“Architecture Doesn’t Exist Without People”: Smith-Clementi on Starting Practice Anew
Architects Julie Smith-Clementi and Frank Clementi have changed the built environment of Southern California and Los Angeles for over three decades. Together, the duo recently launched Smith-Clementi, a new multidisciplinary design practice working at the intersection of urbanism, architecture and product design. Following a “plates to parks” design philosophy, the duo is transforming the built environment at multiple scales.
In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Julie and Frank touch on their design inspirations, practice today, and what it means to design in Los Angeles and beyond.
Why did you both choose to study architecture?
Julie: I was already drawing and imagining spaces in the third grade. Particularly how to make my elementary school environment match its progressive teaching style. The open and flexible pedagogy was unfortunately housed in a traditional imposing brick edifice. On the other hand, my New York high school was a mis-placed Californian campus, our typical interior hallways were supplanted with outdoor covered canopies. So in the winter I found comfort in the warmth of the heated drafting classroom.
Frank: It started as a compromise with my dad. I wanted to study art, but my dad, an engineer, expected another engineer, so we settled on architecture so that we would both be miserable. But it turned out that the architecture education and career was never a compromise. It ended up being the perfect mix of art and engineering.
You launched Smith-Clementi after 30 years at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, a firm you helped start. Why did you make the decision to launch into this new way of working?
It makes sense that things change a lot over 30 years. But it’s hard to see that change from the inside. You go through the reassuring career rituals that have seemed practical, and one day realize that there are now other ways to practice, more adapted to new work and the times.
Even looking back at our 30-year practice, we discovered that we regularly questioned the conventions of work and workplace. In 2001, Julie launched notNeutral, an attempt to reach a wider audience than fixed site architecture could. About ten years later, Frank took a leave of absence to collaborate in India with Studio Mumbai on the design of two office towers in China. Both of these experiences were extremely hands on. They were reinvigorating, and provided moments of collaboration and reconnection to the craft of design. This flexibility and connection is what we wanted to re-kindle in our new small practice.
We discovered that, surprise! over 30 years so much had improved- communication, technology and professional expectation had each made dramatic advances to allow a smaller group of people to have tremendous leverage. It’s the experiences that count most.
Your projects have spanned educational work, public spaces, and reprogrammed commercial and retail spaces, as well as residences and home furnishings. Is there a type of project you haven’t worked on yet that you’d like to?
That is a really tough question. These are very different but they were each collaborations with their own personally invested client team. I think that anything we might want to do would have to have that high level of interaction with impassioned experts.
Working with all the different experts on Austin City Limits was enlightening for us. They’d never refer to themselves as experts. It was never about ego, but a mutual trust that we each would do what we knew how to do, or would defer to each other. The musical analogy of a jam session was obvious, but appropriate.
Architecture is a way of manifesting intangible ideas and values. So we’d like to expand our participation in specific cultural buildings, especially ones that have historic or arcane expressions that we could help illuminate. Also we’re pretty good at looking at problems and seeing past entrenched habits and forms to allow a project to really take advantage of its moment in time.
We’d like more collaborations with artisans and craftsmen, who hold their own in the continuum of their craft but share our curiosity for new technologies. We see these collaborations as informative for both parties. In that same way, we like to the explore the extension of architecture into the design of virtual spaces. Cyberpunk author William Gibson observed, that “the thing our descendants will find most quaint and old fashioned about us is the trouble we still take to make that distinction, between the virtual and the ‘real.’” The navigation of the physical world is both evolutionary and innate. We wonder how much of the conventions of the physical world are necessary within the flexibility of virtual space. The same questions of meaning, and interaction apply regardless of the nature of reality.
You follow a “plates to parks” approach to each project. What are some of your design principles that are applicable across scales?
One of the main principles we bring to each project, regardless of scale, is tying the design to a story rooted in specific ideas or particular place.
