Jeffrey Taylor and Alex Miller founded their New York City firm Taylor & Miller in 2002. Taylor and Miller studied architecture as undergraduates, at Washington University in St. Louis and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign respectively, and both received their M.Arch. degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They have described their firm’s dual track of research “trajectories,” as focusing on “mining materials and ideas from contexts that are most ‘accessible’, both physically and conceptually.” Their interests have translated to an active design-build practice as well as written research, currently directed toward the American suburban garage. The two recently sat down with Anne Rieselbach, the League’s program director, to discuss their work and ideas, including how they view their design process as “a composition of verbs.”
After the interview, read Taylor and Miller’s responses to the Architectural League Questionnaire.
This series emphasizes the “voice” of practitioners—how would you describe your voice?
[A] I would not necessarily call it unique, but we have a background that is more rooted in construction and material exploration. In the lecture we talked about architecture as verb, but at the same time you could make a case that a lot of firms work that way in different manners. Up to this point our voice has been in a self-recycling echo chamber; there has been a long time where we have put on blinders and specifically not engaged in the wider community. That was something that we talked about a lot, where we wanted to engage in a process that had its own trajectory. The example I always give is Paul Klee’s book The Thinking Eye. It is didactic in the way that it is put together. It has an order and it has a very definitive synthesis, but it is obviously his own, like if a madman was to construct his own reality. It is his reality. From our point of view, maybe just put the blinders on, carve your own trajectory, and where you end up is where you end up.
[J] Because so much of our work has to do with the materials and their properties, the word we like to use is material feedback. Maybe it is not that we are talking so much, but that we are listening more to the materials and their processes. I think that one of the things that makes our work shine is that we are really able to use that feedback to inform the design process. I think it reads in the work that we have done. We talk less and listen more.
As an “emerging” firm, what do you see as the advantages and challenges to practice in today’s economic, professional, and intellectual climate?
[J] It is hard, in that group of words, not to focus on economic. Frankly I think that for any of the firms of our size, it is how to get clients. We sit and have dinner talking about a project and the conversation always goes to how are we going to get more clients. Sometimes you feel like you are beating your head against the wall. You have so many good ideas. It is not that you would say no to anything, as long as it was an opportunity to design and practice. If you do not have people giving you the opportunity to practice, you have to self-generate, practice.
[A] We have had issues when we are in that vacuum away from the interaction with the client. We have tried to embark on things on our own; there is just something about the lack of client feedback for us. We have not done competitions, for example. I don’t know why, we have not really talked about it, other than not having a lot of time. There is something about the process of building and knowing that it is going to be physically realized that is so intrinsic to what we do, that it didn’t make sense to go on that way.
[J} For us too it has been trying to widen the spectrum of project opportunities, a good portion have been art installations, which are an easier thing to try to generate. You can go to a gallery and say “we’ve got this idea for something to do” and they would say “great, you can do it.” Then we say “can you give us any money to do it?” They say “no,” and then it needs to be a more manageable financial investment, a couple thousand dollars to try to produce this work. I hear it all the time from either architects coming right out of school who aspire to private practice or ones who have just taken those first couple steps, that it is hard without someone giving you an opportunity to practice, because you have to earn a living. I think the question for most architects who are trying to have a voice and trying to emerge is, what’s your bread and butter going to be if you are not independently wealthy and can’t support yourself, what else are you doing?
[A] The answer for a lot is academia, which we have skirted along the periphery of up to this point. Not that there is anything wrong with that trajectory, we just have not engaged with that. A lot of our colleagues are full time academics and they are doing architecture. As that turns from 50:50 to 60:40 to 70:30, they are transitioning to a full-on practice. We were always out there, always building, and we used the building as ballast to provide financial balance.
