Architectural Startup: Paul Lewis | James Petty | pettydesign

In the Fall of 2013, I sat down with Gregg Pasquarelli (SHoP), Brad Cloepfil (Allied Works), Paul Lewis (Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects), Dan Wood (Work.AC), and Stephen Cassell (Architecture Research Office). I wanted to understand and document how each of them formed their respective offices. I was after the nitty gritty details not typically published in the glossy magazines. I was looking for the hard times, the struggle, and the projects that were never published, but paid the bills. This interview is part of a series of 5 posts that will go through each of these architects and discuss their beginning.

Paul Lewis founded his firm LTL Architects several years ago with his twin brother, David Lewis, and their friend and classmate from Princeton, Marc Tsurumaki. Their work has been widely published and is very popular in academic environments. More information on LTL Architects can be found on their website.

Architectural Startup: Paul Lewis | James Petty | pettydesign

Paul Lewis: We started out roughly in about 1992 doing work nights and weekends. There were about five-year segments of that. Marc and I were in grad school together, and I obviously knew David. We never intended to work together. He was doing a Masters degree in history and theory at Cornell while I was going for the design at Princeton. As soon as I had graduated he had decided he wanted to shift outside of theory and history and subsequently went to Princeton. So I graduated in 1992, Marc graduated in 1991. Marc, and I, along with another friend, did competitions nights and weekends for about five years.

James Petty: That was while you guys were at Diller+Scofidio as well as Joel Sanders, right?

PL: I was working at Diller+Scofidio and Marc was at Joel Sanders. During that period we did a couple of shows at Storefront for Art and Architecture.

JP: Right. You guys really began with exhibitions right?

PL: Yeah. Exhibitions and smaller scale work that we would actually fabricate. We made the argument that when you start a practice, that is assuming you want to build and not just do drawings Lebbeus Woods’ style, that there are five models of finding financial support. The first is that you are born wealthy, which a fair number of architects start out this way. The second is you win a major competition, which isn’t really an option in the United States. I cannot remember with the possible exception of maybe Maya Lynn, anyone who has jump-started his or her career in the United States with a competition. The third is that you work for someone endlessly until you work your way up the latter to make partner somehow. The fourth is you work there long enough to establish yourself to be able to take clients. That wasn’t something we wanted to do. It took too long. Or the last is that you teach. That is exactly what we did.

JP: Did you begin teaching directly out of Princeton?

PL: No. I started teaching about three years after graduating. I started teaching courses at Barnard, and then we decided to leave our day jobs around the spring of 1997. I left Diller+Scofidio, Marc left Joel Sanders and David, who had graduated in 1995, was working for Peter Guggenheimer, and then he got a position to teach at Cornell. The three of us were at different locations at that point.

JP: Were you using teaching as a tool to pay the bills and keep your lives going?

PL: Yeah. Our rent back then was about $50 for a 150 square feet basement with no light, no air other than what was brought in from an old sprinkler pipe that you could actually prop open. All the electricity was siphoned off from the base building. No heat. When it rained heavily, the sewer would back up. It was nasty, but it was big enough that we could make things in it. We had a table saw, but we couldn’t run a full sheet of plywood through it without stopping and moving the saw before continuing. But you know, you make do. All the work back then was exhibition work. All of these things were built while we were working for our respective firms.

JP: How did you guys have the connection with the Storefront for Art and Architecture?

PL: Those were predominantly through Liz [Diller] and Ric [Scofidio]. The curators of the first exhibition in 1995 were, among others, Marc Wigly and Beatriz Colomina. They knew us from when we were students at Princeton. We offered to build some furniture for part of the exhibition which went very well, and we developed a good working relationship with Shirin [Neshat] at Storefront. That led to doing another exhibition design in 1996. Afterward, we proposed to Kyong Park, who was the director of Storefront, that we should have our own show. So we proposed all this work, which did not exist.

JP: That was the ten New York projects that were the basis for your first book.

PL: Yeah. It ended up becoming Pamphlet 21: Situation Normal. So we didn’t have those projects, but he said, “ok great! We’ll give you a show in the summer.” This was 1997. So between January and the summer, we basically charretted the entire exhibition in that basement space. Basically generating six new thesis projects that one semester, just the three of us. It was ridiculous. But that led to the show, which led to the book. So all of these speculative projects were done through that period. And largely because we had the ability to make things, we would take on projects like Princeton Architectural Press’ office and the Van Allen Institute. Smaller scale projects that we built.

JP: It is interesting that one of your first built projects is the New York office for Princeton Architectural Press at the same time that your book, Situation Normal, which was produced by them. Was that related?

