Since joining Michael Maltzan Architecture (MMA) in 2012, James Leng has worked on projects including expansive office campuses and large multi-unit residential developments. His projects include The Brickyard Playa Vista Offices and Crest Apartments that are both currently under construction. James received a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley and a Master in Architecture degree from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. He is the recipient of the 2013 SOM Prize and Travel Fellowship Award in Architecture, Design & Urban Design and the 2013 James Templeton Kelley Prize Awarded by the Boston Society of Architects. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about James's unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
Sometimes I wish my architectural origin story had more of a sense of destiny to it, but the truth is that I more or less chanced upon the field. But I should give credit to a series of events led me to architecture, however subconsciously. I’ve dabbled in the visual arts since a young age, and in high school I took a series of summer courses in darkroom photography and digital image making at the Academy of Art in SF, and in my senior year I took a summer architectural design studio at Berkeley’s ATDP program.
I never thought necessarily that these things would cement in a particular career path, but in hindsight, so much of architectural education focused on a visual system of representation and communication, it’s no surprise that I was drawn into the rabbit hole of architecture.
However, what interests me more is not how or why one becomes interested in architecture initially, but rather what motivates one to continue pursuing this path once they’ve realized the - often not so rosy - realities of the discipline and profession. In my long architectural education I’ve had the chance to meet and become friends with so many incredibly talented creatives, yet over years I’ve seen more and more of them peel away in pursuit of other creative fields - graphic design, data vis, fashion, real estate, to name a few - often with great success. I half-jokingly tell classmates that the best of us are smart enough to get out of architecture.
To explain why I’m still (for the moment) motivated to continue practicing architecture, I want to reference a favorite phrase of mine from Todd Williams and Billie Tsien’s studio philosophy - they describe architecture as an act of profound optimism, and that has always really resonated with me. That, against all odds and obstacles, we try to create a space or a place that is extraordinary in some way, that leaves a positive imprint on an individual life or the larger community. That, for me seems like a worthwhile pursuit.
On discovering his voice as a designer
It feels like it’s been a long time since my beginning days of architecture - when I discovered Renzo Piano with his Tjibaou Cultural Center, or when Foreign Office’s Yokohama Port Terminal was all the rage in school.
I would say that finding my own voice as a designer is still very much an ongoing process. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to “sample” all the different approaches to design - and each place I’ve worked at has left its imprint on how I approach a design problem, even though none of those places have necessarily defined a specific style that I adhere to. Ironically I actually think it’s the projects of all of the offices that I’ve not worked at that still inspire me - not knowing the design process leaves an air of magical mystery to the work, which is alluring.
My long term interest in photography has always affected my way of seeing architecture. I find myself often designing spaces through an abstract camera lens, evaluating space, light, depth, proportions. This photographic sensibility hopefully adds a layer of nuance to my design process as I negotiate the exchange between orthographic drawings and three dimensional space.
One of the things that has been really refreshing working with Michael in the office is that he would often draw inspiration from a different generation of architects than I normally would look to. We would often chat broadly about the work of Le Corbusier and Aalto, or sometimes even touch upon the specific sensibilities of Roche & Dinkeloo or Hilberseimer. This affords me the chance to develop a deeper appreciation for some of the important figures of Modernism, especially in the context of a contemporary practice.
On the evolution of his role at MMA
There are two things I discovered about myself since I started working for Michael - and that may very well be Michael’s voice influencing my own - the first is that I care about a building’s place in the city. How does it contribute to or change a neighborhood? Does its form and scale insinuate a certain future for the city? Not all architects think about this, but because this is something we speculate on in our work in the office, it lends a certain projective value to architecture beyond the building itself.
