people would build 140 years ago. It does not include a lot of the amenities. It has no built in lighting — there’s just minimal surface lighting. It is dark, it’s very sculptural as shingle-style should be. It doesn’t have one built in sound speaker. It doesn’t have a television. It has a telephone down the hall. The architecture is evocative because it’s a shingle-style house built with the idea in mind of a client who went on the grand tour and came back and said ‘I love a vaulted hall that I saw in this monastery’ or ‘I love the Diamante pattern of these vases on the side of the stair.’ Those influences make the house textured and suggest a rich history.

A new headquarters for Historic Hudson Valley was a very special challenge. This group is in charge of great house museums near New York — so in way they are the curators of a collection of architecture. Our design relates to the history of the area without competing or directly referencing the houses. We were able to make grand public rooms for programs and meetings that also display collections. The building also has offices and archival storage spaces. Yet it all holds together in one unified design.

House in Maine (Photograph by Jonathan Wallen courtesy of Peter Pennoyer Architets)

On his design toolkit
The most important tool is the creative spirit of the designer. This is not an office where I say that the name on the door is not the only designer. There are several designers here — I’m just one of them. To make that tool effective, we explain to our clients that we don’t come up with five alternative schematic designs. We believe in drawing our best scheme first. Even if we have to regroup and revise.

Hand-drawing is also important. We always start with pencil and paper. We think that physical connection between your brain and hand doesn’t quite happen for our kind of architecture if you’re typing commands into your keyboard. There’s a physicality to architectural design that demands hand drawing. And for inspiration we have a 10,000 volume library.

The technical part is important. We have a full-time spec-writer who keeps up with technology and we have a full-time 3D person. The 3D stuff is great because we can show the clients, walkthroughs and we can print models in-house. Having someone here who can do beautiful watercolors is another kind of tool. I do not think that there’s one right method for each person who works here. We do not impose a standard graphic formula. If they have a particular talent for drawing or painting in a certain way, I encourage them to do that. I’m not worried about someone looking at our work and being able to identify the different people who contribute. I’m not trying to make our work homogeneous.

151 East 78th Street Building (Rendering by Williams New York courtesy of Peter Pennoyer Architects)

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
I do think that there are great opportunities for younger architects because of the division of the profession into specialties. This is amazing because a young firm can win a commission to do a high-rise. I look back to SOM and I think of the people who designed the Chase Manhattan building. They studied for years and practiced for decades before they had the opportunity to do that. Everything that had to do with the design of that building was within the walls of that one firm — literally within their office. At that point, there were only 6 engineers alive who were capable and competent to design the structural system for that skyscraper. Everyone had to work really hard and was on a slow track. Then I look at firms today that I hadn’t heard of 5 years ago and they are doing a major building. This is an opportunity for some. But it’s a bad thing for our profession because it means that the marketplace, the developers, the clients and the institutions have been able to chop up what was under one firm’s control into separate commodities where you get a design architect who gets paid very little. Their name is on the door — on the building. Then you get an architect of record who is churning out thousands of construction drawings and documents, and then you have all these other consultant specialists. A lot of it is necessary because the world is getting more complicated. But, it’s a far cry from the days when an architect like Ely Jacques Kahn who did the building across the street here (Two Park Avenue), was considered the master of the setback. Here was an architect who learned how to interpret the 1916 zoning-code to create ziggurat-like compositions. His firm designed and drew everything- from the massing to the ornament — design drawings and construction drawings. It was an entirely different enterprise than the trend today when architects are handed an envelope diagram by a consultant and many have working drawings done by other firms.

On advice he would give his younger self
I wouldn’t have given up as quickly something I tried early on, which is to do what’s now called affordable housing. I believe that all housing should be beautiful and I believe that there isn’t a large incremental cost for excellent design. I tried pursuing this when I first graduated from architecture school and it didn’t work out because we didn’t have our act together and we didn’t understand the financial part of it. We only pulled off a renovation of one building, which came out really well. Then when we tried to step it up, we ran into bureaucracy and red tape. I would’ve loved to have been able to find a way to prove that you can actually build beautiful, detailed low-income housing. This shouldn’t be impossible, but you can’t do everything.

Design Manifestos: Shawn Keller of CW Keller and Associates | Modelo Blog Series

Design Manifestos: Shawn Keller of CW Keller and Associates

Shawn Keller (Photograph courtesy of CW Keller + Associates)

Shawn’s work embodies the shared vision of CW Keller and Associates. From modest beginnings, literally the basement of Charlie and Shawn Keller’s family home, CW Keller has continued to grow and evolve into one of the most technologically advanced fabrication shops in the US. The shop’s cornerstone is embracing the process, not just being experts in a material. According to Shawn, “the process unlocks the potentials of the materials.” To this end, the company has never been about responding to current trends, but instead innovates within its own expertise. From opening a custom furniture retail store in 1980, to purchasing its first CNC in 1995, to branching out into custom concrete formwork in 2011, Shawn has never been about staying put and settling into a niche. He loves challenges.

Prior to CW Keller, Shawn Keller spent ten years as a senior project manager for a Boston architectural firm, where he worked on the design and implementation of programs for a broad spectrum. He continually draws on that experience in his interaction with current clients and their architects, collaborating to find the best way to achieve each project’s design and budgetary goals. Shawn is a graduate of Syracuse University. Modelo spent some time learning about some of the challenges that Shawn takes on and the shared vision of CW Keller and Associates.

On becoming a fabricator 
My father started CW Keller. Our firm started as a custom woodworking company and my dad started it in the basement of our house where my brother and I were growing up. It was coffee tables and dining room tables. He was the industrial arts teacher at Wilmington High School in Wilmington, Massachusetts and was doing this on the side. It got to a point where he could transition to making it a full-time job for himself, and moved it out of the house into a small shop in North Andover, Massachusetts. Over the course of the past 45 years he grew the business up as a commercial woodworking firm that grew up through doing residential and then some commercial. Then we got into retail in the 1980s and 1990s. Estée Lauder was our main client through that period. We were building Origins cosmetic stores for Estée Lauder on a national basis, which was a great run. Estée Lauder was interested in doing a much higher-end retail environment so we went through multiple iterations of their stores, building them out nationally every 4–5 years. Then they would renovate and do them all over again. What that did is essentially allowed us to grow the infrastructure of the firm to support that client.

Ultimately what happened is the retail market started to slow down pretty dramatically in the late 1990s. It put us in a position to re-evaluate where we were going to be as a company and get back into more commercial work in the Greater Boston area. The challenge that we faced as a fabricator is there were a lot of people in that space. Here to New York City, there are hundreds of woodworking companies that can do reception desks and wall panels and the things that we’d be bidding against. Margins get driven down and competition is pretty fierce. We saw the growth of our company as enjoying doing things that were the heart of harder projects. Contractors would start to come to us and say ‘we’ve got this project, but we’ve got this one piece that everyone else keeps saying no we’re not interested in doing that.’ That was the part that we loved doing. From 2000 through to today we have aggressively gone after the hardest stuff out there. What’s the most complex thing that people are doing? We had some lucky relationships that were created with firms here in Boston and Cambridge. Nader Tehrani, Mark Goulthorpe — designers who are really pushing the envelope of what could be done and forcing us to step up our game to be able to do those projects. It’s blossomed from there.

