Design Vanguard 2017
1 December 2017
Since 2000, Architectural Record has showcased promising practitioners who have led their own firms for 10 years or less in their annual Design Vanguard issue. Three of this year’s ten winners are firms led by alumni of the College of Environmental Design: Alan Tse (B.A. Arch ‘03, M.Arch ‘09) of Alan Tse Design; Thomas Robinson of LEVER Architecture (B.Arch ‘91); and Angela Delorenzo Arancibia (M.L.A. ‘13) of LAND Arquitectos. Each firm was nominated for their strength of their portfolio of built work and on-the-boards projects. Each also has a personal, crafted, and nuanced approach to architecture that has come to define their generation.
You can get a new client in the most surprising ways.
That’s one thing Alan Tse (B.A. Arch ‘03, M.Arch ‘09) knows from experience. The 37-year-old once sold a replica Le Corbusier lounge chair on Craigslist, which prompted a “nice lady, in head-to-toe Louis Vuitton” to show up at his door. After she requested a 20-percent discount, Tse went out on a limb, “judging by how put-together she was,” says the head of San Francisco–based Alan Tse Design. “I told her I’d apply that 20-percent discount to her next home-remodeling project.” The hustle paid off: three months later, the same mystery woman took him up on the offer, and he scored his first-ever residential project, the Alta, a 2,400-square-foot remodel with addition. “She told me later, she was purchasing the chair to stage a home she was moving out of, so my 20-percent proposition came at the perfect time.”
Tse’s story nicely encapsulates his belief that resourcefulness is every bit as important as creative vision, something he says he learned working under CED Professor Emeritus of Architecture Stanley Saitowitz for nine years—that and design rigor, from start to finish. “The success of each design starts with the clarity of the floor plans,” says Tse, “but you need to learn the business aspect: how to get work, how to push your ideas forward.”
He thinks some basic tenets are overlooked all too often: “Knowledge of the permitting process, constructability, budget allocations; balancing scheduling priorities; understanding exposure to professional liabilities; the know-how to effectively problem-solve design and construction issues.” Sure, it’s a lot, but Tse thinks accumulating this body of knowledge is what “eventually grants you better and better opportunities.”
Working predominantly in San Francisco comes with its own set of peculiar challenges. His first project, Kare-Ken, was a 400-square-foot restaurant in the heart of the Tenderloin. “I had to deal with graffiti, drug addicts on the streets, a ‘massage parlor’ as my next-door neighbor, and intense research on urine-repellent paint products.”
Over time, he’s learned ways to effectively work with the city’s planning department, whose design criteria, notoriously, can be Kafkaesque: “My first two building designs were rejected by the city outright,” he says. He’s since learned how to “parallel workflow with the permitting process to provide a more measurable timeline for clients.”
For instance, the initial design for 1433 Bush—a 40-unit condominium building in Nob Hill—was vetoed by all seven planning commissioners on the grounds that it did not fit in with the neighborhood’s historic context. Tse had two weeks to redesign the 11-story building. “We strive to understand the concept behind their evaluations, digest the criticism in their vision at a city-planning scale, and never negatively respond to their comments.”
He describes himself as a modernist who doesn’t need sleep, aspires to design with flexibility, and has a serious appreciation for clean lines and minimalism. Of his current projects—and there are many—he is particularly pleased about La Maison, a series of six market-rate multifamily housing projects, each developed in the same vein and with the same level of commitment to design. “I’m excited for these because they provide a platform for me to broaden my design opportunities and exercise skill sets I’ve acquired from other projects.”
All those endeavors have one important thing in common: “parameters,” which he says are essential. “They’re the ignitors for design inspiration,” says Tse. “Physical limitations allow you to create and generate spaces. Budget constraints encourage thinking outside your comfort zone. And the city is what puts your design capabilities to the test.”
LEVER Architecture has received considerable attention since the fall of 2015; that was when its scheme for Framework, a 12-story mixed-use building, won the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Tall Wood Prize. If all goes as planned, the 145-foot-high building, slated for completion in early 2019 in the firm’s home city of Portland, Oregon, will be the country’s first wood high-rise and the tallest all mass timber building in North America. But for Thomas Robinson (B.A. Arch ‘91), the 48-year-old architect who founded the office in 2009, the significance of the project is broader than the adjectives “first” or “tallest.” Framework speaks to the essence of LEVER’s work, which reconsiders how buildings are made.
