10 Questions with… Michael Maltzman
One of our industry’s most influential and highly praised innovators, Michael Maltzman of
Michael Maltzman Architecture
has built his practice around the idea of architecture as a cultural influencer. A sought-after international lecturer whose work has been exhibited at everywhere from
Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum
, Maltzman’s past successes include MoMA QNS, the UCLA Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater and Café, Playa Vista Park, LA’s Piggyback Yard Collaborative, and a host of residential and cultural projects regarded the world over. Here, Michael shares his thoughts on mentoring, creative dialogue, and the buildings that changed his eye.
Interior Design: Michael, your company’s based out of Los Angeles. What makes LA such a great town for architecture?
Michael Maltzman: I think it’s always been – and continues to be – a great place to make things, which is an increasingly rare quality for many places. American cities, especially. It’s a culture that supports, is excited by, and expects new things to emerge.
ID: What are the big projects keeping you busy and stimulated at the moment?
MM: One of the ambitions of this practice and this office is to have a diverse range of projects, both large and small. Currently we’re working on a master plan for the Arts Center campus… We just received word that we’ve won a competition for the new Sixth Street Bridge in LA. We’re also just about to get going on a residential building at the U.S. embassy in Paris. It’s not an enormous project, yet means a lot to our practice.
ID: Paris is such hallowed ground for the design and architecture world. How do you feel about working there?
MM: As an American, I’m fascinated that over the past 250 years there are ideas – both of landscape and building – characterized and related to ideas that began in France. Part of our approach is to understand where those relationships are. This is a building project, yet the street landscapes are incredibly characteristic. One of our responsibilities is to be very conscious that we have a great deal to continue to understand about the specifics of that place.
ID: For this project – or for any new project – how do you encourage creative dialogue among your team?
MM: One of the most important things, before we even start, is to make ideas possible. In our office, the evolution of ideas – at an ambitious level – are an expectation, not a luxury. Each project is approached by really trying to find something that sets off that first idea. This can come from anyplace – from context, from a painting I might see, from a cultural idea – and then we have an open forum. That’s all we need at first, and from there it turns into an intuitive process. We employ a 3-D model to look at the unique potential of a project.
ID: What clients make your work feel the most satisfying?
MM: I always hope that clients find a strong level of engagement with the project. An ideal client for me is very involved, has an opinion, and challenges us at each stage of the project. We want clients to be specific about their needs, yet remain open to having a real conversation about the work… what it’s trying to do and what its larger ambitions are.
ID: How knowledgeable are your clients about design principles these days?
MM: Clients reflect culture, in that same way that architecture reflects society. In my experience, I find that there are always clients who are deeply interested in making something of real consequence, and excited by the challenge of buildings that contribute to culture. The bigger question would be how culture as a whole thinks about its physical environment, be it landscape or building. This, in my mind, means buildings that are both iconic and responsible. We should demand both.
ID: How focused are emerging talent in the architecture and design world? Does anyone catch your eye with what they’re introducing to the industry?
MM: I’m deeply interested in art and artists, and the way that they interpret our world. I’m particularly focused there, looking for ways to view my world through a different lens. I don’t know how you can keep a practice lively and critical if you don’t constantly keep your eyes on what’s happening outside of our world. The moment you start using your own work as inspiration, you’ve stopped growing.
ID: As the US works its way out of the recession, are you seeing renewed interest in construction and development?
MM: It feels that way, though that is completely anecdotal. I have no hard data. We’ve been fortunate because we’ve been getting consistent new projects from different sectors of the economy. If nothing else, I’m noticing that the level of anxiety about projects is starting to subside a bit.
ID: How do you feel about the word “sustainability?”
MM: The idea of building’s relationship to the environment is not a new idea. We can find those concerns and ideas all the way back through the history of building. Our culture is more immediately focused on it-it being an urgent question-yet like a lot of topical issues, it has been often dealt with in superficial ways. What we’re seeing now, after that first rush, is a much deeper, consequential question of what sustainability means. It’s not about how we become sustainable in the quickest way. It’s about how to contribute to a sustained, developing culture.
ID: Is there any particular structure that you’ve always felt has achieved this, and perhaps has served as a source of inspiration to you?
MM: San Carlo alle Quattro Fontana, Borromini’s small church in Rome. It’s a city I have always been ambivalent and suspicious about as an architect, but that building has continued to endure for me, from the first moment I saw images and plans of it. I’ve gone back to visit it so many time, and it’s a real resonant place for me. It speaks to the spirit and energy level that architecture can achieve.
ID: And how key would you say the mentoring process in the cultivation of new ideas?
MM: This is something at the core of the discipline of architecture as opposed to the “business” of architecture. Architecture tends to be a longer working life than many other professions. Because of that, within its culture there’s this tradition of learning from people ahead of you. This is how new ideas are developed and ethics are passed on. Some of that happens in schools, and a large part of that happens in studios and offices. It’s written very deeply into how we think about ourselves as architects.
ID: Is there an early moment-perhaps as a young man, or early in your career-when you found yourself truly engaged in great design?
MM: I think I’ve always been aware of the things around me, whether they were objects or the environment, but I do recall the moment when I understood that I had a relationship to an idea about design. I was in undergraduate school as RISD, walking down Benefit Street. It’s a primarily 19th Century street in Collegeville, Providence, lined with colonial and federalist houses, all with a very classical front door. I was halfway down the street, thinking about each of those doors and what the builder had wanted by designing those doors differently. It was incredibly exciting and terrifying, because at that moment I had crossed a threshold and I would never see the world the same way again.