‘C-Change’ (Photograph by Anton Grassi / Esto courtesy of CW Keller + Associates)

On discovering his voice as a fabricator
It started with the early relationships that we started to build. My background is in architecture and I went to Syracuse for undergrad. Then I came back to the Boston area and worked as an architect in Boston for about ten years. What that helped me do was sit on that side of the table: design team with client with general contractor. What are the issues that they face in getting a project designed and budgeted and under construction? I was able to take the knowledge that I had living in the architecture-side of the business and start to apply it to how we approached our relationships with architects and general contractors. I knew what meeting they had just come out of before they came to meet with us and the issues that they had. Where we started to be more successful was in our ability to go to contractors and architects and say ‘we understand what you’re trying to do here, we see the drawings, we understand the goal and we’re going to bring a design-sensibility to helping you figure out how to build it.’

That was helpful in building relationships with a lot of architecture firms. We became a go-to team for them to be able to say, ‘before we go to our client, we’ve designed this thing, can you give us feedback? We’re thinking the budget for should be x, but we don’t want to design it, put it into a set of drawings and have the budget come back twice that.’ We developed a very collaborative relationship with the firms up here and then extended into New York by being a collaborator in feedback of concept. That allowed us to grow what are now the fastest growing parts of our business: our engineering team and our design team. We’ve gone from being a fabricator that was 80% production (guys on the shop floor building and using machinery, a handful of engineers and project managers) to essentially 50/50. We’re 20 engineers, design engineers and project managers and 22 fabricators on the shop floor. We’re trying to straddle that world between design and fabrication by building our engineering team to support the design side.

‘Frost Museum, Miami, Florida’ (Photograph courtesy of CW Keller + Associates)

On specific principles he strives to adhere to
Profitability as a starting point. We believe strongly in transparency. We’re often asked to get involved with projects where the general contractor will say ‘we’ve talked to all these other people and no one can do this. Who’s your competition? Who else can do this?’ Our feeling in many cases is there isn’t a lot of others doing the things that we’re doing. The challenge we face is that the industry in many cases is still stuck in a mindset of ‘as a client I need to see 3 competitive bids for me to feel comfortable picking CW Keller as the fabricator.’ Often there is no one else who’s going to bid it. Or, bids may come in but they’re so apples to oranges that it’s hard for people to make decisions. One of the things that we’ve really tried to strive for is transparency of cost. We are open and willing to provide our clients with full documentation of the cost to build something. Here are our hourly rates, here are the profit margins that we’re trying to achieve and here are our engineering hours that we’re estimating. We’ve found that we’re able to start really changing the dynamic of how we work with our clients. We have architects that we’ve worked with, STUDIOS is a great example. They have offices in D.C., New York and San Francisco and we’ve been working with them for ten years. They have a track record now of working with us in this model, where they’ll specify us for a part of a project, knowing that we’re willing to provide them and their client with that level of transparency. And there’s a level of trust that’s been built up over a history of ten years of projects. It’s the only way we’ve been able to figure out how to work more successfully in projects that are so complex that there’s tons of risk associated with them.

‘Frost Museum, Miami, Florida’ (Photograph courtesy of CW Keller + Associates)

On the evolution of his role 
The evolution began with retail starting to go away and being an organization very geared towards: copy, paste, repeat. When we started to move back into the commercial and residential markets, everything is a one-off. You have to be a bit more flexible in building something once and you’ve got to get it right the first time. Then you’re going to go on and do something completely different. Where with retail, you’re going to build the same store fixture 40 times. Project management comes pretty simply, you just click a button and the drawings are there.

Now, we’re a custom woodworking company but we’re starting to get involved in the world of concrete. How do we get involved in pre-cast-in-place concrete projects? We’re starting to take things that we know how to do and figuring out how to step into an industry where we have no idea what to do. We’re figuring out ways to collaborate with people in those other industries to educate ourselves and go through steep learning curves. This evolution has been possible by changing the structure of our company and growing that engineering and project management component allowing us to be a lot more agile in how we approached the variety of projects that we do.

The opportunity for us is taking what we know how to do as a custom fabricator doing very complex wood-related projects. How do we apply that to steel fabrication? We’re not a steel fabricator but we have an incredibly robust engineering team, some come from a steel background. We’re strong at 3D modeling and we are speeding up the modeling process by hiring people who just write code or just write scripts to automate processes. If you tell them what the steel fabricator’s going to need, they can start to automate modeling processes to make it very robust to provide a metal fabricator (who might be weak on engineering, but strong on machinery and equipment capabilities) where we can step in and be their engineering team. The same thing applies for concrete form systems. Now that we understand how concrete forms work, we can apply those same strategies to build a concrete form system to cast the canopies that we’ve done here in Boston, the Miami Science Museum and Gulf Stream Tank. We are working for the lead engineer for the Sixth Street Trestle, which is a ¾ of a mile long bridge in Los Angeles that’s been designed and the team’s now trying to figure out how to build a form system for this very complex bridge structure. Our team has been engaged to help them figure that out and the robustness of our modeling and engineering team allows us to step into those different markets. It’s been taking a company that was based around millwork fabrication and seeing how we can expand it into these other markets.

On recent projects that represent the firm’s unique approach 
There are 2 concrete canopies in front of the aquarium in Boston, called the Harbor Park Pavilion. That was our first large scale cast-in-place concrete project. We were doing a lot of work for Turner Construction and Utile Inc. was the design architect. The canopies had been designed. They’re double-curved concrete as cast-in-place. There’s no form system that exists in the marketplace to do double-curved cast-in-place concrete. Turner owned the project and a couple Project Managers reached out to us and said ‘we know you don’t do this, but can you come to a meeting with us, the architect, the structural engineer and the concrete team? Just listen to what we’re trying to do. Right now the plan is the concrete team is just going to ship hundreds of sheets of plywood to the job site, the architect is going to plot on paper sections through the canopy that’s 40-feet-wide. They’re going to tape them to the plywood and cut them out by hand and try to build a form-system on the job site. We just don’t think that’s the right way to do it.’

‘Harbor Park Pavilion’ (Photograph by Chuck Choi courtesy of CW Keller + Associates)

The strength of our company is CNC, we have large-scale CNC machines that are very good at cutting out very complex shapes that come out of the fabrication models of plywood or other materials. Having that infrastructure and equipment that we use to build other things was pretty simple once we realized what the team needed. It was pretty straightforward for us to build a form-system for them, send it to the job site as a kit of parts and have them assemble it on what they’re traditionally using for cast-in-place concrete. We used the analogy of you’re making a cupcake and you have your cupcake pan, which is a metal pan. You have a little piece of paper that has all the ridges on it. You fill that piece of paper with cupcake batter and you put it in this metal pan. You pull the cupcake out and it has the little ridges on the edge. We’re the paper in the system.

There are international companies that build form systems for concrete and they’ve figured out 98% of what you need to do in cast-in-place concrete. But what they don’t do is deal with double curvature or complex geometry. They like to do straight walls, flat floors, facets, maybe a single curve but as soon as you try to do a twisted surface, there’s no product available to do that. We just become that very thin interstitial layer between standard form systems and that complex surface that an architect’s trying to achieve. Harbor Park became a great opportunity for us because it was immediately published as ‘look at this project and what people were able to do. This is how they did it.’

