Claire Weisz

Ana Miljački speaks with Claire Weisz, cofounder of WXY, on structural flexibility as an office, sharing ethical burdens with clients, and advocating on behalf of built and material histories.

Recorded on April 23, 2023. Read a transcript of the episode below.

Claire Weisz

Claire Weisz is a founding partner of New York-based firm WXY Architecture + Urban Design, widely recognized for its community-centered approach to architecture, urban design, and planning. Founded by Weisz and Mark Yoes in 1998, WXY describes itself as a “tight-knit multidisciplinary think tank that builds.” In 1993, the team of Weisz and Yoes were selected as one of eight recipients of The Architectural League Prize (then known as the Young Architects Forum) and in 2011 as one of the six winners of the League’s Emerging Voices competition. They received the 2016 AIA New York State Firm of the Year Award and were named as one of the world’s most innovative architecture firms by Fast Company in 2019. Weisz is a cofounder of the Design Trust for Public Space, holds a seat on the industry advisory group for the US Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Operations (OBO), and serves on the board of the Regional Plan Association. She has lectured widely, served on many design juries, and is a board member of several nonprofit organizations involved in shaping the built environment.

About I Would Prefer Not To

Conceived and produced by MIT’s Critical Broadcasting Lab and presented with The Architectural League, I Would Prefer Not To1Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” The Piazza Tales (1856). tackles a usually unexamined subject: the refusal of an architectural commission. Why do architects make the decision to forfeit the possibility of work? At what point is a commission not worth it? When in one’s career is it necessary to make such a decision? Whether concealed out of politeness or deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, architects’ refusals usually go unrecorded by history, making them difficult to analyze or learn from. In this series of recorded interviews, I Would Prefer Not To aims to shed light on the complex matrix of agents, stakeholders, and circumstances implicated in every piece of architecture.


Transcript lightly edited and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.

Ana Miljački  00:20
Hello, and thank you for tuning in. I’m Ana Miljački, Professor of Architecture at MIT and director of the Critical Broadcasting Lab. And on behalf of The Architectural League of New York and the Critical Broadcasting Lab, I welcome you to our architecture podcast series titled, I Would Prefer Not To. I Would Prefer Not To is an oral history project conducted through audio interviews on the topic of perhaps the most important kind of refusal in architects’ toolboxes, refusal of the architectural commission. By definition, the topic of refusal stays hidden from public scrutiny, and thus also hidden from history. Withdrawals of this kind tend not to leave paper trails and are not easy to examine or learn from, and yet, the lessons contained in architects’ deliberations about and decisions not to engage are politically relevant and urgent. Decisions to not engage in a commission or types of commissions or commissions with certain characteristics inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily. I’m talking to Claire Weisz today. Thank you for joining me, Claire.

Claire Weisz  01:27
Thank you, Ana.

Miljački  01:30
Claire Weisz is a founding partner of WXY, a New York firm recognized widely for its community-centered approach to architecture, urban design, and planning. Founded originally by Claire and Mark Yoes in 1998, WXY describes itself now as a tight knit multidisciplinary think tank that builds. In 2006, they were joined by Layng Pew and in 2011 by Adam Lubinsky. The firm was a recipient of the Young Architects award in 1998*, as well as the Emerging Voice Award in 2011, both from The Architectural League of New York. They received the New York State Firm of the Year Award by the American Institute of Architects in 2016 and were recently named as one of the world’s most innovative architecture firms in 2019 by Fast Company. Claire is the cofounder of the Design Trust for Public Space. She holds a seat on the industry advisory group for the US Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Operations and serves on the board of the Regional Planning Association. She has served on many design juries, serves on boards of a number of nonprofit organizations involved in shaping the built environment, and has lectured widely in academia. The WXY team, which now numbers around 50 employees with a wide-ranging set of expertise, has indeed produced work that straddles different disciplines, including strategic regional plans, landscapes, district diversity plans, schools, houses, renovations, kiosks, benches, much of this in New York City and on the East Coast. And just to name a few specifically, they have been involved in reshaping the Battery Park, reimagining the Astor Place, the Brooklyn Navy Yards, the Rockaway Parks, and most recently downtown of Davenport, Iowa and riverfront of Toledo, Ohio. So, Claire, I hope that we will be able to discuss some aspects of WXY ‘s body of work by talking first about your most memorable decision to not engage or to drop a commission, or if that has not happened yet, can you imagine it happening? And on what grounds?

