Nina Cooke John

Ana Miljački and Nina Cooke John discuss feedback loops in the design process, slowness, how institutions engage with communities, and seeing oneself in a monument.

Recorded August 18, 2023. Read a transcript of the episode below.

Nina Cooke John

Nina Cooke John founded her multidisciplinary practice Studio Cooke John in 2018. The studio grew out of an earlier partnership begun in 2012, Frame Design Lab, and a career that began with design of private homes in Connecticut, Arizona, and Virginia with the architecture firm Voorsanger and Associates. Following her time at Voorsanger and Associates, Cooke John worked at Polshek Partnership (now Ennead) on large cultural institutional projects like the New York Botanical Gardens and the Clinton Library. Born and raised in Jamaica, Cooke John’s experience as an immigrant has profoundly shaped her architectural works and practice. In the last two decades she has taught at Syracuse University, Parsons School of Design, and Columbia GSAPP. Her recent work includes a Harriet Tubman monument in Newark unveiled in March 2023 and an installation for the Flatiron Public Plaza in New York City, Point of Action (2021). Both works have been widely published with emphasis on the space they create in their respective cities, their formal contributions, and the collaboration with the communities involved.

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.

Aug 18, 2023

Ana Miljački 00:24

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. This episode is supported in part by the Graham Foundation. 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 in 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 guest in this episode is Nina Cooke John. Hello, Nina.

Nina Cooke John 01:39


Miljački  01:42

Nina Cooke John founded her multidisciplinary design practice Studio Cooke John in 2018. It grew out of an earlier partnership begun in 2012, Frame Design Lab and a career that began with design of private homes in Connecticut, Arizona, in Virginia, with the architecture firm Voorsanger and Associates, followed by work on large cultural institutional projects like the New York Botanical Gardens and the Clinton Library at Polshek Partnership, now Ennead. She was born and raised in Jamaica, which I mentioned because she does to explain that her experience as an immigrant has profoundly shaped her architectural works and practice. She has been teaching for the last two decades at Syracuse, Parsons and GSAPP Columbia. Her recent work on a Harriet Tubman monument in Newark, which was unveiled in March 2023, as well as her installation for the Flatiron Plaza in New York City, Point of Action in 2021, have been widely published with emphasis on the space they create in their respective cities, their formal contributions, as well as on the collaboration with the communities involved. Cooke John’s work has been featured in The New York Times, Dwell, NBC’s open house, the Center for Architecture’s 2018 exhibition Close to the Edge: The birth of hip hop architecture, and PBS Newshour Weekend. In 2022, Cooke John was the recipient of the United States Artists fellowship. Nina, as always, I hope that we will be able to discuss some aspects of your body of work by talking first about the work that is not on the boards, in the office or in your portfolio. So, let’s start as we have done in this series with 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? And then we can zoom out a bit to the things that are in your portfolio and that you have been preferring to do?

Cooke John 03:53

Thanks, Ana, for the introduction. And I’m really looking forward to having this discussion. You know, before coming on to the podcast, I was thinking through what are the projects that I’ve refused? Or what projects would I refuse in the future? And having really started my practice in the residential space, there are many instances of smaller projects or for different reasons that I have, you know, decided that that’s not the right project at the time, whether it is scale, scope, the kind of project that I think this client wants in terms of this residential renovation. But more recently, as the practice has grown into more public art and more cultural projects, and really thinking about how I want to grow, it’s like, well, what would I not want to do in the future? As I’m kind of really anxious and hungry to show what I can do, right? And expand the typology. So, a lot of the recent public artwork has addressed either erasure of an African American community and how we can mark the spaces with the history that existed there before or mark the contributions of different African American groups that have been erased from the history of the space. And so really recently, coming close on the heels after just winning the commission for a similar such public art project, I got the RFQ for another project, which would address very directly an African American community, and the erasure of a particular family’s contribution. And the reason that I said “no” to pursuing that, or really decided to pass, was a worry that I had at the time of potentially being, you know, I didn’t want to be pegged into a particular hole as, Okay, Studio Cooke John, this is a kind of projects they do, this is the kind of work they do. I definitely want to continue doing more of that work. But at the time, I didn’t think, it seemed to be too close, it seemed to be too close in succession to the other projects that I had been doing that were already really similar. And so, I want to be able to expand how I engage in both the public artwork and work that’s in the public engagement environment in different ways as well.