The phone just started ringing. Within a year we had the contract to do the engineering and form system for the main aquarium tank for the Miami Science Museum. The best way to describe it as is the aquarium that we have in Boston. Six of those will fit in this one tank in Miami. From a scale-standpoint it was giant. The design was done by Grimshaw in New York and it’s essentially a martini glass shape that’s rotated. It’s three-stories in the air and supported on 6 cast-in-place concrete legs. You actually walk underneath it. There’s a 32-foot-diameter clear acrylic oculus that you look up through to see the underside of the tank. Then it’s open air above. The general contractor on that project is the same general contractor on the Sixth Street Trestle out in Los Angeles. They’ve said ‘great job here, can you come look at this project out in LA?’ It’s allowed us to apply a lot of the same methodology in other projects as we’re using in concrete form systems.

‘Sixth Street Trestle’ (Rendering: Michael Maltzan Architects, 3d Model: CW Keller + Associates)

On his design toolkit 
Another influence for us has been how people like Mark Goulthorpe and Nader Tehrani have been using 3D modeling. That’s the direction they were going in their practices. Everyone was AutoCAD-based and everything was planned in elevation and section. They were some of the early adopters of 3D modeling software and we were doing a lot of work with them. We realized pretty quickly that we’d better be using the same software as they’re using or we’re going to get left behind. We can’t take a complex 3D surface and draw it in the software that we have because it’s like cutting a slice through an egg. Every slice is different. We had some projects that were great because they were very collaborative. In the C-Change project, Mark had a very robust team of engineers and modelers who were developing the 3D model of that project that our engineering team essentially got to shadow for about a year. We got educated from that team on how to do what they were doing and what software they were using.

We are exclusively Rhino-based as far as 3D modeling. We are on a trajectory to eliminate paper shop drawings within our facility probably in the next 18 months. Everyone on the shop floor will be interacting with Rhino models through laptops, instead of getting a 50 page pile of paper for whatever crazy thing they need to build. They’re going to open the Rhino model and just start interacting directly with it. We’re on a crusade to get our clients to not get shop drawings and we have companies, like STUDIOS, that have accepted that we will only submit to them a 3D model of the project. The other interesting part of 3D modeling is that it’s interesting to see architects designing spaces with the same 3D modeling software that we’re using. They’ll design an element using the software and give us the model and we’ll always ask if we can use the model for fabrication. 99/100 times they say no and we have to remodel it because they can’t assume the liability of us building off of what they drew. That’s something that we see architects and engineers starting to grapple with. If they’re going to put all this energy into creating a model of something that they want built, at some point we have to start to get them to accept the risk of ‘you drew it, we can build from it, your client’s going to pay us to model it all over again.’ Either engage us from the get-go to model it for you (which is what we’re doing in a lot of cases), or let us help you model it the first time with enough confidence that we can use it as a tool and not have to duplicate those efforts.

‘Clear Channel’ (Photograph by Magda Biernat courtesy of CW Keller + Associates)

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years and the firm’s evolution
We have been adopting a lot of fabrication techniques that were developed for the automotive industry and the boat industry. If I start on the construction-side of things, the concrete industry from a global scale is ripe for a huge disruption in how things are done. The industry is still based on the premise that you’re going to flood a job site with a tremendous amount of manpower and fabricate form systems, hand-bend rebar, place it all by hand and cast-concrete for structures. The ability to prefabricate concrete form systems, the same way the furniture industry has gone from shops like us building custom-wood desks to companies like office environments and these other larger companies building systems furniture. The systems furniture has the acoustic panels in it, it has the electrical in it and it shows up as a kit of parts. You have to put it together and you have a work station.

When we did the Miami project, we called our form system the ‘IKEA version’ of concrete forms because we didn’t assemble any of it in our facility. We manufacture very complex forms as kits of parts, each kit was probably 10–15 pieces that were all machined to only go together a certain way. There was a one-page document with no dimensions, no instructions, just an exploded view of how that piece went together. The premise of it was ‘I need to be able to give a semi-skilled workforce on a jobsite the information that they need to put together a very complex, double-curved structure together.’ They can’t cut it, they can’t modify it, they just have to put it together and trust that when they put the model together it’s going to create this very complex shape. In the concrete industry, we see it continuing to adopt means and methods for prefabrication of form systems. The other big side of that is that we have to get to a point where we can do localized manufacturing of components. We’re in New Hampshire. Working regionally it’s fine, flat-packing systems and putting them on trucks and shipping them to Miami is ok but it’s not the ideal situation. You have a lot of shipping costs associated with sending that much material to Miami. Building the form system for a ¾ of a mile long bridge in New Hampshire and sending it to Los Angeles is just not feasible.

The approach that we’re starting to take is partly us looking at localized temporary fabrication facilities. The technology and machinery has evolved enough. For the project in Los Angeles, we go in, rent a facility for 18 months, put two CNCs in the facility, hire local labor to operate those machines under our direction and do all the engineering in New Hampshire. We output information to the CNCs in Los Angeles and it’s not different than us sending the information to the CNC that is 50 ft away in our shop. We do all the fabrication at the job site or within a mile of it. This eliminates or reduces trucking dramatically. You’ve leased the equipment, you give it back and you move it to the next job site.

The other side as far as how our company’s going to evolve is going to be around strategies that accelerate the process of doing analysis of concept for clients. They’ve designed the inside of an auditorium in Atlanta as a project that we’re working on for the Alliance Theater. It’s a very sculptural interior for a 650-seat theater. They’ve designed it — it’s a beautiful rendering. The client loves it. We have to quickly be able to analyze that and give them feedback on cost so that they can very quickly iterate design to get that cost to align with the client’s budget. We’re building sophisticated tools around the Rhino platform and working with architects who are working in Rhino. These tools allow us to quickly analyze what they’ve modeled and give them robust feedback on cost, so that they can make the right decisions to move forward. Internally for us it’s growing those capabilities. Instead of it taking us four to six weeks to put a bid together of something that’s that complex, we can do it in 3–5 days.

On advice he would give his younger self 
One of the things that we have recognized over the past few years is that we need to build the best team possible. We’re working on projects that are pushing the envelope of what can be done. In the past, we had a team and they were a great group of talented people, who were good at what we had been doing for 20 years. They were excellent at building retail store fixtures. What we tried to do was take those same people and get them to be good at modeling concrete form systems. Some of them got it and some of them just didn’t want to get on that bus and go in that direction. We struggled with how to evolve the company and try to keep everybody that we had on board, instead of making strategic decisions around the right team. The challenge is twofold: getting the right people and the right talent to be able to do that and being ok with having some people get off the bus.

The other is the analogy we use: combining craft. We’ve got men and women on the shop floor who are incredible craftsmen and craftswomen. They know how to build and put things together and they take a lot of pride in the quality and workmanship of things that we put out the door. They’ve been doing it for their careers. Now we also have mixed into that a younger, more diverse engineering team. The best way to describe the culture-clash that we have right now is we have 4 people who drive Priuses to the shop, and a parking lot full of pick-up trucks with camouflage on them and the John Deere logo. You’ve got this very diverse talent-base interacting with each other. If I had to go back and say something to me 10 years ago, it would be ‘you’ve got to get out in front of this. You’ve got to be figuring out ways to build a culture and a team that is going to collectively embrace this challenge because that’s been a fairly rocky path for the organization.’ Going too long with people who were disgruntled with the direction that the company was going and trying to convince them that they should come along as opposed to saying it’s ok, you would be better off somewhere else.