Weisz  03:42
So, Ana, this is such a touchy topic, right?

Miljački  03:47

Weisz  03:47
I was delving back into my memory, and what I trusted was my first gut reaction. And my first gut reaction brought me to a moment, actually, during the pandemic, when we weren’t necessarily all in person, but we were thinking deeply about this question of, does one give up an opportunity? If the opportunity is unethical, or our perception, is unethical? And do you rely on your own gut? Or is maybe the fact that you personally make those decisions is somewhat also suspect. That your singular decision is a problem. So, at that moment, we got a call from a large engineering firm. And I had been very involved on a personal level with groups of people in the restorative justice community in closing Rikers and then served on a committee. Also, Rosalie Genevro of The Architecture League was on the same committee, and [at that time] it seemed such a clear position to close Rikers. Now, of course, there’s the other side of it, which is if you close something, people then have to decide what they’re going to do. And in the case of New York City, this is not a clean decision. And there are many, many firms who are designing and building jails.

But in addition to the jails, there’re the other parts of incarceration, and other parts of the justice system that involve incarceration. And one of them is the sally ports to courthouses. We got a call about doing this design work renovating the sally port to a courthouse in Chinatown near our office at the time. And that’s when it struck me that it wasn’t… if it was up to me alone, that already was a problem. And so, we gathered all the senior people in the office, and I kind of remember this, and created a Zoom meeting to take on this question. That’s a sidewalk, it’s public space! What’s the problem? And it was very interesting, there was really two gatherings of voices. One of them said that this is really about how the public interacts with these vehicles that are bringing people to it, imprisoned, to their sentencing. That’s not the same as designing a jail. And then there was the other voices that said, any part of a system you’re involved with, you’re not in control of the choices being made. And it really, that was the sentiment that won out in that discussion, and that’s how we made that decision. I think I remember there being anger on the part of the engineering firm, because in a lot of ways, they didn’t understand why in such a economically fragile time we were refusing work. And, hence, I founded the firm and its a majority women owned business, they also had other, you know, reasons why they wanted us to do the work. But that strikes me clearly as the most clear case in recent memory. But in a lot of ways, most decisions are less clear than that.

Miljački  07:31
I will ask you a little bit later about the mechanisms by which you expose the whole office to this kind of discussion, potentially. But if there is anything that makes sense to share now out of this particular story, we can talk about it.

Weisz  07:47
Well, out of this particular instance, we made a decision that—because, again, mechanisms of communication were being rethought—we decided that our internal newsletter going forward would actually tell people what pursuits we were considering. And so, you know, we’re reconsidering that now, but still, today, every week, we send out a full firm newsletter that tells people what pursuits we’re considering, allowing them to email, you know, the person who’s in charge of collecting things, whether they have strong feelings about any of them or know something. That really was the result of that.

Miljački  08:31
The newsletter is internal?

Weisz  08:33

Miljački  08:34

Weisz  08:35
And again, it’s internal, so that, let’s say, they’re a very interesting group of people that work at WXY, many of them have experiences that are divergent from mine, and if they see, you know, corporate office for so and so they may have some strong feelings about why we should or shouldn’t spend the time going after that project. I know it seems strange to do an internal newsletter of any pursuit that’s being seriously considered, but we made a decision to do that based on that conversation.

Miljački  09:17
I’m fascinated by the breadth of work you do, and I saw that on your website, this maybe disciplinary or typological breadth is encompassed by a category you call markets, which includes buildings, open space, infrastructure, interiors, and planning. I thought it would be interesting to talk about how getting work in these different areas might be different or how it is complementary. And I can keep going on that topic, but maybe I’ll tell you what I’m tempted to extrapolate from it. So, before you answer, is something like a position on architecture and its entanglements. Which reminds me of a statement that you made in a short video on the Blue Dunes project in which you said that there is no longer only one issue; the environment is as important as the economy is as important as community. And I saw that in a way maybe in this collection of things that you’re suggesting you are addressing through the work. And so, then, how do you get work in these different disciplines? Are they complementary? How do you navigate that? Sort of mechanically, almost.