[J] If you don’t have that balance, through whatever means, you lose the integrity of being able to pursue ideas. If all of a sudden you have to, I don’t want to use the word “sell out,” but if you have to make that compromise and the thing that you are compromising is the ideas and the integrity of those, then you are lost. I did a brief fellowship with Glenn Murcutt years ago. One of the things he said that impressed me most was how your next project will be defined by the compromise you make on your previous project, and so every compromise you make establishes precedent for what happens the next time. We have talked about that every time we are presented with a challenge either economically or though client wishes. If we compromise, what does that compromise look like? What does it mean for the outcome of the project, and on a grander scale, for the trajectory of our practice and what we are trying to accomplish.
[A] It is hard to be in the economic situation we’re living in and have a project available to you, but knowing that it wasn’t going to be the project you can engage in at a design level and to say “sorry,” when that would be one third of your project output, it makes wives go crazy I think, but that is certainly a hard decision to make. We make it. We have made it a couple times.
[J] I think the benefit of that climate, whether it is the economic or whatever, is that every project is precious. You get something and it is a morsel and you make the best. You absolutely push it for every. It is like wringing blood from a turnip.
You describe your architecture, and by this I assume you mean your design process, as a composition of verbs rather than nouns. Could you expand on this idea?
[A] When we submitted work for Emerging Voices it was one of the first times that we have had a chance to objectively look at our portfolio in the manner in which we had been working. I think that there is a consistency there, whether it is limitations of budget or context–we often worked with such a limited palette of materials available methods. Jeff and I make the comparison to the White Stripes, where you have a guitarist, you have a drummer, and you have to adhere to that very restricted palette. And for us we have indulged, it is like, ok, we’ve got those two things, how are you going to do it? How are you going to make it? You know whether it is paperclips, pipes, ropes, whatever, we have really enjoyed acting upon those things to make them something special and that is what is necessary. It is that interaction, we alluded to it a little bit in the lecture, but that’s kind of where we came from. The backgrounds is just figuring stuff out on the fly, what you had available; for us it is limited by the shop, the tools, and the materials.
Is this design process a result of the minimal material design palette you have selected for each project?
[J] All of our projects have had a limited budget. So we’ve been forced mostly to seek out inexpensive components. Then the question is what do you do with them what terms are we going to apply to them? We have talked, let’s say, if a larger project comes along with a more generous budget, but I don’t know if those exist, I am quickly learning through practice that budgets are always limited and the client is always going to want you to do more with less. To that end, let’s say the scale goes up, how do you maintain some order in what you are doing and some restraint? For us the conversation has been what limitations are we then going to impose on our selves.
Given what seems to be an intentional limitation of building elements, how do you determine what materials or elements are appropriate for a given project?
[A] For Drawn and for the Linger Lounge, for example, the budget was so restrictive and, although they are very small areas, the space was still relatively expansive. Drawn was 36 feet, or however tall it needed to be to fill this volume. With Linger the budget was already gone, but we wanted to have an effect on the entire space. We literally couldn’t afford surface, whether it was plywood or whatever, so we said OK, can we afford string? Can we afford cable? In essence it’s lighter in the space but it still evokes volume. On both of those projects we went along that line, very differently materially. For Drawn fishing line and manila rope were literally the cheapest linear material that we could have access to.
[J] I think there is always a process of working backwards. There’s some requirement or context of the project that begins to tell us what the limitations have to be. Drawn started out with the idea of how we reduce form to a linear thing and we initially selected light emitting fiber optic. It didn’t take us long to figure out that that was not going to be good economics. It quickly evolved to something a little less sophisticated.
[A] The original idea behind it; we were going to sheath the light emitting fiber optic in a rubber sheathing so that where the object was would be illuminated, so it would have a little bit more negative/positive feedback instead of just the positive.
