Kennedy & Violich Architecture
Sheila Kennedy and Frano Violich of Boston-based KVA MATx chat with Ana Miljački about being proactive, finding the right set of ingredients to create commissions, viewing plants as constituents, and balancing a rejection of architecture-as-service with a commitment to professional skills and rigor.
Recorded on June 24, 2022. Read a transcript of the episode below.
About KVA MATx
Sheila Kennedy and Juan Frano Violich cofounded KVA MATx in 2000 in Boston. Kennedy is a professor of architecture at MIT and an MIT Bose innovation fellow. Violich has taught at RISD, Harvard University, and in architecture programs abroad.
Their interdisciplinary firm designs architecture, urbanism, and resilient, soft infrastructure for emerging public needs. In collaboration with industry leaders, educational institutions, collectives, and public agencies, KVA’s research unit, MATx, explores the material culture of the built environment, with a commitment to renewable materials and ways of building.
KVA’s Global Flora conservatory and the Soft House have both been awarded the European MasterPrize in architecture, and one of their most recent projects at the time of this conversation, Hayden Library at MIT, won two AIA awards, as well as a national design excellence award from the American Library Association.
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 processed and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.
Ana Miljački: [00:00] Hello, and thank you for tuning in. I am 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 a commission, or types of commissions, or commissions with certain characteristics, inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily.
My guests in this episode are Sheila Kennedy and Frano Violich. Thank you for joining me.
Sheila Kennedy: [01:30] Thank you.
Frano Violich: Thank you.
Miljački: [01:32] Sheila Kennedy and Juan Frano Violich cofounded their firm KVA MATx in 2000 in Boston. Sheila is a professor of architecture at MIT and MIT Bose innovation fellow. Frano has taught at RISD, Harvard University, and in architecture programs abroad.
Their interdisciplinary firm, KVA MATx, designs architecture, urbanism, and resilient, soft infrastructure for emerging public needs. In collaboration with industry leaders, educational institutions, collectives, and public agencies, KVA’s research unit, MATx, explores material culture of the built environment, with a commitment to renewable materials and ways of building.
The design work of KVA has been exhibited widely, including at MoMA, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, the Vitra Design Museum, and at the Venice Biennale.
KVA has also received numerous awards for their work. The most recent ones include LafargeHolcim Foundation for design excellence in North America for a mixed-use housing project, the Chrysanthemum Building, as well as for the Global Flora botany conservancy. KVA’s Global Flora conservatory and the Soft House have both been awarded the European MasterPrize in architecture, and one of their most recent projects at the time of this conversation, Hayden Library at MIT, won two AIA awards, as well as a national design excellence award from the American Library Association.
We may get to talk about some of this work specifically, and certainly about what has been driving it for over two decades, but we will at least begin to do that by talking about what is not in KVA’s portfolio or on the boards at the moment, by discussing at what point is a commission not worth it? What kind of line gets drawn with a decision to forfeit the possibility of work, and how such decisions are made in the studio?
So, Sheila and Frano, we’ve been starting these conversations with the most important, most memorable decision to not engage or to drop a commission. And if that has not yet happened, can you imagine it happening?
Kennedy: [03:41] I think it has happened, actually, on a couple of times, and it is kind of memorable, because generally we do try to get commissions. And so when you realize that you can’t or you don’t want to, it sticks in the mind.
So I’ll tell you one, I’ll start by telling you one story, where Frano and I disagreed about the commission. We received this invitation, this offer, commission, from a university in Bahrain. And it was it was a bit unusual, I’m not going to lie, but I was very excited by it. And it was for a library building, actually, and also another building. So they were like, “We’d like you to do a library on our campus, and there may be another building, so would you mind looking at the campus map and just seeing if you’d be interested in doing something else?”
And right from the very beginning, you were like, “I don’t want to do this project,” right?
Violich: [04:45] I mean, this is an email that came completely out of the blue, and they had, it looked very, like, legitimate, it had a site plan at the university, somewhat speculative in appearance, and you could, as Sheila said, you could take your pick: “You want to do a library, you want to do this, you want to do that?” And I was like, “Nuh-uh, this is . . .” You develop a kind of sixth sense after time about what feels real and what doesn’t. And this didn’t seem real.