Weisz  10:31
There’s a number of threads here, one of them is that because WXY is not a corporately led office, we have a lot of flexibility in figuring out how [to do it] as a group of people that happened to be led by me and others, but me originally, and then others. You’re going to take on the idea that you can never do a project in isolation. So, let’s say, I’ll give you an example. I love doing private homes, as a person. Love it. But over the years have been very torn about whether our office and the amount of time and the value of people’s time, it could be, whether it’s proper to use that in the service of a single person, for ultimately their benefit only, as opposed to, let’s say, doing multi-family housing or even duplexes or even cohousing or any of those things. The private home is clearly not an ethical question for our discipline, even if it’s an ethical question for me personally. And so, the way I’ve reconciled that is that, and again—I love doing private homes—is that I wait for an opportunity where someone who, whose work I care about is willing to engage in a discussion about that same topic, which is, how much materials and how much time and what happens to it after it’s gone. If they’re willing to engage in a discussion about the value of dedicating time and materials, then I’m usually interested in working on it. And then I can talk to other people in the office who might equally be interested in working on it.

Now, this is a rarity, people who are willing to do this, and one collaborator, friend, client, in particular, Jessica Helfand who is a, she’s one of the founders of Design Observer, is a, has been a client three times, and we’re just finishing up work for her current loft. And in this case, she was equally willing to: A to have that discussion, but B, to agree that we will be very hard on ourselves about throwing anything out from a carbon point of view, from an embodied carbon point of view. And I think it I think it’s going to be a beautiful loft. But then my ethical burdens became her ethical burdens, which was not easy the whole time. So that to me is an example of that scale. Like, if you look at our portfolio, there are some single-family homes, you have to really dive deep to understand why they’re there.

Then there’s redistricting of a middle school district, for example, D 15, in the middle of Brooklyn, that is actually ongoing, in a sense, because every year there’s data about whether the policy decisions are working to desegregate those middle schools. Are those schools getting better? Are parents happier? Are children happier? Okay, these are intangibles, it’s very easy to say why one would take on a project like that. But the hard part is under what circumstances. Do you take on a project like that when you’re not sure if you’re gonna get paid? Do you take on a project like that if you’re not sure if the client is going to stay there and you may be left out, explaining things that you’re not really in a position to explain why you’re doing it? The reason I twin those two scales together, the scale of the private actor that has complete control against working with a massive public system that has rules, but may have much, much less control. And that is really kind of the challenge. The challenge is, it’s very clear on one end, that that’s a project one wants to do. But the factors and the economic, financial circumstances of still working with others and saying, you know, we all have to get paid, we have to pay the rent, like, all of those factors weigh in, heavily. Less, in one case of the private client, where fees are clear, payment is clear, or public clients where the circumstances of that, especially on projects that involve highly politicized decisions can be very fraught.

Miljački  16:01
Maybe it would be useful to talk about how you think of or define engagement in the firm, and in what way, if at all then, WXY presents their point of view or asserts design in that kind of question or a situation where, or context of conversations with different stakeholders. I’m putting words in your mouth, that may not be how you think engagement, so actually, like getting a definition of engagement or description of how you go about it might be useful.

Weisz  16:36
I think that all problems require architects, I’ll say, I’ll call us architects, to use design, as a process to understand better and then through understanding better provide a place for a solution. So, sometimes that place for a solution is not changing the built environment, or at least sometimes the answer is not a building. How about that.

Miljački 17:15
I can go with that.

Weisz  17:16
Sometimes the answer is…there is a lack of shelter, utilities, systems, etc., that do imply building, but getting everyone to contribute to that realization, and I mean, everyone really broadly, is a version, at least a version of how we define engagement.

Miljački  17:48
Do you have, would you say that you have methods for producing the conversation that would be adequate for a given question? Or how you ascertain that, what you need, how you set up the table, I guess.

Weisz  18:09
Yeah. In every project, we have, I’ll call it a kind of checklist to make sure that we’re not forgetting all these points of view and perspectives. And then we design a process, and we are free enough to change the process as it’s happening. So basically, it is like, I call it, this is really the plan, like, we set up a framework to plan and then new circumstances happen. And we’re, but we’re in a good position because of the research and engagement going on, the changing of the plan of engagement becomes comfortable to people. And so that’s really what, what the idea is. It’s very different, sometimes the whole purpose is to actually create something that is, that is consensus building, right? But that’s not all the reason to engage. Sometimes the engagement is to, kind of, bring forward new ideas that not everyone has to agree with. It is important that both of them can work in projects.

