Interview by Susan Kolber
Our panelists EB Min (EM), Laura Crescimano (LC), Peter Wilson (PW) , and Robert Yuen (RY) are all creating innovative practices and businesses within the realm of Architecture. Before our workshop, EQxD gathers the panelists for a group discussion to learn about each other's work. Our panel this Thursday will have limited time, so this provides a more in depth perspective on the panelists’ journeys within architecture. Check out our interview with Robert Yuen from last week here. Their conversation revealed, more than anything, that a “traditional architecture practice,” is a misnomer and that practicing architecture can be uniquely shaped to your passions and interests.
Can you tell us more about your path to architecture? Why did you choose to study Architecture?
EM: My undergraduate degrees were in art history and studio art. I went to Architecture Grad School not knowing what else I ought to do. I have a similar background to a lot of people who go into Architecture--I was really into art and science. After grad school I thought I wasn’t going to be an architect. Then I went to work for Topher Delaney and Andrea Cochran who are landscape architects, and at the time they had a design build firm together. I worked at a few other firms before them, and it was so terrible I could not imagine doing that work the rest of my life. They were the reason I stayed in the practice at all. I think it was such an eye opener on how you could practice. They taught me that I could really take all the things I was interested in art, materials, and art history and combine it with design.
LC: I was always engaged in the built environment, and I was training in Architecture, but it wasn’t presupposed to me to go down the traditional path. I pursued a masters in Architecture. My basis for architecture was believing that the role of an architect was to see multiple perspectives and synthesize across disciplines. I did research and had a fellowship to study protest spaces around the world. Then I moved to San Francisco and started working at Gensler. I did not understand how it would all come together, but the underpinning [of my focus] was the urban, the public realm, the ideas around civic and political nature of what brings us together, but with a deep interest in what that means in space. I worked at Gensler and tested out a lot--I got to experience working on urban design, architecture, market strategy and more.
What are some tools you took away from working at design firms that you applied to your practice?
PW: If you can try and work for a good quality company there you’ll pick up skills and see how people operate.
EM: For me what I got from working with Topher and Andrea, I worked for them for three years, was not how to run a business, but about how to talk about design with clients and get what you want. That is something you never learn in school, and that I would have never learned if I had not been in their office. I learned early on the way to get projects to become the projects you want. They also had a level of fearlessness about doing things. Topher would say we are going to create this, and I want you to call around and figure out how we’re going to build it. This was pre internet, so I would go through the yellow pages and ask people, “can you help build a giant dinosaur topiary.” At that office, there was a lot of, “I want to do this, let’s make some calls, and figure out if it can be done.” It was never a no we can’t do that.
LC: I learned that being business minded doesn’t have to be counter to being quality design minded. I believed that even in school when I felt like we were being taught we were not supposed to speak of money. Proactivity is always good no matter what. Learn from all the parts even if you are not in love with it. I learned about good practices around billing. For example, end your billing cycle early, so clients receive the bill on the first of the month. Firms like Gensler have a lot of resources so you can get involved. Even outside of your project, if there is a pro bono project you want to be on, there are ways you can get involved. It is the way to succeed internally and learn if you want to go external.
How important is your network now that you have your own firm?
LC: It is important to have a network that is not doing the same thing you’re doing. I do not do residential architecture, but I have a few friends who I think are great designers who I always refer residential clients to. I also have friends who have small businesses that have nothing to do with design, and we learn about management from each other.
Why did you start your own practice?
EM: I always knew I wanted my own practice someday. I could not imagine working for somebody else past a certain point because I just wanted to do my thing! I think inherently you just know who you are. But it is weird, because my father at some point said to me, “I’m very surprised you have your own business. I never thought you would like business stuff.” It is not like I love business stuff, but it goes hand in hand if you want to do your own thing.
My business partner is Jeff Day… We have this practice in Omaha and here in San Francisco, and we did something that is a little unusual. I got my first project on my own when I was 27 which is nuts now as I look back on it. But it’s part of that “just say yes and you will figure it out.”
