Given the usual pace of activity and deadlines in the worlds of design, architecture, and building, it’s often hard to find space for values aside from efficiency. We turned to Alan Maskin of Olson Kundig for insight into how he makes room for his team members to experiment and grow.
Sawhorse Revolution meets regularly with Alan for tequila, tacos, and conversation. Topics on the table include education, design, creativity, and imagining a future with greater diversity in the design and construction industries. The following interview is abridged from several of those discussions.
Sawhorse Revolution: You’ve mentioned that your teams invite members of all experience levels to participate in the creative process for large, visible decisions. Can you describe the process?
Alan Maskin: The mistake I made early on when I first began leading projects was thinking I needed to design everything myself. Over the years, I learned how to ask teams the right questions in order to advance projects. There are times when an unforeseen constraint arises and the team shows up feeling stuck. When that happens, we often pull out paper, have each person draw multiple solutions, pin them up on the wall, and debate them. Every person in the room, independent of experience level, is expected to chime in. At this point, my biggest challenge is learning when to say yes to the things that feel right and not getting too caught up in ego ideas about ownership.
It feels more like art direction or being an orchestra conductor. We’re able to achieve much more in terms of amounts of work, and the work feels more experimental and adventurous.
SR: Education and mentorship are, by nature, less efficient than pure production with highly experienced individuals. What lessons from your previous life as a teacher have helped shape your approach to architecture and/or leadership?
AM: Part of why Olson Kundig has been the right place for me is because of how seriously the firm takes mentorship and the notion of learning. Built into the culture of our practice are opportunities for inexperienced staff to have access to highly experienced people. I see new architects with kinetic design challenges sitting down with Phil Turner, our 75-year-old kinetic engineer, or working through technical questions with Joe Iano, our resident expert in construction technology. There is a constant dialog on OKpedia, our firm’s intranet, where people share recent research or ask for help when stuck. As the firm has grown, it feels more and more like a school—a place with many electives, in-studio events, design competitions, traveling fellowships, and a multitude of ways to be challenged.
SR: In a prior interview with us, you stated that an education in design or architecture is truly liberal arts, combining the sciences and humanities, left and right hemispheres. Does your team continue to foster this duality?
AM: Architecture is a difficult course of study for many reasons. From day one, studying various influences, from art to technology to philosophy, occurs simultaneously to the constant challenge of solving design problems. In recent years, my team has initiated research investigations, made films, written fiction, and made graphic novels to supplement and inform the built work. As writer Lillian Hellman said—a statement I often apply to our process—it’s “a way of seeing and then seeing again.”
SR: What are your hopes for the younger designers and architects on your team? Do these hopes influence the way in which your team functions?
AM: Outside of project work, I also hold team meetings with the 10 people I collaborate with most frequently to discuss how our work and opportunities can grow in the future. We look at this in two ways: one, “How far can this work be pushed, and what do we need to do to get it there?” And two, “How well do the team goals mesh with our individual goals?”
In these meetings, the team spends the first half collectively imagining the future of what we could achieve in terms of project types and regions. The second half of the meeting is spent discussing people’s individual ideas about their design careers and what they hope to achieve. This question takes some of them by surprise, especially if they haven’t given it much thought or ever said these things out loud. When asked to imagine how their lives or careers might look in five or ten years, people can usually see what is needed to get there, and it almost always involves stretching themselves.