Miljački  19:36
So, you’re suggesting, I think, there are two prongs to this, or two sides to this conversation so far. One is that there is something that sounds like internal discussion within the firm. I am interested in that, what are the mechanics of that and structure for that conversation, which sounds like a value conversation internally. And the other sounds like, or the one that I keep trying to get out a little bit is how getting work across these different scales actually works for the firm.

Weisz  20:16
So, getting work for our firm is two modes. Literally public: they, some form of project gets posted, and you go through piles of paperwork and forms. And you just keep at it. And even if the service that, say, in desegregating schools that you’re offering doesn’t match the description of the project, what you hope is that, when you’re in the position to do the project, you can then change the next request for proposal, it’s going out to conform more with what you think that type of market should be. So, it’s a kind of market changing approach. The other way of getting work is there’s a certain amount of grants that we write. And then there’s some work that we get out, like, work, put ways to work, where we do, from work, we’ve done on other projects, we start seeing that there’s a problem policy-wise and spatially, and we go put out a thought piece or a white paper, in order to position work now. We don’t always get that work. You know, in the case of The Ways to Work, I think it was McKinsey that ended up getting the work. But that idea of making your own work is pretty strong at WXY.

Miljački  21:52
I’ve been studying WXY’s, regional thinking and city-wide strategic plans. As I said, I was surprised at the amount of it, that which really says more about me than you, but they often look 20 to 30 years into the future, at least. They seem to be commissioned by civic and government agencies, and for someone who grew up in the wake of some major critiques and academic dismantling of master planning, I find these visions optimistic, and I want to check that optimism against your actual experience of doing this work.

Weisz  22:32
At most, we actually avoid the kinds of traditional planning that happens because it pretends to be long term, but actually tends to only reflect what everyone has agreed is the usual shared things. Most of the planning we’ve done has been, I’ll call it ops work, oppositional planning. So, the kind of planning that we’ve done in Westchester has been for the judge that was brought in under a consent decree to make Westchester do affordable housing. Unsuccessful, but that work came from that. The work we did for, even East River Blueway, when Adam first started, was to put together all of the plans that all the community groups had and come up with a plan. Again, to basically say to the city that there was a plan already there. I mean, East Harlem community plan was set up as an alternate process to how things are usually done. So, in a lot of ways, it may look to people like that is, I’ll call it a master plan, but we rarely use the word master plan. Even the Brooklyn Navy Yard, we call that a master planning extra exercise, that East Harlem is a community plan, because the word master plan implies something that’s fundamentally wrong, that there is central planning, which there isn’t even with strong planning departments. Most people in Canada, the United States, and many other countries, very few people, you know, [live in] cities in America that have any form of central planning. There’re all sorts of mechanisms of planning, but mechanisms of planning don’t mean that communities, companies, individuals are achieving things through planning and that, I think, staying critical of that is really, really important.

Miljački  24:48
I like your answer, but I also do think that there are certain, the part that I found optimistic, let me characterize that, is the capacity to produce long term view on the large scale, that even if that is, and maybe that’s what you’re saying, that it comes off as set of studies, of possibilities, imagining future with different stakeholders, often in opposition to those who are in charge of in fact producing the plan.

Weisz  25:24
Oh, I’m optimistic. Not about that the future will be 100 years from now. But I think asking the questions is really important. I gave a lecture two weeks ago to some students at the Cardozo Law School because they wanted me to talk about Penn Station. And I pulled out of the files on something we had done in 2013, for Municipal Art Society, which was on the 100th anniversary of Grand Central called the next 100 years and a number of architecture firms, including Foster and KPF, and others were supposed to come up with a vision, and I pulled up the slides from that, and realized that, that there was a particularly funny one about like, the original Pan Am Building and how to kind of reimagine it, and put residential, and a holographic aquarium ocean, a holographic ocean in there, and new kinds of food halls. And this is before that word food hall existed. And this was before anyone, the pandemic where people thought you should be living, you know, on top of Grand Central, instead of pure office buildings. And so that was 10 years ago. And so, I asked these students, I said, which is the more important question, thinking about 10 years from now or thinking about 100 years from now? And I would argue that you have to kind of do both and balance them. And when you, if your answer is the same 100 years from now, 10 years from now, that that in itself tells you something.

