Image: Richard Meier & Partners Architect's proposed design for the US Embassy in London.

Richard Meier & Partners Architects: Limitations Are An Opportunity

“We try really hard not to spin our wheels on ideas that don’t work,” says Chief of Operations N. Scott Johnson as he tours me through the open-plan office of Richard Meier & Partners Architects. But how do you find out what works and doesn’t work? The answer lies inside the rows and rows of glass cases scattered throughout the office, each containing a miniature model of a Meier building.

Planning, sketching, and building are a big part of the architecture process here in the Meier workshop: Every new hire goes through a prototyping bootcamp, doing a six-month stint in the model shop as a rite of passage. Meier stresses the importance of scale, space, and light – elements that can only be grasped by stepping away from the computer and creating a truly tangible object.

Since his first building went up in 1962 (built for just $11,000), Meier has been incredibly prolific, designing an impressive array of private and public buildings, ranging from the stunning Douglas House on the shores of Lake Michigan, The Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana, the spectacular Getty Center in Los Angeles (one of the first-ever LEED-certified buildings), and the airy Jubilee Church in Rome, which looks like it could sail away at any moment.

Meier and company currently have over 30 projects underway, including the San Diego Federal Courthouse in California, a breathtaking villa in Tianjin, China, and a masterplan for downtown Newark, New Jersey. To find out how buildings on a massive scale get from point A to point Z, we sat down with N. Scott Johnson to learn about the inner-workings of one of architecture’s most prestigious firms.

Working within limitations seems to be par for the course in architecture. How do you approach those constraints? Does it become frustrating?

It absolutely becomes frustrating but it’s also part of the creative process. Without the limitations, you wouldn’t come up with creative solutions. And architecture is by definition is about restrictions: The site is so big, you can only build this tall, and if you want to do something different you have to go through a whole series of steps through the planning process and the approval process.

So each one of these things, you have to look at not so much as a restriction but as an opportunity. If you see it as an opportunity you can come up with a creative solution. But that’s, like, everyday. [laughs] Oh, another opportunity!

Do you have a daily routine?

I don’t have a rigid routine because every time I say I have to do this, this, and this, it never happens. But I do know there are things that I absolutely have to get done. So I try to separate out the urgent things.

I’d say about 50% of my day is spent just resolving things that come up, about 40% is attacking the things I need to do (my action items, if you will), and 10% is just to carve out time to think. Maybe that means just sitting at my desk during lunch and not looking at the computer, making notes and writing down ideas.

How do you make sure you’re always learning and evolving?

I try to stay involved at a couple different levels with one or two different projects. For example, I’m working on a project in San Francisco where I get to draw a little bit, which is fun – just to be really involved right there with the design process. I find that to do a good job, and to really kind of understand what I’m doing, to understand how the field is changing, and how sustainability ideas are changing, and how building technology is changing, I really need to stay involved with at least one project. It’s really critical for my self-nurturing and also to be a leader.

When you came onboard in 2005, did you make any specific changes as COO?

I don’t think I made a lot of structural changes, it’s been more about opening up lines of communication. Because we’re so intense and the projects are so all-consuming, we have a tendency to work on one project and be very focused on the project, and not understand what everyone else in the office is doing.

I always want the younger architects to take their headphones off because they’re missing 95% of what goes on in the office by not being aware – hearing other conversations, listening to other people talking about different projects. At the same time, I have full respect for people on deadline who have to get something done, who need to do what they can do block out everything else so they can make that deadline. So, it’s kind of a balance.

I find that the more people evolve through our firm – after the first year or so – the headphones come off. Because they realize there’s so much more to learn than what’s in front of them.

I always want the younger architects to take their headphones off because they’re missing 95% of what goes on in the office.

How do you balance allowing for a necessary amount of compromise with clients with maintaining your creative integrity and vision on any given project?

One of the things that people come to us for is the quality of the design. Our biggest challenge is to maintain that quality of design, and to work within the parameters of each individual project. There’s no such thing as a project with no budget. Every project has a budget, and every architect has to work within those constraints.

Sometimes it just comes down to us constantly reminding the client, saying things like: “We’re not going to go down that path, because we don’t like that design approach, or we think the details should be done this way. This is typically what we do, therefore this is why you’ve come to us. If this is the kind of building you want, this is the direction we have to go.”

Then we try to understand what their goals are, and do what we can do within that framework to achieve something that we’re happy with from a design point from view, and from an execution point of view. A building needs to be built beautifully. That’s always our goal, and we remind the client. [laughs] A lot!

Did you get any advice when you were coming up that was particularly useful?

One of the things I learned the most from was a school program in Paris and Vicenza. We weren’t allowed to take photographs – everything that we responded to, we had to draw. One of my struggles now is finding more time to draw, and to get back in touch with that.

The other thing, which is something Richard [Meier] always talks about, is having a scale on your desk – a tool to measure what you’re doing. Really being able to understand the size of things, and what you’re doing in terms of real scale. When you’re working on the computer, I’ve found, you’re really drawing at full scale. But you can zoom it up, you can make it big, you can make it small. But you really lose the sense – unless you create reference points within the drawing, like “OK, a door is 3 feet wide” – you kind of lose a sense of how big something actually is.

More insights on: Clients, Innovation, Interviews

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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