The tower follows on the heels of Albina Yard, a four-story mass timber multi-use building in North Portland where LEVER has its offices. On the front facade, each floor appears subtly skewed and cantilevers slightly beyond the one below. It served as the testing ground for many of the technologies and concepts that will be used at Framework, including the off-site precision fabrication of glulam and cross-laminated timber elements.
Although Robinson is partial to timber, since “people connect with it on an elemental level,” his investigations are not solely focused on that material. The firm’s first stand-alone building, an apartment complex for students at the Pacific Northwest College of Art completed in Portland’s Pearl District in 2013, is enclosed in metal panels that are standard except for their accordion folds. The play of light and shadow on the silvery pleats elevates the cladding type, “making it seem like more than it is” despite a limited budget, says Robinson.
Regardless of the material or the commission, Robinson maintains that a common thread in his projects—and those of the firms he has worked for, including Eshrick Homsey Dodge and Davis, Herzog & de Meuron, and Allied Works—is a desire to enrich the public realm. He points to Union Way in Portland’s West End, a project that transformed a 1920s structure, built as a garage and then home to a nightclub, into a small retail complex. Its most unusual aspect is a covered public passage with walls of regionally grown poplar and a skylit roof supported by the structure’s original timber trusses, giving the shopping arcade a uniquely Pacific Northwest twist.
Although most of LEVER’s projects are in the Portland region, the firm regularly works in Los Angeles and has done projects on the East Coast. A recently completed winery in Newberg, Oregon, is its lone rural project, but Robinson maintains that the same principles apply whether the site is in the city or the country. As with Union Way, he was trying to address a larger context. Its long and low winglike roof, and glazed facades that open onto the vineyards, tie the winery to the landscape.
Robinson hopes to have the chance to tackle a library or school. These are the kinds of projects that, he says, “can demonstrate the value of architecture to the widest audience and bring richer experience to people’s everyday lives.”
For the founders of LAND, the practice of architecture is as much about building relationships as designing buildings. Angela Delorenzo Arancibia (M.L.A. ‘13) and Cristóbal Valenzuela Haeussler, who are married, established their Santiago, Chile–based firm in 2007. With a small team, ranging in size from four to six, LAND has built up a diverse portfolio of projects at a variety of scales. But the unifying theme of their work is an ability to leverage connections among their clients and like-minded organizations, corporations, and authorities, pressing on toward a mutually beneficial end while respectfully considering each project’s context.
Whether building a school with donations from a cement company or securing funding for public projects from nonprofit groups, the firm consistently demonstrates a dedication to collaboration. “Buildings can be just buildings, or they can add value in the long term to the place and the community,” says Delorenzo Arancibia. “We always try to identify and promote something of specific value in our work.”
After an earthquake and tsunami struck the central coast of Chile in 2010, LAND built two schools, both public-private hybrids common in Chile, to replace ones that had been destroyed. Years later, the education ministry came calling again, asking the firm to design a public school for the rural community of San Javier, located in the geographic center of the country. LAND connected the local school authority to Desafío Levantemos Chile, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) established after the earthquake for the purpose of rebuilding schools. The NGO ultimately provided funding for the project, which LAND designed as a prototype school cum community center to replace a building destroyed by wildfires earlier this year. With construction starting soon, the architects hope to build similar facilities in other remote, underserved places, where schools need the flexibility to provide social functions beyond the academic.
Flexing different muscles, the firm has also designed offices, high-end beach houses, and personal spas. But even with these private endeavors, LAND’s schemes carefully consider their context through thoughtful siting, landscaping, and material choices. Delorenzo Arancibia, who is trained as both an architect and landscape architect, chose to use aromatic and edible plants in gardens at a forthcoming office building in the upscale Santiago neighborhood of Las Condes. “It refers to the history of the place,” she says, noting that the entire city is situated in a fertile valley known for its rich agricultural past. In residential beachfront projects, the firm focuses on preventing erosion, through landscaping as well as siting. “A big part of it is educating people, changing the way they see and relate to the landscape.”
The couple is currently working on four large master plans for regions along the Pacific coast and on the shore of Panguipulli Lake in southern Chile. In these, the firm is aiming to shift the paradigm for large developer-driven projects by mitigating erosion through landscaping and siting; rehabilitating wetland areas to help treat water and preserve ecosystems; and creating clear paths and trails allowing public access to the beaches. “Wherever we can, we seize the opportunity to create a public place through a private project,” says Delorenzo Arancibia.
“We don’t see projects as objects,” she says; “we see them as part of systems. We try to understand the physical and social impact they will have—their bigger context. We believe we can approach every project in that way.”