Raymund Ryan: Can you describe the role modelmaking takes in your practice, and differentiate between the finished, typically large models developed for formal presentations and the small, less-finished models you use in the design process?

Michael Maltzan: For me all of the models are part of the continuous process of investigation in a project. Models represent ideas at many different moments in the design chronology, at different scales of investigation—some close to the starting point when you are searching for a direction, some that are fragments looking at a detail or a texture, and a few very large ones that evoke qualities of space that can be better perceived at that scale. In the working process, full-scale mock-ups made on the construction site are a continuation of this line of investigation and working.

We are so invested in physical models because they are still the best way for me to hold a series of developing spaces—and their relationships to each other— simultaneously in view. You could say that the models serve as a three-dimensional armature on which we hang all of the ideas in the project. As you move around the model, those ideas and their relationships continue to be seen next to, through, and juxtaposed on top of each other. This both clarifies intention and provokes more potential and interesting avenues for investigation.

The formal presentation models are less about trying to make an accurate picture of the building—it’s still a simulation—and more about trying to evoke what the architecture is; thus we try to find model techniques that insinuate rather than mimic. The ability of the models to communicate physicality is important to imagining the final building. Their ability to represent space is even more important, but ultimately their most propelling use is to help anticipate the experience of the architecture. I think that capacity emerges in the earliest and roughest models and continues all the way through the development process, as they connect design thinking to the ultimate realities of the building.

RR: In the last ten or fifteen years, architectural culture and professional practice have become enamored with the computer and its ability to simulate spaces and surfaces and to fabricate building components. How has your practice been influenced by this technology?

MM: The effect of the computer in our work is certainly present. Three-dimensional modeling, drawing, communication and, increasingly, fabrication are all affected and furthered by digital practice. But in many ways the use of this technology is so subsumed into the practice that its influences are not specifically identifiable. I think the more significant impact has been the way computers continue to shift cultural and social expectations and identities. Computers, digital media, etc., have infused culture with a changing sense of itself: its expectations, its ambitions, and its idea of public space. These cultural effects have a more profound consequence on us, as we attempt to understand and to potentially represent and participate in those shifts. In terms of the computer, or more accurately the digital, this changing landscape is what we think about and grapple with; it has a more primary effect on the work than the techniques and the tools.

RR: Can you give an example of how the new ideas of public space you refer to have informed one of your projects?

MM: I think the increasing presence of simultaneity as a quality or characteristic in public/social space is very important. While the reasons for its emergence might be due to the commercial realm taking over more of that space, I think the expectations and willingness to participate in that kind of space are directly related to the digital, especially for younger generations. In our practice, the Fresno Museum might be the best example. Within the block-wide plaza we’ve made under the body of the museum, you can participate visually by looking up through the underside of the building (a kind of fifth facade) to the interior exhibition spaces, through to the activity on the roof, and beyond to the sky, to the surrounding streets and their activity, to the bookstore/cafe on the ground level, and down through the ground plane to the parking levels. At the same time, you are surrounded by specific activities and in a very open and non-prescribed space, which is an important point. You are a point in the constantly shifting web of experiences as well as the thing that connects them.

RR: This also perhaps best represents the theme of “alternate ground.” Does “alternate ground” suggest not only newly fabricated strata in the city, but also a multiplicity of experience? How might the firm’s collaboration on the UCLA Hammer Museum be described as “alternate ground”?

MM: The Hammer was a very complex project because of the existing buildings we were given, the difficulty in making any significant alterations to the structure or facade, and the museum’s ultimate goal of creating deeper connections—literally and perceptually—within the museum itself and to the surrounding city. Hammer should be seen for the ground it broke for us in the way we strategized a design process for making a “new Hammer,” not through an all encompassing architectural transformation but by organizing and coordinating a group of separate disciplines. Graphics/ signage, landscape, lighting, all became resonant pieces of that transformation. I thought of the architecture as a kind of armature for this collective thinking rather than a thing itself. Architecture is to the museum what infrastructure is to the city—it directs, organizes, makes possible your movement and ultimately your experiences.

I think this is what interests me most in projects like Fresno, or what we are trying to do at Hammer. It’s not about creating an alternate space separated or parallel to reality, but it’s really about buildings, spaces that intensify a complex reality to provoke the possibility for significant engagement and interaction.

RR: I can appreciate a hesitancy about being categorized as a designer of art galleries. Yet many of your most important projects are museums; you’ve designed houses for clients with significant collections of contemporary art; and both Inner-City Arts and Feldman/Horn are facilities for visual arts education. Is your architecture influenced by the art it often contains?

MM: Making spaces for art and the influence of art generally on my work are parallel pursuits that come from slightly different concerns. While we’ve been involved in a number of art and museum spaces, those have really been for diverse institutions, pursuing a wide range of programmatic and public goals. There are huge differences among museums showing art, children’s museums, and science museums. The thing that connects them all is that these institutions are really working to find their identity and their position as significant drivers in shaping the public realm. Architecture in that regard is vital; it has a critical role in determining what the space of that public realm is, and what the space of specific institutions within that context actually looks

Art itself has probably been more influential on my work than architecture. Engagement with the viewer and the strategies we use to put the viewer in a deeply participatory relationship with the architecture and its context have been influenced more by contemporary artists than anything else for a number of reasons. Contemporary art is faster than architecture and takes on issues of contemporary space more quickly. As an architect interpreting things that artists make allows a certain critical distance or abstraction to take place without the familiarity of architectural convention, because art can transgress those social and spatial conventions in a very direct way. Recently I saw Carl Andre’s Aluminum Plain reinstalled, a grid of metal plates in the middle of a museum floor that you can actually walk on. Even today that piece is destabilizing.

