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French 2D builds practice side-by-side

A Sibling story

French 2D builds practice side-by-side

Kendall Square garage screens in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (John Horner Photography/ Courtesy French 2D)

The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at the Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller, and now an AN interview series. On November 7, 2019, Jessica Libby and Hao Zheng, students at Syracuse University, interviewed Anda French and Jenny French, principals of Boston-based architecture office, French 2D.

The following interview was edited by Kyle Miller and AN for clarity.

Jessica Libby and Hao Zheng: Have you always had an interest in architecture and starting your own firm?

Jenny French: I started by studying printmaking and art history, and Anda was an architecture major. We both also studied Latin for a long time and were influenced by multidisciplinary and Montessori-like thinking very early on. Architecture became an appropriate medium for us to explore the overlap of our multiple interests. We went in knowing that there are certain models of practices that we were drawn to, and that we needed to remain agile and speculative in the approach to our work.

Your partnership is the only partnership we’ve studied that is comprised of siblings. What are the advantages of having such a close personal relationship with your partner?

Anda French: The anecdotal answer is that we were recently interviewed by a magazine for a piece on collaboration between family members. The article ended with my quote, “It’s great because, although married partners can get divorced, sisters can’t.” We’ll always see each other at Thanksgiving! We call what we do “close practice.” Part of the collaboration is familial, but a lot of it comes from the kind of shorthand of our close relationship that then grows into a collective artistic vision. Another aspect… in partnerships, each person is very vulnerable. You have to trust the other person. As siblings, that trust naturally exists, and we already know each other’s pressure points and weaknesses. We take the individual egos out of our conversations and operate as two people thinking together.

Jenny: We don’t curtail the ways that we think or talk about things. We let our entire lives filter back into architecture. There are no boundaries for where our references can come from and there’s no judgment for the origin of our ideas. Probably 90 percent of the time the references are not architectural.

Regarding professional aspects of practice, how do you balance the goals and demands of clients and contractors with your own goals in any given project? How do you make sure that everyone is satisfied with the process and result?

Jenny: That is a typical struggle for small practices. Throughout the course of a day, we might be working on eight different things. The different audiences that we’re trying to communicate with or produce things for have very different desires or requirements. Ensuring that we’re balancing these requirements is an ongoing struggle. We’re always recalibrating, because we know we need to make time for the intellectual project.

Anda: A good portion of practicing architecture is maintaining interpersonal relationships. Learning how and what and when to share with clients and contractors is so important. Each contributor sees the project from their own perspective and has their own values and ambitions within a given project.

Jenny: The firm Kwong Von Glinow uses the phrase “smuggling in the architecture.” When you’re a young practice, you’re always trying to smuggle in small details or conceptual issues that you’re really, really interested in and focused on. Maybe those interests and issues account for only 5 or 10 percent of the overall scope of a project, but, for many architects, its where the heart of the projects exists. We’re always fighting for aspects of projects that are most important to us to be included in the budget. And we hope that, in the end, everyone understands and appreciates the value in their own way.

Overhead diagram of a loft building
An oblique axonometric diagram of Outlier Lofts in Boston. (Courtesy French 2D)

You’re currently working on a few housing projects. Will you continue to focus on housing as an architectural typology? What types of projects would you like to work on in the future?

Anda: We often say that our interest in housing is related to our interest in civic work, which is not an association one would typically make. We are interested in typologies of housing that address different social structures. So, in some ways, in the next project that comes to us or that we seek out, we will make an attempt at tying our design approach to an existing or nascent social structure. There are only about 130 cohousing communities in the US right now. It’s an emerging and evolving typology. We’re interested in participating in larger ideological conversations related to this project type.

Jenny: So, it’s not housing as such, but it’s how housing intersects with nested privacies and economies, and questions about relevance that we all face.

While in school, we’ve come to understand the significance of representation, and even of branding projects through representational styles. How do you relate your representational tendencies to the overall identity of your firm?

Jenny: It took us a long time to take the way we literally see and the way we want to project ideas onto the world to create a legible attitude or disposition in the work. Through our representation, we hope to convey seriousness, but also levity through experimentation. There is work going on behind the scenes in our office to arrive at moments of clarity and playfulness through our particular approach to representation.

Anda: Building something and then having to re-present it back to ourselves and our peers presents unique opportunities. There is a curious relationship between representation that appeals to our colleagues and representation that appeals to clients or potential clients. We’ve been surprised at how much those two audiences have come into alignment with respect to our style of representation. At first, we thought clients would only want to see straightforward drawings. It turns out that the drawings and images that our clients are most drawn to—like, cartoonish elevation obliques—are our favorite drawings and images as well.

Jenny: To engage individuals outside of the architecture community is so important if you want to realize your projects. The way we’ve approached representation and communication has enabled us to participate in disciplinary or academic conversations, and, at the same time, communicate with and make our work legible to a broader audience.

