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Dan Spiegel, a 2018 Architectural League Prize recipient: “Objectives are defined by how the work is viewed at a particular moment in time”

In the exhibit, Dan Spiegel cuts sectional abstract models in “unconventional” ways to isolate particular moments within spaces + projects light to draw memory-like reactions

This is part two of a series of exclusive conversations with this year’s Architectural League Prize winners. Hunter Douglas Architectural is thrilled to support the legendary design competition.

Zoë Zellers

Click here to review competition rules and apply for the League Prize, which is accepting submissions through February 11.

This year’s roster of winners of The Architectural League Prize for Young Architects and Designers juggled busy agendas this summer, prepping exhibit materials and traveling to New York to create dynamic installations at Parsons School of Design and deliver lectures on the legendary design competition’s theme of the “Objective.” Whether we caught them adding a final touch of powder-coat paint to their installation or stepping away from the podium after delivering a speech, each of the six winners made time to chat with Hunter Douglas Architectural, a sponsor of the League Prize. We talked about what encouraged them to apply to the competition and how it offered the opportunity to take a step back from their day-to-day routines in order to more deeply assess their own greater goals. The series of inspiring interviews that follow are as varied as the new visionary voices behind the League Prize exhibit.

“My premise is that objectives are defined by how the work is viewed at a particular moment in time. Conditions change, projects are used and mis-used, things break.”
– Dan Spiegel

Image Courtesy of Dan Spiegel/SAW

“Try-On Truck” by SAW, 2016. 
Photo by Bruce Damonte

Here’s our exclusive conversation with Dan Spiegel, cofounder of SAW // Spiegel Aihara Workshop in San Francisco, who operates in the hybrid sphere of architecture and landscape architecture. He created a series of abstract sectional models that were cut in unusual ways to highlight a particular moment within SAW’s projects, balancing a sense of ambiguity with a hyper-focus on a detail. Then, he projected changing light on the models to create an ephemeral and memory-like effect. He says reflecting on the “Objective” has always been central to his work but after reflecting and submitting his response to the competition’s theme, he says, “I understand our work a little differently now, having gone through this exercise.” Spiegel joins an esteemed group of past winners including the likes of Frida Escobedo and Steven Holl, who have built prolific careers, which he says is both “an honor – and a challenge.”

Photo by Alex Zieve

HD: The League Prize is one of the world’s most prestigious design competitions and its winners truly showcase unique perspectives and backgrounds. What inspired you to submit your design proposal?

Spiegel: There were a few reasons I wanted to submit. In the most direct sense, I’m proud of the work we do and often look for opportunities to put it front of new audiences. It’s a thrill to engage with different people about the ideas that drive us, and invariably these conversations lead to new insights to push further.

But in a competition like this, you also have to expect that there’s a really good chance you don’t win. And given those odds, it only makes sense (to me, at least) to submit a portfolio if the process of applying is somehow a productive endeavor in itself. In our case, most of our work is client driven, so we don’t control all of the parameters of most of the projects. What appealed to me about the League Prize competition, is that it provided an opportunity to step back and re-read our own work through the lens of a contemporary, critical provocation. Fortunately, questions of Objective have been central to our thinking for some time, but I understand our work a little differently now, having gone through this exercise.

Photo by Alex Zieve

Courtesy of Spiegel Aihara Workshop, Inc

HD: Describe the moment when you found out you won.

Spiegel: I had to get to a meeting and was trying frantically to get our young kids out the door. So, when a I saw a call from a New York number, I declined it. Only later did I check the voicemail from Anne [Rieselbach, the Architectural League’s program director] saying that she had “good news.” I didn’t totally trust that I heard it right until I had both spoken with her on the phone – and – received an email confirmation.

HD: How does it feel to be selected by such a prestigious jury and to be a part of the Architectural League Prize’s storied legacy of winners?

Spiegel: It’s an honor – and a challenge.

Photo by Bruce Damonte

“A-to-Z House” by SAW in San Francisco, Ca., 2016.
Photo by Bruce Damonte

HD: What informed your conceptual response to the League Prize theme of “objectivity” and can you tell us some of the challenges involved?

