In this episode, Ana Miljački speaks with Troy Schaum and Rosalyne Shieh of SCHAUM/SHIEH about matching a client’s ambition with economic feasibility, the privilege of being able to refuse work, the space that emerges out of energetic conflict, and the power of doing nothing.
Recorded on November 11, 2022. Read a transcript of the episode below.
Troy Schaum and Rosalyne Shieh
Troy Schaum and Rosalyne Shieh launched their architectural collaboration in 2010 around a set of shared and overlapping interests in art, architectural form, and the city. Their work unfolds in dialogue through building projects, installations, and speculative research between Houston, Texas, and New York City. They’ve each held some of the most important teaching fellowships in the country: Troy is associate professor at Rice University and Rosalyne is an assistant professor at MIT.
SCHAUM/SHIEH was listed as one of Domus magazine’s 50 best architecture firms in 2020. In 2019, they were named an Emerging Voices winner by The Architectural League of New York. They were a finalist in the 2017 MoMA PS1 Young Architects program and were selected as one of the 2016 New Practices New York by the AIA. Their work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, the Storefront for Art and Architecture, and the Center for Architecture in New York. Their Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology, completed in 2018, was published widely, and their recent and ongoing work includes a master plan for the Judd Foundation and the restoration of the Chamberlain Building for the Chinati Foundation, both in Marfa, Texas; a cafe building in Houston’s Memorial Park; and multiple single-family homes situated across the country.
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: (00:21) Hello, and thank you for tuning in. I’m Ana Miljacki, 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 is 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 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 Troy Schaum and Rosalyne Shieh, partners in SCHAUM/SHIEH. Thank you for joining me.
Rosalyne Shieh: (01:30) Thank you for having us.
Troy Schaum: (01:32) Thank you for having us.
Miljački: (01:33) Troy Schaum and Rosalyne Shieh launched their architectural collaboration in 2010 around a set of shared and overlapping interests in art, architectural form, and the city. Their work unfolds in dialogue through building projects, installations, and speculative research between Houston, Texas, and New York City.
They both had extensive experience working in other firms before launching their collaboration. They’ve each held some of the most important teaching fellowships in the country: Troy is associate professor at Rice University and Rosalyne an assistant professor at MIT. She has published her research and provocative articles in Log, Pigeon, and Paprika.
SCHAUM/SHIEH was listed as one of Domus magazine’s 50 best architecture firms in 2020. In 2019, they were named a 2019 Emerging Voices winner by the Architectural League of New York. They were a finalist in the 2017 MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program and were named one of the 2016 New Practices New York by the AIA. Their work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, the Storefront for Art and Architecture, and the Center for Architecture in New York. Their Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology, completed in 2018, was published widely, and their recent and ongoing work includes a master plan for the Judd Foundation and the restoration of the Chamberlain Building for the Chinati Foundation, both in Marfa, Texas; a cafe building in Houston’s Memorial Park; and multiple single-family homes situated across the country, from the mountains of Virginia to Silver Lake in Los Angeles, as they say.
Now, I hope that we will be able to discuss some aspects of SCHAUM/SHIEH’s body of work by talking first about the work that is not on the boards in the office or in their portfolio. So let’s start 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?
Schaum: (03:40) Rosalyne, do you want to start?
Shieh: (03:42) I thought maybe Troy, you could start?
Schaum: (03:44) Well, there are actually two instances that we’ve definitely done this. There’s many instances that you do it in a kind of light way, maybe just diverting a project that you very clearly just don’t want to do. But there’s a couple interesting opportunities that came our way in the last couple of years that we’ve said no to, I think, from our experience over time. One was a project that actually came right on the eve of pandemic lockdown. We had just entered lockdown, and it was a house project in Houston. And the potential client was a collector. And, you know, it ticked a lot of the boxes of our interests. But in the conversation, there were a couple of aspects of the project that just kind of were red flags. And we’ve learned I think, over time, that if there’s red flags early on in the project that that can maybe only get worse. One was the client didn’t like to ever go outside or be outside and they weren’t interested in engaging the outdoors, which was just really hard for me to wrap my own, Rosalyne and I, for us to wrap our heads around. And also, they wanted us to engage in a competition process for the project. And for a house project, I think that’s something that’s a pretty intimate relationship with the client, in the end, developing ideas and working together. And it’s one thing to do a competition for a public commission, but to do a competition for a house project, it just didn’t seem right. And so we politely refused to engage in this kind of, like, competition for a house and steer the project towards other people that might be more interested in it.
Shieh: (05:43) I was just gonna say, what was the other one you were gonna mention, Troy? Oh, well, we talked about another one. I thought you were going to talk about it? Oh, okay! (all laugh) Yeah, no, no, no, I think we’re just like a little bit nervous. Or I am, I don’t want to say, Troy’s never nervous.
