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“We Are Start Architects, Not Star Architects”: Penda on Staying Small and Thinking Big

“Think about what is possible, not necessarily what is profitable,” argues architect Chris Precht.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

From brilliant bamboo structures to avant-garde apartment designs, Penda has been cultivating a reputation for a highly innovative, experimental brand of architecture, and the Beijing-based firm’s unique talents have now been recognized on a global scale. The studio picked up the coveted Emerging Firm of the Year Award at the 2016 A+Awards — the world’s largest awards program for architecture and products — and cofounder Chris Precht was delighted to accept the trophy from Architizer’s CEO Marc Kushner.

“Despite their young age, Penda has had a significant impact on the industry, and the firm’s portfolio of work to date stands out as an influential and leading force, that our peers are all paying attention to,” said Kushner. The day after they received their award, we sat down with cofounder Chris Precht to talk about the firm’s achievements, its winning office culture and the studio’s aims for the future.

Paul Keskeys: Congratulations on your A+Award! How did you feel picking up the trophy at this year’s gala?

Chris Precht: It was fantastic. We do most of our work in Asia, from our office in Beijing, so we are shielded off [from the wider world] through a bit of a firewall on the internet. That means we are not 100-percent sure if people actually recognize our work in the West, and how well it is received across the globe. Coming to New York, the design capital, getting involved in Design Week and accepting this award, it felt so special. Everything around it was super well-organized, so we felt super welcome!

House #, Beijing; rendering courtesy of Penda

When you picked up the Emerging Firm of the Year Award, you expressed happiness that the accolade celebrates not “star architecture,” but rather “start architecture.” That was such a compelling quote. Can you expand on that?

I think we are still at this stage where we have passion, and it’s actually much greater than the ambition to necessarily get every project we can [just to make money]. We somehow still think about what is possible, and not necessarily what is profitable for our work.

At least when I still was a student, it seemed that there was this distance between us and the star architects that was really, really huge. They were very difficult to reach; they were very difficult to get in touch with. I think that for our generation, the age at which you can be a [known] architect is getting much younger, thanks to new technology and through media publications. Young offices now have a chance to somehow catch up to the elite in architecture.

I think this new generation is actually a really lucky one. We are all “start architects,” and not “star architects,” in this generation that is coming now. The playing field of architecture is getting much wider, with these new technologies — an architect doesn’t even need, necessarily, to build buildings. He or she can focus on other things, and specialize. I think this plays a role in the culture of startups in Silicon Valley, right?

When you’re young, you can be an expert in something because you did your thesis on that, this can actually give you a big advantage over the old architects and the elites. In the future, it’s probably going to be even better to be young and ambitious rather than old and experienced.

Magic Breeze, India; renderings courtesy of Penda

Brilliant! Do you have some exciting new projects on the drawing board?

Yeah, we talked about our projects in India during our previous interview, but we have two more now. One is a large landscape project called Magic Breeze [pictured above: a series of tiered pathways and planting inspired by Indian stepwells and water mazes]. We also acquired our first work now in London, which is actually our first project in Europe. It’s exciting. We are building a drone race track.

This is super cool; it’s like what I talked [about] before: The field of architecture, through new technology, is actually opening up so wide that [anything is possible]. This one combines so many things; it combines virtual reality with the real world. The audience can sit in front of their computer or with their virtual reality headsets and watch the drone race, and see exactly what the racer is able to see. This one is really a sport for the future, I think.

As you experience success, are your projects growing in scale?

At the moment, we are still a quite small team. We are still 11 people, and we don’t want to grow larger; with 11, it still feels like a family — a private startup thing, you know? That also means my partner and myself can be very involved in the design process; we can sit in a computer and really model, instead of just doing business things. This gives us a lot of freedom, because we don’t necessarily need to say yes to all the projects.

The Flexible Bauhaus

Still, we are working at the moment on 16 projects at the same time, but they are not necessarily all getting larger. There are some large projects, but there are also some very small projects. We have a limit what we want to do. We don’t want to do projects that are larger than 40,000 square meters [430,600 square feet], because this then turns into a master plan, and we have never really made a good experience with master plans.

Also, with our team, we have long-term members. We’re not changing too fast. Our team has existed like this for about three years already. We would rather focus on keeping the same people in; knowing each other works. When you’re small, it’s somehow like a band, and everyone knows what kind of instrument they’re playing.

Do you have any advice for young architects who are just starting out?

We just started out ourselves, so I actually would like to get some advice, too! What I’ve always thought I did wrong when I was studying is to be surrounded just by other architecture students. I think you need your company to not be just architects; when you’re studying architecture, your whole world revolves around architecture.

I think this is a bit tricky, because once you create your own office, then your clients are never other architects, right? You need to somehow invent this new language to pitch a project to a client. When I look back now, I would like to have mingled more with non-architects, because this would make the process much easier to explain to our clients now, communicating how the project works and so forth.

I’m super happy that we are not building for other architects. They would be the worst clients! It’s like, if doctors have doctors as patients, it is horrible for them!

Chris Precht receives his A+Award at the 2016 gala.

Haha, sure! How about having yourself as a client? Would you like to design your own house?

Yeah, at a certain point I would like to be able to do that, but I think my wife would be probably the worst client to make happy, and I would come a close second! I think you would like to do so many things as the architect, but then you end up building a house for yourself with the most compromise. We went another way: We bought a house designed by another architect in the 1970s, and we are renovating it now. The other architect set up the limits, and we can be creative within these limits. This somehow felt like the way to go.

I’ll give you the last word on your office, officially the Emerging Firm of the Year. What’s the most important part of Penda’s studio culture?

It’s all about learning. We are a super-young team, and in that team, we are all based around this topic: learning. We give free language courses to our employees, and software courses, and so forth. We are all about learning by doing.

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