On the table: Dinner with Roy Decker, Anne Marie Duvall Decker, Chris Leong, and Dominic Leong

A conversation with recipients of the 2018 Emerging Voices award.

The League’s annual Emerging Voices program recognizes eight firms with distinct design voices. In March and April, each firm delivers a lecture, then joins prominent architects, critics, and others in the industry for dinner and informal discussion.

In the following conversation, the founders of New York City–based Leong Leong and Mississippi–based Duvall Decker Architects offer their thoughts on partnerships and professional responsibility.

Billie Tsien, principal, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners: I thought I would start with a softball question: Who is the most difficult in the partnership and why?

Anne Marie Duvall Decker, Duvall Decker Architects: Roy is the most difficult in our partnership, only because he’s the one who maintains high standards. He gets so involved in the work that sometimes he just forgets there are people working on these things. Everybody appreciates him for that, but he can be tough in the room. And we’re all glad that he is, because the work is better for it.

Roy Decker, principal, Duvall Decker Architects: I’m at risk of being fired – I can feel it.

Dominic Leong, Leong Leong: I think we’re both hard on each other, in different ways and for different reasons, since we are brothers. Putting together the lecture was actually fascinating because we collected everything separately and then talked about it, and we came to realize how differently we describe our work. We asked ourselves: How do we allow those two narratives to unfold? We’re in-sync and out-of-sync at different moments, so I think we both rattle each other all the time.

Chris Leong, Leong Leong: Yes. Both of us can be the most difficult! I think we’re becoming more aware that we have different voices and have different approaches. Sometimes one will dominate in certain situations, but it is definitely a swinging pendulum.

Leong Leong | US Pavilion for the XIV Venice Architecture Biennale, Venice, Italy, 2014.

Rosalie Genevro, The Architectural League of New York: There are actually many people around the table who are in a partnership with a sibling or spouse. It’s a really interesting question about a phenomenon in the architectural practice that emerged only in the last 15 or 20 years. Why does it happen so frequently now and what does it mean? How does it affect practice?

Claire Weisz, WXY: I’m thrilled that a trio [Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta] won the Pritzker Prize in 2017. I think it finally got over this idea of the singular hero-architect.

To answer your question, Rosalie, I think this has to benefit everyone who, in order to practice architecture, has a relationship. I have three other partners, and as an aside, I think the word partner is an important one. In architecture it is so open, unlike other professions – lawyers have it precisely defined, for example. With architects, it’s a very ambiguous term – it can mean all sorts of things, and I think that’s good.

David Levin, Levin Betts Studio: Trust is obviously an underlying issue when working together and partnering together. Stella and I probably couldn’t approach problems from farther away, so it’s fascinating to see how the third entity manifests itself and how you work together. But you have to remember to check your ego, because, even though that’s what makes you a creative human being, you need to check it before building and working on the partnership.

Stella Betts, Levin Betts Studio: This is one of the few times that we agree!

Levin: Our staff would not believe this moment.

Paul Lewis, LTL Architects: I was surprised how, by the end of your lectures, there were similar stylistic traits or aesthetic qualities, certain locations, certain ages, and certain positions within the work of both offices. But I was also surprised by the degree to which there was a kind of commonality of interests, and even, to a certain degree, a commonality in the ways in which you were deploying architectural surfaces and shapes. For example, similar curves . . . and not so many curves.

Duvall Decker | Oak Ridge House, Jackson, Mississippi. Credit: Timothy Hursley

Decker: Curves are expensive in Mississippi!

Lewis: I’m curious to know if you see your work as radically different from each other or if you would say there is commonality?

Decker: I actually told Dominic and Chris earlier how much I appreciated their sensitivity to clients. And I don’t mean the name of their client, or the typology of their client, but in the instance of the Los Angeles LGBT Center campus, they were actually involved in the lives and the complicated living situations of LGBT families and children; even the parking garage and how it’s perceived by the community and how it interacts with passersby – that is very much what Anne Marie and I talk about. Form is not, for us, the thing; it’s about the life that is created between us and the forms, and I see that as an approach to architecture that Dominic and Chris share with us.