No, we did talk about this. This was funny because there’s a text message I sent to Troy on Wednesday, where I said, “Have we ever said no?” And I, it wasn’t so much that I think there’s a difference between not remembering and just drawing a blank. And I felt like when I was thinking about the times that we had said no, my mind kept going blank. And then when we talked on the phone later, Troy was like—I think there was a point when he was grappling also for, to try to remember, and he was like, “I don’t remember the negative things.” And I was like, Oh, I think that there’s something going on here with like, some kind of trauma recollection that’s happening, where when we say, when we refused, or when we said no, we’ve—there’s some kind of, something that, something gets shut down or something and you become, that memory somehow becomes harder to access or, or even inaccessible, or, and it’s, it’s not like . . . I think it’s a difference between, you set this up between refusal versus non-engagement, and one is like a direct kind of, an opposite action, and one is just like becoming like a piece of stone. And there’s something about the negative that feels more like a kind of blank, a blankness. Which was funny, that I had a lot of trouble accessing the times that we’ve said no.
But in discussing it, in leading up till today, I remembered, in conversation with Troy, remembering, for instance, and this felt like a kind of soft, this felt more like a kind of a refusal to engage. And just speaking more generally, it was, we were asked to put in our qualifications for a project that was for an art space that was directed, was by a foundation that was meant to increase the representation of an underrepresented group, an underrepresented, it was a certain Asian American group that I don’t identify as being a part of. And I think we were, it was like a cool project. It was like, a lot of space in Manhattan and arts-oriented and the direction the foundation sounded really interesting. And we were kind of asked to put in for it. And I think we kind of didn’t discuss it maybe for a few days, and it seems like that email sat in our inbox as a kind of dead fish. Probably because we didn’t want to. It’s like, you want to say, you want something, but you think, “Oh, this isn’t really for me, you know?”
So I think it took us about, I think it took us to the point where like, we got a second email . . .
Schaum: I wanted you to say it, and you wanted me to say it, “Who is going to write them back?”
Shieh: So we did the thing that we do, which is we waited for the second email to come being like, “Hey, did you get this email? Just wanted to check in”—you know, that friendly poke . . . Sorry, I keep bumping the microphone. That friendly but not like the kind of annoyed poke until, which led to like another week of deliberation between me and Troy, where we didn’t talk about it, but probably thought about it separately and sent like one-line text messages to each other. Because we work remote from each other. And then just being like, I think we got on the phone and Troy just said it, and he’s like, “I think it’s just not for us. I think maybe we should just say something, you know?”
Schaum: (09:51) Also, we could think of like 30 other people that we love . . .
Shieh: That fit exactly . . .
Schaum: . . . and are collaborators with that could definitely do this project. And so, it seems strange that we were in the loop for whatever reason, that we were imagined in that role. And so that was a, that was a difficult one to say no to, for sure. But because it did tick a lot of boxes that we find exciting in a project, but it just didn’t seem right.
Miljački: (10:18) For me, I recognize the, what you describe as trauma, or stone or death fishy, any of those terms, sort of marking a particular kind of refusal. For me, of course, what’s interesting is the intent behind some of these as an active kind of dimension of decision making too, as well as other forms of it. And so, the notion or the question about the grounds on which you might or where you might draw a line, right, in or among the commissions that would help think about these commissions you take and don’t take ahead of time, or in the moment that you’re making a decision, is of interest to us.
Schaum: (11:06) I think, I’ve been thinking about this question, and we look at this all the time, that question of when you’re thinking about it, from the moment that you get the email to the moment that you have to make a decision to engage, to the moment you’re actually like signing a contract or writing proposals too, as you get into the project; you see the project very differently over that arc. And it’s a problem of risk, in a way. And we think about risk in a lot of different frameworks in architecture: you know, is our building going to leak? Is our building going to fall down?
But actually, the risk in developing a relationship, it’s almost like a romantic relationship in a way, like, you don’t know what’s going to transpire, everyone’s putting on their best face at the beginning of a project: “This is going to be great, we want you to get involved in this project in Manhattan, don’t worry, everything’s going to turn out wonderful.” And the more you do this—I mean, we’re still, I feel, like, a very emergent firm. But the more you do this, you start to maybe get a better sense, or you hope you do, early on about things that are going to be kind of a relationship risk. Because we tend to want to get into projects that are community oriented; they’re involved in like, you know, the empowering of creative practice. And everyone approaches us with that story at the beginning of a project. But sometimes, the people that you meet fade away and you realize you’re actually working, you know, not with the most enlightened, creative people halfway through a project. And how do you steer that kind of risk in a practice, I think, in a creative practice, like architecture that’s embedded so much in collaboration, and you’re so dependent on, you know, forces of capital and other kinds of actors? It’s a really huge question that until I think Rose and I started working together on the practice, we didn’t so much appreciate it. You thought you just took a cool commission or you didn’t take a cool commission. And once you took it, it was going to be a great relationship or not . . .
Miljački: Cool all the way!
Schaum: Yeah, all the way. And you don’t know when you start you have . . . you know, the person could be totally crazy or totally visionary. And you have no idea in the first conversation.
Miljački: (11:15) Well, I normally ask this question a lot later in the conversation, but maybe this is a good moment to ask you if you have regretted taking any commissions?
Shieh: (13:25) You mean like one big regret or many tiny regrets?
