San Francisco-based Design Firm SAW Tackles Architecture's Design Blindspots by Challenging Possible Outcomes
June 13, 2019
Photo courtesy SAW // Spiegel Aihara Workshop
Founders of SAW, Dan Spiegel and Megumi Aihara, sat down for an interview with Archinect about their successful emerging practice, which recently collected an Architectural Record Design Vanguard award. Spiegel is a lecturer in the architecture department at CED.
In a “Studio Snapshot,” Archinect highlights Spiegel and Aihara’s experience “running a practice and the strategic risks they take when designing for the ever-changing environment.” Read on for the full interview.
- How many people are in your practice?
- What prompted you to start your own practice?
It really started with the simple desire to just do projects – to design physical things to be built. The idea that this would become a practice was something of an afterthought. But as we began to work together more and more, we realized there were some strange disciplinary blind spots, especially for smaller projects. The first step was relatively obvious for us: combine our backgrounds in architecture, landscape architecture, and design the inside and outside. But as we got a little deeper into it, we started confronting complicated notions of operating across different time scales – the entropy of the objects against the proliferation of the ecologies. We started to wonder, when is the project actually complete? When construction ends? When it’s occupied? When the trees have matured? When the building finally crumbles? These are questions that probably aren’t well suited to singular projects as we initially intended, but could be better (and, perhaps, only) pursued through the arc of a practice.
- What are the benefits of having your own practice? Staying small?
It has allowed us to take on strategic risks and unusual challenges since the stakes seem more manageable, or at least knowable. Every project starts as an affirmative choice, and this acknowledgment of wanting to do something can make even the smallest project meaningful and exciting. Plus, we can play whatever music we want in the office.
- Is scaling up a goal?
Sure, but not a primary goal. We’re working toward taking on more public work to engage broader constituencies. Dan’s undergraduate work was in Public Policy, and there is still a strong ambition within the practice to use design towards community solutions. And, often, bigger problems require more bandwidth. But we think we can be more flexible about what the scale of an office is if we let go of a bit of organizational autonomy. So far, when we take on a big or complex project, we’ve been more interested in teaming up with trusted collaborators than immediately growing. That said, we’ve grown every year, so it’s clearly a bit of both.
- What have been the biggest hurdles of having your own practice?
The professional becomes personal. And that’s more than just about perception – it’s about finances, time, recreation, everything.
“Conditions change, projects are used and misused, things break, plants grow, and buildings crumble. We realized that it’s possible for a design process to be totally appropriate, but for the resulting thing to somehow be misaligned. We’ve become comfortable with loosening our grip on a singular, pre-determined objective, and rather designing for a range of possible outcomes.”
- Do you have a favorite project? Completed or in progress.
In a sense: we’ve recently taken to calling a series of vignettes we’ve collected across a range of projects “Other Objectives.” It’s essentially a series of narrative crossgrains that run throughout our work on projects of all types and scales. More than anything else, it’s an attempt to refocus intent through the lens of outcome. We often half-seriously liken it to Schrödinger’s Cat (both alive and dead until the box is opened); our objectives are defined by how the work is viewed at a particular moment in time. Conditions change, projects are used and misused, things break, plants grow, and buildings crumble. We realized that it’s possible for a design process to be totally appropriate, but for the resulting thing to somehow be misaligned. We’ve become comfortable with loosening our grip on a singular, pre-determined objective, and rather designing for a range of possible outcomes.
- With a project like "Other Objectives" did it help you realize new things for your design process?
This endeavor has helped us draw from even the smallest, most incidental projects, and cycle the things we’ve learned forward. For example, we’ve been working on a series of ‘post-concept models,’ building new abstractions of projects that have already been built in the world, but representing them through the lens of outcomes we couldn’t anticipate – families growing or shrinking, the light on the windows during a an extreme weather pattern, the preferences of others after we let go of the designs. We recently put up an exhibit of our work at UC Berkeley by the same name that displayed the current state of these explorations.
- I noticed both you and Megumi and some of your team members are also licensed architects in Hawaii. Was the firm based in Hawaii at some point?
No, but we hope to have a satellite “office” there someday! Megumi grew up in Honolulu, and we’ve both long been fascinated by Hawaii. There are such interesting overlays of urban issues and natural power at play – tenuous developments that somehow seem like they’ve been around forever. We’ve just started working on our first project on the islands, a small but complex prefabricated house on Maui, which is set to start to construction later this year. We have some experience working on mobile projects (with our frequent collaborator Dustin Stephens of Mobile Office Architects), and that mindset pairs pretty well with a deferential approach to the landscape, as well as the reality that almost every building material has to get transported to the islands one way or another.
As for the others, Jeremy and Kenn were classmates at University of Hawaii at Manoa, and came to the Bay Area for graduate school. As far as the office is concerned, their Hawaiian roots are coincidental, but much appreciated. And a shoutout to Max, Sharon, and Adam – they’re not from Hawaii but still pretty cool.
“...at the heart of this is a desire to combine the things that are fixed, specific, and technical about landscape/architecture with a point of view (not always ours!) at a particular moment in time [...] we’re trying to find ways to suggest certain scenarios within drawings that are still detailed and accurate.”
- Your practice seems to play with visual narrative, especially in your drawings and renderings. This was especially apparent in drawings for Harvey Milk Plaza, Lockwood BNBNB, and CRST Pavillion. Your use of color has a different form of intentionality with these projects, can you talk a bit about this?
Yes, we’re certainly after some sort of visual narrative, and color is one of the tools we’re working with, but our approaches to it are constantly changing. But at the heart of this is a desire to combine the things that are fixed, specific, and technical about landscape/architecture with a point of view (not always ours!) at a particular moment in time. When you look at a floor plan of a house, how do you know if it’s too big or too small? Sure, there are certain things that are evident about the scale of objects, but the rest is dependent on that narrative, which is why we’re trying to find ways to suggest certain scenarios within drawings that are still detailed and accurate. Our newest models of Harvey Milk plaza, for instance, have overlapping color gradients projected on loop, so that the model (which never actually changes), implies very different conditions from moment to moment. And, of course, this is what happens to buildings/landscapes/everything out in the world, so why try to represent design as unbiased, static things?
“We wanted every room to seem as though suspended in the landscape, and even made a rule that each room needed to open to the exterior on at least two sides (including the closet!). So, even in the most isolated moments, the spaces are in constant relation to these larger landscape continuities.”
- The Low/Rise House is one of my favorite residential projects you’ve done. The integration of space and materiality seamlessly flow from one part of the house to the next. Can you both talk about this project and how it came about?
It's a much longer story how this house came about, but to address your more specific questions about integration and materiality – this house was our first thinking about what happens if we develop a building out of a primarily landscape premise. We wanted every room to seem as though suspended in the landscape, and even made a rule that each room needed to open to the exterior on at least two sides (including the closet!). So, even in the most isolated moments, the spaces are in constant relation to these larger landscape continuities. We chose a few materials - ones that would last a long time, but reflect change constantly by weathering, wearing, etc. – and deployed them evenly throughout the house so as not to unnecessarily signal difference. Rooms become sort of unimportant – it's more about scale, position, and sequence. On a typical day, the path of the sun basically guides you through day, from bedroom to breakfast table, to living room, to dining room, to sunset atop the tower.
“Rooms become sort of unimportant – it's more about scale, position, and sequence.”
- As educators, how do you see the future of architecture changing? What advice do you give to your students?
Haha! I’m sure we give lots of advice to our students, but hopefully none of it is about the future!