Looking at a white gabled home designed by French 2D from the street
The exterior of Outlier Lofts. (John Horner Photography/ Courtesy French 2D)

We have a few questions about Outlier Lofts, which we know is not entirely new construction. How much of the existing building was maintained? How did the history of the existing building inspire your design?

Anda: There are two answers to that question. As far as the city of Boston is concerned, it’s the same building, just with a third floor added. The reality is that when working on a building that is 150 years old, much of it is removed and rebuilt. There is an entirely new structure for the building—walls and floors—though we had to maintain the same floor to ceiling heights as well as the building foundation.

Jenny: The building’s history definitely influenced the design. We reoriented the building in relation to the corner.

A square white building with black roof
The exterior of Outlier Lofts. (John Horner Photography/ Courtesy French 2D)

Anda: Right. We actually reintroduced openings that existed in the original building that were removed in previous renovations. What’s interesting is that the building is actually a non-conforming building. Under current zoning, we could not add an additional floor. Because we uncovered that the original structure had a third floor, we were able to add it on. Intellectually that building has always existed but physically it is rebuilt.

Many of your projects use bold colors, patterns, and graphics, but that is not the case in Outlier Lofts. How did you arrive at the material palette for the project?

Anda: From the interior looking out, you see across 12 lanes of traffic and the city skyline. We muted the interior to set up a reverse gallery, in a sense. The windows frame the context and all of the textures and colors it contains.

Jenny: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim drawings were originally in pink. This question of how the character of the built form may emerge without the literal color and all that it implies in the original drawings is important. The colors we used in Outlier Lofts acknowledge the context and play with a particular kind of preservation in the neighborhood… one that is formal, rather than representational. It’s not historical reenactment. It’s about remaining neutral and flying under the radar.

White diagram with different townhouse styles
Outlier Lofts, historical overlay drawing. (Courtesy French 2D)

Anda: Also, we were aware that we needed to convince the neighbors that our design belongs… that the building is part of the context. Maybe we’ll take more risks with the next one. The roof alone is almost scandalous!

Jenny: The neutrality of the interior is exactly that. The white allows for a kind of scalessness to happen and also a kind of neutral position about the future occupants.

We learned that many of the published images for Outlier Lofts incorporate virtual staging of the interior. What led you to produce images using this technique?

Anda: Should we start off with the practical answer?

Jenny: The practical answer is we only had one week to stage and photograph the project. We did not want to force an image of that space that’s tied to a particular client or art collection, simply for producing photographs that would get the project published in lifestyle and décor magazines. It just seemed wrong in terms of resources and in terms of the way we envisioned the project.

Anda: On the ideological side, we were not interested in perpetuating contemporary consumption culture. We could have filled the units with high end furniture that caters to a particular demographic, but we were interested in telling a different story.

Jenny: Instead, we came up with this idea of using virtual staging, but not in the way that realtors do to stage an apartment and sell it online. We were also thinking of the rendered interior project that can exist in and of itself. And we asked, what if you stage this like Waiting for Godot or some other way without people, playing with furniture and acting out this time scale collapse? The furniture is present but not dominant. A full complement of an ideal life would have totally overwhelmed the project.

Interior rendering of a French 2D-designed white home with wood floors
Inside Outlier Lofts. (Courtesy French 2D)

Most of the students in this class will be graduating next semester. Can you share some advice for us?

Jenny: Just be willing to patch together a life for yourself… that could mean wearing multiple hats or having multiple jobs, or working for others and yourself at the same time. Be open to things that come your way. Always be open to meeting new people.

Anda: It’s likely that you’ll have opportunities to work for different firms. Work for firms at each end of the spectrum. Work for an international corporate firm and work for a tiny boutique firm, and look at the people who are running the business. Ask yourself, “Which of those people do I want to be?” It really makes a difference.

We just have one more question. What has been the most rewarding or fulfilling moment of your careers thus far?

Anda: We’ve been very fortunate to work on projects that align with our interests. And we’ve had a lot of freedom in most of our projects. Partly because of this situation, validation, for us, is internal. We don’t often seek or rely on external validation. When we were included as winners of Architectural Record’s Design Vanguards it was unexpected. We were very happy that others were acknowledging our effort, because we have sort of existed in our own feedback bubble.

Jenny: To add to that, it’s particularly rewarding to receive external validation for things on which we had to take a risk. For example, the photographs for Kendall Square Garage and for Outlier Lofts… we decided to turn the task of photographing the project into a project in and of itself. We made dresses for the Kendall Square project and used virtual staging for Outlier Lofts. We hope that these extra efforts help to communicate the design agendas more clearly. But, the extra efforts were not necessarily encouraged… we had to trust ourselves. Sometimes you have to say, “Well, if this fails miserably, that’s okay.”

Anda: At the end of the day, the most rewarding aspect of practicing is having the confidence to do those things because I get to work all day with my sister.