Kennedy: [05:15] I guess I didn’t have that sense at the time. I didn’t have that sense at all. I was like, yes, please! Let’s do two buildings in Bahrain! We can use stone, right, we can excavate with that particular rock and everything.
But it turned out, in this case, Frano’s refusal there made the most sense, because we did discover, like, two weeks later into this process, that the whole thing was from a remote site, in, I don’t know where it was, in Europe somewhere, that had nothing to do with Bahrain, and the thing was a giant scam. And several of our of our friends, including actually Antón Abril, had been drawn into this whole thing as well. So that was one memorable instance where probably if we had trusted Frano’s “I’d prefer not to” more, we’d have saved ourselves some embarrassment [laughs].
Miljački: [06:11] So my next question was going to be, do you agree on this or have different memories? But you’ve already included both of you in this first answer. But I still think it’s a useful one to ask. Have you found yourselves having to pull out of something?
Kennedy: [06:29] Well, there . . . What do you think? That project, that weird project in Mexico?
Violich: [06:35] Yeah, sometimes we get these calls, and a call will go to me or a call will go to Sheila, and then we sit down and discuss it. And this was one which was terribly entangled in so many different issues that were really attractive at many levels. This was west of Mexico City, in the state of Morelos, near this biosphere that I visited, and it was actually a family member who pitched it. But then, it’s one of these projects that the more questions you ask, the fewer answers you get, and you start to get suspicious about it. In this case, you know, it was something that was really interesting in terms of where our values are in terms of architects, where we want to put our energy into, things like—
Kennedy: Yeah, it was a sustainable development.
Violich: Yeah, But then there was this overlay of like, well, how’s this going to happen? Well, there’s five investors. You know, “One’s a politician who’s got connections, and there’s some bankers, and we have foreign investors coming in, and we’re on this Indigenous land by this biosphere, and there’s a sacred well that we’ve used . . . “
Kennedy: And we’re like, “Wait a minute!”
Violich: “. . . that we’ve used as the logo for this development.”
And at that point, I mean, Sheila and I didn’t disagree on that one. It really got to the point where it just was not something that you want to have, you know, with you as you move forward.
So it is complicated, these things, because there’s good in much of it, but there are some other issues involved that just make it really questionable, and kind of shows the problem with our discipline in some ways.
Miljački: [08:40] Yeah, say more.
Kennedy: [08:43] Or the problem, I don’t know whether other architects, perhaps other architects use developers or development more as an element in their in their portfolio, but I’d say we’ve probably had the most refusal of development projects, perhaps because we don’t really know how to kick the tires on it so much. We don’t have that level of experience. But also, the process of development is such a strange one, where often you, as Frano just said, you know, like in this project in Mexico, you have potentially some investors, you have a concept, you have a brand or something, and you’re asked to produce that without really understanding who it’s for. And in this case, it was on land that really didn’t belong to the developers.
Miljački: [09:39] How do you think this decision, or this type of decision, might have impacted the trajectory of your practice already? Maybe the decision to, or a position towards a certain type of work, I guess, is what you’re describing.
Violich: [09:57] I have a thought about that, and that is from the very beginning, we’ve been proactive about our work. We don’t generally get a call from someone who knows someone who knows somebody, and then they just pitch us a project, and then we react to it. We’ve been doing that from the very beginning, Interim Bridges projects, you know, we go out there, and we just say, “We’re going to do this project, do you want to come with us?” So in some ways . . .
Kennedy: [10:28] It’s more like, “I would prefer to do this, would you?”
Violich: [10:35] Right, so they’re projects about resilience, about materials, about local ecologies and local economies, about infrastructure, and about the technology. These are things that, in a way, have pre-vetted the kind of . . .
Kennedy: More reactive . . .
Violich: . . . opportunities that we’ve had, because they’re in our work, and people can see it. So we don’t necessarily have somebody who’s coming in and just asking us to do some sort of speculative project that doesn’t have something to do with what we’ve done in the past. And that actually helps quite a lot, to be proactive about the work rather than have to find yourself having to say “I prefer not to” less.