[J] The design started with a conversation, what’s the context? The context is a lobby space that is four stories tall. How do we deploy something that is going to have a spatial impact on something that is that big? How do you reduce something of that size down to an incremental element that can then describe a three-dimensional thing and then if it is linear, aside from being an art installation, it is architecture too. It was like Sinai Academy, working backward from the ideas: we know it is going to be volumetrically simple. We know that the real design opportunity is in what skin we put on this. We know that that object had a certain height and width, how do we maximize what would have to be a sheet good that would be easily installed because labor is expensive? It was a backward process, knowing what the end result could be, what the opportunities are, what the context is, and arriving at a material and process that we knew could accomplish that.
[A] But, again, there was critical feedback. Once we went in that direction we knew it would be a sheet good, so the plan, the layout, the volume, everything was defined by the size of a factory cut Corten steel sheet. We didn’t want to stage the steel on site, we wanted to be able to take it straight from the truck and put it on the building, because we didn’t have the labor to then relift it. The guy who was going to be delivering it was going to be delivering it on the building.
[J] We struggle to get to what is our conceptual meat and ideal for a project, and frankly that is the most painful thing. What is that very important concept? Once we can arrive at that, then often times there is this kind of quick domino effect it all starts to inform each other
Is it possible to identify which comes first; the materials or the method?
[A] I think that they’re one and the same. For Sinai it was material, meaning typology, like sheet vs. line vs. kind of an abstract version of the material. I have a hard time separating that abstract version of the material and what the spatial experience is intended to be.
[J] It just depends on the client and the program and what our concept is. With Sinai, the material and method, maybe they were simultaneous.
[A] One thing that we talk about in our trajectory, is that in New York you have one space architecture, or we have had access to one space architecture, so there’s a single lobby space, single salon space, whatever. In those spaces there is a limitation but it also implies a certain approach. We found that we have imbued those with a certain complexity, whereas on the Pull House it was a much more robust spatial diagram. I think that was the one time that we have had an opportunity to do a composition of spaces and forms.
[J] It is different for every project, but there is definitely a moment in our process where we hear the resonance of all the different ideas. We are very uneasy when we don’t hear that resonance, to the point where we’ve thrown ideas completely away the night we were having a client meeting, which I think you have to have the courage to do to have successful projects.
[A] It is a feedback, and if it is not talking to us, it is just eerie. We do not like being in a vacuum intellectually. I think the reason that happens is because it is a more material based process, so we’re designing through building, we’re designing through mock-up, and a lot of that happens as you are approaching what this final thing is going to be. If we shift gears, and that system is breaking, even down to the details of certain reveal conditions, we will change the system, even if the project is under construction. We’ll say no, we need to try to do this. We have had very trusting clients that have let us do that.
What is the role of repetition (as well as the rhythm created by its modulation) in shaping both the form and surface of your work? In most of your projects there seems to be a basic generative form, which you then manipulate.
[J] I think that is partly a result of the verb question. When you start to think about how you are acting on a material there’s just a way in which the projects tend toward repetition because there’s a human element to those verbs and I think that there is an end result. Sometimes we are frustrated with that too and I think that there have been times when we have started a project wondering what are we going to bring to this project, this time, that is going to help get us to a different place.
[A] In reference to multiplicity, I think that with the materials that we are using there is a craft and the way that you act upon them. If it’s going to be a dumb material it seems as though in our process there’s a certain complexity that is evoked with this dumb material that takes it to another place. There are some materials that have a simplicity, they have an elegance, it is all that it needs to be. I don’t think that a single strand of rope is enough, there’s got to be some kind of overlay and we just tended towards this systematization. Also, I think that for us there is an appreciation of “yea, we can do this a thousand times.” It’s not going to cost us that much more, because we know how to do it quickly. There’s almost a “how can it look as obsessive as possible but have for us, a hidden story that says no it’s not that bad.” I think that we indulge in that.
[J] For me there’s something to that intensity of it. Because when you experience it there’s this intuitive sense of human interaction, almost, is it potential energy, or kinetic energy, that’s stored in the projects that really just give it a charge. I question whether if it were a machine process it would have that. I think there’s something about the fact that some poor human being [laughs] whether it’s us, or someone we’ve talked into doing it, or are paying to do it, sat there and folded 40,000 pieces and riveted them together.
