Farzin Lotfi-Jam discusses his path to a practice model that foregrounds collaboration.
At first glance, Farzin Lotfi-Jam’s practice, Farzin Farzin, seems like a one-man operation. But nearly all projects that emerge from the multidisciplinary design studio are the product of deep, often years-long collaborations with other designers and creators.
The League’s Rafi Lehmann met with Lotfi-Jam to learn more about this model of practice and the motivations behind it.
It seems from your project list that collaboration with other designers is a central tenet of your practice. What draws you to collaboration?
Well, all architectural work is collaborative; architectural practice has always been that way. I think people are recognizing that the myth of the singular author is outdated. So this isn’t a new thing—but it’s maybe a new thing to claim, as a sole practitioner, that your practice is about constantly practicing with others.
I’ve always been interested in how you can productively work with the constraint that architectural practice is a service-based industry: The initial trigger for a project is a client. I think architects should question that model and find ways to direct what the trigger for a project might be.
For me, collaborations are a way to find new approaches to work. In order to bring things into the world that the world needs, or to recognize histories or communities that the world needs to recognize, or to indict histories or communities that need to be indicted, you have to constantly push the limits of what architectural practice can do. It might sound pompous, but somehow, when two or three people who have strong ideas and whose ethics are aligned come together, they create a negotiated temporary practice model that exceeds the constraints of existing practice in some way.
Collaboration is also an ethical form of practice for me—it’s less hierarchical and pushes people to question their assumptions. All my projects have intentionally been organized in this way because I find collaborations to be incredibly productive, but also really humbling. For me, collaborations engender patience, openness, humility. It’s been a way to constantly learn and contribute. But it’s also a way to be in conversation with more diverse voices that expand some of the conventions of architecture, or help me unlearn them, which I find transformative for myself and my practice. Some of my collaborators, we’ve been working together for nearly a decade now.
I’d like to hear more about this idea of expanding architectural agency through collaboration. Can you say more about your critique of standard architectural practice?
I don’t know if it’s a critique; I think it’s a theorization of my practice.
I think it’s helpful to talk about what I work on, because that really relates to my model of practice. I look at the politics of technology and architecture and how they form subjects. You could say architecture’s been traditionally understood as the design of discrete buildings, and within architecture, technology has typically referred to building systems and construction engineering. But I think that today, we can all agree that buildings participate in a wide array of political, social, and digital networks. So as buildings have shifted beyond envelope and structure to become nodes in digital networks, my work has expanded the methods of architectural practice to understand these changes. I investigate how the city is being managed by the techniques, instruments, and tools of platform economies, automated governments, network infrastructures, and computational media. But my work also examines how architecture is influenced by these media—how is it being transformed by algorithms, by new media, by software? Le Corbusier looked at cars and films and industrial processes; I work with electronic environments, gaming engines, regimes of vision, and innovation ideologies. I’m thinking about the transformations to ideas of space, and of our perceptions and behaviors, through network technologies.
It took me a while to form this position and articulate this mode of design, which is the result of collaborating with people who broadened and deepened my inquiry into computation and the city. During the first ten years of my career, I was enmeshed in the normative applications of computation within architecture—so using digital tools to produce complex form, to automate fabrication, and to optimize the management and delivery of the construction process. The results of these projects were often a uniquely marketable building facade: architecture as a luxury object for real estate development.
This use of architecture for financial speculation didn’t sit well with me. But at the time, the only two “radical” theorizations of practice that I was aware of were the positions of Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi. Koolhaas had famously declared that architects surf the waves of external forces, right? And Tschumi said that architects don’t choose clients, they choose concepts. But both positions seemed to me like a cynical and unethical formulation of practice that make working with any type of client on any type of project acceptable.
And so I wanted more from architecture, and more from my digital tools. As I continued in architecture, I also wanted to connect computation to histories of urban politics, to science and technology studies, and to struggling against a world ordered by imperial and colonial logics. And I wanted to work on this through design.
So collaborations with historians, planners, creative technologists allowed me to expand the agency of architectural practice, and specifically computational practice, to work on these questions—to innovate technology in a way that wasn’t driven by financial imperatives and optimization logics, acceleration or flexibility criteria, but instead by questions of urban politics.
But to do that kind of work, to pursue unconventional questions and an unconventional architectural design practice, requires time and space—also known as money. So for me, a collaborative practice model helps create time and space, because all the collaborators pool our available time, which we’ve created by doing paid work elsewhere, and donate our labor to a project. This means a collaborative project has double or triple the resources and capabilities of an individual project. And in management speak, more resources and capabilities equals better projects.
To be clear, I’m not glamorizing unpaid work, and I think we’re all collectively working toward better labor conditions in the profession. I just didn’t have any funding for my work, so collaborated to pool resources.
And to return to Tschumi and Koolhaas’s positions, my response is to choose collaborations as my client model—to ditch the surfboard and spend my time trying to understand the external forces that shape the possibilities of architecture, and then use design to intervene in them.
To be fair, though, this position doesn’t always hold up when navigating practical things like visas and rent. So sometimes I still take on commercial assignments to make money, and I understand there is no untainted funding source. Choosing to participate in the cultural industry makes you complicit in all its complexities. I try to inform myself and navigate funding decisions as best I can.