Miljački  27:17
Let me get back to that conversation you were having with Briony [Roberts] and Adam, again. Because there was a question about preservation or renovation, or simply working with an already full context. And you said that the physical environment and objects have so much to teach us. And the field of architecture may be in part engaged in resisting erasure. I wanted to talk about that, or have you comment on that further. What you mean by that?

Weisz  27:51
Well, I get really emotional about that, because so many projects, you know, back to your essential question, are about demolishing buildings to do something new. Recently, we participated in a design build competition, Which, admittedly, we did what we were told, which was to demolish a Bond Ryder building, and propose what to do new there. But the whole time, I kept thinking, There’s something deeply wrong about this, that how do we as architects, practice when—there is of course surgical removal, reusing parts of buildings—but fundamentally, there has got to be a way to grow, add on, to change, but to really value the embodied carbon and all the materials we’ve already dug up and are sitting there. And, also, the legacy of how they were thinking at the time, like, how were Don Ryder and Max Bond, thinking about this community building in the middle of Brownsville? There are things about how they did the stairs and how they did the porch, like, wouldn’t we want to keep those? Why did why do we have to demolish it, even if it’s a city policy, even if it’s too expensive? And I think many of our clients are struggling with that. And it’s not just up to architects to decide, it’s a larger social question. But I think if more architects became activists, for the buildings that are already there, and I’m not using the word preservation, I’m just saying, I’m just saying activists for those buildings, it would be a huge contribution to the material culture of architecture. I mean, take apart a wall. It’s fascinating, especially a wall in old building and then try and put it back together.

Miljački  29:52
I hear you, and in that conversation also heard you in a way advocating for knowledge that’s embedded in it. In the built environment.

Weisz  30:01
I’m more interested, imagine like a book, I feel like the material culture of architecture is really complex, all the decisions people made about how they did things were, many of them were reviving now, some of them are lost, if you go, one of the buildings, I think is unbelievably fascinating, and ARO did a fabulous job with this, which is Donald Judd’s studio and living building. And if you look at the technology of the glass, these glass discs in the sidewalk, the little edge, like literally 10 inches off the sidewalk, and you go down into the sub-basin spaces, and you see the amount of natural refracted light, and you go back up again, and you start looking at the culture that needed and wanted to put natural light into this manufacturing building, even in the depths, and what were they up to? And how they, what they were making at such speed? And where was technology? And what was it like to work there? I mean, I just think it’s amazing.

Miljački  31:16
I’m trying to think what’s the next good segue out of that, because I have questions about information that come out of some of the things that I was reading, and now we’re talking about the way information in the built environment, but I wanted to talk a little bit about the kind of status of data, stories, research personal and also in, in sort of personal stories and research stories that are in the work, and the modes of representation that you use in the firm to enable, let’s say, engagement, perhaps, or further the work. But also, in conjunction to something that you described in an earlier interview I was listening to, in which you talked about the digital world in the way that data might be used to manipulate and the way in which your interlocutors are often or increasingly aware of that, and thus, even skeptical sometimes. And it sounded to me like then you were also saying that architects had a special role in helping navigate that world saturated with data. So maybe there’s also this other kind of knowledge in this question, but it’s more about how you again, sort of navigate the processes by which or help others navigate processes that involve research and data and understanding those, and the way that they describe the built environment.

Weisz  32:48
I think there’s definitely a dedication to information graphics, I call it, but before information graphics happen, you know, is this a pie chart? You know, what colors do you use? How do you name things? Is actually sorting through trends that you see in the information, like things that repeat, is finding those patterns, and I think, as architects, that’s really the spatial implications of data, is looking over time, but also, what are patterns that no one talks about? That are in information about school choice, information about zoning, you know, why does so many buildings of a certain type, why are those buildings happening there? Why? Why are so many people moving, let’s say to a place that has no transit? All of the getting into that offers an opportunity to present information in a way that isn’t being discussed, let’s say, by journalists, but could be used by people to make better decisions.