The second is how one can design something that has a sense of restraint, yet retains a strong spirit. It is frustrating to see, on one end of the spectrum, overly exuberant designs just because technology allows us to do so, and on the other hand to see architecture capitulate to the conventionalities of market forces and typical construction systems. This is something we struggle against in the office on a daily basis, and sometimes you just have to ask why something needs to be the way it is over and over again. As soon as you can move even a bit beyond the notion of “how things should be done”, you may have something interesting.
On his role at MMA
As a designer at MMA, my primary domain of communication is with Michael Maltzan. I meet with Michael on a regular basis in the form of informal design critiques or conversations, to develop the design of a project. Other members of a project team might be responsible for external coordination with consultants and the client or development of technical details, but my primary responsibility is to insure the integrity of the design concept and the overarching aesthetics. That means working with (and sometimes even arguing against) the rest of the team to keep important design elements from being altered.
The role is a bit unique, in that the core design values of a project is something I develop and safeguard from the inception of a project all the way until its construction completion. How does the face brick meet the window jamb to suggest its thinness? Does an accent color cover or stop at a plaster joint? There is no detail too minor for me to review if it has an impact on the visual reading of a project. The role is a bit of a double edged sword - over time it’s becoming harder to get obsessively engaged in specific tasks like drawing a detail or building a model, but on the other hand, being forced to keep a constant overview of the project affords me a certain luxury to maintain an idealistic attitude towards architecture, despite the realities in the act of building.
Michael looks for another voice in the designer as a sounding board for his own ideas, as well as that second voice to bring different perspective to the design. In this sense, it feels like at times Michael is a mentor, and other times a collaborator. I imagine this could be what an apprenticeship might be like in the contemporary sense. The truth is that my conversations with Michael have allowed me to not only develop my own voice, but to also understand through his experience what’s really at stake when you try to bring a building into the world.
On projects that represent MMA's unique approach
The physical model is at the heart of the design process at MMA. We invest a lot of time and manpower to produce these physical artifacts, because we carry a conviction that the model is the most accurate representation of a design. I think in a time where people are increasingly comfortable in digitally representing architecture - the culture of making models by hand is becoming more rare. In every step of the design process, we use physical models to verify specific aspects of the design - a 1/32” model helps us nail down the big massing moves, whereas a 1/8” model allows us to begin exploring materiality, and a 1/2” model interior spaces, etc.
The way we interact with the models is also very playful. We build working models rather than presentation models. At every design session, we need to have scrap sheets of bristol, scotch tape, scissors, and a hot glue gun at the ready. Michael will often start ripping parts off of models, and cutting, taping, gluing new parts on in strange and haphazard ways, it really is the most fluid way to experiment with ideas in real time
On his design toolkit
In the office we use all the standard softwares, but it feels like the longer I practice architecture, the less interested I am in software. I think it has to do with a realization that design happens on a very basic and intuitive level, and currently the way we create forms digitally is simply not as fluid as manipulating shapes and objects with our hands - it’s a real challenge to be solved. My education was highly digital, but these days I actually prefer to just sketch on trace paper.
On the future of architecture in the next 5-10 years
I would like to believe that digital design tools will eventually pass a threshold and become a facsimile to the physical handling of objects. I suspect this will require several technologies to merge together, including VR / AR, tactile feedback, and 3D gesture interfaces. When these technologies mature, and by that I mean when a 5 year old can figure it out and start making intentional shapes with these technologies, then we’ll truly have an intuitive way to design in the digital realm that is on-par with the analog. That’s when there will be a real paradigm shift in the way we design.
On advice he would give his younger self
Not that my younger self would ever listen, but I would say try to be less enamored with technology for technology’s sake - it’s great to be fluent in the latest software or fabrication technique, but that fascination and the resulting production can often be a type of embellishment that distracts from the quality of the idea itself. I had to learn this the hard way. I would also tell my younger self to read more - more broadly and more frequently, you can discover so many connections through reading. And to be less cautious as a designer, the anxiety of needing to make sure everything looks good is actually a huge handicap, instead one should experiment more wildly and feel comfortable with making some ugly stuff.