Miljački: [11:21] Maybe I have a related question, or at least I think it’s related, about KVA MATx, I’m hoping I’m saying that correctly, and what kind of space it created with respect to KVA’s commissions. So, I’m wondering about the dynamic between these entities and how they sort of intersect specifically with this question of commissioned and other kinds of work? And also, are there refusals on this end of things worth mentioning?
Kennedy: [11:54] Let’s see. Yes and no. I’ll take a very recent example. During the pandemic, you know, we were concerned about KVA and MATx, and we have people who’ve worked with us for many years, they have children, some of them. And so we felt an enormous responsibility to keep everything going, and it wasn’t clear, you know, exactly how to do that. So I kind of went a little crazy, and I started making calls and proposing things.
And one of the, I think, I’ll tell you a good and a bad, but one of the good projects that came out of that was we started to work for a company that needed people to design take-at-home COVID tests that were decomposable, that you could actually just flush down the toilet. And the reason for this was they had done some quick marketing or whatever, and they realized that privacy is really an issue. And they were looking at, for example, pregnancy tests, where people don’t want to leave their results in the trash can for the husband or whoever to find. And so they felt it was the same with COVID.
So we put this idea together, I approached, actually, two companies, one was associated with the Broad. And one of the two companies said, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll work with you.”
So there, we didn’t have, we had zero medical test kit experience. We did know something about compostable materials and biodegradable materials, but maybe that was a bit of a stretch. But the reasoning was there, the need was there, and maybe the fit with certain kinds of materials were there.
So I think it’s about getting those ingredients in one paragraph, kind of, so to speak, and getting it out there. And that mode of operating has been different than many architecture firms, more propositional, and just saying like, “Yeah, we would prefer to do this, because we think there’s a need for this, and you seem to be making these tests, and we’ve considered this.” So that was one good example.
I think a more nuanced and difficult example is, we got involved working with a German panel company that made building envelope panels. And they wanted us to create some interactive elements for their website that would allow their customers to look at their products and build walls interactively. So we started doing this project, and it became quickly apparent that they were brushing aside our observations about their website in the sustainability section. Like, first of all, it was very slim, and it was very un-transparent and weird. Like, they just had like a bucket of yellow paint on the landing page of the sustainability thing—like, “What is this? This makes no sense.”
So we brought it up with them. We had many Zoom meetings; this whole project was happening on Zoom. And they were like, “No, we can’t deal with sustainability, we’re so sorry. We’d like to, but we can’t.”
But we kept . . . so we didn’t then say, “I’m sorry, then we can’t work with you.” We did keep chipping away at the topic.
And then there was a kind of a, I don’t want to say it was a turning point, but there was a point in the project where suddenly the leaders were like, “You know, we do care about sustainability, and we have all these pieces of information, all this documentation we’ve done. We’ve certified that these products are like, super low water in their production, these other ones are circular, we recapture all the waste, etc.” And they became kind of proud of that.
And so we said, “Be transparent, tell the world that your sustainability story is incomplete”—because they had a logo, the most complete system of, like, walls in the world or something. And so we said, “You may have that, but just say in terms of sustainability, you are incomplete, but you’re working on it, and post those documents and tell people about what you have achieved, and give them some milestones and commit to those milestones going forward.” That’s what, that would be fine, we said.
So I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. But that’s an example of where things are not so cut and dry. And the fact of the matter is, almost every single building that we do, let’s say for universities, could be much, much more sustainable, right? So our discipline’s sustainability story is super incomplete.
Miljački: [16:53] Maybe let me zoom out and sort of pose the same question again. Can you define for us the status and nature of research in your work? And its value when it comes to shaping the practice over time?
Violich: [17:08] Yeah, I mean, I think that the reason that we do research, and the reason that we do research that sort of has generated the KVA MATx side of the work, is because it opens up architecture into the kind of ligatures that connect to so much more than sometimes just architecture can. And it’s, it’s done in very simple ways. So a project, an older project, like Portable Light, would make connections to questions about—that one small project could make connections to education, to children’s health, to literacy, not to mention just to have light and to be able to generate that light freely through just, you know, sunlight.
Kennedy: [18:07] But that was not a commission, the Portable Light project was . . .