Miljački  34:11
You know, I printed out a list of your clients to try to make sense of any patterns in it.

Weisz  34:18
See, we’re totally on the same wavelength!

Miljački  34:21
Or at least to try to…

Weisz  34:22
What did you come up with?

Miljački  34:23
I wanted to try to articulate a question that might be, that might be useful. And so, the question is, maybe, are there any categories of clients that you prefer not to engage? Or that you have historically not engaged? Or you know, conversely, that you prefer to engage? But first the question of who is not on the list in your estimation?

Weisz  34:53
I think large, very large scale, national developers are not on that list. And it’s not that we hadn’t, haven’t engaged with them. It’s that, in general, they, the kinds of projects they would engage us for, do involve more complex sites and issues, but in a lot of ways, those projects don’t happen as often, right? So it’s really much more the normative that there’s already a model for development that the market recognizes, you know? “Let’s do this kind of thing.” And our firm is not well known for market-based typological work. Or maybe that, you know, that’s not where people see us.

Miljački  35:54
It’s certainly not where the effort is in a way in the current portfolio. But this is where, like, the effort seems to be, or at least the clients that seem to float up, or produce the largest part of it is, government, community, and institutions. And so, for me again, it’s curious to think about how, partly because, I’m interested in talking about some of the kinds of mechanics that enable practices to operate. It’s interesting to think about how these beget more projects, like how working with a set of clients like this begets more projects in that same realm, and the extent to which that involves personal relationships, or projects that sort of multiply.

Weisz  36:50
Well, I have the same question too, but in a lot of ways, unique projects don’t get repeated. Casey Jones, who’s at Perkins and Will now, and was the head of the Overseas Bureau of Architecture for some time, I always quote him on this, because he said that, if you do get the same architect, you select them for a project, they bring the most to it the first time, but they also make the most mistakes. The second time, you get there, you get a great project, because they’ve learned from the mistakes, but they still are of the projects of the same type. The third time, it becomes rote. And it’s not as good as the project of the second time. And that’s always stuck with me. Because for the practice as, well, I think there’s a huge learning curve but enthusiasm on taking on a new problem. And then the second time you get to do a factory, an affordable housing building, a pavilion, and you know, some we haven’t. We haven’t gotten to do SeaGlass again, and we have not gotten to do the salt shed again, or a farm on top of the convention center. But let’s say we would be able to do this for the second time, I’m absolutely sure that they would be a wonderful experience, because there would be new inputs, but you’d have a wealth of knowledge. So, I think the problem is that the kind of projects and people that are attracted to us, we’re attracted to. Or that in a way, we have many projects that were not an exciting project, they were just a roof. And the forte was to as architects turn it into something. But if that’s the genesis of the project, it’s very hard to find other projects where you have the opportunity to go from a reroofing job to a public plaza, right? Like it doesn’t always happen. So, in a lot of ways, I think most firms—I could be wrong—I would love, I have got to read—I’m sure there are good books about this. There are successor firms where you’re using the portfolio of a much longer standing firm and turning into something. This is not the case of WXY where it was basically thought up and generated off a set of—

Miljački  39:27
Not yet!

Weisz  39:28
—ideas about public space, not yet. And then there’s networks people have, which are important, from going to school, from not going to school, from living in a certain country, from, and those opportunities are very fluid. And I think that most firms, like ours too, there are networks and opportunities there are, growing the network, like I really feel that having, helping other Architects, helping younger architects with their firm, giving, is actually beneficial to practice. It just, it’s not direct, but it’s beneficial. Because the more people practicing architecture, in a way that connects to both ideas and environmental goals, really, that actually will be more people out there doing that, that the market will be using more people, because there are less people who are not practicing that way.

Miljački  40:39
Sounds like a better world is better for all or when everyone is better off, we’re all better off.

Weisz  40:44
Yeah, but yeah, but I think it takes an, so there’s getting work, but there’s also, I would say, helping others. And a lot of our urban design work is actually about creating projects that go beyond the projects we will do ourselves.

Miljački  41:01
Maybe it would be useful to say something about the particular kind of client type of work, that for me jumps out of the portfolio that I’ve seen, which is the schools and including the district plan, or, that you’ve done, but that seems like one that you’ve done more than two of, or interventions, at least in that realm.