I remember my first job in architecture when I was an undergraduate student, and the boss explaining to me the difference between ”bread-and-butter” and ”showcase” projects. The bread-and-butter projects were unglamorous tradecraft. They usually had the more experienced staff members working on them, and they paid the bills for the office. The showcase projects, on the other hand, were spectacular explorations of practice interests. They had all the student interns or recent graduates working on them, and the office could barely afford to pay itself to do them, but everyone was convinced they would win awards.
I think ultimately the goal is to merge these two categories and reach a state where experimental practice is your profitable tradecraft. But this division between profitable tradecraft and unprofitable experimental practice stayed with me.
Early in my career it didn’t make sense to me to do commercial additions or alterations work that didn’t pay so well and then have to depend on this work to sustain an intellectual project and a social agenda. I mean, we all have to exchange our labor for money to survive—no judgements here. But I tried to make the most amount of money in the least amount of time using my most profitable skillset—rendering—and keeping that completely separate from my experimental work.
When I was in my twenties and living in Australia, this meant that rather than being paid $15 an hour to work in an architecture office making renderings, I chose to set up my own visualization company and charge developers $1,500 an image. Visualization jobs would come in sporadically, but when they did I worked on them non-stop for a few weeks, then used this money to fund my experimental endeavors for the next months. And I was lucky to augment this sporadic work with adjunct teaching, which allowed me to develop and grow as an educator and as a researcher.
I continued this teaching–visualization tradecraft after I moved to the United States, but I realized I also needed opportunity and energy to fuel good projects. This is where collaborations with others come back in. Being in dialogue with others produces energy, and combining your portfolios when you’re just starting out can make you look a little more substantial.
So in this way, Leigha Dennis and I got a number of grants and open calls, which led to a series of projects looking at social media and domesticity. And then I continued to strategically pursue other collaboration opportunities where a “great team” went a long way in an open call or competition, like the Cher project for the 2016 Oslo Architecture Triennale [a collaboration with Caitlin Blanchfield, Glen Cummings, Jaffer Kolb, and Leah Meisterlin].
And around this time, I also started working with Mark Wasiuta. Mark is a very unique and prolific architect and operates on multiple levels; he’s equally versed as a scholar and a designer, and I’ve learned a lot from his mode of practice. Mark invited me to collaborate on the Control Syntax Rio project with him in 2016, and we’ve been working together ever since. The conceptual rigor that he brings to projects is really something else.
And then later, Mark and Felicity Scott invited me to work on the Media Habitat c. 1975 project with them for the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, which was curated by Adrian Lahoud, and now Adrian and I have begun collaborating on a series of projects together. Each collaboration leads to another.
But to return to your question about my critique of practice, I think it’s more about how to exceed the limitations of practice. As an architect, how do you exceed the limitations of client funding and client interests being the determinate of what you pursue and how you make a living? This nimble, ad hoc, informal, redistributive practice structure—although some could say it’s a contingent and unstable structure—is how I’ve attempted to overcome these limitations.
How do you decide you want to collaborate with particular individuals? How do you meet the people you end up working with, and then how do you say, “Okay, I want to collaborate with you?”
So we all go to an island, and it’s a 12-week process—there’s a lot of television, and then somebody gets a rose at the end [laughs].
It’s a good question. I haven’t sat down and spelled this out, so it’s hard to articulate. Some of it is based on an ethics around practice, as I mentioned, and wanting to leverage opportunity and interests to produce impactful and transformative work. But I think a lot of it also comes down to vibe. You have to enjoy one another’s company and way of working.
Things kind of form organically. People know I like to work collaboratively. One person contacted me via email after I gave a talk, and they were just like, “Can we catch up through Zoom?” And we’ve been talking now for a year or two—you have in your head that if something comes up that’s a good fit, maybe you could try to work on that together. We’ve submitted to a few grants together.
You know, a grant application is a really explicit way to define a collaboration; it’s an explicit description of what you want to do together. Maybe it forms around projects: That’s a really easy way to establish a collaboration. Then maybe, if you do a set of projects together, it becomes a body of work.
I’m struck by how pleasurable collaboration seems to be for you. For a lot of people, I’m sure, collaboration is far from enjoyable. How do you make it work?
Well, the people I collaborate with are incredibly funny, and they’re really good company, and we really get along. I think it’s about creating some sort of pleasure around what you do, which motivates you to work on stuff in a hardcore way, which is the only formula I know to exceed the limitations of practice.
You know, we hang out; we go to each other’s reviews; we have fun together. Mark [Wasiuta] was the officiant at my wedding. Jaffer [Kolb] and Ivi [Diamantopoulou] from New Affiliates, we have a really good time together. Someone like Mitch McEwen, we’ve been collaborating on and off now since, like, 2013. And sometimes we just do each other favors. There are times when Mitch is just like, “Don’t worry, I’ll donate that to your practice.” And sometimes I do that for her.
That doesn’t mean that things aren’t sometimes frustrating. Collaboration is pleasurable, but it’s also work, right? It’s labor; it’s care.
Also, I think all collaborations are fluid, even the ones that have been going on for a long time. Otherwise, things are static. If I’m making the claim that collaborations are transformative, we can’t keep having the same way of working, right? And so over time, we keep negotiating and growing.
This might not be also for everyone. I really am more excited when working with others, and I make better work.
Interview edited and condensed.