Miljački: [18:11] That is what I’m interested in: The way in which this arm that is often self-started or self-initiated, or initiated somehow otherwise than a commission, affects or makes room within the practice generally that is surrounded by commissions.
Violich: [18:31] Yeah, can we talk about that word, though? Commission? Because I think there seems to be a tendency for “commission” to be a one-way thing: you are offered something, and then you react to it. But commission actually means . . . like, “co” is, like, together, and “mission” is, like, going someplace: so, like, going someplace together. And I think something like the Portable Light project was an agreement, a commission amongst several parties to move forward with this speculative venture, where nobody really knew where it was going to go. I mean, we had the technology, we had the materials, and we had the funding that, you know, we ourselves raised through grants. So I think that’s, in a way, a kind of very interesting question, because then it puts architecture and the practitioners of it in a position of more agency, I think, to create a commission.
Kennedy: [19:42] Yeah, really, I think you really can create commissions. And yeah, yes, I think that’s the trick, finding this set of ingredients where you can offer something and you have an idea and, like you’re saying, people are willing to collaborate with that idea. And then money, you have a way of getting money. We don’t self-fund our projects, but through our training, wordsmithing, etc., we’ve been successful getting grants when there isn’t money, when the client doesn’t have money and so forth. But those are not sometimes princely, either. They’re not the most, on, probably on the scale of architectural commissions, these projects are funded with far less.
Violich: [20:32] Yeah, and that’s probably one of the values of the MATx work that hopefully could help in architecture, because architecture has been the same way forever, right? I mean, the Pope asked the architect to, like, make a new avenue through Rome, and that person just reacts. Whereas I think, through the MATx work, it’s less “I prefer not to”—it’s more of, a question is, “Do we prefer not to?”
Miljački: [21:03] Let’s maybe zoom out a little bit. You have, in a way, described this through the different stories you already offered us, but what would you say are the conditions in which you’re able to do your best work?
Kennedy: [21:17] Mmm, that’s a really good question. Um, and I want to, I promise I will answer it, but one of the things that I think categorically where I just freeze up and say, “No, no, thank you,” is when clients begin a project by saying, “I just want you to dot dot dot,” or, “Can you just design this facade?” “Can you just lay out the rooms?” “Can you just . . . ?” They have it in their minds that their project is almost done, and really what it needs is a little bit of a finishing touch from an architect to, like, I don’t know, to finish it, or to make it whole in some way.
And I think that, categorically, is not something that we do. And we’re probably missing out on some great facade projects or whatever. But no, I would not do that.
Miljački: [22:12] So you prefer the conversation to start which way?
Violich: [22:18] Well, I think, it’s, the conditions that we prefer are ones where you have a space to imagine, to create something that is unexpected, that is a provocation, that takes some level of risk. And, you know, there are certain areas within our architectural discipline where risk is a red light. And so we don’t find ourselves doing those types of projects. So those conditions are, if you will, a little safe, maybe?
Kennedy: [23:01] I think that the first example is, doesn’t preclude clients who have a very clear, strong vision of what they want. It’s when they have a vision of what they want and they already are anticipating what the design solution is, I think, that’s the real problem.
Violich: [23:21] Well, can I, give the Mr. Hoffman?
Kennedy: Yes, absolutely.
Violich: I mean, this is a perfect example of where, the vision is already set, the idea is already there. And, you know, I must say, I think, personally regret doing the project.
But so this was Mr. Hoffman . . .
Miljački: [23:41] Please do tell us about Mr. Hoffman!
Violich: [23:44] Mr. Hoffman was our landlord several years ago, at a time where we were being booted out of our old space, and we desperately needed a space where, at that time, where we needed a shop. It was a bit more than just a space. So I went to this building that I knew had an entire eleventh floor, top floor, and I walked into Mr. Hoffman’s office, and I said, you know, “What are you doing with this floor? It’s beautiful. It’s got skylights—yeah, they leak a little bit, but we can take care of that.” And he said, “Yeah, you can, you can have the space, but I need the whole floor.” And it was like 7,000 square feet or 10,000 square feet. And I said, “I think I can help you. I’ve got an entire building of artists that are with us that are looking for space.” Because our old building was being developed. And he said, “Great, I’ll give you the space if you can do the drawings.”