Design Manifestos: Bill Baxley of Leo A Daly | Modelo Blog Series

Design Manifestos: Bill Baxley of Leo A Daly

Bill Baxley (Photograph by Sam Baxley)

Bill Baxley is a designer of exceptional creativity and vision, especially notable for his client-centered approach at Leo A Daly in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He emphasizes dialogue, transparency, and accessibility in his practice, resulting in designs that serve the public by creating meaningful spaces. His work in the corporate, public, and educational realm has been awarded locally and nationally. He emphasizes the message of sustainability not only through the selection of materials and methods, but by creating work that will meet the evolving needs of clients and the community for generations. Modelo spent some time learning about what inspires the designs behind Bill’s award-winning projects.

On becoming an architect
My father was a civil engineer in the Coast Guard so we moved around a lot. I started thinking about architecture by chance. I was coming to the end of high school and was expected to go to college. I realized I needed to focus on something. Architecture looked interesting to me but the high school I attended didn’t have classes that gave me much exposure to anything relatable.

This was a leap not really of faith, but of interest. So I jumped. Most architecture schools required a portfolio to get in. I had to manufacture one in between football practices. I laugh when I think about that. I can’t believe I got in anywhere.

‘Dollar General Distribution Center’ (Photograph by Bill Baxley courtesy of Leo A Daly)

On discovering his voice as a designer
That’s something that’s ongoing. I feel like I am learning to speak, but the tone of that voice seems to change with regularity. I realized I had something to say, when I could offer perspective which was based on experience. Because we moved around so much, by the time I was 15 I think I had lived in or travelled to all 50 states. I was constantly having to meet new friends and discover each place that we lived rather quickly. This has translated into a, robust and expansive discovery process about where it is we’re doing the work and who it is we’re doing the work for. Our designs are formed by what we learn initially and how that learning is transformed and built upon throughout the design process.

On joining LEO A DALY
I’m in my sixth year at LEO A DALY. I was interested in joining LAD because they were primarily an engineering-focused office and did not have a recognized design voice here in Minneapolis. The idea of helping to create that culture, to hire people that were interested in developing that -forming it out of this amazing legacy that LEO A DALY has cultivated over the past 100 years was exciting. We are making great headway in terms of building that group and expanding the types and range of projects that we get involved with. We do a lot of different things in a lot of different places. Our ability to be dexterous about programs, different clients, different locales has been formative for our process.

‘Dollar General Distribution Center’ (Photograph by Bill Baxley courtesy of Leo A Daly)

On principles he strives to adhere to
The process of inquiry is really important for us. Not to over-simplify but we do a lot of listening and a lot of asking of questions when we start work. That takes the form of research, of visiting places, and of meeting lots of people, before we start really thinking about the work itself. That’s true for different scales of projects and different typologies. It’s gearing ourselves, and our clients, to get rid of our preconceptions and being able to re-see each problem in a new way.

On his role as Vice President and Director of Design
I work with an amazingly talented group of architects, engineers, and designers at LEO A DALY. Sometimes my role is about the creation of things, but most of the time it’s about making sure that what we’re creating is the right thing, challenging the status quo and developing a culture here in the office. I’m the guy that’s asking all the questions that’s poking around the edges to make sure we’re looking at the right things.

‘Minnesota Fallen Firefighter Memorial’ (Photograph by Bill Baxley courtesy of Leo A Daly)

On recent projects that represent the firm’s unique approach
We recently completed three projects that are quite divergent. The first was a memorial that we did in St. Paul on the grounds of the Capital. It’s a memorial for the fallen firefighters of Minnesota. LEO A DALY been involved with some significant memorials, the most recent being on the Mall in Washington D.C. with the World War II Memorial. This Fallen Firefighters Memorial project was pretty unique for our group here in Minneapolis. We spent a lot of time with firefighters, their families, and the Capital Planning Board in St. Paul to shape an amazingly unique and wonderful experience. It’s a simple expression but a poignant experience for everybody that visits. It is mostly constructed of weathering steel. Within the pattern of memorials on the mall, ours is the only structure that has a lid on it. It’s a very powerful experience in which we leveraged our questioning of materials and how they’re used, what a memorial experience should be like, and how it celebrates the sacrifice of these fallen firefighters.

On a different scale, we’re repositioning a campus for the National Intelligence Agency in Bethesda, Maryland. This was the old Geospatial Agency campus; it’s right along the Potomac River. It was built in the 40s and was a collection of mostly windowless old brick buildings. Director Clapper of the National Intelligence Agency wanted to build an embodiment of the post-9/11, more cooperative way of working for the 16 different agencies that have offices in this complex. In the architecture, we envisioned a continuous field of security climates and exterior spaces that could celebrate the place- the idea of a campus stitched into a neighborhood. It allowed us to explore the nature of a cyber facility, how it could be repositioned for the future, and how its engagement in the landscape could talk about a new way of working for this group.

We also just finished a headquarters building for The Toro Company here in Bloomington, Minnesota. It’s essentially an office building but it also engages the landscape in a way that’s really compelling. What was interesting for us about this project was to study the Toro products themselves. They follow a very definite methodology and tectonic of how these products go together. Our building, in a very simple way, reflects this understanding of the equipment itself and how the products shape the landscape. It is a very simple parti but it expanded their understanding of what their working environment could be and also tells a really great story about Toro itself.

‘The Toro Company Corporate Headquarters’ (Rendering courtesy of Leo A Daly)

On his design toolkit
I’m kind of an old-school guy. I do a lot of sketching but I actually do a lot of physical modeling. My favorite material is manila folder. I think it grew out of necessity because there were always piles of manila folders around and it was always easy for me to get some glue, some tape and some scissors or an Exacto knife and get some ideas going rather quickly. Sometimes we’ll take photographs of them, we’ll scan them and we’ll start to study the physical aspects of projects.

We’ve been on a full Revit platform for some time now, along with Rhino, Grasshopper, and Adobe suite as our main digital tools. Those are tools that our very talented designers use much better than I do. Our design ideas tend to be grounded in this very analog, haptic realm that we share with our clients. What’s fascinating is that we can take those into the digital realm and just study them in ways that we’re envisioning while we’re folding manila folders and doing sketches. We’ll kind of do this back and forth until we lock in and then the digital format takes over.

‘Intelligence Community Campus Bethesda’ (Photograph by Bill Baxley courtesy of Leo A Daly)

On the state of design software today
It’s amazing actually. What’s amazing is how quickly things are evolving and changing. There seems to always be a new way of looking at things- VR is coming onto the forefront here and I think in a few years that’s going to be amazingly transformative. Our workshop has many tools. One of the challenges we have is using the right tool, and using it at the right time. Maintaining our robust design environment is incumbent upon us being smart about the tools we use and know when to change them.

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
There seems to always be this immense pressure on doing more for less and doing it quicker, and doing it more intelligently. I don’t think that’s going to change. It seems we’re in this discovery process about what these tools can do for us. Hopefully we can begin to leverage them in a way that isn’t simply reactionary or revelatory. I’m looking forward to a more congruous process when these tools become more integrated. Maybe it’s generational. The way we think is different than the way these subsequent generations will think about and use digital tools.

‘Pennington County Administration’ (Photograph by Bill Baxley courtesy of Leo A Daly)

On the future of the firm in the next 5–10 years
For a firm that is 100 years old, in many ways we feel like a boutique group. I hope we maintain that sense of flexibility and nimbleness. We do a pretty robust job of building information modeling (BIM) but in terms of the leveraging of these digital tools from a design standpoint, I feel like we’re still in the crib. I believe this will also enable us to balance expertise and skill sets within our workplace. I’m looking forward to those two things coming together in a way that robustly increases our ability to leverage these digital tools from a design standpoint. I am certainly excited about the possibilities of that.