Miljački: (13:29) Either.
Schaum: (13:30) I don’t know. What do you think, Rosalyne? Yeah, of course, there’s lots of commissions we’ve regretted, and even had conversations with our lawyers around how we can get out of certain projects, and realizing that you have to really complete them unless you want to expose yourself to a lot of liability. So yeah, I’m trying to think of one, how to frame it in particular, but . . .
Shieh: (13:58) But even with that, I think it happens the same way that, to kind of stretch or extend your relationship analogies, like, I think I’m serious between, like, is it one regret that makes you leave? Or is it many regrets that you wait to get overturned, to be proven wrong—where you’re like, “Actually, it’s fine!” And like, what is your relationship style, whether in a romantic sense, or in a partnership, or in a kind of work relationship, client relationship? Do you, “Maybe if I just wait it out, it’s going to be okay?” And it does oscillate between regret and then feeling like, “No, no, no, it’s good I waited, it’s fine,” and then regret? And there’s certain really, I think there’s certain projects that, I don’t know, and when you decide to call something quits, you know, I think that’s complicated.
Schaum: (14:50) Yeah. And I think there’s an ethical problem, which I think you’re, Ana, asking us about, and then there’s just the complexity of execution where you get marginalized at some point in the process as well. And when you’re a young practice, you say yes to a lot of things. You’re just trying to do something and everybody, there’s a lot of pressure and optimism, and you don’t quite understand all the risks. And so you’re saying yes, yes, for sure. We’ll try that. A dog park bar? That sounds great. Let’s try it. We tried a dog park bar project. It didn’t work. There was another car dealership that we did that sort of that ended with, like, some shady things around potential money laundering. That was like, okay, you don’t, that’s when—I mean, you don’t know, the person seems legitimate. You start working on a project and you’re hungry for work, and then you get into it, you realize, “Oh, wait, this person is actually not meeting me in person. That’s a very strange thing. Like, why would somebody not meet me in person?” And how do you vet the individuals you’re encountering, as a young practice, is a really difficult thing. But then something like the music venue that we did early on, the White House Music Hall, you know, that’s also, that was a couple people introduced to us, at the beginning, that snowballed into a project that’s become a really important community project in Houston, and, you know, kind of like temple for independent music and in this region. And that also, that’s what I mean, by the difference between visionary and crazy. That’s also a couple visionary young people that we thought were going to maybe pay us for some renderings and have beers with us. But it turned into a much, much bigger thing. So you just, it’s very hard.
I think that’s one of the hardest risks that we’ve tried to figure out how to assess together. And I think Rosalyne and I have a cool dynamic around this. I don’t know if it’s gonna come through in the podcast, but I tend to be a little bit more like forgetful of the bad things and optimistic about the potentials. And she tends to be a little bit more cautious about these things. And so, we have a kind of debate often when we’re starting a project around what could go wrong, or where should we take it? And I think that’s part of what’s shaped the direction of what we do as well.
I don’t know if you think that’s fair, Rosalyne.
Miljački: (17:11) I was definitely hoping to hear a little bit more about the mechanics or the alchemy of your collaboration, and how it trickles through the organization of the work or the workflow, and how it influences decisions to take on or not to take commissions. So this is a great beginning.
Shieh: (17:36) Well, maybe I can speak a little bit to that, by building off of what you just said, Troy, about our differences.
Schaum: (17:43) Do you disagree with what I just said, too?
Shieh: (17:50) I don’t disagree! I do think that we could say, you could say we’re different, you could say were complimentary. However, you want to idealize that. And I think if, Troy is more optimistic and forgetful, it’s a great combination. And I’m kind of like doubting from the side. I think that’s true. And I think that, like, the way that we operate, because of our preferences—and Troy, you can do this or correct me—is that Troy does a lot of action, right? I’d say he is interested in making things happen. He’s good at making things happen. And I want to talk about them. And so we have a lot of one-on-one conversations, private conversations, and we have an understanding of where we’re at. And we decide, I wouldn’t say we decide a plan of action, but we decide where the values are and where the complexities are and where the contradictions are. And then we act independently within our spheres. Which means that, in terms of running a project in a very direct way, I would say that Troy is more at the helm of those kinds of things. And so, I think we consult with each other, and then there are actions that are taken, but they’re not in lockstep. And that’s important because we early on, and through a lot of energetic conflict, which was not always negative, I think we realized we had to produce autonomy between the two because we were never going to be exactly the same person, and far, far, far from it. Is that okay, Troy? Conflict.
Schaum: (19:38) Energetic conflict: I love energetic conflict! Can we title our monograph that?
Schaum: Yeah, that’s definitely something that we always tried to maintain in the practice, which is, I think propelled by the, just the distance that we, the geographic distance, although it’s not always reflected in the conceptual working distance but, that, this idea that we’re individuals that have come together to make work together, but we’re not, you know, like a more corporate entity or even an imagination, I know, it seems pretty basic just to have both names in the logo, but the idea is that it’s like two individuals collaborating. We always look to models like, Sejima and Nishizawa, or something that seemed to have autonomy and identity together. And that was kind of something that we imagined from the beginning.