Weisz  41:26
Well, definitely on the planning side. But on the designing a school side, on the architecture side, only three—and about to be four, we hope to be in construction on a fourth—[these are some of our] favorite projects, because they’re about education, and really like, education, for the built environment is really the only hope for change.

Miljački  41:57
So do you, is this a kind of context in which, when you get to the level of architecture, you sort of imagine architecture participating in that educational project? of the new subjects, right? I mean kids, yes.

Weisz  42:13
I think that, yeah, kids, adults, education wise, high school students, the idea that we still have a social goal, to educate together, not just by ourselves, you know, on a, this is a really valuable thing. In a lot of ways, I think it’s going to take a lot of work to actually engage more people in this. And I think one thing I’m really passionate about right now is thinking about how to change the way we look at schools. I think if we don’t change the way we look at the architecture of schools, people may not ever want to go back to school, and they may not have to go back to school, in light of technology. And I think, really questioning why we ever came up with a corridor, is that even in an appropriate education environment? Is hugely important. So a lot of where I think commissions, clients work, I hope will come is really, really building on the work of thinking about how do I choose a school? How do I live in a community? What is public education? Is to try and help get public get school buildings to a different place.

Miljački  43:42
I have now several questions left. And we’ve arrived at maybe time. So, let me give you the first one, and then we’ll see what we do with the others. But this is a bigger one, sort of, how do you think of your services or contribution as, is it as architecture, as production of effects in the world, as collaborations directed as specific outcomes? And maybe this is a question both about scope and about the nature of authorship in WXY and its engagements.

Weisz  44:18
I think when it comes to authorship, there’s sort of two sides, which is taking responsibility for getting things done in a way that one could call it architecturally, that you can even call it architecture right? And that in itself takes a huge amount of effort. I think key to answering that question is who takes responsibility. And generally, it’s whose name is on the door, but it doesn’t mean that you aren’t working with people, colleagues, consultant colleagues, clients who are taking different kinds of responsibility. Like the acknowledgement that architecture comes out of shared responsibility that can never be credited to one person, sort of, is critical to what I hope, why we operate as a firm. On the other hand, I think it’s important that if you’re the principal, and your initial is on the front door, that you acknowledge that you should be blamed for things that don’t achieve the shared goals of people. And that is, should, weigh into some of the decisions about what work you take.

Miljački  45:46
Maybe this is a good moment to recover that question about, do you have any procedures in place by which you both expose the office to the realities of running the office? And you, do you invite the team to think collectively about the commissions that you will and will not take?

Weisz  46:07
So based on the first story about the sally port, you know, designing a sally port, we absolutely have a shared process of evaluating what to go after. Sometimes that evolves into putting ourselves on a diet of going after less things. So, some of it is not ethical. A lot of it is how much, how do we balance wanting to have a more in the black or more profitable business so that we can do things, invest in things more, against, basically, being exhausted and having to work hours that are not appropriate. That’s really, it’s the amount of stuff tends to be the big decision making. We’ve really focused on, at least, within senior leadership. And for people to really understand that the fees are theirs to use in conjunction, collaborating with others, but that clients have limits on fees for all sorts of reasons. So you have to figure out how to kind of put yourself on the right design process and diet, you can’t just change your mind at the end, you have to find ways to change your mind throughout. So that I think that we have pretty much a very transparent process about fees and what’s getting paid and how much goes to salaries and how much goes to rent and all that stuff. I mean, some people don’t want to be burdened with it, but it’s theirs and equally, and we’re republishing them all the time. We have a very clear salary bands, what that means and where you could go, and it’s a work in progress.

Miljački  48:06
I’m wondering to the earlier question, if the criteria for the work that you take and pursue or don’t take, have changed over the course of the sort of lifespan of the firm. And what is the major factor in that change? If, I’m assuming that they have, sorry, maybe you’ll say no.

Weisz  48:31
Well, I feel that number one, I’ve, we’ve never practiced, I think that the, that whole lawsuit happened before my time, I could be wrong, but in public work, there were fee charts and fee curves for a long time at audited hourly rates. But in a lot of ways, firms have benefited. We’ve never really benefited because we worked on very public infrastructure projects…

Miljački  49:09
From deregulation?

