The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller, and now an AN interview series. On September 19, 2019, Biyun Zhang and Hao Zhou, students at Syracuse University, interviewed Brennan Buck and David Freeland, principals of the bicoastal FreelandBuck.
The following interview was edited by Kyle Miller and AN for clarity.
Biyun Zhang and Hao Zhou: Thank you for joining us today. A few of the practices we are interviewing are led by partners who live in different cities. We know that the two of you are split between Los Angeles and New York. How do the locations of your practice affect your work?
David Freeland: My first impulse is to say it doesn’t really affect anything, meaning that within the abstract geometric space of the digital model, there isn’t an imbued context. Work in a virtual environment is not situated. But at the same time, it would be very short sighted for any architect to say that place or context is not a component of a project. There is a balance between the development of a project in abstract space and the way that context becomes inscribed into a model. We are always working on how to embed a physical context into a design developed in virtual space. With Stack House, for example, the complex topography of the site was incorporated into the digital model early on. We modeled critical contextual parameters that would constrain the project.
Brennan Buck: Place or context as an idea has a long history within our discipline. Think of critical regionalism, an idea that Ken Frampton developed about the need for architecture to be specific to its geographic context. That is not an idea that we subscribe to. But cultural context is definitely important in our work. New York and Los Angeles have very different administrative and regulatory contexts for instance. You have to build differently in New York than Los Angeles. We are also a part of very different academic cultures at Yale and SCI-Arc. In that sense, we benefit from the distance between us.
You’ve designed and built temporary installations, retail environments, restaurant interiors, and single-family residences. What do you think gives your work coherence? Is your approach to each project unique, or is there something that you bring to a project regardless of program or type?
David: We constantly work between mediums. There are gaps that exist between two-dimensional mediums like drawings and images, and three-dimensional mediums like models, objects, and buildings. We’re really interested in interrogating the gaps and developing unique representational techniques that unpack two-dimensional and three-dimensional modes of communication. Artifacts we’ve made called “image-objects” are an example of this. Our critical approach to representation lends itself to multiple layers of engagement. We strive to produce work that can sustain the attention of a group of architects, as well as makes an appeal to a more diverse audience. There’s accessibility at different levels and for different groups of people. The ambition to create visual and conceptual openness is something that guides our design strategies regardless of project type.
Do you view models as simply representations of buildings during the development of your projects or do the models operate independently?
David: In our recent projects, we’re really asking models to do many things for us. Models are sometimes representational and often times built at a particular scale. A model, by definition, points to something other than itself. But more recently, we’ve been creating models, or objects that point only to themselves. They have unique qualities and conceptual ambitions beyond scaled representation. We are intentionally undermining conventional categories of architectural representation to liberate drawings and models from mere reference. Many of our recent projects are conceptualized as built drawings, or three-dimensional drawings. These drawings fall into the category of conventional drawing with regards to the practice of architectural representation, but they are also full-scale constructions. Our ceiling installation, Parallax Gap, within the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is an example of this. Our work intentionally confounds categories of representation, and, in doing so, hopefully opens up other possibilities for architectural representation.
In addition to your built works and the image-objects you just mentioned, you have completed many drawing projects. How does the work that’s constrained to two-dimensions relate to or inform your three-dimensional works?
David: In our earlier conceptual projects we were interested in creating drawings that used abstraction to produce effects rather than simply serve as representations of other things. I’m thinking of our Slipstream drawing series. But where these drawing projects operated more autonomously—independent from cultural reference and engagement—our newer drawing projects try to do much more. This is related to my previous answer, where I described our interest in building drawings. In general, we are interested in moving away from complex digital techniques and transformations as a primary focus towards engaging a larger cultural audience. We are invested in geometry and form making as well as creating images, objects, and buildings that have broad appeal.
Brennan: Almost all of our recent projects are attempts to do both; to operate through abstraction and elicit engagement through visual association and illusion. This duality is something that we struggle with. People engage architecture in states of distraction; architecture is rarely something the general public stops to think about, and it largely informs their activity through affect, and subtle things like color, temperature, and spatial relationships, rather than through direct attention. That said, there are a couple of reasons that we’ve looked beyond abstraction to association and reference. First, distraction has become our default state of mind in everyday life; focused attention now feels rare. We have also realized that narrative and association is a way of appealing to a broad audience.