And it’s gotten a little more complex, I think, as we have employees, because obviously, the team is much bigger than the two people on this podcast. And I was thinking about how we operate with projects. And I tend to be the one that might go have the, have a meeting on a site or hear about something and think it sounds amazing. And then like, call Rosalyne on the phone and burst into the office and say, “Hey, we have this great new commission,” and then Rosalyne, and now everybody else that works in the office, starts asking me questions like, “Well, but wait a second, but what are the fees gonna be like?” “Well, what’s the schedule? When do they want the first set of drawings?” Or “What are they actually asking us to do?” And then slowly reel that energy back to some kind of more productive conversation. But I think that’s, yeah, different employees and the people we work with, you know, look to us for different kinds of . . .
Miljački: (21:29) Are there procedures in the office by which you include the rest of the office into these kinds of conversations, or the reality, expose them to the realities of running the office?
Schaum: (21:41) It’s something we’ve been focused on more and more, as the office has become more and more professionalized, I would say, in the last four or five years. And especially in the last two, three years, I think something we’ve confronted is like, the idea that there’s a very horizontal organization seems very cool when you’re young and starting to practice together. And then you start to realize that, for the people that you’re working with, to also figure out how they grow and how they learn, you have to kind of build some kind of structure that they can grow into. And so Rosalyne and I have both been very conscious about that and discussing that. So we do have a little bit of hierarchy in the firm now, and a little bit of staff engagement that kind of helps people become more aware of that. I think it’s a lot to take on, when you’re entry-level to understand every hour you’re working is like fitting into some kind of economic process. But as you learn the basics, I think, starting to understand that, the next tier is something that I think we’re getting better at.
Shieh: (21:41) I think that’s a, this is a hard thing, because we, and this is something we’ve talked about a lot. We, I mean, the dream is like a horizontal structure. But the reality is, there are also ways in which you can work with more hierarchy that gives people, I don’t know, a kind of a structure within to work, and also an understanding of how to move and what the responsibilities are and how to work together. And so, there’s a lot of, we’ve, there’s been a lot of like, I would say that, we don’t, it’s not arguing, but we worry over and think about this quite a lot. And so we do that more than we’ve actually formally implemented, because also the office, we have more people, but it’s still small, you know? And so, we’ll like turn to the person, we’ll be like, “Well, should we give you a title? Do you want a title? Would that help if you got a title? And we’ll pay for your exams!” So we’re like, always in real time, “What should we call you? Do want to be called that?” And then we’ll like, you know, can you go ask . . .
Schaum: (22:46) That sounds too corporate, we’re not going to use that title! Come up with, we’re trying to reinvent the title system of architects! That’s a long conversation we’ve had more than once.
Shieh: (24:01) We will also ask them to go and, we’ll try to be as transparent as possible, we’ll be like, “Can you go talk to five people that you graduated with and find out how much they’re making and find out where they’re working? And let’s try to figure out what feels fair and doable within what we, what our situation is here.” And so we’ve done that with, like, a couple of our employees, which has always been really, really helpful, because they can get information I think that we can’t quite get, and it feels much better to be able to do it that way.
Miljački: (24:34) Now, I want to get back to some terms, maybe terms like energetic conflict, but really, it’s actually, when you have presented your work in the past, you’ve used the set of terms that all loosely define what you’ve called blanks. And I thought we could or should talk about this strategy of circumscribing your concern and maybe also your commissions through some of these terms. Are there categories of work or types of situations that you’ve preferred not to engage that could, or maybe have you produced an equivalent list of terms that are on a not-to-do list? I mean, I’m interested in both the positive terms, terms that actually function to orchestrate and organize the work and how you think about it, but also the terms that might be equivalent, but precisely sort of on the no side.
Shieh: (25:32) I’m trying to think about what those, the no side is. But I think, to understand your question, or when I think about your question, or when listening to your question, it occurs to me that the use of the blanks, and the terminology or the terms that we use, that we call blanks, are these kinds of empty discursive boxes, that have a kind of shape that maybe we fill with certain kinds of content, and then allow us to, allow us to, certain kinds of, allows us to set a vocabulary with which to trade in a kind of discursive economy, right? And so that’s how we describe why we make the blanks, and then why we talk about them in an academic setting. Obviously, oftentimes, that’s where they’re going to happen. They’re not going to happen, typically, in a client meeting, right?
Miljački: (26:32) I was going to ask you if you establish a similar vocabulary with your clients, that seems like something that, watching you speak about or hearing you speak about these terms in the academic context, I was wondering the extent to which they’re useful for negotiating relationships with clients too. So I know it’s harder to think about them, there’s a kind of logic of inclusivity in those terms, or the way that you describe them. So what I’m asking you is, are there terms like that, on the side where you wouldn’t go? Right, and that’s a little bit harder to sort of conjure, because it’s at odds with the logic of coming up with these terms. But if you have any.