Spiegel: I think of “Objective” as an attempt make some alignment between the slippery notions of intent and outcome. My premise is that objectives are defined by how the work is viewed at a particular moment in time. Conditions change, projects are used and mis-used, things break. I realized that it’s possible for a design process to be totally appropriate, but for the work to somehow still be inappropriate. I’ve become comfortable with loosening my grip on a pre-determined objective, but rather designing for a range of possible outcomes.

Calibrating particular moments in time is the key factor for us.  Our practice is rooted in a hybrid of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, both of which operate on very different time scales — from the instantaneous to the ecological. Secondly, as we’ve been able to build some projects and release them into the world, we’ve been fascinated to see to what degree they take on objectives of their own.

I presented this concept as first-person narrative through the eyes of semi-naïve narrator. In this way, the different projects don’t exist as isolated ideas, but rather part of a continuum, set in sequence through one person’s set of experiences, both inside and outside of architecture.

Photo by Bruce Damonte

Photo by Bruce Damonte

HD: Describe your installation vision in addressing the theme. What does translating that into realized form entail?

Spiegel: The exhibit consists of a series of 18” x 18” x 6” sectional models, cut in unconventional ways in order to isolate particular moments within nine of our projects. These models are abstract (in their disassociation from the rest of the building/project) and ambiguous in scale, but also specific in the expression of detail. We then overlay another layer of information – ephemeral and memory-like – on top of some the models through projection of gradually changing light. The concept relates to the notion from our portfolio that one defines an object by observing it at a particular moment in time. The section freezes a focused spatial condition, while the image overlay projects a subjectivity defined by a viewer.

HD: In today’s climate, why does the preservation of the idea of “objectivity” matter to you?

Spiegel: I’m not totally convinced it can be preserved as an end in itself. In this portfolio, I focused more on the notion that there live within projects (and other things) a number of very different, specific objectives – that experience is loaded, but varied, and subject to change. And if approached with sincerity and sensitivity, the aggregate total of these perspectives will result in an unbiased overall condition, something close to objectivity without specifically pursuing it.

Photo by Bruce Damonte

Courtesy of Spiegel Aihara Workshop, Inc

HD: What other projects are you working on? What inspires your drive to be a voice within the architecture and design worlds? Who would you like to speak for or what needs would you like to address?

Spiegel: We’re working on a number of different things: houses, gardens, large commercial landscapes, mobile retail environments, furniture, cafes, workspaces, and some speculative research projects. My background is in public policy, so I’ve long been interested in improving social outcomes through structured, collective action. I’ve come to believe something that I first encountered in behavioral economics, that there’s no such thing as a neutral spatial configuration – every arrangement of space drives outcomes, whether intended or not. It’s imperative that the needs of our communities are not just addressed, but considered through design. This means housing for one, but also the stuff between housing. We think that combining the disciplines of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, for instance, helps us address living conditions as more than just something that exists within a room or a unit, but as a continuum of experiences around a series of daily routines.

Photo by Bruce Damonte

HD: Briefly describe your own background/past accomplishments.

Spiegel: I received a Master of Architecture from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and B.A. in Public Policy from Stanford University. Prior to founding SAW, I worked for a number of leading architecture offices in New York, Beijing, and Boston. I currently teach architecture at UC Berkeley and California College of the Arts (CCA). Our office has received several awards from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and an Architect’s Newspaper Best of Design Award ’17 for Young Architects, among others. Our work has been published internationally, including features in Architect magazine and Stanford Magazine. I am a licensed architect in the state of California.

“Low/Rise House” by SAW in Menlo Park, Ca., 2013. 
Photo by Bruce Damonte

HD: Bonus round – What’s your favorite New York architecture moment?

Spiegel: James Turrell’s installation of Aten Reign in the Guggenheim rotunda.

HD: What’s your favorite hometown hotspot?

Spiegel: The Dutch Goose in Menlo Park, CA.

To listen to Spiegel’s full League Prize lecture delivered at Parsons, click here. The 2018 Architectural League Prize winners are Anya Sirota of Akoaki, based in Detroit; Bryony Roberts of Bryony Roberts Studio in New York; Gabriel Cuéllar and Athar Mufreh of Cadaster, out of Brooklyn; Coryn Kempster of Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempsterin Buffalo; Alison Von Glinow and Lap Chi Kwong of Kwong Von Glinow in Chicago; and Dan Spiegel of SAW // Spiegel Aihara Workshop in San Francisco.

Photo by  Alex Zieve

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