And so anyway, long story short, we helped him develop the project.
Kennedy: [24:48] Which was an artists’, eleventh floor artists’ collaborative, and KVA was one of the artists in it.
Violich: [24:53] So this was a perfect example of a co-mission, something we both entered into together, we sent ourselves into this world that helped people and space.
Then like three, four, or five years later he said, “You know, Frano, I’ve always had this dream of living in the Robie House.” And I said, “Yeah . . . ” and he goes, “Yeah, so I’ve got an offer for you that I hope you don’t refuse. I called the Taliesin Foundation, and they said they don’t do Frank Lloyd Wright houses. That’s just something they don’t do. So I don’t know, would you consider building me the Robie House? I mean, designing the Robie House?” And I’m going, I felt so conflicted, because here’s somebody who helped us create this space for not just us, but a lot of artists, and this community.
Kennedy: And for a very, very reasonable rent.
Violich: Oh yeah, yeah, beautiful space, two, 20-foot ceilings.
And so I agreed. And I’m not going to go into it any further. Just suffice to say that he was very happy. And yeah, he and his wife retired into it, and they’re very happy.
Kennedy: [24:48] I think this falls into the regrets column!
Miljački: [26:16] Yes, absolutely. This fits in the regret taking a commission.
Miljački: [26:35] So I have a one that’s a little bit different that really talks about, well, when you can and cannot make decisions like this. So has your thinking about what you would prefer not to and prefer to changed over time? And how has that tracked with the size and stability of the practice? And then also, how would you advise young architects to think about their trajectory strategically?
Kennedy: [27:05] Has it changed? You know, I guess we don’t, we’re not really, KVA, and when I say KVA, I include KVA MATx, for a while, there was a moment when we thought about creating two separate companies, and we really discussed it hard. We thought a lot about that and weighed the pros and cons. And it might have been cleaner in some ways, in that if you were looking for a university building or something, you might be less confused if you came to our website or something. Or if, let’s say, you are a company like SELCO—there was a company that approached us to design a portable streetlight, a mobile event streetlight, that a small entrepreneur could like, say, take to a wedding or something, and you know, that would be a mode of business. And then they see all these university buildings or whatever, it’s kind of confusing. But confusing or not, we just decided to stay as one entity with an embedded research unit in it.
And so I think that we have not followed a model of, like, pure growth, where the goal is to get larger and larger. And KVA has really remained, from the days of Mr. Hoffman onward, a firm of whatever, 14, 16, people or so. So we haven’t gotten bigger and bigger, and that has forced, like, a change in in our attitudes.
I will say that I think ideas are important. And I think that clients that understand what an idea is, have ideas themselves—and I would say, like, for example, at MIT, with Hayden, that was a perfect example where the director of libraries at MIT, Chris Bourg, she had very strong ideas about research and how it should work across different disciplines and between analog and digital modalities, but she did not have, and she didn’t want to have, strong ideas about what the physical design of that could look like. So that made a perfect combination of somebody who really valued ideas, had plenty of ideas and vision, but gave us the space, or gave KVA, our team, the space, to test out different versions of how that vision could be, and so forth.
So I think that the ability to trade or engage in ideas is fundamental. And we won’t work with someone who doesn’t value that.
Miljački: [29:53] But were you able to make that kind of call at the beginning of the practice?
Kennedy: [29:59] To be honest, we were, Ana, because Frano mentioned earlier, the Interim Bridges Project, probably the first project that we had that was a public project or a large project of any sort, was a proposal to put a pedestrian bridge so that pedestrians wouldn’t be rerouted during the Big Dig. This is way back in the 1990s. And we didn’t just want to make a bridge; we wanted to display all this really weird, everyday kind of junk that the archaeologists were digging from, you know, 200 years ago, like shoe eyelets and pieces of corncob pipe. And you just kind of imagine that in these midden heaps what people were like. And so we took photographs of these, this kind of archaeological detritus. We blew them up into posters. We made, lined the bridges with these posters, and then we actually got the carpenters’ union to build . . . Oh, no, we built it with a grant from the National . . .
Violich: From the Mass Cultural Council.