Miljački  06:53

Maybe we’ll still look back to some aspects of that question or what you said. But I can also go to the questions about a kind of design process that you describe, and maybe that takes us to different places immediately. But I read you describing your design process as a set of feedback loops, or collaborations with clients, community members, fabricators, that, among many other things, managed to produce occasionally, or maybe always, serendipity and surprise, and I thought we could talk more about that, but also about the kind of larger trajectory in the field, the feedback loops that you have experienced in the last 20 years, basically working in architecture, and on that larger level.

Cooke John 07:46

I think when we think about this feedback loops, really, for me, and working, coming to a project for the first time, I really try to arrive with a completely blank slate as much as that is possible for engaging both with the client, with the physical site itself, as well as the typology, right? It’s really difficult for us to do as adults, as architects, as, you know, just people who occupied particular spaces to come with a fully blank slate, but in a way, where I’m really hoping to, in the first instances, at least absorb as much as possible. What is it that you really want to see for this space? How are you envisioning it as an individual, as a collective, as an institution, but also trying to observe things that you don’t see outright? So that might demand some kind of research for us, both on your practice, if you’re in an institution, how you engage with the community, but also some just observational research, right? Can we sit back and just look and understand what unfolds in this place, if it’s a public place, and how people kind of use it, and how they engage with it already, how they engage with similar spaces that we would like this new space to be like. So really taking a lot of the input from what is already there, historically, or in the present moment, or what you see. And then going back to our studio, and then start to apply some of our values, our designed values, whether they’re formal values or values that we are aiming for in terms of engagement, in terms of how families or groups or communities might use the space, might move through the space. And then there’s constant give and take, right? this idea of this feedback loop. Then we present it, we get feedback, either more locally in the office, or, if I’m working by myself—which for a very long time I was working by myself—you know, I reached out to my colleagues, people whose design input I really value. It’s really helpful for me to present my ideas, talk through them, walk through them, and then hear what you have to say, either you as my colleague in the office, or the client, or some kind of community input, and then go back and work through it again. So that loop, in terms of this back-and-forth between working on given site conditions, site history, the kind of cultural history of the place, cultural history of the institution, and then our own kind of long-standing values of how we want people to engage and the materials you might use to actually bring that to life. And then ultimately, hopefully, that combination of the formal resolution, both in terms of large formal moves as well as the material, how the materials end up, that’s where you’ll find the kind of serendipity and joy and you know, wanting to engage, wanting to touch, wanting to be a part of this space, or this sculptural piece.

Miljački  11:20

Your response has taken us faster to a place about slow looking than I wanted us to arrive there, but I want to maybe repeat it because I heard it in your response. And I was going to say that, in an essay that’s on Madame Architect, in your writing, you write about slow looking, which seems, which there you say is borrowed from or you borrow from Tate Modern’s guide to slow looking, but to me, it seemed like a position and I thought we could actually use it to enter some of these commissions, whether they are private residences, renovations or important public transformations with multimedia storytelling dimensions to Planned Parenthood, which I also want to talk about. How this sort of modality or position manifests itself then in the process that is a feedback loop, but what does it mean specifically, in any of these that you would like to describe?