Weisz  49:11
…we’ve never really benefited from it… what happens is that, if you do, if you have a set fee, and you pay less, or people get paid less, and they do more hours, you get paid the same amount. Our work isn’t really in that category. I don’t know how to explain this. But all of our work is by the hour for public, for certain public authorities, and other fixed fee amounts are still highly regulated, as in you have to show actual salary hours.

Miljački  49:47
I think this is a bigger sort of discipline conversation. And my sense is that I think the younger architects actually will take us there, back there, maybe, but my question to you is for the WXY and whether you could say, when you think now, you know, from 1998 to now, have you changed your set of criteria that you use when you think about what projects to take on and what projects not to take on? At the very least in terms of your firm’s stability?

Weisz  50:30
I think we were willing, especially when we were in a tiny group of people to take on projects that we’d never done before for very, very little money and part of it, you know, yeah, so I had a practice that was in our loft. And I had a teaching. You know, I would teach more often, so I wouldn’t take a salary. And these are all things you hear from architects starting practices, but reasonably quickly I decided that wasn’t sustainable. So you have to find the kind of work maybe doing reports. Doing planning is also a way to write, and a little bit easier than doing someone’s kitchen or doing other things that maybe one might do to keep things going. And not to judge one way or the other, but you always have to find some things that are not time consuming in the same way that drawing and designing a new building that hasn’t been done before is time consuming, in a way that is very different than doing planning research. And I think that the idea of a practice where these tasks are complementary, I think it really has helped the financial stability of the firm. But it also has helped the organizational stability of the firm. And I think, practice as an organization, I have always felt that architecture firms practicing this scale, we do and many other architects do, are a little bit like having an arts organization. And they go through periods, and they get geared up for performances and that, but I think we are kinds of artists organizations, which means we need to, the people working together need to be healthy, and we need to stay healthy. And that means you go through different periods of assessing, how is the organization making good on its mission and goals. And it’s not easy. It’s a struggle to be a small arts organization. But I think architecture firms, in a sense, are holding that same potential.

Miljački  53:05
That’s great. I’m going to combine the last two questions together. And then we can pull out, but they are, basically, did you ever regret taking a commission? And is there a condition in which you do your best work? Or is there an ideal? How would you describe the ideal commission?

Weisz  53:31
I’m going to start with the ideal commission. The ideal commission is a passionate client that has real needs, has a network, and has site control, I call it now site control broadly conceived. It could be a district, it could be a building, it could be a landscape. Those ingredients are super important. And therefore, the definition—is that a hospital, is that an affordable housing building, is that a factory, is that a paper warehouse—all of those are wonderful commissions, if those other factors are there, but finding a passionate client that feels responsible to themselves, the community, the planet, and has a control and has the interest in a design process is very challenging. So those are few and far between. And so that’s the dream commission. Most projects we’ve done have had very, very difficult moments. All of them, like, if you asked me at a certain moment, you know, when we were trying to get SeaGlass built, and they were the best, there was no way to get a contractor and to not split the contracts into Wix law, which we have in New York, which is every contractor acting independently and no one coordinating, and this is a building that had a mechanism that had never been done before, you know? Extremely low moment. And at that moment, it was like, why did we? Why did we come up with this idea? And why did we agree to do this? And now, you know, the other day Jasmeet Singh, an architect in in San Francisco, who has a 10-year-old son, dropped by the office. I hadn’t seen him in two decades, and said, his 10-year-old son would not get off the SeaGlass and he wants to be a marine biologist. And he found it not only calming, but it gave him ideas. So it’s those moments that are worth it. In most cases, projects that are not meant to be are less because we decided to take them or not take them but what you regret is putting in the effort for something that the circumstances or even the client team, the implementers don’t necessarily, weren’t necessarily doing it for the right reason. So, I always look out for requests to do something where the firm asking you could be another firm, the client asking you is not motivated by the same goal. So that’s really critical. And we do say no, if it’s very clear that there isn’t a shared idea of why we’re doing it.

Miljački  57:01
Well, this is a perfect place to end I think so. Claire, thank you very much for talking to me today. And listeners, thank you for listening to this episode of I Would Prefer Not To.


*Together, Weisz and Yoes were one of six winners of The Architectural League Prize, then known as the Young Architects Forum, in 1993 (not 1998 as stated above).