Design Manifestos: Aaron Neubert of Aaron Neubert Architects
Aaron Neubert of Aaron Neubert Architects (ANX) in Los Angeles, California received a Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in 1997. He holds a Bachelor of Design degree, Magna Cum Laude, from the University of Florida, where he studied art and architecture. In 1994, he pursued studies at the Vicenza Institute of Architecture, Vicenza, Italy. Aaron’s work has been recognized with Merit Awards from the American Institute of Architect’s Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley chapters, as well as The Van Alen Prize in Public Architecture. His independent and collaborative projects have been featured in various publications including Architecture, Interior Design, The New York Times, LA Architect, and The Los Angeles Times, among several others. The work of ANX begins with a fundamental optimism with regard to the continued value and impact that design and architecture have on our cities and their inhabitants. Recently, Modelo spent some time learning about Aaron’s philosophy and unique approach to design.
On becoming an architect
My father is an artist, a painter and sculptor, so I grew up with his work all over the house. Seeing him make things was important. His father and my uncle were both carpenters and builders. My maternal grandmother was the leasing agent for Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Towers in Detroit. As a child, design, architecture, and art were always around and have had a big impact. Both of my brothers went into unrelated creative fields, however I believe that exposure was an influence for them as well. As an undergraduate at Florida, I studied design, sculpture and photography, ultimately graduating with a Bachelor of Design in Architecture. In addition, I received a Master of Architecture from Columbia University. I imagine a lot of people don’t exactly know how they end up where they do, however I was committed to becoming an architect for a long time. For better or for worse, I didn’t jump around between interests in different professions.
On the initial vision of the firm
During my last semester at Columbia, Dagmar Richter from UCLA was our visiting studio professor. The assignment was a proposal for the parking lots surrounding Dodger Stadium, and the studio spent a week of immersion in Los Angeles. We toured works by Neutra, Schindler, Mike Rotondi, Lautner. We met with Ray Kappe. It was a whole range of people. When I saw those projects, I was really excited about the potential of architecture. After graduation, I worked for three years at various firms in New York, and was fortunate to be involved with a range of projects in and outside of the city. A lot of the work in NYC, for small offices, was renovating existing residential and commercial structures. While I really enjoyed these projects — and we still do some of that today — I thought about starting my practice and felt that maybe there was another way to go. I was really interested in having an office but teaching as well, so my wife and I moved to California, and I started teaching first and then slowly built a client base and developed that into a design practice. Though some of the buildings were modest, coming out to California gave me the opportunity right away to work on an interior and exterior, to deal with landscape issues, and environmental issues. That was really what brought me out here. To start the practice, it was more a youthful ambition to make things in the world that people have to react to and negotiate, rather than things that are hidden inside of buildings that no one sees unless they’re photographed well. I don’t know if that’s egomaniacal or what (laughs), I’m not sure, but that was the thinking that initiated my practice.
On ANX and its uniqueness
We are a small office that is run like a studio. It’s sort of an exciting and messy process. The way things work and how projects are managed varies from case to case. The direction for each project is mostly in my head in a way, which works smoothly sometimes and is a little complicated at other times. I have a talented core team, however I’m very involved with all aspects of the office. We value creative independence, even though most of our work is commissioned. ANX’s main focus is to build: to design, and to realize our projects. Our success to date has come from our ability to organize a strong team, collaborate with our clients, and deliver a product with which they’re very satisfied. Some of these relationships are beginning to further evolve, and we are moving towards a strategic, developmental, and equity partnership role. Our level of engagement in a project is affording opportunities to impact project agendas, hospitality service models, brand and graphic directions, as well as the standard architectural and interiors responsibilities. In addition, we have greater opportunity to market many of the components we design as stand-alone retail products.
On ANX’s most important principles
In teaching — and it carries over into the practice as well — I am always encouraging my students to be inquisitive, to research a topic, to ask relevant questions and to have a personal position with regard to their pursuits. These topics obviously change over time as one’s interests evolve. However, I believe it imperative to have a position about what you’re working towards, to follow through with your idea, yet remain flexible so that it can be realized. We try to practice not backing down, being strong-willed but reasonable. We’re often looking at sources outside of architecture, such as sculpture and film. When looking at film as an influence — which is funny having moved to LA — the spatial, narrative and cinematic qualities in some ways have come full circle. We have a number of completed projects that have booking agents, have been featured in various commercials, and have auditioned for movies — if a building can audition. They haven’t been booked for films yet, so they’re still B-list projects, but that could always change. Seeing projects on-screen and how they’re represented has been interesting. There’s another translation: we study cinema and then it has an influence on what we do, and then these projects end up being filmed themselves.