Cooke John 12:24

Yes, slow looking really is exactly that, in that, one: you invest the time in the design process to just take things in, in the beginning. But also understanding that the looking is continuous across the schematic design and even design development process for any of these projects, you’re constantly getting input. So, if the looking is gathering input, you’re constantly getting that input that is really important to the ultimate development of whatever project it is over time, right. And part of it is slowing down your response as well in terms of the possibilities. But also understanding that there’s this back and forth between the input and the response, input on the response, and constant fine tuning of the response, as you start to see more and more in terms of this input. And I think it manifests itself differently across the different project types, right, with the residential projects, it’s a very intimate relationship that you engage with clients, most of the time our meetings are in their homes already, right, in the spaces that they occupy, even if they’re hoping it will be completely transformed. But whether it’s one person or it’s a family, you get to know them really well through the design process, right, and really get to understand how every family manifests itself differently. And when one family talks about entertaining, it’s very different. It’s very different across cultures, you know, when you say you have your family over, your extended family, for some people, that means five people, for some families, that means 40 people, and how do you, how do you accommodate that? You really need to listen and take that in, really understanding that, for some cultural institutions, how they want to, you know, where the lines are between their private spaces, where they have offices, and really internal communing versus when they are engaging with the larger public, varies depending on the institution, but depending on, what their front facing engagement looks like. So every, just as every family is different, every institution is different, even if they’re all not for profits, even if they’re all museums, even if they’re all schools, like they, they all engage with their community in very different ways. And the private public relationship between spaces and engagement is going to be different across these different project types.

Miljački  15:26

Let’s talk maybe a little bit more about the work on the Harriet Tubman monument, sort of continue maybe this vein, but, in this vein, but what were the key questions for you about Newark, about its pedestals, monuments in the 21st century in the US, that might have driven or that drove this work?

Nina  15:51

The Harriet Tubman monument was an open artists call. So it was just an open call that went out to artists, architects, anyone who was interested across the country, right? I don’t know if it was international or not. And it came into my email once, I looked at it, and I thought, you know, they probably want a statue of Harriet Tubman to replace, you know, the Columbus one that was there, so I ignored it. And then a friend of mine, who’s also an architect sent it to me again, and I said, I saw that, but I don’t know if what I do is what they’re looking for. And she said, we’re rethinking monuments, your point of action project was really well received, so I think you should go after it. And so, in responding to it, once I was a finalist, I decided that I would respond with my priorities in terms of how I see public spaces, community space, and people connecting in public, how they feel ownership over spaces in public, but also how I could potentially respond to the story of Harriet Tubman, not as this singular, monumental figure necessarily, but one who was supported by community. And her story is a story of community, as it extends beyond Harriet Tubman to the Underground Railroad and the network of a, really what were public spaces, you know, the church revival meetings, the market places, the race courses, this is those were the public spaces of that time. And that’s where they shared the codes that made the Underground Railroad successful. So I knew I wanted it to be a space that you could move in and through and not just stand back and look up upon. And I said, they’ll either love it, or they won’t. But either way, I will have explored that, it would be an interesting challenge for our office to work on and so that really was the primary consideration.

Miljački  18:07

In one of the interviews you gave on this project, you describe the importance of Harriet Tubman’s larger than life and touchable face. You offered that it was meant to invite recognition, not only of her, but also in her, of wise, older, African American women everywhere. And that, in a way, points me towards a question about the use of abstraction and figuration and their role, as you see them in some of your work that transforms public space. It seems to me that you use the whole range of tools to invite engagement, instilling perhaps different temporalities or nudging towards different types of reflexivity.

Nina  18:51

Yeah, I wouldn’t usually use figuration in anything that I work on. Whether it’s strictly architectural, or, in my art practice, in the collage work that I do, it’s really all very abstract. And in this case, in considering the image of Harriet Tubman and how it might appear, one: I knew I wanted there to be some kind of multiplicity, understanding that this woman was complex. I understand public spaces as being complex. I understand how people present themselves as being complex, how we engage with our heroes as potentially being complex, but also, in terms of in public, African Americans don’t oftentimes get to see, figuratively represented, themselves in public space. And I remember seeing the Simone Leigh sculpture Brick House on the Highline. I went to visit it and it was huge. And I was really, really struck by being, and it’s also partially abstract, right, you know, even the face is there, but the eyes aren’t in, but I could see her afro, right, and I could see my hair and her hair. And that was powerful for me. And I, in that realization, I said, you know, I think it is important for me to include some figurative elements in this space and the manifestation of the final artwork, because I think to be able to have a one-to-one connection, in terms of seeing yourself literally in this space, was important. But then also, there’s that kind of figurative understanding of, if this is also a community story, right? It’s about a woman, yes, she was absolutely courageous, but, to be able to feel a connection to her, humanizing her becomes really important. And so, to understand our personal stories of liberation, they might be small, but really, on a day-to day level, they’re impactful, right? They feel really huge. For some people getting up every day is a huge achievement, getting their kids out of the school every day is a huge achievement. And so understanding those small steps towards liberation as being a part of this community effort, and then connecting it to the local stories of people in Newark at the time of Harriet Tubman, who were actively involved in this liberation effort. And so including those stories in the monument, so there’s a through-line between Harriet Tubman’s story, the stories of the stagecoach drivers, the other people who were in Newark at the time, to our stories. It’s bifurcation of a single, monumental story to the story of the everyday person, I think allows for more ownership of the story, ownership of the space, and then perhaps more empowerment because of it.

