Michael Lehrer decided to be an architect when he was eight years old. A first-generation American, he grew up in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles where he now lives and has his studio, Lehrer Architects, and where houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolf Schindler, and Richard Neutra sit within a mile and a half of the office. Since reading Vitruvius in high school, Lehrer has believed that architects need to know how to paint, draw, and sculpt—an attitude that pervades his firm’s studio culture.

How did you begin formal drawing?

I started life drawing in 10th grade, a critical formative experience for me. Understanding the human figure, understanding composition and line weight, are the rudiments of visual thinking. Drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture—you want to use the full palette of tools at your disposal. Those different eyes are always called into action solving the problems of architecture.

“Joy does not preclude an enterprise from being extremely serious,” says Michael Lehrer. “For me, joy and gravitas are a necessary yin/yang.”
William Anthony “Joy does not preclude an enterprise from being extremely serious,” says Michael Lehrer. “For me, joy and gravitas are a necessary yin/yang.”

After college at USC and Harvard, what was your seminal professional experience? In 1984–85, I worked for Frank Gehry. His process is that you solve everything in a straightforward way, and then you play. I’m a hot-glue-gun guy. I’m not an extreme craftsman in terms of model making. There’s an appropriateness of technique: A three-minute idea deserves a three-minute model. Get shit out of your head as quickly as possible, so you can begin to have a dialogue with something outside of yourself.

How did you begin to integrate your ideas about process into your own office?

I took a sketchbook and put it on an easel. Someone in the office said, “I really appreciate that,” and a light went off: I do all this stuff, and I feel like our office is a stimulating, creative environment, but maybe we have to be more explicit about what it is to have a culture of creativity.

What’s the role of life drawing in the office?

About three years ago, we started having life drawing in the studio every two weeks. It’s now once a month. Most people hadn’t done figure drawing in a long time. Many had hardly ever done it, but those things are irrelevant. I teach, but it’s about creative processes. My executive assistant was not trained as an architect, but she came several times. It’s appealing, but it’s work—exposing yourself to the pain and pleasure of drawing. Sometimes you think you’re Leonardo, and the next time you’re facing the creative abyss. You learn how to chill out a bit, loosen up, and get your other faculties at play.

What’s the RaD Room?

The [Research and Development] Room is an explicit space that’s part and parcel of the larger office. We have our tools and our heavy equipment there. We needed a workshop. I realized that if it depended on me, it would never be an urgent item. I told my colleagues: You take the lead, but I want it to be someplace where people can play. They do studies in carbon fiber, art pieces, furniture for their houses. Their juices are going. If you ask people to be creative, you have to give them some creative space.

Do people ever spend too much time on personal work?

They’re disciplined about it. Every now and then I wonder if it’s getting out of control. Pragmatically, you think: If they’re here 10 hours over the weekend, wouldn’t it be great if they spent eight of them on this project? But you can’t always have it all.

How does this benefit the practice?

You want committed folks who are passionate about design and passionate about making. It’s a continuum, from sketchbook to life drawing to the RaD Room. It’s all under the aegis of architecture and practice. Making is a primal pleasure. If you provide the techniques, everybody gets giddy making something. It’s being stimulated by the stuff you create, the pleasure of making it, and the ability to share. Everybody can get fortified in different ways.