Few designers have explored the intersection of art and architecture like Olson Kundig principal Alan Maskin. Known for his clever and extraordinary portfolio, Alan has worked on a diverse range of projects, including the new Bob Dylan Center, The ANOHA Expansion of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Fairy Tales 2016, as well as the renovation of Seattle’s Space Needle. His projects are marked by a collective optimism that unfolds through narrative; part wizardry and chock-full of imagination, Alan’s work centers on fantastic stories told through sketching, art and architecture.
In the following interview with Architizer, Maskin explores his inspirations and background, as well as how drawing can be a way of building.
Eric Baldwin: You have a background in the arts that began in education. Can you tell us about the move to Seattle to study architecture?
Alan Maskin: Starting in college, I worked with teaching programs focused on disenfranchised youth programs and early childhood development projects – while maintaining a small studio devoted to painting and drawing. Around that time, I saw a gallery installation of drawings by the French Visionary architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu, who practiced in Paris after the French Revolution. I vividly recall a series of rendered section drawings that stopped me in my tracks, plus many evocative and imaginative drawings of the conceptual spaces Lequeu envisioned in his own mind.
Those drawings may have been my first introduction to architectural renderings – I had no previous understanding that architects worked, thought or expressed themselves in this way. While I loved teaching, I was intrigued with the seemingly impossible idea that I could get paid for drawing and imagining built space. It’s safe to say that I became an architect initially because I loved to draw and wanted to draw daily in my professional career.
I shared my idea for applying to architecture school with a parent of one of my students, a practicing architect in Boston. He advised me to do three things:
- Enroll in the University of Washington’s architecture program in Seattle;
- Spend a year studying in Rome with Astra Zarina, considered the best foreign study experience in the world at the time; and
- Get a job at Olson Walker, a firm he considered to be doing exceptionally good work, and that would eventually become Olson Kundig.
I did all three – and am now principal and owner of the firm.
Where does your joy of drawing come from?
“Joy” isn’t necessarily the correct term, as sometimes it’s frustrating as hell. Drawing is my process of visually iterating ideas over and over. These drawings are more gestural than beautiful, efforts to think three-dimensionally through many ideas at once. For me, drawing is synonymous with designing things. Sometimes there is joy in it, if the drawing moves in a good direction, but there can just as easily be anguish when it doesn’t.
In school, I had the great fortune to work with two great teachers: Astra Zarina (whose famed foreign study program taught me to design in section and in plan simultaneously) and the renowned architectural delineator Francis Ching (who taught me to design in perspective). I approach drawing as art directors do in cinema – to storyboard movement through spaces and outline spaces’ relationship to each other – and it has become an integrated process where my eye, hand and mind can be in sync.
If there is joy in the process – and the pandemic has pointed this out to me – it’s found in the hyper-focused zone I go to when I draw, where everything else in the world is muted. Doing something that feels positive creatively, independent of politics and disease, has helped me get through the past year – so yes, in that respect, joy has played a role.
You’ve now made the move to practicing digital representation and drawing daily. Why did you make this move, and what have you learned along the way?
In quarantine, I start my days early and often I’m using that time to sketch on a project before the day’s meetings begin. A few months ago, frustrated by working from home and the challenge of sharing drawings remotely, I decided to learn to draw digitally. It’s tough to unlearn all I know about drawing and become comfortable with a stylus. I haven’t shared these with many people yet, though recently I created some digital drawings to support a Crit discussion and several people weighed in about whether they were “fooled” into thinking the drawings had been done by hand.
The most successful architects are superb at telling the story of their projects, and I pay close attention to how they do it. Imagery is almost always tied to spoken words and language – when verbal descriptions and visual depictions work well in tandem, others can more easily understand your ideas in their own minds.
There’s certainly a place for digital tools in that process of storytelling. I’ve always been intrigued by hybridized images, where hand drawing, photography, collage and 3D modeling are merged so successfully that you cannot tell where one discipline starts and the other ends. It usually means that a team of people with varied skilled sets are making the imagery. (I’m especially proud of our winning submittal to the Fairy Tales Competition, as one example.)
Your collective spirit and approach extend to working with extraordinary visual artists- can you tell us more about these collaborations and how artists might learn from one another?
I came to work at Olson Kundig almost 30 years ago because of the way the firm — and its founder, Jim Olson – has worked with artists and works of art from the very beginning. I’ve always wanted to build on those collaborations with artists, which has led us to collaborate with performance groups and artists of all kinds.
Our [storefront] Olson Kundig project, which I curated with my partner Kirsten Ring Murray, was a two-year public facing experiment in design and collaboration. Over and over, we asked my favorite question: What can we do together that we cannot do apart? That idea continues to filter into almost everything I work on. I’m happiest when there’s a complex team of specialists and artists at work together on something remarkable.