Shieh: (27:20) Yeah, I mean, I think the answer, the short answer is no. Because I think it has to do . . . The terms are by nature structures, right? And so they’re not, they don’t have definitions. This, I’m going to try to explain this sounds, I feel like I’m getting more into an abstract place. But I think, just to explain how we identify that, how we how we populate those terms, or how we define them, is that we make a Google Doc, we figure out what the terms are. And we each have a time, we’re gonna go in and edit it, and define the terms. And that gets populated, and then it gets edited. And then there’s a kind of final version of that term that then becomes that, of which the original, who wrote which part, is like, unclear. And then that becomes, at some point, when the deadline hits, that became the definition of the term, right? That’s kind of how we made the terms for blanking the lecture. And this idea of Blanking. And then that’s also how we, that’s also the structure by which we did a written interview for Project journal: We set up a series of questions and answers and we made a kind of temporal structure by which we could each visit that document. And then we gave, you know, Interviewer A, Interviewer B. But actually, sometimes I was A, sometimes Troy was A, sometimes, you know, it’s all mixed up. And so we really think about terminology and interviews as a kind of structure that can get populated. It’s a format. And I’d say that, how I, how that works in the office is this thing about the private, that one-on-one conversation, and then what people’s roles are. And so if it is Troy’s role to go to the site and talk to the people, when he has received the best feedback from people in the office, he takes that, synthesizes it, goes and make those decisions in that context. Right. And so that’s a kind of structural relationship. We don’t tell him what to say, right? I think there’s some kind of correlation between those two things. And so, even if I were to say ,because I want to answer your question by saying a word that is very close to our education: legibility. Right? And so, I would say, I would now put that in the negative box, and yet if you put it into the structure, legibility also becomes a shapeshifter. It can also be a container that holds many different things, right? But when we first adopted that word in our education many, many, many years ago now, it had a very specific meaning, I think, or was used in a very specific way.
Miljački: (30:22) Do you have something to add, Troy?
Schaum: (30:24) Well, this is very revealing of our collaboration. But I mean, I can make a list. I would say, I was making a list as Rosalyne was talking and thinking words that I would prefer not to: I prefer not to monumental, I prefer not to optimal, I prefer not to functional, I prefer not to parametric, I’d prefer not to seamless, I prefer not to stable, and I’ll throw in who prefer not to legibility.
Miljački: (30:54) That’s great. What I was looking for is the ways in which, the, let’s say, ways in which the boundaries of your portfolio are produced through some of these concerns right? And so having both sides actually is super useful, I think, for me, personally.
Schaum: (31:16) We’re, I think, not interested in very simplistic and stable understanding of meaning. And also, we’re not very interested in seamlessness, I think. We talk a lot, I mean, I think it is one of our terms, seamfulness, that we use in blanking to think about how things are structured in a way that one set of decisions doesn’t necessarily have, like, a way of optimization lead to another layer of decisions in a project. And at any moment, it’s a kind of a claim for a certain authorship or agency and authorship that I think, is, again, maybe a generational reclaiming that we’re curious about, and how do we . . . The generation before us thought about authorship is like a power of the architect, you know, over the people in some way. And that had to be undone through practices of decentering agency into processes of diagramming or parametricism. But, in some contexts, actually, the authorship, the voice of the individual, in the, this is something Ana, I think you would talk about more eloquent than me, but the voice of the author in the space of the crowd, right, is like something that’s, that’s what I Prefer Not To is about as well, and the kind of independence of that voice. And that’s not necessarily, through these things like optimization, or seamlessness, is that that project happened. And so how do we, in this age we’re in, balance the power of the tools that are available to us with the agency of an independent voice of an architect? And that’s something Rosalyne, I think, is very invested in as well; these are the kinds of things we do share. Yeah.
Miljački: (33:09) Let me . . . So you’ve already begun answering this next question. I wanted to ask you, so we can keep building on what you’ve begun to say—but in multiple interviews, you suggest that one never starts from nothing on one end, and you also talk about carefully listening to clients. And so, I was wondering if we can talk about how you navigate this terrain in order to still produce surprise, which is another characterization of your work that has come up in multiple places. I think you’ve begun basically giving us that answer before I pose the question. But if there’s more to add now, now is a good moment.
Shieh: (33:47) I mean, I guess I could say something. I don’t know. I mean, sometimes I go into like a listening mode too. To kind of go back to go forward, I think, it does come . . . This is a, you know, when we are in a meeting with a client, and I mean that in a kind of, not like literally we’re sitting at a table, but in a project . . . There’s Troy and there’s me, there’s people in the office. There are people on the project, there’s the client, we’re all sitting at this kind of virtual table, not always at the same time, or in the same conversation, right? And it’s, I think, it’s not us versus the client. Actually, when, as a practice, Troy and I, as you can tell, are very aware of our differences. It’s something we’ve worked really hard to acknowledge. I mean, obviously, we’re really different. But it’s like, in a partnership, I feel like it was a really meaningful moment to be able to say, “Oh, okay, so you want to do that and I don’t want to do that. Okay, well, we can do that.” But that doesn’t mean that, like, I wanted to do it. And that’s okay, because maybe that’s the right thing for the practice. Or maybe that’s the right thing for SCHAUM/SHIEH to do, which is not Schaum, or Shieh! And sometimes what SCHAUM/SHIEH wants to do aligns with what Shieh wants to do, and sometimes it wants to align with what Schaum wants to do, and the other one doesn’t want to do it. And I can see that and we can still move in that direction. But I see that you don’t want to do it. And that’s, that’s acknowledged, that’s very important, right?