On the Sycamore House
We have worked with two different owners of this house, over a period of years. The original owners, a husband and wife, had an area adjacent to the existing 1950’s post and beam residence that they wanted us to design as a master suite. In the initial meeting, the wife said in response to the husband’s desired location for the addition, “that’s fine you can build here, but the tree has to stay.” The tree was listing at around 30°, but we didn’t have a lot of work at the time. So, we were committed to building the house around this tree and we set about trying to do that. Anecdotally, what I find ironic and probably the husband doesn’t appreciate, the wife required the tree to stay but halfway through the construction, the couple split up and the wife left. So this poor guy is now stuck with a tree in his bedroom — that he didn’t want — as a reminder of his ex-wife. He ultimately sold the house and we worked with the new owner to expand it, which became challenging as the tree had to now pass through two floors of the house. Compounding the structural isolation, there’s the challenge of dealing with a living thing, which sways in the wind, gets wet, grows, blooms inside, and does all of these wonderful things. The arborist is happy with the tree’s condition, and it is distinct in the home. Aside from that, there’s a great view. The addition does a lot of sensitive things relative to the existing house without replication; it’s a happy marriage between the original residence and the new.
On Waiting for Guggenheim
There were roughly 1,700 entries submitted to the Guggenheim Helsinki Competition. We came in 1,000 place, if there were such a thing. Waiting for Guggenheim was an exhibition and panel discussion at the USC School of Architecture, consisting of 8 faculty members’ proposals that had been entered in the competition. It was an interesting opportunity for the school to see alternate solutions to the challenge of the proposed museum, as well as discuss the architectural competition format in general. For our project, the idea returns to the relationship between building, infrastructure, and landscape that we’ve explored in previous works. I was also interested in a subversive idea of the public park, which is located above the site for the museum, penetrating the museum proper. You have maybe five minutes to come up with an idea for the competition, so my thought was “what if Central Park grew down through the Guggenheim in Manhattan?” That became the diagram for our proposal. In Helsinki, there’s a public park above the proposed site of the Guggenheim that we allowed to drop directly through the atrium, or the oculus of our museum. That was the big move, but there were others such as choreographing the public space around the site and presenting the environmental phenomena of Helsinki, while supporting the internal curatorial programs.
On his dream project
We recently completed a writer’s studio here in LA. It’s 200 square feet and the clients were so involved and so positive, they really enjoy and love the project. I was over there the other day and one of the clients was showing me the studio as if I’d never seen it before, he was really excited about it. It would be amazing to design Guggenheim Helsinki, even though the process seems pretty daunting. The dream project is one with a dream client that really cares about what we think and what we do. They’re tough, but they listen and they’re engaged with the process. We’re currently working on a boutique hotel in downtown Los Angeles with very smart and thoughtful clients that are genuinely engaged in the process and hungry for a distinct design. Their project is taking us into uncharted waters with regard to design and delivery methods; this qualifies as a dream project for sure.
On the innovation in architecture
There are a lot of people doing interesting work for non-profits, whether its disaster relief or bringing hospitals to parts of the world that have poor resources and are developing their infrastructure. If it’s a positive disruption through innovation, that’s probably more interesting. We haven’t yet been approached to do anything of that scale where our architecture can make that type of impact. However, we have in the last two years taken on a few projects that have the ability to make a significant social impact. These are project types we might not be considered for at this time in the practice, so they are significant opportunities for us to cut our teeth on some interesting work. These types of projects are also bringing design to locations and people we really haven’t been exposed to for whatever reason, whether it’s financial or cultural.
We recently designed a museum and educational center for an animal-rights group in Kentucky. They approached us through an organization we’re involved with and asked us to partner with them in developing their mission. Their expectations were low in the sense that they didn’t anticipate the extent of our contribution; we were really trying to do something special for their cause. They were enthused by our vision and are working through funding now and securing a location. We also designed an American Legion Post on Lake Patterson in North Dakota — using local building typologies familiar to the region, however inflecting them in direct response to the lakefront site. And we’ve just started working with a local group that’s organizing to rebuild a recently demolished youth baseball stadium.
I don’t think this is a new phenomenon, however architects getting involved with non-profit organizations holds greater potential for innovation and exposure for the profession. I have a lot of friends who are attorneys and pro bono in the law is huge with regards to the work they do in the community. How can architects make a difference in the greater community, rather than solely through traditionally commissioned works? That’s an important direction and we’re excited at the potential to get involved further.
On the future of architecture in 5–10 years
Architecture, at the scale we have been involved with, is so slow from a building technology perspective, although that is changing on our larger budget projects. If you look at the profession from a design education perspective, it’s very fast. With all of the blogs, the images that we’re inundated with daily, it’s obviously exciting but it’s hard to give value to things and to know what’s good in some ways. I feel maybe there’s a groundswell that’s coming full circle — not that I’m encouraging a hypercritical or dogmatic position. There are alternative methods to read and judge the work, in addition to questions of sustainability, or social and financial perspectives, or about form only. These things are converging and a lot of people are talking about form relative to the performance of a building and the building system classes are becoming more integrated with the design classes. There’s a desire to do everything, rather than only one or the other, a desire for expanding the integration of design and technical innovation.
On advice he would give himself before starting
I don’t know that I would bother because my younger self was pretty stubborn, so I don’t know that he would listen to me. Maybe I would recommend developing a greater and earlier understanding of the business side of the profession; learn how to write an iron-clad contract. But the problem is, if you know these things when you’re younger, you might make decisions that are different, based on alternate goals. Maybe it’s more about what I’ve learned; its complex to actually build and to convince your clients to pay for things that are being built. It’s a complex, messy profession with really high highs and really low lows. You have to push through; for me it’s been worth it.