How to create a firm driven by a culture of generosity
There are many ways to grow an architecture firm, and many values that can guide you along the way.
But one quality in particular will allow your firm to grow and evolve far into the future: generosity.
Alan Maskin and Jerry Garcia, principals at Olson Kundig, told us how the spirit of generosity has influenced their growth over several decades and runs through their team today.
Design your office to reflect who you are
Olson Kundig has a state-of-the-art office space in Seattle, Washington complete with water features, skylights, and kinetic furniture.
It’s one of the ways they sell themselves to potential clients.
“There was this interesting discovery for us in that the design for your own office could in fact be a mirror reflection of who you are to the world in many respects,” Alan said.
The impressive space wows visitors, but what makes a big impression on their staff and their culture is something simpler.
“There's no offices, it's a wide open plan,” Alan said.
The firm’s owners are spread out among the company’s floors, sitting with the principals, associates, and staff.
“There's a good aspect of mentorship that happens in that scenario where you just overhear conversations and overhear what people are doing, how they do it,” Alan said.
Create space for group discussion
Since Alan joined the firm many years ago there has always been a weekly all-hands meeting, and more importantly, a weekly design crit.
“This is the most important thing that we do as a culture, which is every Thursday at 4:30, we close computers,” Alan said. “We put pencils down. We join in that piazza space I told you about, and one or two projects will be presented or a theme or a concept. And the entire office gets to chime in.”
They usually have wine and cheese or beer and snacks to draw people to the meeting because they want to hear from as many perspectives as possible.
“Literally you can be an intern that arrived from Mumbai the day before, or Jim Olson, who's been there since the sixties. And everybody gets to participate in the conversation, and it's a design conversation,” Alan said. “It improves projects. It improves thinking. It pushes everybody.”
During the pandemic they’ve kept these crits alive by holding them virtually, but have changed up the format.
Instead of doing a crit on a single project, they now choose four crits that share a theme like hospitality or residential architecture. This works well now that the firm is so large, with 200 employees and counting.
They’ve also invited staff to show off their home spaces.
“We actually had people kind of share where they live and where they were spending the pandemic,” Jerry said.
“Just trying to find ways that we get to know each other better in a way that only happens when you create a venue that's outside of the day-to-day.”
Use crits to learn and evolve
The crits are a cornerstone to Olson Kundig and its culture.
Not only do they serve to bring people together and flesh out designs, but they are a great way to do learning in real-time.
Jerry said that during the pandemic he borrowed an idea from the Joe Rogan Show to keep them engaging.
“Whenever someone brings up something, a topic, the producer will just look up a topic on the internet and then they'll just talk about it,” Jerry said. “And that's so different than any other talk show. [With] our crits, we are now collectively learning real time the way that people learn.”
They choose topics and immediately do searches and image searches to dive into those subjects.
Jerry said that they will likely keep this format when employees return to the office, and have both an in-person and virtual version of the crit so more people can join.
Crits also play a major role in how the firm evolves their design approach over time. It’s a practice in generosity because it welcomes ideas from all corners.
“It can come from anywhere in the firm,” Alan said. “Literally, it's the power of a really good idea.”
A firm can start small with crits if they’re looking to transform their studio. If there’s a project team, invite a couple of other people to join and give feedback.
“Build a culture where that feels safe so that anybody can share their opinions without any sense of repercussion for being critical, which is so essential to the practice,” Alan said.
Make education a priority
Through both their office design and weekly crits, Olson Kundig provides a lot of opportunities for a generous amount of learning and mentorship.
In some ways, they see their office as an extension of architecture school.
“We carry with us the lessons that we learned in design school,” Alan said. “And there are some components of that, like the crit, which definitely feels like it's studio crit.”
They also have an internship program that allows them to mentor people at the beginning of their careers.
By offering these educational opportunities, they can have an impact on the future of design that stretches beyond their portfolio. But that’s not all they focus on.
“I also would say that at the end of the day, we are really, really excited to be making interesting and cool projects,” Alan said.
Look for generosity and passion when hiring
A surefire way to create a culture of generosity is to make sure your team embodies it.
Alan said they look for certain criteria when interviewing candidates.
“We're looking for people that are going to be generous,” Alan said. “That are going to learn new things, but also be able to share new things as well.”