Leong Leong | Anita May Rosenstein Campus at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, Los Angeles, California. Credit: Leong Leong

Dominic Leong: The way you described the role of the architect really resonated with a lot of the things we’ve been thinking about, too. During your lecture, you discussed the idea of an expanded practice, and that’s something we’ve been exploring for different reasons. A lot of it has to do with moving up the food chain, in a way, in order to participate in higher-level conversations in which architecture is nested.

Anne Marie and Roy, you guys have positioned yourselves to have a voice in all aspects of how architecture is conceived and then implemented – that’s really, really inspiring. But one difference that I found interesting is the narrative that you described using Roy’s own paintings as an aesthetic practice in which you situate your context and your understanding of your context. What’s the relationship between aesthetics and social relationships, and how do we work between those two worlds?

Chris Leong: It also ties into a question of process and tempo. We see New York as this inherently anxiety-ridden place where you work fast just because you feel like you have to, you know? So we ask ourselves: Can we slow it down? And we can’t, because people expect the turnaround.

It’s interesting how Anne Marie and Roy pick their battles, also. You take a material like brick or concrete block and you keep working it; you find ways to work in the light monitor, for instance, and those seem like the moments of tension in your projects.

Decker: Some of it comes from the world we are in. Some of it comes from our belief that good design is something that we all need. Good design is a matter of basic human rights. Whether you’re a poor family in Jackson, Mississippi, or someone who comes from means, living in a good house is a basic human right. That’s the way we think about aesthetics. Appearance is the lowest form of achievement for us. But it’s actually very important that design is comprehensive.

Duvall Decker | Jobie L. Martin Classroom Building, Hinds Community College, Jackson, Mississippi, 2012.

Duvall Decker: I’m glad you brought it back to the term aesthetics, because in Mississippi we don’t speak of it that much. We are able to bring in those moments of, say, the light monitor or the strange big dormer because we talk about them in terms of performance or environmental quality. We also don’t ever talk about what the idea of the building is to our clients.

Decker: But we think about design and design quality as a spatial quality, as an environmental quality, as a matter of basic health. So it’s a prerequisite for life, like food, like education, like access to entertainment and recreation. For us it’s all comprehensive.

Weisz: If I think about the leadership of Tougaloo College and the leadership of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, ultimately there’s something about the client that’s attracted to architecture and something about the architecture that’s attracting clients. Both offices have the particularity of a client who has a social vision, right?

Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times: I interviewed President Beverly Hogan of Tougaloo College for an article. I asked what it was that she liked most about the civil rights research center [designed by Duvall Decker] and she remarked, “Oh, I talk a lot,” but then added, “and [the architects] listened,” which I thought was a really wonderful thing to say.

Duvall Decker | Bennie G. Thompson Academic & Civil Rights Research Center, Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, Jackson, Mississippi, 2011. Credit: Timothy Hursley

Decker: You can imagine a small, 900-student historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi, which has been there since 1869, charging forward on human and civil rights. She has been head of that college for about 10 years, she promotes it, she believes in its mission, and she creates a world that Anne Marie and I support. We try to do our work to help her.

Duvall Decker: The historically black colleges are the progressive institutions in Mississippi. They aren’t interested in a nostalgic vision of what things should be; they don’t say “Where are my columns on that screened porch?”

Kimmelman: How do you support a socially minded practice when your fees are basically nothing? You’ve developed this system of, not just development, but also bringing in maintenance work, which you expressed to me as a source of steady income.

Decker: There are many, many days when we paid the bills and made payroll by shifting maintenance projects to the office, to the staff.

Kimmelman: But to me it also relates to this idea that, for you, the building is not just an object. Rather it has an ongoing life, which you as architects bring about but also shepherd along.

Andrea Lamberti, Rafael Viñoly Architects: I’m curious to know if working at a historically black college has given you a chance to bring in some of its graduates.

Decker: Yes. We have an amazing planner who studied at Tuskegee University and Auburn University. She is an amazingly smart planner and is sensitive to inner-city issues in a way that I, as a white male, couldn’t be.

