In the words of this week's interviewee, running one's own practice is not for everyone! This gives us all the more reason to take a look inside the small studios that have found a way to make it work.
How many people are in your practice?
Studio Modh employs three people and collaborates with freelance designers on select projects.
Why were you originally motivated to start your own practice?
I joined Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects right out of school and spent sixteen years there learning to be an architect. In addition to developing a keen sense for the values they are well known for (the importance of place, materiality, and detail), it was a firm where architects are taught to be generalists, bringing an innate curiosity and critical design insight to every level of the design process.I sought challenges in different “venues” of the discipline of architecture
I worked and was able to build some fantastic institutional projects and eventually reached a point where the learning curve began to flatten and I sought challenges in different “venues” of the discipline of architecture. I wanted to confront and struggle with how to apply my design values and skills to the blank canvas of my own practice.
This enthusiasm to start Studio Modh Architecture was driven by an interest in developing a rigorous method (the firm name is the Gaelic version of the word) for evaluating a client, a program, and a place to form an architecture of particularity. In the studio’s work we seek to find the unobserved artifact of a place and create a design solution that magnifies this quality. We feel this creates a deeper understanding of the role building (noun) plays in living (verb).
What hurdles have you come across?
The most difficult and stressful aspects of building and practicing frequently produce the most satisfying results – so the hurdles are something I have come to expect and embrace (willingly or not) and include:
Finding the (right) work
I think any small practice owner will highlight how challenging bringing work in the door can be—especially work that aligns with your values and capabilities. I compare the act of getting work as a bit like farming. You plant many seeds in the hope that they will blossom in the future. You water them occasionally, you check on them, and occasionally down the road they are harvested in the form of a project or a reference for another project. As a consequence, I am continually and habitually aware that every conversation is an opportunity that could lead to work.
It’s easy to be judged successful within a system defined by someone else. Once you are on your own, you have to develop your own criteria for judging whether you are accomplishing what you want to achieve and what “good” really is. Even with the breadth and depth of experience that I possess, I have lost many projects for reasons that are sometimes known and sometimes not. Relationships and luck are important if not opaque aspects of the process.
Is scaling up a goal or would you like to maintain the size of
Scaling up is absolutely a goal. In particular, I hope to find further collaborators or partners that can bring perspectives and experience that will shape the design direction of the practice. A firm of 15‐30 people can take on a wider diversity of projects including a great “sweet spot” of building projects in the range of 30‐100,000 square feet. At that scale, the members of a practice can still maintain an intimate engagement with the design and construction process to insure quality. This full engagement enables the office to be “nourished” by the feedback of the construction process where you see your design run up and embrace the realities of building.
Running one’s own practice is not for everyone
What are the benefits of having your own practice? And staying small?
Running one’s own practice is not for everyone. As noted above, there are myriad skills and challenges that not everyone has the ability or interest in being involved in. Starting my practice answered the question as to whether I could be an independent architect and produce good work. Now it has become the vehicle for how I organize the creative and professional pursuits in my life. Each decision is built around how to facilitate producing better work, growing the firm to facilitate new opportunities, and investigating different ways of responding to design problems.
To that end, I teach courses at the University of Pennsylvania that enable me to research and reinforce the values and traits I feel are important for students of architecture to learn. I am able to leverage the experiences gained at TWBTA to “punch above our weight” to take on consulting and design roles on larger and more complex projects like consulting we do for the Smithsonian Institution, work for University’s and non‐profits, and speculative (and non‐speculative) development projects.
Having a small practice also means taking on smaller work which has been enormously satisfying. Residential work requires a different mindset from institutional work and has given us a better understanding of the personal scale of architecture.
I am pursuing a career in Urban Planning and Design.