They look at their portfolio to get a sense of whether they have that generosity.
“If there's evidence of people who have worked on things, volunteered for things, been involved in certain types of programs that show that they’ve been teachers themselves, to us, those are indicators that that's a person that could fit really well,” Alan said.
Most of all, they want to find people whose passion for design aligns with theirs.
“At the end of the day, where's their passion for design, and does it work with ours?” Alan said. “That's probably the biggest thing.”
Bring in experienced architects
Some firms prefer bringing in young people that they can mold and train. Jerry started with Olson Kundig over a decade into his career.
While that was an anomaly back then, today the firm is looking for people who can bring in fresh perspectives and share it with the whole team.
“That's actually the level of collaborator that we're looking for the most,” Jerry said. “We are actually wanting people who have very clear ideas in terms of what architecture is, the tectonics of architecture, the collaborative nature of it, and what it is to steward it.”
They are at a point where they’re bringing in large and exciting projects that need people with a clear vision. Projects that could lead the firm into its next phase.
“Alan has this premise: what can we do together that we couldn't do separately?” Jerry said.
“When it comes to the actual practice, we right now more than ever are actively engaged in trying to find out what that looks like.”
Pay attention to the elephants in the room
Alan includes elephants in many of his designs because he likes things on a large scale.
But the elephant in the room is also a great metaphor for how he looks at big ideas and big talent.
“When the elephant is in the room, you can't miss it,” Alan said. “Every so often there will be a sense and someone will emerge and it will be just undeniable. We have to go in that direction or that person has to be seen.”
Part of that culture of generosity is recognizing when there’s a better idea or a better person for a job and that’s the direction you need to go in.
That could be anything from finding the right person to lead a social media campaign to following a new and improved idea for a design.
When you create an environment of generosity where all ideas are encouraged and people teach and learn in turn, you’re always ready to pivot to the next best thing.
It’s how you can grow and evolve well into the future.
Join us on Thursday, April 22nd for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Alan Maskin and Jerry Garcia of Olson Kundig.
Alan Maskin is a principal and owner of Olson Kundig, where he leads an interdisciplinary team of architects, designers, visual artists, and researchers. His team designs buildings, parks and gardens, installations, sculpture, digital art, graphic novels, and film. For over two decades, Alan has pursued unconventional design challenges in public places. His built international portfolio includes museums, installations, exhibits, visitor-based destinations, and urban park projects.
In recent years, Alan has been awarded first place in multiple international design competitions, including The Bob Dylan Center, ANOHA – The Children’s World at The Jewish Museum Berlin, and Fairy Tales 2016, the world’s largest architectural ideas competition. Alan’s self-provoked works include [storefront] Olson Kundig, a two-year experiment in design, culture and social practice; and “The 5th Façade,” a multidisciplinary exploration into the uppermost layer of cities. Alan’s recent and current work includes a redesign of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, a master plan and renovation at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and several narrative-based projects.
Jerry Garcia is a principal at Olson Kundig whose practice has focused on instigating dialogue between architecture, art, and the community at large. He has collaborated with world-renowned artists such as Anish Kapoor, Jaume Plensa, and Doug Aitken on installations in both the public and private realms. These collaborations have been featured in Art Basel, The Chicago Architectural Biennial, and the Broad Museum of Art. Working across a broad range of project types and scales, from 200 square-foot cabins on wheels to high-rises around the world, Jerry’s work has received numerous design awards and appeared in publications such as Architecture, Architectural Record, and Art+Auction. For Jerry, “Good architecture rewards inspection – the deeper you look, the more you see.”
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Alan and Jerry about their deep interest in design culture in the firm and how to foster design dialogues in the studio.
- How Alan's early initiatives influenced Olson Kundig's studio culture today
- How the studio has evolved and deepened into other cultural experiments
- How firm leaders continue to shape the spirit of the practice at Olson Kundig
- How to create a formative place for many architects to practice
- And more!
About Olson Kundig
Now in its sixth decade of practice, Olson Kundig is a collaborative design practice whose work includes cultural and museum projects, exhibition design, commercial and mixed-use design, private and multi-family residential, hospitality projects, places of worship, interior design, product design, and landscape design. With deep roots in the Pacific Northwest, the firm and its staff of 200 work with clients around the world. More information at olsonkundig.com