In the Renwick Gallery project, all of the elements in the installation reference relatively well-known Victorian-era ceilings. The installation both produces an abstract array of lines and colors and also reproduces familiar architectural elements, such as the ceilings in Cincinnati Union Terminal and the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. We now realize that we can produce work that is abstract and open to interpretation and also engaging for people who stumble into the gallery and are more interested in a narrative about the history of different buildings across the country. This is a powerful thing that some of our earlier work didn’t tap into.
You both pointed to an ambition to make your work accessible and engaging. Does a desire to be popular factor into this ambition?
Brennan: It doesn’t. Popularity may be good for business, but being popular is not our primary motivation. Our goal to realize projects that are accessible and engaging is related to an ambition to have a positive effect on the world and to make spaces that are useful and stimulating. Let me go back to our Renwick Gallery project. The Renwick project was about a very old architectural tradition… about drawing and illusion. But it was also about capturing the visual effects of beloved buildings scattered across the country. There was a direct connection between the content of the installation and familiar architectural references. It wasn’t just a narrative that people could read in the wall text. It was more of an optical puzzle. That’s one way we talked about it—a visual riddle for people to solve. They might read the wall text and try to find all of the different projection points where the three-dimensional drawings are projected from. We tried to produce a narrative that would pull people into the space and allow them to experience the effects of the installation rather than just read about them.
David: The desire to create work that is accessible and engaging is also another way to be inclusive. The disciplinary issues that fuel us are not necessarily accessible to most people. So, we believe we have a responsibility to explore the potential of these disciplinary issues to affect a broader audience and produce broader cultural effects.
We have a question about the project we’ve been studying, Second House… and in relation to the idea about positive impact. Do you think that the clients of Second House experience the house as you intended them to? Do you think that they acknowledge and appreciate the complex formal, spatial, and visual effects that you were pursuing in that project?
Brennan: We are suspicious of anything universal or assumptions that anyone will experience something the same way we do. In Second House, we were exploring ideas about alternation and contrast. We had alternating spatial zones—a checkerboard pattern of interior spaces and exterior spaces, and corresponding floor materials. The ceiling heights move up and down to reinforce the idea of contrast or difference. As you move through the house—and it’s a very small house—there’s a constant alternation of very different conditions. Light, temperature, volume, etc.… there is continuous difference. So, in that sense, our interest in effect is probably more about variety and registering difference rather than prescribing a universal effect.
David: Because this project is for private clients, it’s more focused. The conversation about broader cultural engagement is curtailed in favor creating spaces tuned to the desire of the two people who will live in the house. Differently from other projects where we pursue particular, legible effects, this project seeks to work on bodies in spaces in a much more subtle manner.
Many of the offices we are interviewing are currently completing their first built work… and they have spoken openly about the difficulties of getting things built. What has been your experience with having opportunities to realize your designs? Has it been pretty smooth, or has it been frustrating?
David: The frustrations are myriad. I cannot recall who, but someone once said to me… “The happiness that you have as an architect is measured by the degree of grace that you can bring to the work every day.” There’s an art to the balancing act, to managing different priorities and issues that come up in a project on a daily basis. Balancing of all these different pressures is the art of practice. One thing that people often think demands the most attention in practice is getting clients, and getting them to believe in whatever your vision is for a project. But that is merely the beginning of a much more delicate balancing act that moves from concept through completion over a great deal of time.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of practicing architecture thus far?
David: I’m interested to hear what you say, Brennan! You go first.
Brennan: Last summer we were in Nashville to present a project proposal to a panel of jurors. I was speaking with one of the competition jurors after they awarded the project to someone else and she said as consolation, “you guys live interesting lives”. That hadn’t really occurred to me – there are a lot of frustrations as David described. But to interact and collaborate with so many different people and work on very different problems, to think through different ideas through teaching… the variety in terms of daily life that we’ve been able to develop through the practice has been great.
David: Architecture is a marathon, not a sprint. There are very high highs balanced by very low lows. Our model of practice puts us in the position of the endurance athlete. We have to pace ourselves. We’re cautious about getting too excited about things, and also cautious about getting dragged down by things that don’t fall in our favor. We’re told “no” a lot, and we’ve worked on so many projects that we never completed, for reasons beyond our control. But we have to put these moments behind us and keep pushing forward. The fact that we always have things to keep us moving forward is very rewarding.