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New Zealand Institute of Architects









Catherine Johnson and Rebecca Rudolph

Festival of Architecture 2017 — GIB® keynote speakers

Garden House site insepction.

Photo: Design, Bitches

Catherine Johnson and Rebecca Rudolph of Los Angeles architecture firm Design, Bitches were the keynote speakers for the 2017 Festival of Architecture. During their visit to New Zealand they talked about their work, education and careers – and the genesis of their provocative practice name.

John Walsh: How did your practice start?

Rebecca Rudolph (RR): We met while working together at another firm. The local Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects [AIA] put on a competition – this was in 2009 or 2010, in the depths of the US recession. The AIA was trying to give young architects to motivate them. It was a young, architectural talent award, and the brief was: “Architecture is [fill in the blank].” They wanted a manifesto and a portfolio of work, and were going to give awards based on how closely the body of work related to the manifesto.

We thought it was a bit ambitious to ask young architects for a body of work that related to a manifesto, but Cathy and I thought, “Let’s just have some fun and enter this competition.” And our answer to the question “Architecture is?” was, “It’s design, bitches,” which was kind of aimed at the AIA.

We made a portfolio that was semi-fictional. It had some projects we’d worked on together, some of our own individual work, and also some things we just made up. We thought they would just throw it away, because the American Institute of Architects has been known for being more conservative, but it turned out they liked it.

Cathy Johnson (CJ): Then they started calling. They were asking about documentation – you had to have graduated within a certain number of years to be eligible. We thought, “Well, something has happened ’cause they’re asking for this.” And then we received an honourable mention, which was actually the best for us.

RR: Yes, we were like, “What are we going to do if we have to give a lecture?”, because we’d made it all up.

CJ: Anyway, we got a certificate, which was the first time that ‘Design, Bitches’ was printed. The part of that submission, which has carried through into our practice, is the idea of creating work. Obviously, we care a lot about what we do, but we have tried to keep an attitude of not taking ourselves so seriously all the time, or talking about our work on a sort of high level. This makes for an easier conversation with a broader group of people. I have very intelligent friends who say, “Oh, I don’t know anything about architecture.” People can be intimidated by the idea of architecture.

Rebecca may have encountered that suspicion when she was interviewed on Radio New Zealand. It’s still a common perception that architecture is an elitist pursuit and that architecture is ornament. However, both of you are determined to engage with the wider culture, and also to practise on your own terms. Did you consciously set out to create your own sort of practice, one that suited you?

CJ: I think we did. Many of the first things we did were art projects, just things we really wanted to do. We thought we might as well do some work that brings us joy, especially at a time when it wasn’t clear which way things were going to go. And making the work more accessible, something that everyone could touch in some way, seemed an interesting way to go about things. 

RR: Yes, and since then we have guided our practise fairly intentionally in terms of the kinds of work we take on, and the clients that we enjoy working with. I would say we work on projects that fit with our interests, and this attracts clients who are attracted to what we do. So, it’s a good cycle.

Is Los Angeles in a bit of flux at the moment, and does that allow you some space to do something different? Or have you just managed to carve out a path through the context?

RR: Los Angeles is always in flux. It’s an ever-changing city, which is part of what makes it exciting. Sometimes it does move faster than at other times. Since I first came to Los Angeles in 1991 I’ve seen cycles of change. Different neighbourhoods get developed, and different kinds of places emerge.

Over the time we’ve been working together we’ve tried to take advantage of what we’ve seen happening around us, like new social spaces or interesting combinations of programs. Of course, there’s also a bunch of giant apartment buildings being developed, and other things happening in the architecture world that haven’t been as much of a fit for us. But who knows where our evolution will take us? We definitely have enjoyed working on spaces that, while they’re not completely public, are more open than single-family residential projects.

If you wanted to work on a much larger scale would you have to work alongside a bigger practice?

