Gregory Cowley

David Baker, FAIA, has always stayed ahead of the technology curve in his practice and remained firmly rooted in grassroots activism, the interests of community over the individual, and sustainability (even before it was a buzzword). His San Francisco–based firm, David Baker + Partners Architects, has garnered numerous awards, most recently the AIA California Council’s 2012 Distinguished Practice Award for sustainable design in affordable housing. “I think we all have to be aware of the larger systems and the larger ecologies,” he says, “and that’s not about undertaking one-off projects. It’s about comprehensive projects and cooperation.”

Who would have thought that the minute you put chairs in the middle of New York’s Times Square, that it would be popular? San Francisco, where I live, is a very public city and none of us—no matter where we live—are simply going from one private space to another during the course of our days. We live public lives. So, it’s natural to engage the public realm as a person as well as an architect.

There are tools embedded in the history of cities for us to make better cities tomorrow. It’s a combination of looking at best practices—worldwide—and studying local circumstances. We’re becoming more global in our outlook at the same time that each place is understood to have a specific character. What we were trying to do in this office is apply the same approach to firm culture that we apply to buildings—reexamine the way we talk to each other. Reexamine it in an evocative way.

People tend to commodify the profession—units and square footage—and I like to think that we take an artisanal approach. We try always to keep learning. We’re relatively traditional as a practice, but we’ve always embraced technology. I had the number five serial number for AutoCAD way back in 1982—and as it turns out, our office just got rid of our last copy of AutoCAD since we’re all 3D now. It’s had an impact on how much we visualize and refine the design before construction.

Our firm has a very active Facebook page—where we put all the stuff we find interesting or are thinking about. It’s a way for us to explore things and, in a sense, do it in a public, virtual space.

The fact is that even when architecture is private, it’s public—it’s not yours. In cities, architects should look beyond the property lines of their own projects. Architects should think like planners and take the lead in the urban landscape.

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