PL: David had worked for them for a summer while in graduate school. And Kevin Lippert was one of our professors. So we had a good relationship with them. We had built all the furniture for Princeton Architectural Press. It was all on a super shoe-string budget. I think that project was about $20,000 and the Van Allen Institute was $60,000 for 3,000 square feet. The only way to get any design out of it was to actually fabricate it ourselves.

JP: Were you guys into fabrication while at Princeton?

PL: Yeah a little bit. There was a period at Princeton when Liz Diller came from the Cooper Union and brought a real interest in making. Rather than just doing drawings and models, you would do larger scale fabrications of projects.

JP: That seems to have really influenced the making of your initial smaller projects on things that contractors probably wouldn’t want to be making.

PL: Right. We still always maintain a metal and wood shop. That has always been a part of our office. A third of our office space right now is the shop. We made all of the custom chairs here for the Lozoo restaurant. Whatever they couldn’t afford in the budget, we would build for the cost of the materials plus a little extra for the labor. It would elevate the quality of the work if we would be able to do these things ourselves. The curse is that you can’t do projects unless you have already done them. How do you break in? So our way was to take these super small budgets and do the manual labor to develop a sufficient quantity of work where people would have the confidence to allow you to do other things. These were terrible contractors. The only way to get the design good enough was to come in and fix everything. So we basically had to redo and repaint everything. Then we added layers of detail throughout the project. We built benches; we built chairs; all kinds of details. The contractor would do the stuff that we couldn’t legally do, mechanical, electrical, things like that. We would then go in and do all the rest. We still use our shop to do prototypes. We don’t do everything anymore but tend to make parts of projects or furniture. Essentially we expanded what we were willing to engage to produce the practice. The practice isn’t going to happen by following the typical model of architectural means and methods. No actually, if you want to get this built, you got to do by whatever means necessary to get this stuff externalized.

JP: In these initial interior projects, Lozoo Restaurant, Dash Dogs, Tides Restaurant, Ini Ani, etc., did you guys really want to go all out because you knew these would be the marketing tools for you later?

PL: To some level, yeah. We have always preferred doing projects that have public dimensions to them. We haven’t done many residences at all. That is another crack you can go into. You can do nothing but high-end residences. There you build a good relationship with a client where they will take a risk with you. Institutions won’t take a risk unless you have a track record. We went into the restaurant world because it allowed you to do a project quickly. There was a role for design. Design wasn’t just something that you were imposing; it was relevant. You could argue it makes the restaurant relevant. Also, effectively they have a fairly fast turnover. The assumption is that most restaurants last maybe a year on average. That also gives you a certain degree of freedom that you wouldn’t have in projects that are supposed to last twenty or fifty years. You can experiment with materials. We could operate on the premise of the designs operating from the standpoint of seduction that makes the restaurant viable. This was getting into 2002 until 2007 where we continued to do a lot of exhibitions like the Venice Biennale with the three of us building everything. But we did six restaurants.

JP: Are any of them still open?

PL: No. Zing was the last one to close. It was pretty great, but the restaurant tanked. The problem here wasn’t with the design; the food wasn’t that good. We also had to have a very clear distinction between the things we would do and the things the contractor would do. With Lozoo, the contractor did almost nothing. It was a tiny little project, so we built the entire thing. When it closed, we went back in and took a lot of the things back out. Ironically we had to buy our chairs back. They were selling them on the street for $50. I don’t think they even paid us that much for them initially.

JP: Did you use the same contractors for all of the projects?

PL: No. We always worked with the low bidder. They were typically very unskilled. These were super cheap projects. Ini Ani was maybe $60,000. Tides was about $100,000. They were all in that ‘nothing’ range. That was why we were very interested in the fabrication of materials. But you develop a repertoire of work. All of which are based on people who don’t have a problem in taking on the risk. The restaurants were small enough that we could use sweat equity to turn them into something interesting. In the case of Fluff Bakery, the contractor did everything except the surface and the lights. We went in after they were done and brought in everyone from the office and skinned it. We built custom lights and put them in. Within eight months, the project wasn’t making any money, so they turned it into an Irish bar. Someone called us and said, “hey your project is being demolished.” But oh well. There isn’t anything we can do about it.

JP: So all of your employees are involved in the process of making.