CJ: I think that’s the idea. The course that we’ve been on is about keeping our core group small – nimble, and not too large of a beast that needs feeding – and working with clever and interesting people throughout the city, whether it’s on a very small project, like building a piece of furniture with a fabricator, or doing some printing, or working on a larger scale project.

RR: We’ve been slowly increasing in scale and ideally we would just slowly go up rather than trying to jump scale, because jumping scale could get ugly, you know, out of control. I think that slow progression seems to be working well for us, and we keep tackling different project types. We started out on restaurants, and then were did some other food-related projects, like training centres, and now we’ve got some performance spaces and cultural venues. We’re slowly working on different project types.

CJ: And I think also for us the most enjoyable part of the job is to be able on a daily basis to participate in the design conversation. When you’re running an office there are many hats to wear and it’s easy to become separated from the actual designing. A slow progression suits our desire to still be in the trenches.

Someone who attended your lecture in Auckland remarked that there is a lot of control in your work. That was interesting, because people could look at many of your projects, with their elision of private and public space, and their colourfulness and graphics, and see a sort of Californian casualness. But of course there is a lot of control, of planning and program, and also of the scope of projects, from the fonts on menus to façades facing the street. In your own way, maybe you are control freaks.

RR: We’re classic architects in that sense. I don’t know if it’s different about us or not, but we do like to constantly challenge ourselves and make ourselves uncomfortable. We don’t want to stay in a completely controlled environment. That’s why we like the idea of spaces that get used and roughed up, or that might be multi-purpose and change over time – that push back against our controlling nature.

CJ: We both have this obsession, especially with materiality, in a good way. On the other hand, I love to see materials and spaces to be worn by life, and take on a patina of use over time. Especially in our residential work; we want people to feel very comfortable in their space.

I think the reasons why your architecture resonates with architects in New Zealand is your imaginative deployment of relatively inexpensive materials and your engagement with the process of making, and there’s also some equivalence of scale. As you’ve said, one challenge might be to transfer that approach to larger projects. Another challenge is to take an architecture that seems very suited to the rhythms of southern Californian life to other places.

CJ: We’ve worked on a project in Japan – we had no idea they were as interested in California as Californian architects seem to be in Japan. The restaurants we’ve done in Nashville were for clients who had lived in Los Angeles and had seen some of our work, and wanted to bring something a little different to Nashville.

What about the architectural scene in Los Angeles? Is there much sense of collegiality or community of interest? Or, is it just too big and diverse for that?

CJ: There are a lot of architecture schools, and I think it starts with the schools. Each school has its own little community. We’re part of the expanded SCI-Arc community. We have friends who are teaching at different schools, and so our circle keeps expanding, but it still feels fairly small – a world within the larger world that we operate in.

RR: We’re in this smaller scale group of people – writers, some educators, architects with their own offices or who are doing different things. And then there’s this whole other scale – the very large offices which between them have thousands of architects working on really big projects.

In the firmament of Los Angeles architecture schools, what is SCI-Arc’s position?

CJ: Oh, it’s ever-changing. The school was created as a rebellion against standard architecture academia. SCI-Arc was kind of a nomadic school in the beginning. When Rebecca attended the school the campus was on the Westside of LA, and I was part of the first class in downtown LA, where SCI-Arc still is. In the era we were a part of there was a lot of making, digital design and fabrication together with making things by hand in the wood or the metal shop. You were able to drill holes through walls and stick things up. That lack of preciousness, and a kind of freedom – I think we still carry that.

RR: SCI-Arc was a pretty experimental school and I think it still has that reputation, but it’s definitely shifted very far in the direction of digital technology. It has a robot lab, for instance. In that sense, the sort of world that we’re in is kind of old school.

CJ: It’s interesting – I would say that a lot of my classmates at SCI-Arc are not currently practicing architecture.

What are they doing?

CJ: There are a lot of animators, people going into film, art production and digital design. I’d be interested to see what happened to the classes after me. I imagine this tendency has grown.