On advice he would give his younger self
This is so easy to say in hindsight- but I would tell myself not to be so timid. To be unafraid of messing up. What I mean by that is I have had a wonderful wealth of experience really early in my life, which gave me confidence in just about any situation, but sometimes it’s good to let the provocateur take over and create a little more imbalance. It will force to you to change your stance, and perspective and always re-see things in a new way.

Design Manifestos: Matt Baran of Baran Studio Architecture | Modelo Blog Series

Design Manifestos: Matt Baran of Baran Studio Architecture

Matt Baran (Photograph courtesy of Baran Studio Architecture)

Matt Baran founded Baran Studio Architecture in 2010 at the peak of the Great Recession. In his spare time, he worked on concepts for architectural robots that shifted their form and location to adapt to various contexts. This work won him an AIA award in 2006, and a full scholarship to UC Berkeley to complete a master’s thesis on adaptable robotic architecture. Upon graduation he began to teach at UC Berkeley and the Academy of Art. He also worked on the construction of a dwelling that employed the adaptive theories he had been exploring academically. These efforts were the beginning of Baran Studio. Currently, Matt continues his efforts, working closely with staff and clients to further explore architecture that is closely adapted to its context. Modelo recently spoke with Matt and learned more about his robotic approach to architecture and what inspires his designs.

On becoming an architect
When I was younger I was interested in fine arts, and I was doing a lot of sketching, drawing and painting. I realized that because I’d come from a very modest family background — a working-class background — to survive I needed to do something that was going to pay. Fine art didn’t seem like it was going to do that. I was looking through a course catalog and saw a drafting class at a community college. I thought I’d give it a shot. I thought that’s what architecture was — drafting up homes or something. I thought ‘well, it’s good enough, I’ll work on this for a while and see where it goes.’ I had some help from some family and they guided me towards university. I got into USC, and when I arrived they basically re-trained me and I started to understand at that point that architecture was art — not just drawing preconceived-looking houses. They started forcing me to think about things more abstractly. I was excited at that point and it took off from there.

‘Bordertown’ (Photograph by Scott Hargis courtesy of Baran Studio Architecture)

On discovering his voice as a designer
For architects, it’s a combination of experiences. You can guide your voice on some level and it just sort of happens to you on some other level. When you’re younger you just try everything and you see what other people are doing and you see what’s in the magazines. When you’re being trained, you’re experimenting and trying to develop a voice.

Coming up into the late 80s and early 90s there was a lot of Deconstructivism theory that was going on, and that still factors into my work and my voice now. I’m not so interested in traditions of order. Earlier on I was influenced by my social class background, and for me there was a required resourcefulness and improvisation that went into who I was. There is part of me that was looking at more unconventional places and unconventional means of construction because I grew up around that.

I’m still very interested in places that have been erased, such as spaces under the freeway and places that were considered undesirable. I try to look at those places and say ‘what can I extract from them? How do you find beauty in places that are traditionally considered not beautiful? How do you take advantage of what’s there and try to bring it up? And not try to “fix it” but try to actually take what’s there and bring out the positive in it?’ A lot of Oakland and Detroit is like that, San Francisco has some of that as well. I’ve been working with developers and clients that are interested in those places. You have to work with them to find a way to take what you had, from context to budget. How can you take an inexpensive or common thing and make it into something uncommon and give it a voice — let it be beautiful as opposed to being considered an unfortunate necessity? That’s how a lot of the work we do evolves.

‘Juniper Lofts’ (Rendering courtesy of Baran Studio Architecture)

On starting his own firm
That was another thing that was out of necessity. Speaking to this idea of improvisation or resourcefulness- the economy had collapsed. I had gone back to school; I was tired of working for other people. It wasn’t exactly how I would do things, and I didn’t feel a lot of architects were willing to do the things I wanted to. I went back to school, retooled, and thought about some of these ideas I had. In the process I actually did a development project, where I was the developer, the designer, and the builder. I started being able to express some of these concepts in the work. But when I came out of school after getting the degree, there was nothing. There were no jobs. It was a desert for architecture. So I just taught because I had a Master’s. I started teaching at Berkeley and at the Academy of Arts. I continued some of these ideas in the courses that I was running and then started to express them in the built projects that I was doing. It just took off from there. The economy has rebounded and it seems to all be going very well. The work has evolved out of those initial ideas. I started the firm because there was nothing else.

On how his approach has evolved
Some architects choose to look at evolution as striving toward greater ‘consistency’ and some architects choose to see it as a process of change. I’m more interested in the latter. We’re always trying to adapt the design process and language to the given problem. The office is collaborative, and people are always bringing ideas to the table. I try to be as open to those ideas as possible. I think it’s inappropriate when the same design is used repeatedly. There are architects out there that are doing that — Gehry is the obvious one. They have a signature and they do it if they’re in Dubai, New York, or Minneapolis. Alternatively, it is possible to take a process and apply it. You have a process that looks to context and looks to function. It’s a time-worn thing but it’s gotten lost because people are looking at everything outside of architecture that they can find.You can look to elements that simply inform architecture and it suddenly becomes a very radical thing again. There are other architects who are more famous out there doing this now, like Big or OMA. They have a process that is very based in analysis and research and looking at program, looking at context and letting all those things come together to form the architecture. There’s this idea that it designs itself. That’s where we evolve constantly because every project- at least in its best state- is a new opportunity to develop a form, space and language that is unique. Every project is a new opportunity.

‘MacArthur Annex’ (Rendering courtesy of Baran Studio Architecture)

On recent projects that represent his unique approach
We have an apartment building in Oakland where we are taking an old warehouse and repurposing it into both parking for the building and loft space. We’re taking a piece of that building down and building up a new structure that’s interacting with the existing one. We’re taking an existing condition and using it to inform the new design, we’re finding a way to connect those things. It speaks to a lot of what we do, we adapt.

We also do a large number of mini-lot subdivisions in and around West Oakland. This often results in an increase in density, which is one of the more sustainable urban strategies you can implement. Oakland allows you to subdivide and make smaller than typical lots as long as your overall project conforms to code. While increasing density, we also maintain livability. We take the initial mass, and clean them and cut them, pushing and pulling the as a response to immediate contextual conditions. We deal with issues of privacy and light and air — it’s functionality of space. Each move is a response to all those aspects of the given project. That deals with the adaptability idea.

The office was founded on these little conceptual robotic projects that were basically not only about that response to the site, but they were about how the site changes over time. The architecture responds to those changes. In one case, I developed a machine that clips itself to the side of the highway and moves along, unfolding itself into various sites. Program would grow out of what was available in that existing space. In one case study, what emerged was a truck stop, because the mapping process showed there were a lot of trucks and truck traffic and we wanted to make incremental improvements with respect to emissions. We thought we’d put a biofuel station and a center where they could learn how to run their trucks more efficiently. Other programs emerged out of it as well — a library, a grocery a skatepark, all emerged from the site.

‘Wordpress’ (Photograph by Scott Hargis courtesy of Baran Studio Architecture)

On his design toolkit
We are interested in building on various levels, and I am excited by theidea that design, documentation and construction be more tightly bound. We have used BIM from our inception. BIM is a great tool because you can use it as you design to understand the things 3-dimensionally and how it will be built and how it will be documented. There’s no gap between design work and your model. There are criticisms of that and there are some issues that often times it’s working with very conventional considerations of how to draw a window. In many ways that’s the stuff we have to work with in the field, so it gives us an opportunity to take those conventions and see if we can’t turn them on their head in some way. It forces us to do that.