We have a diverse team in the office, by gender and by race, and it’s part of our make-up and part of our mission to create, as we call it, mature diversity, which is about education, economic background, and different religions. In our planning work we tell communities that focusing on race is a dead end, and focusing on mature diversity is a way to grow. Let’s appreciate this world of difference in a much more complex way.

Duvall Decker: We’re also able to hire people who didn’t think they would stay in Jackson. This is what’s great about the people we have in our office, everyone included. Jocelyn Poe, who went to Tuskegee, is from Jackson, and she never thought she would stay where her family was. Now she can, and she sees a future in Jackson.

William Menking, The Architect’s Newspaper: Dominic and Chris, the new Los Angeles LGBT Center is on such a different scale from anything you’ve done before. I see this all the time when looking at other practices, and most often that jump in scale will spark something new. It’s very easy to get a house, but moving up in scale is very difficult. What’s it like now to transfer the ideas you’ve had into a 185,000-square-foot project?

Leong Leong | Anita May Rosenstein Campus at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, Los Angeles, California. Credit: Leong Leong

Chris Leong: You do face a whole new set of problems. Honestly, we designed the center thinking we wouldn’t get the project, so we approached it as though we had no constraints. We were up against Michael Maltzan, Predock Frane, MAD, Fred Fisher, you know – all Los Angeles–based architects with strong track records of built projects. We were the outsiders. It was probably one of the most terrifying things for me to actually win.

Weisz: Did it help that you were originally from California?

Chris Leong: A little bit, I think. That’s always been part of our dynamic. We do a lot of work in California because we are sort of expatriates.

But the other aspect is the level to which you get involved in local politics on a project of that scale. When we won the commission for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, Florian Idenburg suggested that we identify all of the stakeholders to understand the decision-making process. That’s now a part of our approach to projects: understanding complexity and understanding what people’s needs are.

Dominic Leong: And we both practiced at this scale at other offices before. But it is true that this project is nested within a complex set of power dynamics, and involves the city and aspects of urban planning.

Menking: I think you guys probably got the job when you talked about the entrances, in making them discreet and not so prominent. 

Weisz: It’s interesting that your scheme is also connected to the architecture of southern California: there’s a bit of Irving Gill, the Case Study Houses, Richard Neutra’s office buildings. My guess is that you looked at local precedents to understand how, in places like Los Angeles and Venice, there are no entrances – you kind of sneak in.

Roy and Anne Marie, if you got a project in New York and it didn’t have the constraints or the language of Jackson or other parts of Mississippi, how would you feel about that?

Duvall Decker: I don’t think we would know how to impose something that wasn’t of the place in some way.

Decker: It would be incredibly inefficient for us, that is, to try and learn a place we’re not in.

Anne Marie is originally from west Tennessee and I grew up in New Jersey, and it has taken us 20 years to get to know Jackson, Mississippi, if we can even say that. I went into a shop once to buy Anne Marie a gift, and the person waiting on me said, “You don’t sound like you’re from here,” and I replied, “Well, I’m not, but I’ve lived here for 20 years, so it’s home now.” And as I was leaving, she said, “I sure hope you enjoy your visit.” I don’t think you can ever be from the South if you’re not, but it is home and I love it and we’ve made a world there that we love.

Duvall Decker: I never meant to become a Mississippian, but I am. It’s something about all those double-vowel, double-consonant states. But we began to make a commitment to the state with the Mississippi Library Commission building, when Roy gave up his tenure at Mississippi State University for us to do that. All the sudden, we were like, “Wait a minute! We’ve committed!”

Decker: The state said I could not apply to any projects as a state employee. So for us to even interview for the project, before we were even short listed, I had to resign from my position at Mississippi State. We took a leap of faith. And we were ready.

Weisz: Dominic and Chris, do you feel a parallel in your move to New York? I mean, most of the people around the table who live in New York aren’t originally New Yorkers.