Schaum: (35:30) We push each other in that way, sometimes, too. There’s things that Shieh wants to do that I might not want to do. And then we get into it. And then you’re like, “Well, I can see the value of this at some, halfway through.” Not always! Sometimes we, I still prefer not to, but I think we push each other’s comfort zones in that way, sometimes.
Shieh: (35:48) And so, to connect that to the refusal, for instance, for, and I should say that, when we were asked to put in our qualifications for that museum that did not align with our identities, we didn’t get very close to that at all. I just, we were able, and it was quite recent, I don’t think we’re quite, we were able to recognize very early on that we should not even look in that direction. So it wasn’t that we were in any danger of actually getting that project, it was more like, it was a more, it was a bigger experience for us. And it might have appeared from outside that we had this realization that we don’t even want to look in that direction.
Miljački: And that you were aligned?
Shieh: And that we were aligned on that. Yeah.
And so I think part of that moment is and this is maybe, have to do with, having something to do with trauma, that trauma or that dead fish thing that I was talking about at the beginning, is that when somebody asks you to do something, and Troy was saying, oh, sometimes, “Is someone visionary or someone off their rocker, right?” Sometimes you’re like, “Oh, why are you asking me to do that? Should I do that?” And then you realize that this person in the room who’s asking you to do something is maybe not a safe person or not somebody you want to be aligned with. And that moment is really, it’s like when that cold moves through your body. And you’re like: “This is the person I need to make distance from, right.”
And so, I think it’s all about relationships. So, when you’re working with the client, and you’re working with your partner, your business partner, there’s, you create surprise, to come back to your question, Ana, because I think that relationship also, you don’t start from nothing, you start from three, let’s say three people in a room. And you all come with your baggage—some of which is not, baggage is not always negative—you come with your histories, you come with your persons, you come with your identities, you come with your, the good things and the bad things and the other things that you bring, your memories. And it’s a process of holding up a mirror to each other. And sometimes you’re really surprised at who you are, when you see in the mirror that somebody else holds up to you, right? And designing a project is like, this is a metaphor for designing a project, right? Because it happens in time and it happens with people and you don’t know who other people are, but you also sometimes are not that clear who you are at certain moments or who other people think you are. And that can lead to surprise, I think.
Schaum: (38:28) The other thing I think that your questions in this podcast are putting a pin in that, are how, or at least in some of the questions and conversations are putting a pin in, is the idea of how our ambivalence, maybe, as a discipline around capitalism intersects with how we’re making these decisions. And we so much want, I think, as architects to feel like we’re anti-capitalist, and we’re going to meet a client that’s also very anti-capitalist, and like, they’re gonna flatter us and we’ll sit down, and we’ll talk about the creative process and not have to really worry about how our endeavor intersects with like, labor and capital and all the things that we’re actually helping orchestrate.
And so that happens. But what also is true, I think, is that a lot of times those conversations are, you’re engaging with people that, if that conversation around capitalism is not coming up, then they might be in category of off the rocker, as Rosalyne put it, because that is a kind of suspicious category that we’ve started to kind of red flag, where you get further and further into a conversation, you’re like, “Well, I don’t quite understand how the dots between this realization of this project and, how is it going to make money or how’s it going to be funded?” Those kinds of things are not clear. There’s a loss of reality. And so you’re always hoping to find that client, and so you’re very open to that kind of conversation. And that’s when you often also encounter some of those relationships could be quite amazing. But where on the other side, if you encounter, a developer reaches out to you, and you’re immediately on the first day told, “It’s going to be, you know, $500.15 a square foot to do this, and it’s not going to be 16 cents a square foot, and this is the construction type you’re going to use.” And, you know, those kinds of conversations go the other way. And, you know, you’re overall trying to, I think, negotiate in that spot in between those kinds of poles.
Miljački: (38:30) You’ve, of course, that is exactly the next question I had, which was the extent to which economic considerations enter the considerations to take or not take a commission or, and the extent to which this is something that you have the capacity in the firm to think about at this point in the firm’s arc and lifetime.
But also, maybe in relation to that, how would you describe the conditions in which SCHAUM/SHIEH does its best work, including that sort of set of considerations that are about the economic feasibility of the work, or labor engagement involved?
Shieh: (41:21) Troy, I think you’re gonna have to answer this. I basically, my eyes just cross when anything has to do with money, or . . . Yeah, I that’s how I refuse!
Schaum: (41:29) Rosalyne doesn’t engage the money as much.
Shieh: I refuse!
