July Interview

I’m back with another fun interview for you this month. This time we’re talking with a long-time architecture partner in crime of mine, Brett Koenig Greig.  I first met Brett during a volunteer program we were both working with at UVA, the Housing Improvement Program (HIP!).  A bunch of us met on Saturdays and drove around Charlottesville and Albermarle county and helped the elderly or less-fortunate improve their homes by doing things like fixing roofs, removing asbestos from beneath ancient linoleum floors, scraping lead paint off of exteriors… we got into all sorts of messes.  I definitely acquired poison ivy at one point, and multiple sunburns.  It was a great way to get off school grounds for a little while and meet some new folks outside of the architecture school, though I did meet Brett (also from the architecture department) so I think she must have had the same idea as me.   And then she followed me from Charlottesville to Austin.  Well, not really- she explains how that worked in the interview, but as different as she and I are, you can certainly see that there are some similarities in our decision-making.  In addition to attending the same schools, Brett and I also traveled to India together as part of a studio, and she put up with me as a roommate for an entire month.  I’m pretty sure by the end of it she was ready to completely de-friend me (I became pretty whiney  the last few days and when our trip home was delayed due to terrorist bombs in Mumbai, I turned into an unbearable brat).  But, incredibly, she continued to talk to me after that and does to this day.  This girl has patience.  She’s an amazing drawer, listener, and instigator of good ideas- all qualities which make for the kind of architect you want to work with.  And stamina!  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen her work through a problem to come up with the most thorough of solutions.  She’s a perfectionist in all the ways that I am not, and it was wonderful to be in school with her because I was always learning something from her.  She still lives in Austin, and of that I am quite envious.

Here’s a photo (provided by Brett) from our trip to India in 2006, at the Agra Fort with the Taj Mahal in the distance.  There were crazy monkeys all around us that night, though somehow none made it into that picture.

Tell us a little about yourself- where you’re from, where you went to school, what you are doing now, etc.

I grew up in Tampa, Florida and moved with my family to the Orlando area when I was sixteen.  Florida was a fun place to live, but it also felt very isolated, geographically and culturally, from the rest of the country.  I attended the University of Virginia due to my craving for history, mountains, and seasons.  It helped that it also had an extremely well-regarded architecture school.

I loved my time in Charlottesville, and also spent a semester studying in Copenhagen during my fourth year.  When I graduated in 2003, I struggled with where to go next, eventually landing in Baltimore at the encouragement of a friend.  There I found work at a great medium-sized firm, which allowed me to gain a broad array of responsibility and experience, despite my being just out of school.

The city was changing a lot at that time, just starting to re-inhabit its downtown core, and there was a lot of work in renovating old warehouses into offices, apartments and condos.  Baltimore is a fun and dynamic city, but I was still very much in transition while I lived there, knowing I’d leave in a couple years to go to graduate school.  My degree from UVa was a Bachelor of Science in Architecture, and in order to ever become a licensed architect I’d have to get a Masters Degree.

So after two years I moved again, down here to Austin.  I surprised myself by turning down an Ivy-League school and attending instead the University of Texas at Austin.  I loved the atmosphere and teaching philosophy of UT, and the incredible quality of life Austin offered.  It also helped that on my first day of classes, I was walking across the courtyard and saw a girl with a shock of red hair and immediately recognized Rachel from the class ahead of me at UVa.  That was such a nice surprise.  It turned out there were quite a few UVa alum who had ended up at UT.

Anyway, so here I am, six years later and still in Austin.  It’s been a wild ride with the economy’s crash and now slow recovery.  I spent 2008 working for an incredibly talented design/build architect.  My favorite project, and the one I spent most of my time designing, was a small house and studio for a husband/wife who were members of an emerging experimental rock band.  They said their favorite building was the Eames House, which they’d visited once when they were on tour in California, and that they wanted their house to be fun, simple, and colorful.  It was the smoothest client relationship I’ve ever experienced, and even now when I see them around town they tell me how much they love their home.  Unfortunately that firm was not immune to the recession, and I spent half of 2009 unemployed — a great time to study and take all my licensing exams (TX 21976 !).

Fast forward to today, and I find myself wearing many different hats as the economy picks up again.  I work 4 days a week at an incredibly friendly and long-established firm in town, where we do a wide range of projects – libraries, park buildings, affordable and rehabilitative housing, bars and restaurants, and new and remodeled houses.  It’s an office where in one day I may find myself working on four different projects, which definitely keeps me on my toes.  I also just wrapped up teaching a summer course back at the UT School of Architecture, and have been asked to teach again in the Spring 2012 semester, which I am very excited about.  And last, but certainly not least, my husband (also an architect…..we don’t stray far) and I have started our own small practice and are staying quite busy on the weekends.  There’s not a lot of down-time these days, to the dismay of our sweet dogs, Clovis and Marnie.

How did you get interested in architecture?

It was my mom who helped plant the architect seed in me.  She had wanted to be an architect when she was young, but at that time it was perceived to be a man’s profession, and she was deterred by advisers and family from studying it in college.  When I was young, if there was a house under construction in our neighborhood, mom had no fear of pushing aside the construction fencing and she and I would walk around inside, imagining what kind of family would live there and how they might use the space.  Since we already lived near the beach, we’d take family vacations to cities instead.  I remember especially a visit to Savannah when I was around 8, where I sat in the squares drawing pictures of all the stately mansions.