Miljački  22:17

I have one more question about it that’s really about the materials, material decisions in it. So I read that at a certain point in the process, you overhauled the material palette, in this particular project, which points to two kinds of positions or narratives that are embedded in the narratives or in the life of the materials and maybe the need to balance how those are registered and speak through the project with other priorities that you had, which you’ve just, some of which you’ve just described.

Nina  22:57

So you know, as we were going, working through the design development of the project, a part of it was we, the Harriet Tubman monument became a pilot project for the Grace Farms Design for Freedom Movement, which this initiative is really looking to parallel. Really trying to trace the materials as far back as possible, you know, how can our environmental responsibility extend to the social responsibility of understanding where these materials actually come from? And so, we were able to one: replace a big chunk of the concrete that we already had proposed in the project with the COR-TEN, but also, we were able to source the steel as far back as we could for many other items, we were able to switch out some of the wood to black locust, which is grown in the United States, and we could source it in the Midwest. So those decisions were really important for us to make. But it also helped us to understand where we start to hit roadblocks, right? Because we understand that a lot of the steel in the US, they’ll either say it’s sourced within the United States, but a lot of steel is made from reclaimed steel as well, right. So we don’t know ultimately where it comes, it’s not from iron ore from Michigan necessarily. And then what happens when it comes to the components? There was a big audio component to the Harriet Tubman monument, and we had a lot of integrated lighting; start breaking down the components of these materials, like, where is everything inside of these from? It’s like, oh my goodness, how are we going to find this? So, me and my one other person in the office are trying to track all this information. But I think as a pilot project, it was great for our office to really start to see the questions we should be asking that we haven’t been asking. And then for those people who we’ve been asking the question, like the distributors, and the fabricators, in terms of where they’re sourcing the different materials, then people start saying, okay, maybe the next time we should have answers to these questions. I think it’s really, again, understanding that sometimes change is incremental, it doesn’t all happen at once, it doesn’t all happen with one person. And the small steps are worth making.

Miljački  25:46

Have they changed? And it takes the industry, also, to begin to, or all of the different participants, right, to begin moving (Nina: exactly) in the same direction, but maybe out of that set of feedback loops… How, would you say that you have a position now on how you might deal with these different priorities that come from different angles at a project? Well, maybe that’s a question, but also, they’re different registers for, for our politics, let’s say as architects, and sometimes they’re at odds. So is there a way, or do you have a position on how to do that so that you are satisfied in a particular moment with the set of outcomes or decisions?

Cooke John 26:47

I think one thing that I’ve realized is, our projects have always been very human centered, right. And we hear human centered when it comes to interactive spaces often, but for me, in terms of architectural spaces, it goes back to the deep listening, slow looking, which is really understanding how people, individuals coming down to the eye level, coming down to the engagement level, will interact with the space and how it affects spatial composition, formal composition, material selection. But also still understanding that being human centric extends through the supply chain, which hands are touching these materials, at what time, at the point, from the point of extraction, and that human centeredness, I think, will continue to ultimately drive the questions we ask and how we respond architecturally.

Miljački  27:50

You mentioned when you were describing the research that you had one person working with you, but I was wondering, actually, how many people in the office, has that changed? What would you like it to be, and also, how that might impact the decision-making process, or might have impacted it, in the past tense.