We rely a lot on the software because it gives you the opportunity to visualize these things as you’re doing them- with interior spaces that you can get inside of, which is challenging to do with physical models. And you can move through them. We’re starting to use VR technologies now, so we’ve managed to transfer some of our computer knowledge into VR models, so they can download it to a headset and you can use that to basically be standing in the space. However, even with advances in technology, we still sketch by hand and work with physical models. There is no substitute for that.

Zero Street (Rendering courtesy of Baran Studio Architecture)

On the future of the firm in the next 5–10 years
Our impact is increasing; we’re having a greater influence on the neighborhoods that we’re in now. And we are expanding to other places. We certainly have larger project in terms of footage and dollar amounts, but I would say that our interest is in valuing projects on multiple levels, not just in terms of size or dollars, but in terms of our own values. We want to analyze new solutions that are unique to each problem — doing even more analysis, looking at deeper structures. A lot of what people refer to and look for the context say, ‘we don’t want this thing in our neighborhood because it doesn’t look like the building next to it.’ They’re thinking on a very superficial level about what context means. Context is many things that you cannot see and a character that maybe you can see it takes a longer and more extensive look. You have to walk further down the block. You have to go to the library or go look at old maps and understand the history of that place. You have to look to infrastructural or organizational issues that exist. Where do transit lines run through? What’s the history of that transit line? We have tools that can measure pollution levels, light levels and noise levels — all these things that are essentially invisible. My hope would be that we have more and more opportunity to expand our research and do extended analysis that will let the architecture develop out of a comprehensive understanding of a place.

Zero Street Model (Photograph courtesy of Baran Studio Architecture)

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
In the last few decades architecture lost a lot of ground in the area of construction. You saw lawsuits happening in the 70s which caused architects to give up some of the ownership of the construction process because they wanted less liability. Construction management companies took scope from architects. We’re taking on more of the builder role and also taking on the responsibility but the control of that. That affects the design. More recently, you’ve seen architects regain some of that control through CNC manufacturing and design-build processes. We’re very engaged in that. We are actively involved in construction, even all the way to taking on the developer role.

On the other side, change is coming from technologies that are evolving — even your little app like Instagram or YouTube or an iPhone. It allows people to generate their own artistic content. There’s a certain degree of danger in that, there are assumptions that get made, preconceptions that are perpetuated. Also in that process, everybody has a voice. The trouble is that when one person thinks that they’ve got all the answers and that they’re basically trying to wipe out everything else. We work in so many neighborhoods and with many neighborhood groups. My feeling is that you should allow for diversity of ideas, varied thoughts on what that city should be or what architecture should be. We have a lot of people who are looking for homogeneity and what I hope we continue to see is diversity in cities. There isn’t one over-arching voice that says ‘the city has to be this way’ and tries to level it. We’ll continue to see a range of ideas about what that city should be like- a diversity of ideas.

On advice he would give his younger self
Invest in Microsoft. (laughs) Hang in there- the profession is very slow moving. It’s hard to recognize that when you’re younger and you’re always in a hurry. You have to have some patience both for yourself-to let yourself evolve- and for the profession- to let the profession evolve. Sit back and look for the opportunities. I would say you just have to sit back and wait for the opportunity and steer your course. Your time is so valuable. It’s the most valuable resource you have. When you see an opportunity that really fits with what you’re hoping to do, take it. When you see one that looks like an opportunity where you’re making too much sacrifice to your goals, then let it go. I still have trouble following this advice even now because your risk aversion instincts kick in or whatever it might be. In any case, you make a choice about where to go and eventually you’ll be there. Choose wisely.

Design Manifestos: Jason Steiner of Mithun | Modelo Blog Series

Design Manifestos: Jason Steiner of Mithun

Jason Steiner (Photograph courtesy of Mithun)

Blending artistic vision with analytic expertise, Jason Steiner leads Mithun’svisual design team at the Seattle, Washington office and integrates digital modeling, performance analysis and visualization into the design process. With advanced degrees in environmental design and architecture, Jason assists clients in visually understanding and articulating their goals through the medium of graphic communication and employing technology such as Building Information Modeling (BIM). Modelo recently connected with Jason and learned about his digital design process and his inspirations for past, present and future designs.

On becoming an architect
I do not recall the exact moment in time when I realized I wanted to be an architect. I don’t recall having an abundance of Legos as a child, so that’s likely not the reason. My parents were not architects. I did not know any architects. My earliest career aspirations, at least those that I remember, included being a truck driver, carpenter or lawyer. In that order.

However, for as long as long as I can remember, I have had a sustained interest in building construction, solving complex problems, making things and drawing. These combined interests ultimately led me towards architecture as my choice of profession.

On discovering his voice as a designer
During my second year of college I was part of the first cohort required to take a computer graphics course. This was an initial pilot program intended to eventually fully integrate design technology into the academic curriculum. I was hooked and perhaps even obsessed. I was absolutely energized by my new ability to model and realistically visualize any space or form I could imagine. I could explore design ideas without limitation. This free exploration provided me with the ultimate facility; the mouse became my pencil and the screen my canvas. I am a minimalist and in practice employ an elemental, modern approach to design. I believe that great design emerges from simple meaningful concepts. Every design element has purpose, is intentional and essential. I truly believe that the digital tools I was exposed to early in my academic career were the single most influential part of discovering my voice as a designer.

‘200 Occidental’ (Photograph by MIR, Design by Mithun)

On the evolution of his role at Mithun
I joined Mithun initially for a six month internship while I was completing my last year of undergraduate studies. I became aware of Mithun after I had seen Bert Gregory, then Mithun’s CEO and the current Chairman, give a presentation on the recently (at the time) completed REI Seattle Flagship Store project. The firm’s deep commitment to sustainability, integrated design and beautiful architecture resonated with me. After my internship, I went back for graduate school, then upon completing school, took a week off and returned to Mithun. That was nearly 15 years and hundreds of projects ago!

My approach to architecture has certainly evolved since joining Mithun. I listen more (and talk less). I fully appreciate the responsibility of design with a purpose, for positive change. I have a more inclusive approach towards design and completely embrace the complex collaborative process.

On principles Mithun strives to adhere to
At Mithun, the overarching principle we strive to adhere to is, “Design for Positive Change.” We are a design firm, and our design has purpose — to create positive change in people’s lives. I find the simplicity and ambition of this principle to have a profound impact on our work and approach.

‘200 Occidental’ (Photograph by MIR, Design by Mithun)

On his role at Mithun
At Mithun, as a Partner and the Director of Digital Design I lead the firm-wide integration of design technology into the design process, help guide Mithun R+D and also work as a designer mainly on conceptual design for a variety of projects and project types. I am also responsible for much of our recruiting efforts of recent graduates and summer interns. I am fortunate, as I am allowed to focus on two things I am passionate about; design and technology.

I work to provide designers across all disciplines with the best technology available to produce meaningful and beautiful work. I am particularly interested in crafting the design process to take full advantage of the opportunities created by emerging and existing technologies. I believe that design technology should be integrated in a manner that enables an intelligent process and fluid design EXPLORATION as opposed to design EXPLANATION. Providing designers and project teams with tools enabling rapid design exploration enables our teams to work efficiently, make better decisions and communicate with clients and stakeholders in a visually understandable way. Our project teams and clients also have fun incorporating new tools and methods of working!