My advice is to always go for the greatest talent you can find. When I tackled my first museum design project decades ago, we began by building a team of educators, puppeteers, folklorists and even a ropes-course designer. More recently, on my most recent museum project — ANOHA —The Children’s World of the Jewish Museum Berlin, which is slated to open this year – we worked with a team of 18 German artists, as well as a Children’s Advisory Council made up of a diverse group of kids, including many newly arrived in Germany. On The Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, we are working with 59 Productions — a brilliant media design firm — along with filmmakers, biographers, immersive sound specialists and authors.
Sometimes these collaborations lead to making things that haven’t been achieved or even conceived of before. Our renovation of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle included the collective efforts of hundreds of people, from architects and builders to architectural historians and glazing engineers, even an engineering firm that typically works on aerospace design.
At this point, I feel like I’ve worked with some of the most talented people in the profession – and many of them are my colleagues (or my former colleagues) at the firm. I love the ways architects think: their sense for delivery, how accustomed they are to open and direct critique and to building things collectively. I always want to be on teams with people who are both smarter and more creative than I am.
Are there other architects or designers working in representation, drawing or visualization that you are inspired by?
Christo’s drawings describe design better than almost anyone, especially in the way a single composition can provide multiple descriptions of his environmental works at once. Usually they include a beautifully drawn perspective superimposed on a site photo, a site plan, a piece of the primary fabrication material, sometimes a connection detail – and the sale of the drawing funds the work. That level of comprehensive efficiency has always been a model for me.
I remember flipping over Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Tourisms: suitCase Studies installation because of the hybrid assemblage of many art disciplines into concise conceptual studies. LTL’s hand drawn sections that morphed into digital collages have definitely inspired my efforts to move that way.
What are you inspired by outside of architecture?
Because of a shared interest in kinetics, I’ve been looking at Iris Van Herpen’s fashion shows.
My friend Greg Lungren just opened MoM (Museum of Museums) as a showcase for Seattle art talent in the middle of the pandemic. It’s an amazing DIY approach that he’s done for decades; he doesn’t wait around for cultural institutions to get it right, he just does it – and always in service to a creative community.
In the early days I was fascinated with Edward Tufte’s books on visual information. I look closely at the exquisite craft and conceptual thinking that comes out of Nirbhai Singh Sidhu’s studio in Toronto and the wide-ranging knowledge, activism and craftmanship that results from Nicholas Galanin’s work in art and music (both belong to a strong and occasionally collaborative team of artists called The Black Constellation). I encourage colleagues and students to study the “two Louises” – Bourgeois and Nevelson – as well as Theaster Gates, Joseph Cornell, Rick Lowe, the historic work of French Visionary architects like Jean-Jacques Lequeu, the poetry and music of Joy Harjo, Kara Walker, Mary Ann Peters, Jeffrey Mitchell, Oscar Tuazon…. It’s a long list!
As young designers look to your work, do you have any thoughts on mentorship and personal growth; what advice would you give to professionals who want to develop their skills in drawing and art?
Mentorship is a big piece of Olson Kundig’s practice, from our International Internship Program to OK University, where staff lead professional development courses to both teach and learn from one another.
Personally, I see mentorship taking three main forms. You can “model” the example of how one practices architecture. I studied my successful colleagues in the early years of my career and modified my approach based on what I observed – and there were some outstanding examples. Sometimes when people on my teams are stuck, what they need to hear is, “When that happened to me in the past, this is what I would do.” It isn’t about directing them, necessarily – more providing examples and options to aid their own problem solving.
There is a point when the spotlight switches from what I’ve done to what they want to do, which requires putting myself in their heads and encouraging them – independent of whatever I have done or would do. It’s tempting to just give them an answer versus encouraging them to find it themselves, but there was a point when I had to make my own way so I try to make space for that same growth in others.
The final piece in this mentorship trifecta is to create opportunities for them or encourage the ones they find. I was given a wide berth to explore new things at Olson Kundig – and now I do the same for the next generation.
I like to keep the lines that demarcate architecture and art blurry. I always encourage architecture students to take studio coursework at the art department in their schools. It’s important in a competitive field like architecture to be able to distinguish yourself from everyone else practicing, and I’ve looked more to artists over the years — or design practices that work in both arenas — as a model for how to make things that are new or without precedent.
I’m interested in seeing original representations of ideas about all subjects and in all mediums — not only hand drawings — but I do notice a resurgence of hand drawing in the portfolios of new graduates that contact us.
Architecture is a cultural project; it’s inherently tied to what makes us human. For you, how does drawing, art or architecture inform your life?
Drawing, art and architecture are all creative acts and connected to the things a person makes in his or her life. It’s as simple as your brain, your eye, your hand and sometimes your heart all working in unison – and it doesn’t get much more human