Cooke John 28:15

So a little over, up until a little over a year ago, it was just me. But then I have three or so freelancers, who I know I can depend on. Last year, I hired my first full time employee, which is huge, right? And now I have to run payroll twice a month, which is huge again, and that, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. And so it definitely, you continue to look at the project as “what are bread and butter projects versus what are the projects that we want to continue to expand towards and but how does the larger workforce help in that effort?” I’ve also, I’m looking to hire one other person now, probably part time at first, but regularly part time, not just freelance. Now someone with a bit more experience. So my new employee was relatively junior, and I’m looking now for someone who has more project management experience, I’m just, I’m learning, before when you’re on your own you’re kind of doing everything right. And you can kind of be a little scattered, not that you’re scattered like you have to be really organized, but you can do things in the order that you feel they are best, depending on what’s happening at any point in time. When you have employees, you have to be a lot more organized just in terms of workflow, giving feedback, and now that I have one full time employee, and those structures are becoming more and more solidified, having someone who is in between him and me in terms of experience, and as a project manager is more and more important,

Miljački  29:45

You already anticipated the questions that we have been linking to the size of the office and growth, which are about the way in which that kind of transformation impacts the way you think about commissions, right? like the what you say yes to, the extent to which that is a collective decision or a singular decision. And just the registers that you use to make it right?

Cooke John 30:45

Exactly. So, and it’s not only, I think what I was hinting at before, is a needing to meet payroll question, but also, I’m finding that I want my employees to feel like they’re working on interesting things, too. So sometimes I feel bad in a way, like, there are some projects that I would have been fine working on by myself at the office that are seriously bread and butter, in addition to the 1/3 that are way more interesting. But when I have employees, I feel bad having them work on those projects, it’s like, I don’t want them to have to work on this kitchen, whatever, and not that we don’t have beautiful kitchen projects in our portfolio.

Miljački  31:39

Oh, they’re beautiful.

Cooke John 31:40

Yeah! But I’d like them to ultimately realize that, even though some of the projects might seem really small, not necessarily very expensive design-wise, whenever we do take them on, I think we do our best to bring something new to that typology. Even if it’s just so that it makes it interesting for us as we’re working on it in the office, and hopefully we can convince the clients to do it, and it’s still responding to their needs in a very particular way, in their budget in a very particular way. But yeah, I think once we have the employees, I find there’s a lot of responsibility in the kind of work that we’re doing.

Miljački  32:46

I was super excited to see your Planned Parenthood interior online. I taught a Planned Parenthood studio at GSSAP once, the first time it looked like Roe v. Wade would [be repealed] or was under attack. But so I wanted to, is there something that you could tell us about that project, how it came to you? What were the key questions about it?

Cooke John 33:11

I really loved working on that project. It was relatively small. And I happen to have met the woman who was the director of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan New Jersey at an event in Newark that I was invited to by someone. And she happened to be on the board. And they had had this funding to renovate the lobby for quite a while, but they just hadn’t had a designer. So it was this great kind of serendipitous meeting or like, Oh, my God, you know, we have the funding to renovate this lobby. Here you are, and it was something that, it wasn’t a pro bono project, but it was definitely, like, a deeply discounted, in terms of our hours. And they really wanted to have this lobby in which, people come there for their regular checkups, in addition to any other services that Planned Parenthood might provide. They bring their kids with them. So whatever we did needed to be durable, both in terms of cleaning, but kids coming with pencils poking at, you know, the chairs. And oftentimes, they’re sitting in the waiting room for a while, and the before photos of the lobby, it felt it could have been a train station. I think we were on the same level in terms of the values that we wanted for the young people who would be sitting in that waiting room to feel valued and respected in terms of the space that we provide to them as they interface with Planned Parenthood before they come into the clinical space.

Miljački  34:56

I feel like I could draw a line through a series of your projects that have to do with a, with a particularly, maybe gendered space, also. So, in one of your interviews, you talk about power in the dark and the way in which that project invites conversations after you present it. And did you, let’s say, do you think about these projects as a collection in a particular way, or at least your concerns about them as somehow aligned across in a way that you would want to articulate for us?