RR: I think from my class there are a few people who became contractors, which was a big thing that happened to people at SCI-Arc in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Some people work in digital fabrication and event experience design, focused more on short-term things. And maybe 25 percent of my Masters class are practising architects.

As the digital realm becomes more important, perhaps fewer graduates are going to go into traditional architecture and design buildings.

RR: Or maybe they’re going to the big firms that need that these new skills to do the towers. In some ways it would be hard to apply that technology to building things with a small budget. You might just need to go to a much larger scale to make use of your skill set.

In New Zealand, there’s a divide: there are architects and there are technicians or ‘architectural designers’, people who used to be called draughtsmen – and most of them were men. Is that how it works in Los Angeles? In the big firms are there armies of technicians?

RR: The first office I worked in, around 2001, had 60 people. There were draughtspeople there who didn’t have an architectural education, they were just draughting. But I’m not sure that role really exists much anymore. The big firms, it’s all people who went to architecture school, or they outsource draughting to somewhere offshore.

CJ: Even at my first corporate job in San Francisco in the late ’90s everyone had an architectural education. The shift really has been to the digital. Students now are doing digital modelling and rendering, instead of necessarily learning technical drawings, and they’re just so fast at cranking out digital work.

You can get the impression now that the render or image drives everything.

RR: We’ve had people approach us and say, ‘Can you just do some renderings for a project and then we’ll see where it goes from there?’. We try to explain that we have to go through the whole design process to get to the rendering at the end. We can’t start with the rendering.

They’d probably take the rendering to someone else and say, ‘Build me this.’

CJ: My partner, who is also an architect in Los Angeles, worked in an office which had a big housing project in China. They did some masterplanning and rendering, and the next thing they knew, the project had been built off the rendering. The photos came back, and it was incredible how the renderings had been translated. Who knows what the towers were like on the inside, but the exteriors were exactly like the rendering.

At your presentation in Auckland there were many young female graduates and architects in the audience. I wondered about the gender issue in your world. What’s your sense of the place of female practitioners in Los Angeles?

RR: I’m not sure about the statistics, but I think around 15 percent of licensed architects in the United States are women. In Los Angeles, in smaller offices there seem to be quite a lot of women practising who are getting good work and more prominence. But I think things are different in the larger scale firms.

CJ: The gender balance tends to be quite equal in school and then it starts to tick down. So there are fewer women practising and fewer again getting licensed.

One of the reasons often given for the gender imbalance in senior architectural positions is the motherhood dilemma, which is one way of saying firms don’t make much of an effort to retain female employees who have family commitments which compete with the demand to maximise billable hours.

RR: I feel there’s also just a lot of unconscious bias. Motherhood might be the reason that’s given, but it’s not the real reason that women aren’t promoted. I mean, there are more women doctors and more women partners in law firms than there are in architecture. And then there’s the pay issue. Because we’re a profession that’s paid less than other professions, I think women might be in inclined to question why they should stay in architecture. You’re not getting adequately compensated, and you have to work all those hours – why not do something else? Why not switch to project management, or work for a city or public entity? I think women are just choosing positions where the flexibility and compensation are more in line with what they want.

CJ: I’ve been fortunate throughout my career, in my under-graduate education and graduate education, and then in work, to have strong female role models. I think we have to keep trying to promote the mentoring of other women, and just keep on doing what we do and trying to do the best work we can. I also believe in encouraging people to have lives outside of the studio because we think that that’s important to the creative process. That’s something that we’re trying to do as a female practice. We have had males – we always get the ‘Do you have any male employees?’ question. Our very first employee was a male. Currently, all our staff are women, but we’ll see what happens.

RR: We do get a lot more resumés from women than men.

How did you both get into architecture in the first place?

RR: There are very different...

CJ: …answers to that.