On recent projects that represent Mithun’s unique approach
I do feel that Mithun has a unique approach to design. Every process begins with listening. We design experiences, not objects and we believe each design is different, because each client and each site is different. We are inspired by urban and natural systems and beauty grows from richly integrated solutions.

Our work is inspired and formed by; 1. an alert sense for the needs and experience of the user, 2. a culture of constant curiosity and discovery, 3. a spirit of optimism and promise, 4. an abiding responsibility to our clients, community and environment, and 5. the patterns of nature, the vision of an organization and the soul of a city.

We focus our efforts where we can make the greatest impact on people’s lives; where they live, work and learn.

A few recent projects that stand out as representatives to this approach are The Sustainability Treehouse and Weyerhaeuser Headquarters at 200 Occidental. For The Sustainability Treehouse, the building form emerges entirely from the experience. Dynamic educational spaces designed for exploration of the site and ecosystem at the ground, tree canopy and sky are elevated within the towering corten steel frame. The experience captures the wonder of childhood exploration, placing environmental education at the forefront of meaningful experiences for thousands of annual visitors to take home, positively changed. With Weyerhaeuser Headquarters at 200 Occidental, our design approach intentionally honors the neighborhood’s existing architecture while enhancing the contextual character with a modern, deep green interpretation. This design response would only be appropriate for this project, on this site, for this client. The Novelty Hill Januik Winery is another example of beauty growing from richly integrated solutions as landscape and interior space work in harmony to elevate the human experience.

‘The Sustainability Treehouse’ (Photograph by Joe Fletcher courtesy of Mithun)

On his design toolkit
3D modeling plays an important role in our process. We made an intentional, and at the time challenging, decision about eight years ago to transition all projects and disciplines to a BIM workflow, specifically Revit. We had done a few projects using Revit and understood the enormous potential for a more intelligent process. At the time, we were typically building 3D models for all projects in Sketchup, AutoCAD and / or 3ds Max concurrently with the production of 2D construction documents in AutoCAD. The parallel processes were highly inefficient and not aligned with a real-time decision making process. The use of BIM allowed for all designers to collaboratively share in the creation and exploration of a 3D model, and concurrently produce the construction documents. Today, we categorize and focus our 3D modeling software / processes into three primary categories; BIM, analysis and visualization.

For the development of the BIM, nearly all of our staff is highly proficient in the use of Revit as both a design and documentation tool. Architects, landscape architects and interior designers all work within Revit, collaborating on the BIM in real-time, beginning in the conceptual phase of design. Regarding initial form generation and massing we use a variety of tools, most notably Revit, Dynamo, Sketchup and 3ds Max. For example, The Sustainability Treehouse Revit model was started on day one of design, as we were participating in a two-week design charrette with the entire project team (client, consultants, contractor) in West Virginia. This allowed us to immediately visualize and begin to communicate and study a complex structure and site. As much as possible, everything we do is linked together in a dynamic way, regardless of the program it was constructed with. We also still use pens, trace and cardboard!

For analysis, we have implemented Sefaira into the conceptual and schematic design process to help us understand the relative effectiveness of our decisions and use as a comparative analysis tool. We use the data from Sefaira to help us understand the relative performance of our design options and make more informed decisions as we move towards a design solution. One primary benefit of Sefaira is the ability to dynamically link the Sefaira “model” to our Revit design model and see the updated analysis in real-time.

For visualization, we primarily use 3ds Max / VRay and Lumion. We began using Lumion upon the initial release and have since integrated it fully into our digital design process and trained almost all designers at Mithun. The WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) approach is an important part of our process as it allows the design team to focus their efforts almost exclusively on the development of design. This allows for a more efficient allocation of our resources towards the design effort, and ultimately we can do better work. We believe in the benefit of a real-time collaborative design process with our clients and project teams, and Lumion enables this in a significant way. We aim to present “live” in real-time whenever possible. For Weyerhaeuser Headquarters at 200 Occidental, real-time use of the Lumion model was used extensively and at times exclusively throughout the City review process. We also employ Virtual Reality (VR), currently using the Samsung GearVR combined with both 3ds Max / VRay and Lumion. Experiencing design from the human perspective is an invaluable tool in making more informed decisions. We are in the process of implementing full VR into our process.

On the state of design software today
I am optimistic about the state of design software today, as it is generally developing rapidly. We currently use a lot of different software, each with a specific purpose within our design process. The current challenge is interoperability and the relative inefficiency of distinct workflows and processes, especially when they lack connectedness. I am most encouraged by the rapid advancement of virtual and augmented reality platforms, positioned to radically disrupt the design process in the near future. The “holy grail”, of course, would be to dissolve our three categories into one where we would be able to simultaneously connect the BIM, analysis and visualization, in real-time.

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
Projects will continue to increase in complexity and necessitate even greater levels of collaboration and intentional inter-connectedness across disciplines and expertise. We will continue to build upon our understanding and research into the connections between the built environment and human health. From a design technology perspective, augmented and virtual reality will transform not only how we share our work, but HOW we work. BIM will continue to evolve towards a fully integrated and coordinated design + construction + FM model. Also, BIM will be as much of a documentation platform as it is a social platform. Project teams will collaborate in a real-time virtual world. For the next generation of designers, the ability to write code and participate in a virtual process for extended periods of time may likely be equally as important as the ability to draw.

‘Novelty Hill Januik Winery’ (Photograph by Benjamin Benschneider courtesy of Mithun)

On the future of Mithun in the next 5–10 years
We are committed to design’s ability to anticipate and address the challenges of the future.

Mithun will continue to embrace the integration of technology into the design process, helping us effectively address these challenges. We will actively recruit a next generation of designers, eager to participate in a design process much different than what we would recognize today. We will need to remain nimble and continually willing to redefine our process, expectations and roles.

On advice he would give his younger self
Looking back, I have invested an enormous amount of my life and career into design technology and architecture. Working on projects like the Sustainability Treehouse, where I have seen the real positive change in people’s everyday lives, is extremely satisfying and humbling. The effectiveness of our real-time model during the conceptual design phase generated much of the momentum and excitement that was instrumental in the project being realized. Our ability to do that real-time work as a part of the design process was built upon years of development, passion and commitment to doing meaningful work. I would simply tell myself two things. It’s worth it. Because, it matters.

Design Manifestos: Richard Riveire of Rottet Studio | Modelo Blog Series

Design Manifestos: Richard Riveire of Rottet Studio

Richard Riveire is a design professional with more than 30 years of experience shaping modern hospitality and corporate interior environments. With long-time partner Lauren Rottet, he has built one of the most respected interior architecture firms in the world. As Principal, Richard leads the West Coast and Asia practices of Rottet Studio. He approaches projects with a deep understanding of the process of creating workplace and hospitality environments that visually reflect the culture and brand of the client. He has been responsible for a number of high profile projects including the headquarters for United Talent Agency and two new Presidential Bungalows at the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel. Modelo spent some time talking with Richard and learning about his role at Rottet Studio and about his predictions for the future of the industry.

On becoming an architect and design professional
My father was in construction so I was exposed to building at a very young age. Seeing the contractor’s profession up close as a child I was always intrigued by the creation of new spaces. As I got older that fascination got deeper as I also began to see how design allowed for the expression of creativity through your work. Amusement parks were one of my early obsessions; immersing myself in an entire world, created entirely through design, was endlessly interesting.