Cooke John 35:38

Yes, and I think some of them relate to some projects. And so the Power in the Dark project, I think, is directly related to, I think, all the public art, public engagement projects, right in terms of how it looks at carving out spaces in the city, in the street, reclaiming them for empowerment, in one way or another by different groups of people. It’s something that I address in my undergraduate thesis looking at the West Indian immigrants in the Bronx and Brooklyn and how potentially not having the power otherwise, to be able to claim space for cultural expression in the streetscape, to using a similar strategy for women and walking in the dark. And this was in response to a competition, which was a nighttime competition, it was totally open. And I wanted to look at, I was reading, we’re doing some reading in preparation for the competition about walking at night, right, and they’re all these beautiful writings by men walking in the city at night, you have to do it. It’s dreamlike, it’s transformative. It’s like, women can’t do that! Like, that’s a luxury. We can’t just walk and wander in the street at night by ourselves for sure, right? And if you do, the repercussions aren’t only that you potentially could be harmed, but people are like, who are you? Why are you walking at night, right? Are you a streetwalker, like, you are then classified as a certain kind of woman if you walk at night, but in New York City, there are, a lot of the trains run 24 hours for a reason! People are working at night, nurses work at night, MTA workers, or there are a lot of women who need to go from the subway to their homes in the middle of the night. And how can we create spaces that they don’t have to feel afraid? And I think a lot of women can relate to that. Feeling afraid when you’re walking at night, whether you’re walking from studio to your dorm in the middle of the night, or so when I presented this project, which I’ve presented, just Pecha Kucha nights and different things, women always come up to me after. And this one woman said, she’s like, what I would do is I would walk in the middle of the street and sing, and either people would think I’m crazy, so they leave me alone, or just singing really loud would made me feel safe. But how can we create a network that was a combination of physical light installations, but also this idea of crowdsourcing and encouragement, because, actually, women aren’t attacked on the street that often, if they are assaulted its by someone they know, in private spaces. And it’s really just about confidence. If you feel safer, you are safer. And so how could you crowdsource both encouragement, but also ways, someone who just walked ahead of you to say, be careful of that dark corner. And so you just felt safer. So it was really a great kind of exploration, I think, into these ideas of safety, female empowerment. But again, collectively, you get that courage from this group, beyond just your friends and family.

Miljački  36:38

You’ve described your dream project in Wallpaper* not so long ago as involving design for a cultural institution that acts as a memorial, museum, sanctuary and community space that takes advantage of the natural environment, history and current social conditions to inform how it engages the landscape with people. But how would you describe the conditions in which you do your best work, or the ideal commission, not only an ideal set of questions, but an ideal circumstance in which you are invited to answer or to contribute to answering questions.

Cooke John 40:14

I think there are a few factors. So, one, I think, on the client side, I think if they’re, if they have a clear idea of ultimately what they want this cultural institution to be right, who are they serving? What kinds of spaces do they want to have? What kind of relationship do they want to have with this community, and it doesn’t mean that it can’t evolve over a series of whether workshops with them to clarify what that statement is. But also, for an interesting architectural product, I found that clients who are less risk averse are better clients for me, right? Or they trust the architect enough to say, I’m not fully confident in how that’s gonna pan out. But I trust you that you know what you’re doing. So run with it. And I think that that just allows for more innovation on our end, in terms of formally how we respond, with the spaces and the forms to this, this kind of mission statement that you have for the space. I think when clients are worried and then aren’t really sure, how’s that gonna look? I don’t know, I don’t really know, I’ve never seen anything like that before. No, you’ve never seen anything like that before. That’s why you’re hired us. If you’ve seen something like that before, then why do you need us to do it?

Miljački  42:00

I would have, learning about your work, I would have definitely said that, also, the thing that you offer is the slow looking and slow, slow listening, right. So that somehow in the process of developing some of these projects, it’s the development phase, that in which you deploy certain tools in engaging communities that I think are, that seemed very important to me.