LC: For me, my founding story for Site Lab was doing the hard work and being at the right place at the right time. I was ready to move after realizing a large company was not the right fit for me, and I also think it is harder for women to succeed in larger corporate structures. I was lucky enough to be introduced to my partner Evan Rose. He was 15 years my senior, so he had already done so much. We were a complementary fit, and we believed in the same things. He was in New York and needed someone on the ground who could do the leg work. He had more experience and credibility with clients, so we made a great fit in terms of what we could offer each other. We were very lucky we started our business with a paying client. We grew incrementally and out from that project. I never would have thought I was ready if I was just asked, “are you ready to do this right now?”
Now I am a sole proprietor, because Evan passed away this summer. I am navigating what that looks like, but it’s amazing because I feel like I got a second Masters degree. I acquired all this training on the job when I received this opportunity. Take the risk, take advantage of the opportunity and make the most of it and then figure it out when it comes time to the next phase.
Min | Day does a variety of projects types, why have you have taken a more varied approach? Why did you want to go into furniture design?
EM: I think at some point you have to imagine the situation you want to be in, the people you want to be with, and not just the work you want to do. I think it helps lead you to the thing you want to do. I think of it very akin to when people ask me, “What kind of Architecture do you do?” And I want to say, “We do awesome Architecture!” But people want to know if you do schools, houses and you’re like, “I’ll do anything--it just actually matters if I like the clients, the program, and the team involved. That matters much more than the type of project.”
I got very interested in doing furniture because I found something striking while I was listening to a lecture about modular fabrication and prefab as those topics were getting “big.” This was a while ago. And all these Architects got so bent out of shape. Their concerns felt insecure. The reaction made me think about the discussion between product and process. Architects deliver a process and services. Min | Day is really interested in furniture because it is a product, and at the same time the furniture has a way of interacting with people. Furniture still addresses a lot of the design issues we were quite interested in. It comes from a totally different direction. And Frankly, I am person who gets really bored. So I like to take on many different challenges.
What are the benefits of a design build practice?
PW: As a designer, contractor you don’t have to do all the drawings and you capture 50% of the profit. Architects gave up being the contractor. Frank Lloyd Wright sent out Schindler to LA to build those houses. By being the contractor you’re in control. For the one thing the client can’t play you off against the contractor. You can also change and adjust as you go along.
EM: That’s an interesting model because not everyone is suited for that design build model. I’m not suited for that model. If you understand you can capture the whole process and you can deliver that--that’s great.
What do you want the legacy of your practice to be?
PW: It is a difficult thing right now. I have data on the oldest architecture firms, because in my experience the architects I admire when they die their firms disappear. I believe our next generation will be different from what we have done. I hope the firm continues to the next generation. But on the other hand if it does not work that’s okay too.
This week at AIASF, don't miss our last EQxD "U" Workshop of the year!
EQxD "U" Workshop 4 ! Architecture AND...Exploring Meaning & Influence by way of Multidisciplinary Practice.
Thursday, October 22, 2015 from 6pm - 8:30pm @AIASF 130 Sutter St, San Francisco
We will explore alternate models of practice that expand the avenues of influence for architects. Less than 50% of all respondents to the 2014 Equity in Architecture Survey stated that they were satisfied with their current job situation. A large number responded that they were interested in alternative career paths. Rather than leave architecture behind completely - and have the profession lose ever more talent to other fields - how we can cultivate expansive multidisciplinary practices that are innovative, exploratory, and meaningful?
The workshop will feature four professionals who have taken their work beyond the traditional boundaries of the field. After a review of key survey findings on the topic we will hear from the panelists about their paths, entrepreneurial thinking, and lessons learned in a question and answer session. This will be followed by design thinking exercises to guide us in thinking freely and widely about our career futures and the new kinds of practices we can create. Gain the courage and knowledge to turn your interests and ideas into a new work reality at our workshop!
10/22/15 Architecture AND… Workshop Agenda
Networking & Refreshments 6pm - 6:15pm
Introductions/Welcome 6:15 - 6:25pm
Panel Discussion 6:25 - 7:15pm
Break/Transition 7:15 - 7:20pm
Design Thinking Exercises 7:20 - 8:10pm
Conclusions 8:10 - 8:30pm