Finally, when I was first studying architecture, it was at a time when architecture was stuck looking back at classical history, which had nothing to do with my contemporary existence. I turned to art as I tried to find a direction forward.

RR: How did these concerns inform the firm’s work here at the museum for the 2004–5 Carnegie International? Looking at the display bases and cantilevered vitrines, at the glossy white benches sliced at 45-degree angles, I sense an allegiance to geometry but also to surface, a prioritization of the visual and of beauty over structure, as with British High-Tech architecture, or meaning, as in Postmodern-ism.

MM: The International is a sprawling group show with artists, working in very different mediums, spread across the entire museum. I was trying to find a provocative balance between creating a legible identity for the show so the physical boundaries of the exhibition were clear to those trying to navigate the space within the context of the larger museum. We were equally concerned with allowing the art to assert itself on its own terms. The oblique geometries you are referring to—of walls, vitrines, and furniture—create a visual or perceptual pattern that keeps reemerging as one moves through the show, and in many cases, reorients you as you approach the work. We talked about the design as an “ecosystem of indication.”

RR: Your use of the word “pattern” suggests geometry and cognition, the rational and the ritualistic. I’ve noticed in recent projects—the Skid Row courtyard screens or the Fresno roof plate—an attention to shape and surface and repetition that might even be termed ornamental. Would you agree?

MM: I don’t know that I had thought of them in that way, although in both the projects you’ve mentioned, the surfaces of the screen at Skid Row and the Fresno roof, were thought of as facades. They differ from modern architecture’s more traditional pursuit of elevation making. Historically the facade had a significant role in “telling the story,” often in quite figurative and ornamental ways. In Fresno, the roof has pragmatic reasons for its three-dimensional patterning, but it is also trying to insinuate a relationship visually to the often shimmering and mirage-like distant horizon of the agricultural plain outside the city.

At Skid Row Apartments, the screen is trying to mediate the scale between the largeness of the collective building and the intimate and cellular-like scale of the individual units. That may be another connection to the function of ornament, as scale mediation was historically one of ornament’s tasks.

I am interested in pattern and repetition for their cognitive and ambient qualities, but I also think that comes from something more personal, from having grown up in the suburbs in Levittown, New York, a landscape of repetition and pattern. If one is open to it, what often seems like a repetitive and undifferentiated low-frequency background can become an intense place of resonance and complex overlapping patterns that creates real foreground.

RR: When referring to the ornamental, I was thinking of rhythmic structure but also of texture, the sensory texture of building material. However, now that you mention suburbia and the word “foreground,” I wonder if the way your increasingly extensive projects negotiate their sites—Sonoma County Museum, for example, or the Canadian Museum of Human Rights—might not also be textural, albeit at a grand scale. Is it accurate then to define foreground as intensifications of context together with some ideal formal intention?

MM: It is an intensification of context, but broadly defined to include not just site conditions but the cultural and social context as well. I never really think of the work having an idealized formal starting point. I’m interested in foreground not from an object standpoint but rather as characteristics present in the “texture” of the site that come to the foreground.

RR: Until 2004, most of your work has been in California. Now you have significant projects abroad: in the very European context of central Milan, and in China with its booming economy and rapid espousal of foreign architects. How much have you had to adjust to deal with these new sites and context? Has it challenged or reaffirmed the practice’s approach to design? MM: Maybe beginning our work in California has been good training, because it’s a context that is intensely heterogeneous in its culture, built landscape, climate, and expectations. It has allowed us to approach other contexts openly, as we tried to understand what was specific within these new places and projects. The challenge has been more in the cultural differences as they relate to the pragmatic expectations of working method, technique, schedule, budget—how the design and building finally gets produced. Jinhua and Milan are as completely different from each other as they are from California. In Milan, the pace of progress is quite slow, and we have had to develop patience. In China, we could barely keep up with the work. Maybe it has required us to be more fluid in our process, a necessity when you have such different speeds or temporal scales occurring simultaneously in one office. Walking across the office sometimes feels like you are crossing parallel worlds, slicing through a superhighway, a boulevard, and a cart path.

RR: Michael, do these differences in working environments affect the form of the building?

MM: I think they do at differing levels. I think it rebalances what you emphasize in the design, because you approach the project differently. That might change even more dramatically if, for instance, the construction capabilities in the place you were working were significantly better or worse. Architecture is always an amalgamation of complexities—program, site, budget, culture—and the context of the work itself is another factor. I think you need to be careful that you don’t presuppose too much in approaching a project in a place that you have never worked before, because inevitably you are wrong, or your interpretation is colored too much by your initial reading of the place. I am always fascinated by how your first impressions change so much through the duration of the design process, or maybe not change so much as broaden.

RR: How does your response to the projects coming into the firm today differ from earlier work, such as MoMA QNS and Hergott/Shepard?

MM: I don’t know that the response at the outset is that much different; perhaps we are more confident as an office, given a greater amount of experience. I think I now trust more that an idea and a design that represents our ambitions will come, and that I don’t have to over-muscle it in the beginning. With each of those early projects, I was startled that someone gave us a project to do. They mean just as much now, but I think I move more directly into the pursuit of the idea. Both of the projects you mention define really pivotal moments in the life of the office.

I like the idea that one’s work is a constant, even trajectory of development, but I think that’s a romantic idea. I think it’s more realistic to think that there are periods where you work through a set of ideas or ambitions from a number of different directions and then those ideas start to become exhausted. What comes next is less clear but is infused with a feeling of restlessness with what you are doing. It’s not so comfortable, but it’s necessary because it will lead to the next thing. I think we are there right now, in pursuit of that next thing.

Originally published in Alternate Ground
Heinz Architectural Press, 2005