It’s hard to pinpoint just one moment where the lightbulb went on and I said “I want to be an architect.”  I just feel like I had always been observing the built environment around me, making judgements about what made one building nicer to be in than another.  I was also very lucky to have access to art classes throughout school, so I was always drawing dream houses for my parents.

What projects are you currently working on?

As I said, there are lots of things going on these days.  At the office, I’m working on a new clubhouse for one of the City’s golf courses.  Working with the parks department and with the City project managers is challenging and slow, but I think the building is going to be a great amenity for the surrounding neighborhood.  I’m also working on a new bar in Fort Worth, and on an interesting pool house for a man in East Texas, that is mostly underground — something I’ve never done before.

With my husband, we are working on additions for two young families who have both outgrown their current homes.  We are also renovating a bar space, making it function better and allowing it to take full advantage of the views from its 21st floor downtown location.

[Brett and her husband, Travis, at home.  Doesn’t that look like a Dwell magazine cover?]

What do you think is the biggest misconception about architects or architecture?

That all you do as an architect is sit at your drafting board and draw amazing buildings all day.   Architects are the ultimate multi-taskers, coordinating the flow of information between all parties involved in making buildings happen — the city, the clients, the contractor, all the consultants, the banks.  Architects are not just designers; they are psychologists and managers as well.

 What’s your most memorable project?

Definitely the house and studio for that musician couple.  They had such great style and taste, and made designing for them so much fun.  It was also interesting to learn what, architecturally, it takes to make a working recording studio.  I hope I have more clients like the Lamberts in the future.

What was the worst project you worked on and why?

Probably a recent one — what seems on the surface like another very cool, modern house for an easy-going client.   It came into my office before I had started working there, and didn’t get a lot of up-front attention, but it had made it through all the preliminary design phases.  I was asked to draw up Construction Documents, and did, thinking all the up-front work had been completed.  But when the Contractor went to get permits and start construction, all sorts of problems arose.  The zoning designation had been unclear, and it turned out it the lot had much larger setbacks than anticipated, so we had to move the house.  Then it turned out that a tree was incorrectly marked on the survey, and was twice the size we had thought.  So we had to move the house again to avoid its root zone.  Then, most recently, the neighborhood association raised objections, and construction had a stop until plans and materials could be reviewed by them.  Things are moving along again, but the project has been such a headache.  It has also been a reminder to everyone that clear communication and preliminary due-diligence are SO important for every project, big or small.

What architect or architects inspire you and why?

I love Peter Zumthor.  When I was studying in Copenhagen, we traveled to Austria to see the Kunsthaus in Bregenz.

I was awed by how many ways sunlight interacted with the building.  In the early morning sunrise, the shadow of the interior trays glowed through the layers of offset glass on the exterior.  Then later in the day the building appeared almost opaque as it reflected the sun’s rays.  Inside, light is never directly allowed in the galleries, but must travel across the frosted ceiling panels which feel like they are hovering untethered above you.  The only surface you can touch is smooth-finished concrete, that has been left its original flinty gray color.  It was almost 10 years ago that I visited his work (we went to St. Benedikt Chapel and the Therme Vals on that same trip), and it still makes my heart skip a beat when I think about how I felt inside the Kunsthaus.  He is REALLY good at making buildings that feel very personal to the user.

What is your favorite city for architecture?

That’s hard since I have lots of favorites.  I love Chicago for its history, New York for its density, Berlin for its optimism, and Delhi for its ambiguity.

What work of architecture would you most like to visit?

Katsura Imperial Villa and its gardens in Kyoto, Japan.  Though it dates from the 1600s, its organization and structure has had a strong influence on the work of 20th Century modernists.  We had planned to spend 3 weeks traveling all over Honshu this spring (a belated honeymoon, really), but the March 11 earthquake struck two weeks before we were supposed to leave, and we canceled our trip.  I hope we can go again in the next few years.

If you weren’t an architect, what other career path would you have taken?

It’s hard to answer this since I really have wanted to be an architect since I was four or five.  Before that, I wanted to be a lounge singer (our neighbor was one – she had long blond hair and wore those totally ‘80s sequin gowns, singing in hotel lobbies etc), a veterinarian (until I realized that animals can die and that would make me sad), and my parents’ cleaning person (so I could stay at home and live with them forever).

But seriously, I have enjoyed teaching summer courses for two years now.  I hope that I am able to continue teaching, not just next spring, but in the future as well.  Working with students, especially those in their first year of architecture school, helps me remember why I was drawn to the field in the first place.

What, if anything, would you change about architectural education?

I actually don’t think I would change much about architectural education paradigm, in that I think it demands much from students: critical thinking, presentation skills, problem solving, etc and prepares them well to succeed in whatever professional environment they choose I have friends who have gone on to become graphic designers, a food stylist, a real estate developer — and I think all would agree their architecture education served them well.

I do agree that if students are serious about going into an office environment straight from architecture school, then there should be elective courses on construction administration (RFIs, Submittal Review, etc.) and basic finance (like an introductory accounting course) available to them.  But I don’t think we should take away courses on history, theory, and design in order to accommodate those vocation-oriented classes into the mandatory degree requirements.  Call me old-school I guess.

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Thanks for the interview, Brett!  I hope you and Travis get to make that trip to Japan!

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