Kennedy: Yeah, Mass Cultural Council. Yeah, and there was also National Grant for the Arts, I think, NFA grant… Anyway, so we built that, and that was really our first project. That was a proactive practice, it was lucky enough to win a PA Award, and that kind of got the ball rolling.
Violich: [31:30] Yeah, and Ana, the question about what we’ve learned from the two sides, these two dimensions of the practice, and also what that could teach or help advise younger practitioners who are starting out, I think were questions, was a big question we would ask ourselves, as an architect: Are we here to provide a service or are we here to provide kind of cultural contribution to the discipline of architecture, however you define it? And we always leaned, of course, to the second, because there is so much noise around architects who are coming out of MIT and GSD, Berkeley, wherever. And learning these case studies about business and development: I mean, it’s the world we live in, in this capitalized US, right.
So we tried to disrupt that, and that’s why we immersed ourselves in the very beginning with artists. I mean, artists are just a fraction of a percent of the influence of our economy. But they’re obviously super important, and we just did all these installation projects that you’ve been hearing about, all the MATx stuff, the Drawing On Site project, that was insane. But we, we just sort of refused to just become a service practitioner.
And so by doing that, you create a thick skin, for sure, but you just create a way of thinking that is much more rooted in systems of, let’s say, the land or history, infrastructure, architecture, gender. You know, like the bathrooms project. That’s really helped, that’s helped the work, I think, in the end, have a little sense of provocation, a sense of raising a question. Even when you look at a building like the library at Hayden, there’s, we like to deposit little questions around—like, why is a curtain a wall?
Kennedy: [33:26] I’m going to jump in and say that I agree with what Frano is saying, but at the same time, over the years, we did learn how to provide a good service. And I would say that that’s key. I am not afraid of saying that you need to be professional, you need to have a set of professional skills to navigate any kind of architecture project, but especially if you’re going to be taking on risks or doing something that’s not been done before, which doesn’t mean de novo. I mean, if you’re just using, yeah, using a curtain that hasn’t been used in this country before and you want to adapt it to a Class A fire rating or something, some other nerdy professional thing, you need to be able to do that, you need to have those tools in your toolbox.
And that’s why I’m really adamant—you know, I’ll probably get into trouble for saying this—but I insist on the notion that we need to be intuitive. We need to be intuitive, able thinkers, who in architecture—and when I say we, I mean young people in our schools, wherever we teach—that today, the tendency, I think, is to be analytical, and to drill down into a problem and to just research the hell out of it. And that’s, that’s good. But eventually we need to be propositional. We need to say, “We’ve researched the hell out of a problem. Now what do we do? What can we do about it? What could be done about this?”—using the conditional. And that’s the move when you need to allow your intuitions to come in, because you’re never going to be able to research the answer. You need to be able to explore, and you need to be able to freely do that.
So I think, I guess what I’m talking about is the architectural imagination, or the ability to take that jump into the unknown and to try things in some kind of safe space that you make for yourself, is important. Is really important. And if that can happen, and if you can find a way to connect your own subjective interests, whatever those may be, with actual needs of other people out in the world, then I think you have those ingredients that we were talking about earlier, to put projects on the table and create projects around those conditions you’ve identified, those needs, or those ideas, subjective ideas that you have.
Violich: [36:02] I think it’s really important to ask those questions like, what are you contributing to here as an architect?
Miljački: [36:12] So, we might get back to something related, but I have a slightly different question. I’ve seen several lectures of yours in which you begin by acknowledging your whole KVA team. And I’m wondering if you have procedures in place in the office by which you both expose the office to the realities of running it and invite your team to think collectively about the commissions, however you define that now, that you will take or engage and will not.
Kennedy: [36:44] That’s true, we do do that. And we’ve made a practice of thanking everybody and listing everybody by name, who is on, who’s contributed to a project, who’s done some form of creative work, or who’s cared about a project. And we think that that’s really important, because you and I, we work together every day. It’s a collaboration. And so I think that that gives us like a different set of, a different attitude and a different set towards working together, and also towards what it means to collaborate.
