John Enright, FAIA, LEED AP is a co-founder and Principal of the Los Angeles-based, Griffin Enright Architects, a collaborative practice that yields creative, forward-thinking designs. John brings over twenty four years of professional experience to his current practice. Prior to co-founding Griffin Enright Architects, John practiced collaboratively for twelve years in the internationally renowned firm, Morphosis, in Santa Monica. Griffin Enright Architects’ work has been extensively published; locally, nationally and internationally, and has received dozens of awards for design excellence including, local, state and national AIA Awards and The American Architecture Award from the Chicago Athenaeum. John was recently appointed Vice Director/Chief Academic Officer at SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute for Architecture). Previously, he served as the school’s Undergraduate Program Chair since 2010, and has taught at the school since 2001. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to meet with John and learn more about the firm’s innovation and experimentation with a desire to explore cultural complexities relative to the built environment.
On becoming an architect
I’m one of those people who started at a really early age. My father was a bit of an illustrator so we all grew up drawing as a way of communicating at the dinner table. My uncle is an architect and my first job at 15 was working in his office in Massachusetts. After High School I went to Syracuse University for my B.Arch and then immediately after went for my Masters degree at Columbia University.
On transition from school to profession
While I was at Columbia in 1986, I had the pleasure of having three critics in one semester. One was Eric Owen Moss, who introduced the studio for three weeks, then Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi of Morphosis for the remainder of the term. Meeting these young architects from California were of course very influential for me and I moved to Los Angeles upon graduation and began working with Morphosis. The transition from college to a professional life was seamless because they were my teachers, and of course the work that was being done in Los Angeles at that time was really interesting. I worked with Thom for 13 years, and we did a number of projects and it was exciting to be a part of what was a young, emerging office. By the time I had finished in 2000, we had completed a series of major projects, the Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, CA and the Hypo Bank in Klagenfurt, Austria were two large projects that I spent the better part of six years on. In 2000, my wife Margaret Griffin and I started our own office, Griffin Enright Architects. That’s the second half of my career, the last 15 years.
On principles in his practice
For both Margaret and I, seeing our projects get built and manifest have been a really important part of our practice. There’s a pretty low track record of how many things actually get built for most architects. That was the case in the early years when I was working with Thom Mayne, he used to say it was a one in five ratio! We had a lot of projects that for whatever reason never quite manifested themselves. When Margaret and I started there was definitely an urge to use the built environment as a test-bed, and we definitely see Los Angeles as an urban laboratory where innovation in the built environment can take place. We’ve been pretty successful at getting projects built in an environment that’s pretty difficult to do so, and over fifteen years we have never had a moment where we were not building at least one project, and I think we are proud of that.
On teaching architecture
SCI-Arc is an integral part of who we are as architects and the school remains one of the most stimulating places to teach in the world. For me, education has to address what I would call a duality, or the separation of the world of ideas and the world of practice. This separation is convenient for some to be able to bifurcate the world of architecture between two poles; the abstract and the real. As if there is a world of pure ideas, imagination, and speculation on one side and then there’s a practical world of buildings, budgets, timelines, etc on the other. My whole career as an architect and educator has been about fusing both of those worlds and making that all one.
When we talk about educating young architects, we have a responsibility of course to do both but mainly to imprint on them they are not separate archetypes, they are not separate identities to be chosen to be in one camp or the other. The implementation of the cultural artifact of a building requires large teams of people, some of whom will be involved more conceptually, and others who will be more technically invested. But in the best pieces of architecture these aspects are completely blurred. When we educate young people we’re purposely telling them you have to speculate, you have to think towards a future that’s unknown, that you’re going to make, which is incredibly exciting. This is of course research-based. These are ideas that have not yet been implemented. Simultaneously you need to master the discipline in a technological way, whether that’s environmental systems, structural systems, material behavior, or software. This is permeated from left to right. It’s a very difficult thing to do in education, but I would say at SCI-Arc we’ve done a pretty good job of it. I would also say that the school is 43 years old now, and during those four decades it’s changed in many ways.
But one thing it’s always had is a spirit of making, whether that was in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 00’s or today. If you come to SCI-Arc today you see prototypes, things being made in robot labs, we have one of the largest digital shop facilities in the country. We just finished construction of what we called the ‘Magic Box’, which has six laser cutters, nine 3D printers, four powder color printers, two CNC Mills, a vacuum former, all the metal, woodworking tools, etc. I think digital fabrication goes a long way towards breaking down the division of this very simple black and white world with speculation on one side and implementation on the other. That’s the whole point of what we do. The faculty all have their own offices and are doing just that out in the field. What they’re practicing at the academy is parallel to what they’re doing in their offices.
On the relationship between being an architect and educator
Ultimately SCI-Arc, and I would say the role of all schools, should be a place for faculty and students to explore ideas that are difficult or not quite ready for the profession yet, but that will most likely be coming in the next decades. The notion of working on possible futures is the aim of the faculty and students, and the school allows one to have a protected environment where those ideas can be pursued. It also requires that ideas run through an intense internal disciplinary rigor and critique before you could say they are “fully cooked.” And they shouldn’t be ready. They need to be worked on. They need to be discussed. They need to be tried out. It’s critical to move the discipline in that way, that’s why the academy is always so important.
On the future of architecture in next 5–10 years
As in a lot of mediums, we are in a state of almost over-saturation of the architectural image. The over production and the pervasive nature of them have reduced their power. It is very different from the cultural landscape of 25 years ago when there was 5–10 architectural journals worldwide that had 90% of the cultural production of architecture represented. It was a very limited and highly edited amount of images that were produced and what one had access to. Now that everything is exposed, everything is seen, and students in particular have a difficult time editing that information and deciding what is good, what is bad, what is worth looking at, and what is not. Architecture itself has yet to really address this, and is more a product of this condition right now. It may be that the power of the image is in the process of being replaced by experience. Here I am speaking of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and real-time 3D experiences and interfaces that could prove to subsume the image. Why look at a picture of an image when you can be part of the image and experience it instead? Of course the quality and cultural relevance of that experience is what needs to be defined next.