Firm name: Figure
Location: San Francisco
Year founded: 2018
Firm leadership: Jennifer Ly and James Leng
Firm size: Four
Education: Both Ly and Leng: B.A. in Architecture, University of California, Berkeley; M.Arch., Harvard Graduate School of Design
Experience: Leng: Michael Maltzan Architecture, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, UNStudio, OMA; Ly: Foster + Partners, Adjaye Associates, CannonDesign, SHoP Architects
How founders met: In an undergraduate architecture studio at UC Berkeley
Your firm’s mission, in layperson’s terms: We recently wrote a short piece called “Practicing Softly” in PLAT, Rice Architecture’s student journal. Here’s an excerpt that speaks to our approach to architecture:
“[We] try to practice softly, with humility, to offer quiet insertions rather than emphatic statements into the environment ... What might be the least amount of architecture to create productive agency, that can acknowledge what is already present, or that which had come before?”
First commission: Moon Creative Lab in Palo Alto, Calif., was our first commission and opportunity to be the executive architect. One of the significant first hurdles of any new firm is to prove that it can build, so this was a valuable learning experience for us.
Defining project and why: We’ve had the opportunity to develop economical projects in the beautiful, yet vulnerable coastal and wildland urban interface regions of Northern California. The Gualala Community Center Rebuild in Gualala is our first substantial ground-up public building. It is a milestone for our firm because, on the one hand, it represents a sort of culmination in years of learning to build a consultant network, writing proposals, and making (unsuccessful) pitches. We like to think that each preceding failure incrementally edged us closer to the success of being selected. On the other hand, our selection was also made possible by the work we have been doing with Rebuild Paradise Foundation, and in Sea Ranch.
How did you come up with your firm name?
We knew from the beginning we didn’t want our names to form the firm’s name. So we compiled a list of around 200 words and terms that felt relevant to the field, then we debated and asked friends to chime in. “Figure” emerged as a name that spoke to the things that architects make and engage with, but more importantly to our design process. “Figuring” represents a continuous inquiry and search for the ways architecture should engage the environment, contingent to each project and place, rather than imposing principles set in stone ahead of time.
Another important project and why: Veil Craft was a summer installation we completed in Los Angeles, commissioned by Materials & Applications and Craft Contemporary in 2021. It was an important project because it showed us how one can use very frugal means to produce something generous in spirit. With only $20,000 in grant funding, we utilized rentable scaffolding and construction debris netting to create an urban presence on par with its neighboring buildings on Wilshire Boulevard.
What inspired you to start the firm? We were both seeking something new and different after working a few years in LA and New York post grad school. We both ended back in the Bay Area in 2017 and tested the waters on a short design competition for the Setouchi Triennial. We learned a lot about each other in designing Sea Gate, and established Figure a year later.
Which architects/firms have influenced your practice and how? Ly: I admire firms like Pezo von Ellrichshausen, SO-IL, and Karamuk Kuo on their seemingly simple, but rigorous approaches to architecture. There’s always something a little unexpected and thoughtful in their work. Leng: These days I’m increasingly looking at landscapes as a source of inspiration. Barraco+Wright has a delightful way of integrating landscape into its architecture, and Terremoto’s way of working with the land and thinking about labor and ecology are equally compelling. We’re working with them on two projects.
How would you describe the personality of your practice?
When they witness our project discussions, our friends often remark that we sound like an old couple arguing. It’s funny, since to us, we’re just talking normally to each other. We take a deeply collaborative and also critical approach where everyone on the team throws ideas onto the board, which we all then critique. Maybe over time we have built up a thick skin, but it is through this kind of frankness that we can tease out the design schemes that work. And everyone is allowed to contribute ideas equally, which is critical to our idea of collaborative contribution
Most successful collaboration: The collaborative project is a critical vehicle for the livelihood of our firm. We’ve found early on that collaborating with other young firms increases our collective bandwidth and creates new opportunities. Half of our work has been some form of collaboration, and we are constantly switching between the roles of design and executive architect, working locally and afar.
Our first commission was a collaboration with IDEO Tokyo and Studio OKI. We’ve had a successful and ongoing collaboration with Studio J.Jih with Hairpin House and our finalist proposal for the LA Memorial for the Chinese Massacre of 1871. We collaborated with Karamuk Kuo on our finalist proposal for the Swiss House in San Francisco, and we’re currently working with DAAM on a hospitality project in Chicago and Zinni Architecture on a Victorian renovation in San Francisco. We should mention that both Studio J.Jih and DAAM were previous Next Progressives, so we’re in good company!
Biggest design challenge the firm has overcome: Our design process for the LA Memorial for the Chinese Massacre of 1871, on which we collaborated with Studio J.Jih, was a challenging but fruitful venture. How does one use a design language and formal choices that don’t rely on caricature and exoticism but speak to our sense of culturally specific histories and rituals? Even though our finalist scheme was not selected in the end, the design process enlightened us to how we can be Asian American architectural practitioners and engage our communities.
Biggest challenge in running a successful practice: Before starting a practice, it is impossible to predict what macroeconomic conditions one might find themselves in—COVID, climate crises, etc., along with the challenges of finding opportunities with limited resources. Practice is not glamorous. We have survived so far because we have learned to stay lean and be extremely selective on how and where we spend our time and effort. These are challenges that we’ll continue to wrestle with because we’re concerned about what it means to make thoughtful and meaningful work.
Biggest challenge facing architects today: We both teach at UC Berkeley, so one of the biggest anxieties that we see students and future architects face has to do with the value of architecture and the limitations of architecture to solve global problems. For our generation of architects and beyond, there’s a sense that architecture, as it is created today, is more a part of the problem than the solution. We should be generally building less, not more, and we should be building smarter.
Ambitions for the firm in the coming 5 years: We would like to take on more public and cultural work, be able to build for social good, and support our Asian American community. We would also like to delve into multifamily housing, since that is a significant challenge facing California. Finally, as our firm grows, we hope to experiment with playful forms and unorthodox expressions.
This article appeared in ARCHITECT's Nov/Dec 2023 issue.
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