My dad loves to build things and my mom was an art major in college, and I was always exposed to making art throughout childhood, and I always liked making things. I thought architecture could be interesting and decided to apply to architecture programmes thinking if I didn’t like it I could always switch out and study something else. I studied interior architecture in Oregon straight out of the gates, from 18 on, then I worked for a firm in San Francisco for a while. It was little bit corporate for me – I just kept wanting to bust out of the box, and then I found SCI-Arc, and went to Los Angeles.

What about you, Rebecca?

RR: Architecture wasn’t on my radar at all as a professional option. I started out studying philosophy. I went to UCLA for a year and then went to Paris on an exchange, and ended up staying there for almost five years. I did two degrees at the University of Paris VIII. I was interested in film, cinema studies and critical studies – the things you might study if you’re in France studying philosophy and political philosophy. I ended up writing my Masters in Philosophy thesis on Michel Foucault and prison architecture.

Through that course I really got into dissecting one particular documentary, Titicut Follies, a Frederick Wiseman documentary about a prison for the mentally insane. What interested me the most about the film was how Wiseman showed how space affected people’s interactions. I was also interested in Mike Davis’ book, City of Quartz, which is about urban planning and control in Los Angeles. That led me into a very roundabout way to SCI-Arc. In France the education system is fairly inflexible – I would have been on track to getting a PhD in philosophy and teaching in a high school. They make you take an exam and then give you your assignment based on how well you do. My future was being stuck in a little town in France, teaching art which, now that I think about it, wouldn’t have been so bad. But, at the time...

CJ: It didn’t sound so exciting.

RR: So, I decided to come back to the States but had no idea what I wanted to do for grad school. A friend who was going to SCI-Arc said, ‘You should come visit - it’s a really cool school.’ I did visit SCI-Arc and they had a photo lab and they did video art, and you could build bikes and you could weld. It just looked really fun, and, also, Mike Davis was teaching there. If you did the summer programme and did well you could just go in. I didn’t have to do a portfolio or anything. And that’s how I ended up in architecture, essentially.

CJ: Unlike me – I had to take all the tests.

RR: I started the SCI-Arc summer programme and I got my pencil, and was drawing boxes for six hours. I loved it. It was the right place for me.

CJ: You have to know it’s the right place for you if you’re drawing boxes for six hours.

RR: It’s was a Zen-like obsession, which wasn’t something that I really hadn’t experienced before. I thought I was going to go architecture school and then not become an architect. It turned out that the theory side of SCI-Arc wasn’t as strong as I thought it would be. And, anyway, once I got there I realised I just wanted to make stuff, so I didn’t go down the academic architecture route.

You both have taught, though?

CJ: We have. We actually taught at the University of Oregon, my under-graduate alma mater. Twenty years later, I was in the same studio.

RR: It was our first experience teaching together, and it was really fun because we got to figure out what we’re interested in and how to engage the students.

CJ: We sit on reviews and juries a lot more than teaching now.

RR: And we like going to different schools so we can see what’s different.

Do you employ graduates from particular schools?

CJ: Several years ago we might have been inclined to some schools, but the team we have now is so diverse.

RR: We have someone who studied in Germany, someone who’s currently a student at UCLA, someone with a first degree from Taiwan and a Masters from SCI-Arc. It’s more based on the interests and the strengths of the particular person.

CJ:  We get lots of resumés, and many international ones, which is a challenge because there’s the additional expense of a work visa.

Talking of immigration, have you got a design for Donald Trump’s wall?

RR: I think Cathy’s design is a laser – shoots through the wall.

CJ: Yeah, we don’t support the wall at all.

So, what next for Design, Bitches?

CJ: The things that we dream about are a combination of outdoor spaces, maybe a park/performance space. That would be fun.

RR: And some sort of real public project would be interesting. We haven’t yet really delved into the process of trying to submit for public works. That’s something we’d like to try.

Good luck with that, and all the best for the future with Design, Bitches.