For instance, we recently designed and produced a glass for a coffee drink originating in the bars of Spain, the “Cortado.” This drink is served in a “Gibraltar” a common bar glass. When thinking about the actual object, its weight in your hands, its mass, and how it sits on the table, we made an inspired connection to the rock of Gibraltar. We incorporated the hexagonal form with more gravitas, a solid glass mass around our barista-informed curvature to create the perfect glass to pour into. It’s the intentional mash up of two things that don’t necessarily belong together that makes this piece feel grounded and authentic. It’s inspired and practical. It isn’t arbitrary.
For another project, at our own office in Hollywood, the “jumping off point” was in reference the Hollywood Swim Arts School that had once resided there, since razed. We instead found an uncomfortably sited corner strip mall. We stripped away the drab stucco, dated siding, mansard roofs, and random references to a catalog of ersatz styles. It was a project of erasure. So when we came to what it wanted to be, the shimmery colorless reflection of water that seeks its own level and shape seemed to respect the long gone pools of its history.
We surrounded upper level balconies with filtered floor to ceiling screens to allow inside and outside to permeate. The pattern of these water-jet cut aluminum screens was derived from a portrait of Triton, Ariel’s grumpy nautical dad. But they are just as protective of the studio spaces upstairs, allowing us to keep the climate naturally controlled. It’s both deep and shallow!
Can you tell us more about your public space projects and how these might differ from the buildings or structures you’ve designed?
Our public placemaking reaches out and knits together surrounding context and adds new energy. Whether as an active player for the Los Angeles Music Center Plaza as a Fifth Venue or the shade and comfort to take in a performance in Houston. Our public spaces equally bring together, comfort, activity, social interaction and urban connection. They don’t exist without their context. And context is more than just site, it is place, history, and culture, all in flux over time. Time of day, season, and age.
This has an effect on how we see the definition of architecture. If we see the work of architecture as building, then we are determined to be exclusive, with the premise of dividing inside from outside. But we don’t see our work as buildings. Little-a architecture is fortunately more inclusive because exclusionary distinction is less necessary here, both environmentally, and culturally. Inside is not the opposite of outside, them is not the opposite of us. Which is why we work sensitively— to climate change, with resiliency, and to relate culturally to the places we work.
Designing a building is rewarding when we get to work directly with its anticipated users to craft a specific synthesis- combining their practicality with their expression, or culture. In public space the opposite is rewarding. We want to take into account users who may have no expression yet in the design process. In this case the pleasure comes from identifying the impromptu potential uses.
You’ve both had the opportunity to teach; what do you believe is the relationship between academia and practice?
Most of us came out school feeling somewhat unprepared for the practices we found. This is not an indictment of academia, but instead an indication of the breadth, the potential, of a design career. It’s been said that architecture is the best general education you can get. It prepares us for a world that hasn’t arrived.
We teach not because we are unable to find purchase in practice, but rather in order to prepare ourselves for the world that academia foresees.
Our schoolwork is different from professions. We do more hypothetical project based work, while sitting through fewer lectures. We have weekly one-on-one interactions with practical and philosophical mentors. At the same time we engage in public presentations, critiques, and debates, with people who will be our lifelong thought partners. This engagement through craft, hypothesis, and discourse, is exactly what prepares us for the customs and currency of a design practice.
We leave school perhaps realizing what little we know, but we’re informed more by dialog with our peers than with the scripture of the discipline. This ability to keep an open mind, entertaining even contradictory positions from several contributors, lets us synthesize objectivity. The success of our own practice over the last 30 years is based on this kind of divergence thinking. When we started we would never have expected how different our work would be from what we studied. But the dialog with peers and outside contributors enlarges both the realm of solutions and opportunities available to us.
Two recent studios show how this is projected into the future of practice.
At the Politecnico di Milano the studio explored the dual challenge of rising tides and shrinking markets facing the glassblowing artisans of the island of Murano near Venice. Ten teams of 4 design students met in almost constant, co-drawing dialog, advancing solutions that ranged from handheld artifacts to augmented urban articulation. All within the same project, they debated topics from climatic resiliency to poetic sensitivity, each encompassing a thousand years of history, with the sensitivity of what it means to be a specific place. The relationship to practice seems clear here. Effective solutions are not discipline based, but systemic and compound.