Schaum: I’d say, you know, when I actually was talking in the office, generally, about this podcast, before our, this conversation, before today, and one of my, one of our employees said, “Tou know, that whole question of ‘I prefer not to is such a privileged question.’ They said what, you know, what kind of privilege is it that some groups of architects that you’re interviewing can say, like, ‘We’re not going to take commissions because we don’t need the work.’ And you know, Rosalyne and I both have teaching jobs, and we understand, all of us on the call understand the relationship between teaching subsidizing different kinds of modes of alternative practice. But, you know, one of the things I think that Rosalyne and I are both very sensitive to and that you don’t appreciate as a student that might be listening, is, even though you’re engaged in teaching, as soon as you take on the responsibility of having employees, and those employees are . . . the responsibility, financially, we have to our employees greatly outstrips the responsibility to ourselves in terms of scale. And that concern, maybe it’s paternalistic, or maternalistic, but that concern of how you are caring for your employees, and able to, like, make commitments to them over long term that they can plan on, is a lot of pressure that you have in this situation. And so, in a way, I find it really inseparable, I guess, from, my own personal question of privilege and economic well-being as much as how we understand this community of people that we’re, creative people that we’re engaged with, and how do we support them? So that’s always on our mind.
But the other question was, the other part of the question was, how do we . . . ?
Miljački: (43:26) Well, how do you describe conditions in which SCHAUM/SHIEH does their best work? What would be an ideal condition?
Schaum: (43:32) Ideal condition . . . Well, in relation to economic terms, the only thing that we, I think require, in doing our best work, is that you have a client that listens to your guidance around what, how their aspirations can match their financial reality. And what typically happens is you meet, especially one of the clients that we might say is more visionary, and you move through a more visionary process, and then you hit some kind of wall that doesn’t match their aspirations. And it could be it’s not about scale, or quality, or any of those things together, there’s a whole matrix of ways you could work on these things. But you start to go along for the ride, and then you realize, “Oh, wait, there’s not the funding that was matching their aspirations.” “We told you 20 times that you don’t have the funding to do this. And now we’re like here and everyone’s picking up their pieces of the project and going home.” But that, that’s not, it works the best, even if there’s a low budget or a high budget, or there’s a short timeframe or long timeframe, that somehow you’re able to be listened to, and be part of the conversation about how to sync those up. And often when we find ourselves getting too marginalized and those conversations it gets really frustrating whether there’s, whether, it doesn’t matter what the budget is, or the contractor or the developer is, if you’re not involved in that, that’s when I think we do our worst work and
Miljački: And that’s not ideal.
Schaum: And we have, we have lots of . . . Yeah, that is not ideal.
Shieh: (45:06) Can I say something? Actually, I wanted to talk about the different kinds of refusal that we have access to as individuals because of our partnership. And I think that you have already said a little bit about, in a way, Troy playing a much more active role in client relationships and project running. And then I would say I would take a little bit more of a private role within the practice. And I say that, because that aligns with our interests. But it’s also in a way possible, because we have each other, or I would say, I don’t know, I would say, it’s possible for me to be a little bit more private with some of my work, and refusing to engage sometimes within the office, because of the things, because the misalignments between us, because of our asymmetry, it protects sometimes some of the things . . . I’m just gonna say it directly, sometimes I want to do things for myself, and because Troy is a willing partner, and also is interested in slightly different things than I am, we’re able to make a kind of composite structure in which I can refuse to do certain things in architectural practice. And I think that’s important to say, because it allows me as, I would say, as a woman, as a child of immigrants, as an Asian, as someone who grew up with parents who speak English as a second language, but I mean, have done well for us, to protect, to make a protected space where I can speak into the world through architecture. And I’m able to do that because of, I think, the partnership and definitely the generosity of my partner, but also because he moves through the world in a different way than I do. And I’m able to, in a way, maybe give him a perspective he doesn’t see, and he’s able to give me perspective that I don’t normally see. But I also take a certain kind of shelter in that, which allows me a certain refusal and access to refusal that I wouldn’t normally have that in addition to the academic practice, or the academy, the teaching job. I think that’s kind of important to say, because of the question of privilege that comes up, and the ways in which, I don’t know, that you have to look at the kind of bigger system and how it shelters, produces different kinds of shelter for our employees or for me, in certain ways, or for Troy in other ways, because of our different positionality.
Schaum: (48:06) Ana, I know you appreciate this, but, in your role as well, and Julian too, you’re asking how we interact with clients around, say, the terms of blanking, or how we make space for the kind of non sequitur or the consistency and breaks and the ways we communicate our work. I mean, the thing about what I’d like to say about that is being an practitioner and an academic in multiple cities, working in multiple places, the number of different audiences that we engage, from people that are installing the sprinkler systems in buildings on the site to sitting down at symposia in Cambridge-—Our work is constantly, one minute you’re on the phone, negotiating a contract, to the next minute you’re reviewing student work. In the next minute, you’re, you know, having a, on a faculty search. I mean, the range of different audiences that you’re trying to communicate your voice and architecture is like, it’s just so broad. And I think that what you see I think, in Rosalyne and I’s practice, is two individuals that are obviously different but negotiating the breadth of that space. And the ways that we have the abilities and access to it, and I think that’s something to acknowledge. I think there’s this thing that comes back, there’s something that comes out for me of the conversation is thinking about our preferring not to be consistent, and an idea that we’re always going to be consistent across those audiences and across those relationships. And I think finding that space to be, that’s what blanking imagines, that, a way that you can have a set of values that are not necessarily enacted in a uniform way, depending on the environment that you’re engaged in.