Dominic Leong: Yes, it does feel like everyone in New York is from somewhere else. There is an expectation that it isn’t about the city, but it’s more about a cosmopolitan mentality. I was just remembering this entire process about being from some other place. When I leave New York and come back, it feels like I’m home. But when I’m actually here it doesn’t necessarily feel like home. It’s a strange contradiction and I’ve tried to resolve it, but I haven’t been totally successful. But I do feel like we grew up in a small town and discovering New York through architecture was actually a huge relief, and why I embrace its cosmopolitanism.

Leong Leong | Center for Community and Entrepreneurship, Flushing, Queens. Credit: Leong Leong

Tsien: Do you think that has to do with being Asian?

Chris Leong: Perhaps a little bit – it also comes from our parents. Our father, for example, is from Hawaii, but his family came from Canton, so there’s always this sense of migration. After high school, he left Hawaii to attend college in California and later in Cambridge.

Moving elsewhere was always in the back of my mind, and I guess that’s New York for us – where we set root. Being part of some kind of global stream seems very natural but also produces anxiety, because home is always a place of longing for something.

I think of us as a bicoastal practice. It’s really important that we have work in California and other parts of the world. We’re from California but we’re also from New York.

I’ve never thought about this from the lens of being Asian, though. Do you think that?

Tsien: You never lived in Hawaii, but you did live in California, which is a lot more mixed in terms of the white and Asian population. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, and we were the only Asian family in town. I’ve always had this sense of belonging and not belonging. I think the same thing is true for you guys – it’s belonging and not belonging. Not having a deep connection with a place I think allows you to float a little bit more, and to observe a little bit more, because you don’t have an anchor.

That could be true of you guys, but also Anne Marie and Roy.

Decker: I’ve lived in Mississippi since 1990 – so a long time – but I’m still an outsider. It does give me a perspective that I don’t think I’d otherwise have. Questions about race and equity and poverty – people who grew up and live there, I find, have all sorts of biases and feelings about these things, you know – emotional histories and family histories that I don’t have. I can, in a very straightforward and honest way, have conversations with very complicated community groups. It’s a gift for me: to be there, to be anchored there, to be committed there, but not be from there.

There’s a Richard Sennett book [The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and the City] that talks about how one of the great problems of our society is that children grow up in culs-de-sac with people they call neighbors – because they are all seemingly alike – but who they don’t actually know or have relationships with. Then they grow up and go to college with similar folks. By the time they are in their 30s, the ideas that carried over from their teenage years were never challenged, so they become very simplistic, judgmental, and idealistic people. That is the origin of conservative culture in our society, Sennett argues.

I have thought so much about this, because everything that we do in communities dominated by poverty creates the same kind of trap as the cul-de-sac. This is one of the things that we talk about in the neighborhoods where we work, and it goes back to mature diversity. We have to create a society that’s actually exposing our differences in more mature ways so we can actually have role models that are meaningful.

I don’t think we would know how to impose something that wasn’t of the place in some way. —Anne Marie Duvall Decker

Lewis: I’m curious to know about how, through the almost critical anxiety we have about the proliferation of images on social media, both practices position themselves differently, and for very different reasons, in relation to images. Anne Marie and Roy, to a certain degree, you are pushing images into a position where you don’t want them to be as dominant as they might have been a few years ago. I have a suspicion you are extremely happy about getting attention that you may not have had because your intentions didn’t necessarily translate through image.

Decker: That’s exactly right!

Lewis: Now people are looking at a more collective body.

Decker: For 20 years, no one really looked at our work, not until the last two weeks. It really is Emerging Voices!

Duvall Decker: I think at heart, none of us want to end up with an image, right? We’re making architecture. People upon people upon people are going to go through our spaces and we want the memories to last. We don’t want them to walk away with a superficial image.

Weisz: I have to point out one last thing that I noticed when I visited your projects, which I think is important: When you go into one of their buildings, there are these plaques that list the name of every single person in the office, the contractors, the subcontractors, who worked on the building. I asked you, Roy, “Well, how did you pull that off? That you had everyone’s name on the building.”

Decker: We write it in our contract as a requirement for the job. When it turns out that hundreds of hands went into the construction of a building, that plaque can get expensive, but it’s important for all to learn and remember the collective effort.