And I mean, speaking for myself, I’d prefer not to actually make every decision. And what I would prefer to do is to, like, be able to use my experience and curate my knowledge of work across the years at KVA and let the best ideas come from wherever they may come from. And so I think that that’s another form of collectivity. And you know like when we’re, like, yesterday, when we were talking about that facade on the garage, it’s a hot debate, right? We tend to not hold back when we’re talking about projects. And that’s done with everybody, and we also have an open office; everybody hears that. So whether it’s a debate about consistencies or aesthetics or a material, you know, material effects, whatever it may be, all that is kind of hashed out in the open air.
Violich: [38:26] In the end, we’ve had hundreds of people come through KVA over the years. And the reason that we put all their names on that last slide in a lecture, or in the end of published piece or something, is not just to list who worked on the project, but it’s really to recognize the level of risk that everybody takes in the projects that they do. But if you’re going to be a practice that goes beyond providing a service of architecture and begins to base its practice on ideas, ideas that take projects to, you know, innovating through materials or technologies or even ideas about space, these are projects that are different, and everybody gets involved, and it actually, that level of risk sort of brings the level of collaboration to a pretty high degree, because everybody feels as though they’re working together at something which is a little, you know, a little unique. But in the end, in the end, someone’s got to stamp the drawings. And that really comes to . . .
Kennedy: That’s what you mean by risk?
Violich: Yeah, and that really does come down to you, or me, to stamp the drawings. So . . .
Kennedy: [39:55] That’s our responsibility. So you’re saying that risk is throughout a project, and everybody’s on board, taking on quite a lot of responsibility, because they can do that at a studio like KVA, but ultimately, you will take, let’s say it’s you stamping, you will take the biggest risk, you know, legally. That sums up and takes that whole collective effort of the project and kind of assigns that risk to KVA and, you know, to the architect.
Miljački: [40:30] All right, here’s one from the left field. Plants, illumination, as clients and as constituents: question mark.
Kennedy: [40:43] Yes. Plants, we’ve had them as clients, and we still do have them. And this is a completely ethical question, I think, that you’re that you’re asking, which is, how do we, how do we engage with, how do we even understand plants philosophically, and how do we engage with them? And how do we make sure that they’re okay with being co-participants or co-missioned into our work? All of which are really big questions.
You know, there’s been a lot of thinking about communication, language, movement: all of these things that have been assigned to the human being at the top of a kind of ecological pyramid that we’re seeing now aren’t exclusive to humans. That there are forms and forces at work in plants and in the plant world, and I’ll include seaweed and moss and other things that aren’t technically plants in that.
In the case of our greenhouse, maybe just as a crude way of communicating with plants, but we worked with researchers who used simple sensors to look at oxygen, to look at CO2, to look at soil moisture, and so forth. And we know by example that certain plants can be happy when you get certain readings, and so we tried to keep those readings. And so we assumed those plants are happy. And then a plant’s job is to grow, and as long as the plants are growing, and they seem to be thriving, we’re going to assume that they’re in some condition where it’s new to them, where they’re happy.
Where it gets more complicated, and I think what Ana is alluding to, is work that KVA and MATx has been doing, and that I’ve been doing, with Michael Strano, who’s a nanochemist at MIT. And there, we have, Michael’s group has, developed a technique to bring very, very small particles of carbon nanotubes into a plant’s own biological structure. And when that happens, it meshes with the plant’s biology, and you have a plant that can do different things than it could before. Michael and I and our whole team have to take care of those plants very carefully. Because this is not GMO, it’s not genetically modified, if the plant dies, then the technology meshing will die in it too. So we actually really do have to care for those plants very carefully. That being said, I think in the lab setting, in his setting, I’m sure there have been plants that have been left, you know, in a dark corner or something, and that probably had perished. So it’s awful to say that.
But we continue to feel like it’s important to work with plants, and that it’s important to really radically change our understanding of what technology is and can be, right: shifting it from some kind of human-centric thing that doesn’t involve nature at all to learning about how, about the autonomy of plants as a kind of biological technology in and of themselves that offers us a lot to learn.
So on those projects, we have not refused them, let’s put it that way. We have not refused them, but we’re proceeding very cautiously with them.
Miljački: [44:45] Great. Thank you for talking to me today, Sheila and Frano. And listeners, thank you for listening to this episode of I Would Prefer Not To series.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.