Firm name: Soft-Firm
Location: New York
Year founded: 2018
Firm leadership: Talitha Liu and Lexi Tsien, co-founders
Firm size: Three
Education: Liu: M.Arch., Yale University; B.A., Washington University in St. Louis; Tsien: M.Arch., Yale University; B.A., Columbia University
Experience: Liu: Alda Ly Architecture, Rockwell Group, Neri&Hu Design; Tsien: Barkow Leibinger, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Davies Toews Architecture, Bernard Tschumi Architects
How did you come up with your firm name? We’d been collaborating on projects since graduate school and kept running into the issue of how to credit ourselves. We kept thinking “firm, firm, firm,” and then suddenly “soft” came to mind. It pokes fun at the self-seriousness of firms. It reflects how we think of architecture at the nexus of culture and built infrastructure. It also reminds us of tofu and mattresses, which fit us too.
Firm mission: We view the office as a brain trust—less a formal practice, more a supportive space to expand hunches, glitches, and inside jokes into architectural ideas, spaces, and artifacts. We are founding members but don’t see ourselves as “principals,” per se. We are interested in a methodology that is open-ended and nonhierarchical, allowing us to pursue the projects we find interesting and stay open to new collaborations and avenues of research.
First commission: We designed an office for a VR studio. Our speculation on what an assembly line might look for capturing and producing virtual reality was the jumping off point for an exhibition about the future of work.
Most successful collaboration: We collaborated with Andrea Hill of Tortuga Living and Alex Gilbert for an exhibition at A-D-O called Out-Of-Office. The process was part curation part research project - and reflected the rich interests and expertise of the four women who worked on the project.
Succinct practice description: We are intentionally scrappy, flexible, and informal.
Defining project and why: We won the competition for the 13th annual Love in Times Square Design Competition. Our proposal came together in five days. Designing a public beacon of love and solidarity during the time of COVID and Black Lives Matter was very meaningful for us.
Another important project and why: Generation House was a self-initiated gut renovation of a Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone. As developer, client, and architect, it’s been a testing ground—Generation House was a self-initiated gut renovation of a Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone. As developer, client, and architect, it’s been a testing ground—to live in our own experiment—as a multi-generational home and now workspace for a series of collaborators.
Defining studio characteristic: As two anthropologists-turned-architects, we’re interested in Chinatowns as globalized phenomena. They are viral, inventive, and adaptable ... spatial hacks on the urban scale. Also, we like to surf.
Key mentors: Adam Yarinsky, FAIA, at ARO has modeled humor, humility, and integrity as a friend and mentor. Sunil Bald, AIA, has advocated for us in academia and practice ever since we were partners in his urban design studio at Yale. The mentorship and mutual aid models of Dark Matter University and Office Hours organized by Esther Choi have been a bright spot. They have made us think deeply about the intersection of activism and practice.
Biggest challenge facing architects today: Putting in the work for lasting change. The historical exclusion of people from the profession and the hierarchical structure of the industry make access inequitable. Representation among designers is incredibly important to make sure our physical spaces consider all kinds of people.
Most urgent political question facing architects today:
The question still and may always be the role of architects and designers in shaping politics, race, and the built environment. We should work to make architecture more accessible, affordable, and empowering.
The most important piece of advice you ever received: The best advice has come from accountants. They advise architects that for any business to run well, one must charge the right fee, manage cash flow, and get a good accountant.
Biggest challenge in running a successful practice: Setting fees and valuing our own time. Balancing teaching and practice.
One design trend that should be left behind: Developments that are advertised as “sustainable” but actually displacing and disenfranchising communities.