Firm name: The Open Workshop
Location: San Francisco
Year founded: 2013
Firm leadership: Neeraj Bhatia
Education: B.Arch., University of Waterloo; M.Arch., MIT
Experience: Eisenman Architects, Coop Himmelblau, Bruce Mau Design, Teeple Architects, OMA, and ORG
Firm size: Four to six
We aim to use architecture to address social, ecological, and economic issues that often sit outside a building’s footprint. In essence, we engage architectural form in territorial issues.
The “New Investigations in Collective Form” exhibition hosted at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco, allowed us to reflect on our practice and see patterns emerging across a variety of projects.
Second favorite project:
The Garden of Framed Scenes pavilion in Viseu, Portugal, was a smaller project, but it reminded us how collectivity can be formed and framed within a larger environment.
Origin of firm name:
The name of the office emerged from late Italian novelist Umberto Eco’s treatise The Open Work (Bompiani, 1962). For Eco, an “open work” is strategically designed to be incomplete, allowing an individual to incorporate some final missing piece. Although Eco’s treatise did not address architectural practice, it offers a promising way to address political and environmental indeterminacy and instability in our field. Our studio uses the template of Eco’s treatise to understand the subject as both the collection of distinct humans and the dynamic environment that they inhabit. For us, “open work” suggests that designers maintain control and precision through the structuring of permanent frames that require individual meanings, interpretations, and/or transformative environmental qualities to complete the project.
I am inspired by British architect Cedric Price’s work—for its range, transcalar nature, and interest in questions of indeterminacy and adaptation. His time-based approach that spanned from systems to objects is highly relevant for our contemporary challenges.
Modern-day architecture hero:
Rahul Mehrotra tackles social and economic issues through multiple scales and lenses. He is able to connect questions of urbanism and sociology to those of form and aesthetics. The range and quality of work is astonishing. Further, his research, advocacy, and collaborative process is inspiring as it expands where and how architectural agency can be manifest.
Design tool of choice:
Foam wire cutter—its speed allows for a highly iterative process that can also be precise.
Memorable learning experience:
The start of my post-professional degree at MIT coincided with Hurricane Katrina. MIT responded with several classes devoted to efforts of rebuilding, examining water-based urbanism and highlighting the problematized relationship between architecture, infrastructure, and the natural environment. Embedded in that negotiation are deeper questions of class and race divides that architecture often attempts to normalize or control. These issues became the core of the Open Workshop’s work. In particular, we ask how this negotiation might unfold to empower local people as well as the environments they live in.
Greatest challenge in running a successful practice:
Of course money and clients are always the largest challenge. More specifically, however, a key challenge is aligning the type of work tied to our deeper interests and research—on urbanism and the public realm—with the reality of opportunities for young offices.
Today, architects should be discussing:
Questions of architectural agency. I think all architects share a goal around this theme, but position their agency in very different realms and for very particular audiences. Given that the largest issues that we confront—namely economic inequality and environmental fragility—are largely spatial in nature, I would love more discussions in unpacking our agency in addressing these challenges.
On your reading list:
Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism by Massimo De Angelis (Zed Book, 2017); Perspectives on Commoning: Autonomist Principles and Practices (Zed Books, 2017) by Guido Ruivenkamp and Andy Hilton; The Archive as a Productive Space of Conflict (Sternberg Press, 2016) by Markus Miessen and Yann Chateigne; The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion (Actar, 2017) by Interboro; The Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labor, the Creative Class, and the Politics of Design (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) by Peggy Deamer