You are also actively engaged in research related to “the Great American Garage.” Could you speak about the intersections between your built work and this study linked to what you have identified as their shared quality of possessing “a very simple something that has a number of possible design trajectories”?
[A] This also speaks a little bit to the voice of our firm, but I think like our background there is something just basic…I don’t know what to call it…I would call it Midwestern, whatever it is, finding beauty in something that is inherently mundane. And that’s the point that we made in the lecture. We have this material, we have this other body of research; both of them are everyday things. Whenever I describe the Midwest, David Foster Wallace, I think, in his group of essays, hits it to a tee. It is just the endlessness, the geometry, when you go out there you don’t necessarily see that, but it resonates. You have to look for, it you have to find it, and I think that we’ve just gotten pretty good at looking for it in the kind of neutrality of things.
[J] I don’t know if two other designers could take the same approach and necessarily arrive at the same conclusions. I don’t know if it has to do with our working class roots, or being from small towns. You know, I think there is just something about how we look at everything around us, the things that interest us, the things we get excited about, and I think that’s great.
[A] I truly believe that the suburban garage is the most important space in suburbia. It’s the protagonist of the suburban condition and nobody has talked about it, nobody looks at it. You see it in coffee table books. There are so many projections onto it, what it means to so many people and it’s important. I mean it’s ubiquitous, but in it’s ubiquity it is absolutely critical, so at the same time it has to be looked at. There are a lot of things out there that are like that. It is how you look at it not necessarily its inherent beauty.
This started at MIT with my thesis research and it has continued to this body of work. I had an older professor at MIT come up afterwards and he said “it was great, an amazing presentation but I found it very cynical.” And I was flabbergasted. I said that’s the exact opposite of what I think it is. Of course there’s a tongue and cheek critique of everything, how different people look at it, the status that it has, the garage sales, all those things, yea they’re funny. But cynicism doesn’t get you anywhere. It is an amazing thing that there are business school studies that have been done which asks why people think the garage is an incubator for creativity. Even though a lot of the things it stands for, this individuality, this cloistering your self, this lone genius individual, are American ideals, like the single creator. Apple is Steve Jobs, HP is obviously Hewitt and Packard, some of these studies have said no, these guys were tied in, they were working at Atari, they were working at HP, it was that social structure that gave them the ability to do these things. But the myth of the garage is that it is a lone genius going into the shop and ‘poof,’ open up the door and there is this amazing thing. It is about the American ideal and I find the ideal beautiful even if it is not consistently true. And it is a fun thing to research that way.
[J] I think that it is I don’t want to say optimistic [A, It is optimistic!] We’ve never talked about this, my thesis at MIT was about parking structures. I am only now realizing what a strange parallel this is. It was questioning and researching the reality that people interface with smaller urban centers through their car and the point of departure from their cars, the parking garage. There are often parking problems in smaller rural towns, and how to capitalize on the notion that you have to provide parking and how it is an opportunity to do something with something that is mundane. Now that I am talking about it, it is absolutely what we do with our architecture. We are so optimistic about these very humble materials, it is like GREAT a pencil, what are we going to do with this! How many of these can we get?
What happens if you do scale up? What would change and what would stay the same?
[J] We do talk about it a lot. I think every architect hopes to be able to jump up in scale. It is a real challenge, because you have to convince a client to let you do something that you have never done before, that’s pretty tricky. I think that we are both very uneasy, we’ve got anxiety about what happens when we finally accomplish that, and I think that’s a good place to be, as uncomfortable as the anxiety is, that’s where the creativity starts. Any project—if you do not have anxiety in your design process you’re not doing it right. I think if you are too comfortable and you know what you are doing, then something is wrong.
Now read Taylor and Miller’s responses to the Architectural League Questionnaire.
This interview was conducted on May 12, 2011.