Miljački: (48:06) Let me ask you, I have a couple more questions in the time that we have, and maybe, I guess we don’t have it, it’s 11. But, I’ll give you these two questions, maybe one at a time. So, when you present your work with the Judd Foundation, you invoke a sentence that he had offered in one of his lectures, which goes, “I think the first act of architecture is do nothing, and to think about it for a few days.” This, of course, strikes me as a statement kindred to this project more generally. So we have to talk a little bit about the way that you have felt compelled to absorb this posture, either in your preservation work for the foundation, or elsewhere.
Schaum: (50:57) Yeah, the idea of first doing nothing. I mean, for me, and for us, I think we talk a lot about restraint. And the idea that, especially when early in your practice, you’re so eager always to do something. That’s, like, the premise of architecture, that somebody is hiring you to do something. And I think both of us realize at some point, and when we look at our mentors, when we look at architects that we admire in this way, the idea of restraint or knowing when not to do something is almost a more powerful creative act than knowing when to do something. It’s, in a way, becomes almost the easiest possible thing, to always do something. And that’s, you know, Donald Judd, as an architect, I think, has taught us that, and the process that we’re engaged in there, which is really working in the legacy of that work is, has taught us a lot about restraint and understanding how can we have a creative voice that doesn’t always appear in, visually, or appear immediately as you encounter the work.
Shieh: (52:06) Yeah, I think it’s such a, I love that quote, or like that thing he said, I think it’s, I experience it now daily with having a kid. It’s like, when I’m trying to get something, it’s like a relationship to time. It’s like, I’m trying to get something done. And then sometimes, you just have to give up. It’s a little bit that thing, you know, it’s like, you either look at something with the intent to do something, so you want to instrumentalize the situation, or you want to, like, you have a kind of process-oriented vision, or goal-oriented vision, which is only one way of seeing, right? I think it’s like a Merleau-Ponty quote where he says, “Once you seek to find something, you change the things that you’re going to see.” Because the seeking itself changes the perception of the thing, right? It’s so true. And so, just reminding yourself that there are other ways to see or other ways to access, let’s say, reality, other ways to access the world. This is only the beginning of thinking about that, which is to stop trying to see what you’re going to do, but simply just to see. And sometimes what that means is you just need to stop, and you need to stop for a couple of days, you might need to stop for like weeks. And I think that in some ways, refusing that museum project, or refusing to put in for that museum project, our delay, our refusal to engage, our inability to answer those emails, our even inability to talk to each other about it for a couple of weeks was the first: Do nothing. And just like the, “Why does this not feel good? You know, why? Why do you . . .” And why does it, why is it the part of you that’s saying, “Oh, you should answer and say yes” also feel bad? And you’re like, I have this impulse to do this thing, which is to say yes, and I don’t like that part of myself. And I’m watching it happen. I’m watching it drool, I’m watching it want something and I don’t like it!
You know, and I have that experience, I was going to say also the other thing that happens quite a lot, that points to the differences in Troy and I, our experiences as partners, is that I get asked to do things sometimes, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m female and I’m Asian, and I, but I don’t know. And so, there’s a part of me that’s like, “Oh, I’m getting asked to do something,” and I feel kind of excited. And then I have another part of me inside, that’s like, feeling gross that I am liking, I want to do that thing because I think, “Oh, it’s that mirror. Again, they’re holding that mirror up in front of me.” And I’m like, “Oh, you see me as a certain gender and a certain race and a certain something that ticks certain kinds of boxes. And that’s why you’re asking me, and I am going to sit with this for a second.” And I’ll sit in this displeasure until I can, either you go away, or I find the words to politely decline.
Schaum: (55:35) Rosalyne, I don’t want to step on that last point, but I did want to come back to the beginning of what you were saying, because I think that, I think Rosalyne’s dynamic in our practice definitely embodies that quote from Judd more than mine. And that there’s a dynamic, I think, where I will want to solve a problem by like, “Can we make 10 more options? Can we make 10 more sketches? Let’s just roll up our sleeves and draw this.” And Rosalyne will say, “Why don’t we go get a cup of coffee? Just think about this for a while.” It doesn’t . . . again, this goes back to the act of doing. It doesn’t, creativity doesn’t always come from just doing more, doing more, doing more, which I think speaks to a certain logic of the economy of what we do, as well. And that there is the space for reflection is really important.
And that’s a dynamic, I think, that when we’re trying to figure out how are different roles fit together, I think that we play on a lot together, I don’t know if you would agree with that, Rosalyne, but I think that dynamic is in everything we do.
Shieh: (56:33) I agree with that, and I also think that without Troy we would probably only ever drink coffee. We would just drink coffee all day long!
Miljački: (56:44) Well, maybe on that note we can end, and thank you both for talking to me today. And listeners, thank you for tuning in.