Viking Star (Image courtesy of Rottet Studio)

On discovering his voice as an architectural designer
I think a lot of finding my own voice early on came from studying some of my favorites from early 20th century architectural history: certainly the complete approach to design that came out of the Beaux Arts: Pierre Chareau and his integration of art and craft with the new industrial capabilities all the way through to Andrée Putman who refined that concept to it’s ultimate expression. Travel and exposure to the world has been a huge personal influence on my work. Looking at how architecture is made and spaces evolve in widely separated parts of the world is fascinating, so much is the same while expressions are infinitely varied. Especially interesting is the treatment of materials, I love the honest approach to woodworking in Southeast Asia as an example and the use of stone throughout India.

On joining Rottet Studio
Lauren and I have worked together since college. I owe a lot of where my career has developed to Lauren and her clean and beautiful vision of the world. She is an aspirational mentor, setting ideals and philosophy without restrictions of style; that is an amazing achievement. Into my third decade of work, I like to think that I have matured in execution, but kept my late modernist roots.

On specific principles he strives to adhere to
We tend to want to understand the very heart of the problem and start the design from there. This is extraordinarily difficult, often clients can’t express who they are architecturally they don’t have the language. Or, they don’t see architecture’s ability to affect their business goals. You have to listen carefully to what they are NOT saying and find the real problem. From a stylistic point of view, I am a firm believer in clean and clear simple solutions to the problem. Nothing dooms a design more than arbitrary, unrelated elements. This starts with planning, almost always, highly reductive, simple and organized planning is going to ultimately lead to the strongest design. Ditto for wall treatments, furnishings, etc. But at the end of the day, I always leave room for the surprise element, the unexpected. I like humor in architecture, we tend to take ourselves very seriously.

On his role at Rottet Studio
I focus on leading the design and marketing efforts for the Los Angeles office of Rottet Studio. What that really means is guiding and mentoring a large staff. We are fortunate to have a staff that has been with us for a long time and it is very gratifying to see them grow and mature in their individual talents. I hope that I am able to help them see where they can go.

Disney LA (Image courtesy of Rottet Studio)

On recent projects that represent the firm’s unique approach 
Some of the recent projects that stand out for me are the offices for United Talent Agency in Beverly Hills, the renovation of the Team Disney Building at The Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank and the design of the interiors for the new ocean cruise ships for Viking Cruises. These are three very different projects yet reflect things that we have been thinking about: all rely on seemingly simple solutions and “modern” design, but for wildly different audiences.

UTA is one of the largest talent agencies in world and the Team Disney building is the headquarters for The Walt Disney Company. UTA is a new build project in an older building in Beverly Hills, while the Team Disney building is a (substantial) renovation of the Michael Graves designed building on the lot in Burbank. UTA required a space that reflected all of the power and prestige of a firm that negotiates as a fundamental part of their work, while the Disney space was designed specifically as offices for their live action film group and worldwide marketing teams. In short, true corporate space versus creative office space. Communication and openness is the key to both. UTA needed to build a common culture in a rapidly expanding firm. Agents needed to see and talk to each other and to understand and be a part of the common ethos of the firm. The planning of the firm emphasized clear “salons” (to bring down the large scale of the space), but every space connected to common galleries and a large interconnecting stair. The Disney space was classic, neo-classical/post-modern Michael Graves space: a sequence of rooms and vestibules throughout, and a lot of closed offices with workstations crammed in the interior. Our solution there was to open the space up completely to a modern interior, but to retain “fragments” of Graves detailing a la a modern loft apartment in a pre-war building in Manhattan. The openness and clarity in both cases made the spaces seem larger as everyone has access to natural light, and the detailing and choices of materials created the image appropriate to each.

Image was incredibly important to UTA in particular. Talent Agencies in the “new” Hollywood not only represent actors, directors, writers, etc., but also play a large role in pulling together the right scripts, casts and directors into a project that can get financing. Very corporate, very high end and all about projecting power. On the other hand, it is also an entertainment business where creativity is prized. We took cues from our hospitality practice to also make it “talent friendly” — furnishings and rugs are almost residential in character while the architecture is fairly pure and minimal. Layered over everything was their spectacular art collection, providing an ambience that is comfortable to a wide variety of audiences.

Viking Cruises is the client that many architects dream about: A new and rapidly expanding organization looking for an appropriate image. We have worked on several projects, starting with their “Longships,” river cruise ships that sail waterways throughout Europe. These ships allowed us time to start thinking about Viking’s fundamental visual character. The ocean ships project is a full realization of that work. A clean slate to begin with, no new ocean cruise lines have been developed in the last 25 years and the existing firms all have established identities, For Viking to be successful, they needed to provide not only a product that appeals in terms itineraries, service, food, etc. but a new “look” as well. Something that distinguished them from the “old way of cruising.”

From a design standpoint, this is not a typical hotel project; these ships will travel throughout the world, there is no “place” to take visual cues. The views out your window may be Venice, Italy one day and the hill towns of Montenegro the next. The interior design had to have its own character both strong enough to represent Viking as a new player and yet respectful of some of the most iconic places on Earth. We took cues from the Norwegian ownership of the line and looked to modern Scandinavia, the original homelands of the Vikings for culture and attitude. While strictly speaking not “Scandinavian Modern,” the design and image reflect the modernist sensibilities of Scandinavia coupled with the warmth and craft of early Norway. As with the previous projects, the fundamental approach of simple design, clear planning and careful execution of a tailored image are key.

It has proven to be a wildly successful concept. The press has been enthusiastic with major awards and bookings are relatively sold out for the first several years of operation. The line has launched three new cruise ships, under construction with a fourth and has committed to as many as four more.

On his design toolkit
I really like to use SketchUp. It is a quick and easy way to design in 3D. Fundamentally, we have an architectural approach to design, thinking carefully about the sequencing and proportions of spaces, not just decorating walls, and a modeling program is a great too for that. I also still like to draw by hand, I think that tracing through the design on a sheet of paper, drawing over and over a plan or elevation gives you time to think through what you are doing and why you are doing it.

On the state of design software today
I’m excited that more and more applications are coming available on the iPad. Working on mobile devices is something I’m sure we’ll all be doing a lot more of in the years to come. The ability to sketch and communicate that image immediately from a plane or the fjords of Norway is exciting. What I would like to see is a greater ability to collaborate over a design. How can we make it convenient and practical for several people to digitally model a space all at the same time?

UTA LA (Image courtesy of Rottet Studio)

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
There has been a growing trend towards true Modernism and away from sentimentality and historicism which is really exciting for me.

Firms will have to become more multi-disciplinary and multi-project oriented. Design is design and specializing in one particular area over another seems to be going by the wayside. We have deliberately focused on corporate work, hospitality work and residential work; three areas of practice that have traditionally come from firms dedicated to a single area. As well, we have ventured into marine work and gaming, both also fairly singular in their markets. This gives us a stronger position as a business, but strengthens your design skills as well. We are never bored!

On the future of the firm in 5–10 years
I feel that Rottet Studio has been embracing these changes looking for connections between previously disconnected practices and finding new and inspiring intersections to explore.

On advice he would give himself
Look at more stuff faster. Travel more. See the world and look at things that are not your core interest, you can learn a lot about architecture looking at the old spice markets in Bangkok.