Another diametrical example comes from a studio at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. We asked the students to treat virtual media as it’s own realm, rather than just as faux-realistic simulation. Starting with their own hand crafted spatial artifacts, 19 students used game engine tools to rewrite the physics of their “real” models. The orientation of gravity, the fixity of time’s arrow, and non-tactile materiality were variables open to explore rather than simulate. “Can you have two horizons”, was just one memorable question, that led to weeks of exploratory work. The distinction between the real and the fake yielded to the appreciation of the relative benefits within each world.
In practice, architects are already at ease in simulated environments, and the game designers creating the flexible environments that we’ll increasingly “occupy” should be versed in the shared lexicon of architecture. This class exposed the students to skills and ways of thinking that are suited to both potential career extensions.
What do you believe is the responsibility of the architect, and how do you think that has changed throughout your career?
This is such a good question. I wish I had been asked this at the beginning, and repeatedly since. But I think it’s a question that could only sincerely be asked in these times. Years ago it wouldn’t have been a question, easily punted with “to whoever is paying for the architect’s services.” Which is still partly true. Or a few years ago with the perspective of the autocrat artist it might have been answered “to advance the art.” Which is also worthy, and probably closest to me.
But now maybe we rightfully expect more from those of us that work in sight of a more discriminating public. The sense that the user extends beyond the owner. Even the “owners” we work with feel this now, it’s evident in the terminology we use; patron, guest, inhabitant, audience, performer, diner, caretaker, mother. This shift comes partly from two local phenomena, our short history, and our increasing density. The public is becoming less homogenous and more diverse, and our places are starting to warrant some preservation, some continuity of place.
Architecture doesn’t exist without people, but sometimes we forget this. We saw this documentary scene once where Richard Meier couldn’t get over the resulting disarray of cafeteria chairs in one his projects. And yet we were awe-struck during an early morning visit to the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris when we could trace the legible arrangement of people in the “dis”array of park chairs. The people were gone, but we could still read the ghosts of their activities through the proxy of the chairs. We believe this is this default condition— embrace the chaos. We have a responsibility to provide more than passive containers, and to acknowledge that users are sophisticated, and expect interaction. Allowing for the interaction is the most exciting part of architecture. Provide the platform, let the people take it over.
This is only possible if you have empathy for the diversity of users, and has become a prime responsibility and interest of ours.
So I guess the answer now, like so many things, is not absolute, not singular, but relative. The responsibilities of the architect are to relationships: of buildings to each other, of people to each other, of people to buildings, and of places to past and future.
How has Los Angeles shaped your personal design approaches and practice?
Los Angeles still has a legacy in its resourcefulness and indifference to doctrine from when it was just a mirage, a refuge from proscribed society. The ad-hoc hot-rod take-it-apart and put-it-together yourself, however-you-see-fit bravado is still here. And now Los Angeles is also an attractor to for all sorts of people, from all sorts of backgrounds, looking for those liberties. What’s great about this is that through this influx of diversity we create the reality out of the facsimile. From the Hollywood Sign to our own sub-city of Venice, we can appreciate both the purported image and its accrued value within the same site.
When we first started working in LA it was very much the wild west. There was a huge surge in experimentation in building form and composition. There was an appreciation for more industrial or uncelebrated materials. For those of us that absorbed that ethos, we are still having fun in the realm of humanist form and materiality. The use of natural, durable and rustic or mundane materials feels very Southern California.
The other thing, that was popularized by the first modernist pioneers, was the connection to the outdoors. We live in a climate that allows for a porosity not easily incorporated in other places. Today, in February, we have the doors open and feel the breeze and the changing warmth of the sun. We are connected to our environment on a daily basis.
What do you hope the trajectory of your firm will be going forward?
A few years ago Michael Rotondi was quoted as saying that mid sized offices will cease to exist. Offices will be either very small or very large. And that small offices are where experimentation lives. We are very excited to experiment with how small is small. As of now, it looks like small offices can still have meaningful impact on massive projects. We have a long history full of experiences and perspectives that we bring to projects regardless of size. Size doesn’t matter, connections do.