PL: For the Fluff Gallery, everyone spent two-weeks in the summer and glued felt onto the walls. It was a good situation in that it just took a lot of people to do it, but the material was cheap. I think the contractor was planning to charge $80,000 to do the felt wall. At that point, the client wanted to just paint the wall. We went in and said, “look… the material alone is only $5,000. We will do the labor for $20,000.” That allowed us to pay our employees. We usually try to find a way that there will be a separate contract in terms of the design work and the fabrication or installation that we do. It is not like we were competitively bidding other people who would do the wall cheaper. Nobody would do it that cheap. It allowed us to get the projects and at the same time by developing that work; we were able to get some traction with larger institutions.

JP: That is a large problem with many young studios in New York where they get into the rhetoric of doing renovation or small loft projects for their entire career.

PL: Right. We consciously decided in about 2007 after we had done a large restaurant in Las Vegas that we were not going to do any more restaurants. We got a lot of press for those initial projects, and we were getting calls all the time from people saying, “We’ve got no money. We heard you were the guys to go to and that you can turn no-money into something great.” We realized that we were going to be victims of our own success. We really wanted to move into larger scale projects. But it takes time to do it. With our first dormitory, which was finished in 2004 [Bornhuetter Hall at the College of Wooster], we were asked to come in. Someone at the college knew us and recommended us to the Vice President at the time. He said, “look, you don’t have a track record of buildings, but we need a younger firm to come in and look at existing dormitories.” We did an elaborate feasibility study of these dormitories, which were built in the 1960s and tried to understand where we could do tactful modifications to them. We developed a good working relationship with that vice-president. He then said, “We need to do a new dormitory. Why don’t you do the schematic design and if everyone likes it? Then you’re hired. By the way, it needs to have a pitched roof, made out of brick, under $150 per square foot and last 100 years.” It was an interesting project. It allowed us to have more legitimacy to go after other projects. At the time we were still having problems going after larger scale institutional work. During this same period, we were trying to have the books be a part of it.

JP: Now you have three books out. Do you continually publish these to try and promote yourselves in a client-based network?

PL: That’s part of it. It is a useful moment to consolidate and reflect on the work. We tend to do all of our own writing. It is also an opportunity to get the work out there in different formats than the website. We end up doing all the design for them and end up spending an incredible amount of time formatting the drawings for the book. We will end up spending an entire year doing the drawings to make a project legible in different ways. The books are projects in themselves. We continue to do exhibitions and self-generated projects mostly researched based. We do a few interiors with institutional based clients. We have three projects with NYU now.

JP: Do you guys connect professionally with universities that you are also teaching at?

PL: No. In fact at Princeton, it is not possible to teach and design a building. Columbia doesn’t have that policy. Marc is an adjunct there, and we’re doing a project with them now. Many schools have such limitations. Otherwise, everyone in the architecture school will be fighting.

JP: Now that you have established Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis, has your work life eased up a bit since those early years of working full time for other studios, teaching, working nights and weekends on the exhibitions and competitions, and writing books?

PL: It has shifted a little. Certainly one of the major differences is that we all have children. That affects the amount of time that we can devote on weekends and things like that. We have had the benefit of really good employees, so many of the things that we used to do such as the day-to-day running of the projects have been passed on to someone else. When there are 15 projects in the office, we can’t be the ones at every meeting. But this is the evolution of most firms right? Though we didn’t have an employee until about 2001.

JP: When was it that you first established a real office?

PL: We moved out of the basement to a slightly better facility in about 1997. It was pretty soon after the Storefront exhibition into a cubicle space where the entire basement was our shop. This was when we were doing the largest amount of physical in-house construction. That lasted until about 2002 when our building was converted to condos, and we were kicked out. We moved to 6th Street afterward to a storefront office with a basement workshop. At the time, we only had one employee. We didn’t like the cubicle situation, so we made a collective studio and rented out the 21 desks. We found friends that had two or three employees each and ended up renting space to six or eight firms.

JP: That sounds similar to the contemporary idea of coworking that is gaining traction right now in New York. Did you lease your space out to help generate revenue?

PL: For us it was at cost and we broke even. It gave us the ability to be in a bigger space and have a social setup. A number of firms, like nArchitects who were there most of the time, went through our space. It was a good transitional space. The downside though was that it was a storefront in a drinking part of the city. Drunken people would come by and tell us to get a life. It wasn’t the best. By the time we left, we were at fourteen people, which was nearly the entire ground floor. So then we moved here and didn’t lease space anymore. We’re coming up on seven years in this space now, which is a little hard to believe.

If you enjoyed this interview, take a look at some of the other interviews in this series:
Gregg Pasquarelli (SHoP)
Brad Cloepfil (Allied Works)
Dan Wood (Work.AC)
Stephen Cassell (Architecture Research Office)

About pettydesign

James Petty is an American architect experiencing and contributing to the Yale School of Architecture.