Cooke John 42:28

Exactly. I am really excited that on a project we’re working on right now, in that development phase, we were able to convince the client to, a lot of it is retail, but they’re doing this project more as, for urban reinvigoration, essentially, of this, this downtown area. And so to allow them to dedicate a certain square footage of this space, really just for community activation, where they own the space, and allow small scale pop up poetry readings, or, you know, they’re right next to a museum. So they could bring some of the museum gallery events into this space to really invigorate it in a way that retail spaces aren’t usually, and maybe it will help with the future of retail. And so yes, that kind of development in the early phase, again, clients, if you’re too, if you are risk averse, they’ll say, I’ve never seen a retail space that has a court that is pre set-up for community performances and activations in the interior of the space, right? So that’s really important. And then understanding that they need to value the work that the crafts people who are bringing these spaces to life, right, there’s that kind of triad of time, craftsmanship and cost, I think we always talk about and in a perfect balance, where we have enough time to develop the project, develop the ideas, the craftspeople have enough time to make what they need to make to the level of quality that you want. And then we can get it for a reasonable cost. If you want it to fast, it’s going to cost you more or the quality is going to be less for any of those things. So I think really valuing the process is another important part of that ideal kind of project working environment.

Miljački  44:48

Maybe we can talk for a second about the way in which the criteria, and we’ve already touched on this in different ways, but maybe now in the larger arc, the way in which the criteria for work taken and pursuit might change, might have changed across your trajectory. And maybe, we talked a little bit about the way in which having employees impacts this. But you’ve also, I’ve been impressed by the way in which in your various interviews you also, about architecture, you also talk about life and kids and things that impact the, your trajectory, or have impacted your trajectory as an architect. So how do we sort of put thinking about commissions in that larger arc?

Cooke John 45:48

20 years ago, when my kids were really young, small residential projects were perfect in terms of the things that I would say yes to, because, you know, I could work on them late at night, I could meet the clients in their spaces after work, it really allowed, while I was still teaching, right, so teaching, kind of maintain the continuity of the space, my engagement with the urban strategies, urban theory, architectural practice, in that academic space. And then the residential architecture allowed me to practically work on projects that I could, that I needed to, while my kids were young, and then as they got older, really understanding that getting into, back into the urban engagement projects, and really, the way to do that was by doing competitions, and again, late at night, you know, spend two weeks to get the ideas on paper, but something that it’d be interesting to talk about. And I think that worked well, for me for a while, right, you kind of grow where you’re planted, and really being able to understand craft and materials and relationships with the makers, in addition to the clients, and then translating that, as the projects more recently have started to evolve into cultural and public engagement and public art projects, all the knowledge of the materials and making things, bringing those into public space, I think has worked really well for me. There were times back then that there was a hunger, not only necessarily just to be able to get projects to do for income, but also then a hunger for certain project types, right, okay, now I want a ground up house from the beginning, okay, now we’re ready to expand to this. And so sometimes when projects come your way, the question is, or the question was still, to a certain extent, okay, why do we want to take this project? Is it because it’s going to add to our portfolio in a new way? Will the clients, will we be able to have a process with the clients that might expand how they’re thinking about this typology? Or does it fit into our bread-and-butter bucket, and we just need it right now?

Miljački  48:45

Did you ever regret taking a commission?

Cooke John 48:51

I have, I have, and, you know, usually, you see the red flags ahead of time. But sometimes I’ve seen red flags, like, the client might seem kind of odd. But then it works out okay, for one reason or another, like, I’ve had one client in the past where his relationship with almost everyone else is really bad. But his relationship with me, and he allows me to do really creative work and doesn’t question any of it and pays us on time…

Miljački  49:31

sounds excellent.

Cooke John 49:33

And that’s all good! But there have been a couple where the red flags they’re like, well, maybe I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be okay once we get into it, and then it’s just like, yeah, we shouldn’t have done this.

Miljački  49:51

Nina, thank you for talking to me today.

Cooke John 49:53

Thank you so much for having me! This was fun.

Miljački  49:56

And listeners. Thank you for listening to this episode of I Would Prefer Not To.