Los Angeles–based firm ORA is the winner of a 2023 AIA Small Project Award for its work on Liberation Coffee House, located inside the Los Angeles LGBT Center—the largest community center of its kind in the world. We chatted with ORA principal Oonagh Ryan, AIA, and her colleague, project manager and designer James Guillou, Assoc. AIA, about the rewards of small projects and how to prioritize fun in design work.

Ryan: This was a very big project both within Los Angeles and within the context of LGBT centers in the country. [Los Angeles LGBT Center] had left a space available, for tax credit reasons, that would be a community space, and it was designated as the public-facing part of the project. The center decided to do a coffee shop as a place to bring [together] three groups: neighbors in the outside community, the users and clients of the center, and the center’s administration staff. The space would become a hub on the most prominent corner of that campus. [The building] has a very distinct character. It embraces curves as a building form, and it was quite beautiful. We felt like it was really important that when you walked into the coffee shop, that although you’d feel a connection to the center, that we weren’t just replicating the same space. I think it’s been really successful at attracting people outside the center, because it’s an amazing coffee shop and it has good food.

Guillou: Some of the early concepts for the branding of the space had to do with this notion of fluidity. We were inspired by the pride flag, but we didn’t want it to be super-literal, either. So we thought it would be cool to select certain colors and blend them in a way to create almost an ombre effect. That’s where we started to play with using fabric panels around the perimeter, in conjunction with colored walls, to create the ombre effect.

There’s more room for experimentation and creativity [in small projects], and they are less prescriptive. There are more obstacles in some respects, but the process can be liberating because a nonstandard idea is more acceptable in these types of projects than in a bigger project, where the process is more systematized.

Ryan: There’s something to be gotten out of any project you work on, no matter the scale. The reward from working on smaller projects, from a young architect’s perspective, is they move faster. You are able to understand the project in its entirety and have authorship of it at a younger age, because that’s just the nature of the business. You’ll deliver the project more quickly and see the results. There’s something very rewarding about that for younger people in the profession. I think from our position as firm leaders, small projects help us train staff and give them those opportunities.

They also allow us to stretch our brains and have fun designing these little jewel boxes that we enjoy executing. We will always have this project typology in our office, whether it’s a standalone project or a small toolbox project that’s inserted within a bigger structure. There’s a lot of joy to be had.

In closing, for us, what we do is about improving people’s lives and bringing them a little joy and not taking it all too seriously. -- As told to Katherine Flynn