via Archinect

Led by Chloe Brunner, Dingliang Yang and Yaohua Wang, Preliminary Research Office has been making a name for itself as an emerging practice leveraging contemporary motifs, exceptional techniques, and potent design schemes to consistently push the boundaries of what a young office can do in today’s practice focused climate.

For this week’s Studio Snapshot, we talk with two of the office’s principals Chloe Brunner (CNB) & Yaohua Wang (YHW) about the practice’s origins, their unique work approach, along with a view into their approach to the discipline through theory, buildings, and models.

Where and when did your studio start?

We started our studio in New York in 2015 and have been in LA since 2016.

How did you come up with your company name and ethos?

At the point when we were about to start a practice, we felt that we needed to reboot our ideas, to start with a clean sheet. The name of our office is a reminder to ourselves of that. To be preliminary, for us, is to question the basics and to build a foundation for ourselves. At the same time, the name also implies the desire to be “pro” at something. At this point, we are not sure what we will be “pro” at, but the only way for us to get there is to be preliminary first.

What made you make the decision to start an office?

It’s probably a shared dream for architects to have their own offices. We figured if that’s what we want to do, we might as well start early, while we can still afford to make mistakes and are not yet treated too seriously. For us, not being treated too seriously is a treat which gives us room to wonder and mingle.

Do you have partners, how did you decide to work with partners, and where did you meet? How many people work at your company?

CNB: We’re three partners and have three employees in the office now. Yaohua, Dingliang, and I got to know each other as students at SCI-Arc and GSD, and formed a partnership fairly soon after graduating. The three of us were on the east coast for a little while after school, where Yaohua and Dingliang were teaching and I was working at Morphosis, before we partnered and moved to LA. We like to work together because we learn from each other. That’s what makes it fun. We have a lot of overlapping interests, but we approach things very differently, so the conversation is always lively and productive.

What are other offices that you look at for guidance and why?

YHW: It depends on how we feel that day. If we feel stupid, we look at First Office. If we feel optimistic, we turn to OMA. If we get lousy with our process, we get a dose of Preston Scott Cohen. If we feel lonely, we find courage from Wes Jones. And the list goes on… Most recently, we felt inspired when we were looking at young practices from Switzerland such as Angela Deuber, Lütjens Padmanabhan and Raphael Zuber.

What were the first 365 days like?

YHW: During the first 365 days, we were setting up our office and working on two projects. One was a bridge connecting two skyscrapers at a 100 meter height, the other was a commercial complex, situated in a historical urban context in southern China. Both projects started with clients, excitement, and hope, and both ended with exhaustion, piles of unrealized drawings and lessons learned. It was an intense experience with a constant feeling of lack of control over the process. For example, we only had one and a half months for design development for the commercial complex part of the project, which included office, retail and a boutique hotel. During that time period, the setback changed eight times, everyday our design was racing with the schedule, trying to salvage a sense of its own agenda from the mess of agendas projected from all of the different interest groups associated with the project. Then there was the collaboration with the local architect for construction documents. Through unstable Skype conferences, we worked with them on things such as the most efficient way to place the central AC unit under the pitched roof in order for the air exhaust to work with our facade pattern. Then the development was put on hold due to a dispute over the land leasing rights between the developer and the local government. Overtime was all the time in our office during that first year, which was a smooth transition from school life to practice. To be clear, I’m not complaining. We had a lot of energy when we graduated from school, so I’m glad that we spent it on lessons of practice. I’m also glad that we are spending our energy now on different things.

What are you currently working on?

YHW: We are currently working on something which makes us happy and uncomfortable at the same time. It’s a series of experiments with form, shape and geometry, without clients, sites or even a particularly clear concept. We very much enjoy working on something simply through intuition and technique, so we are happy to spend our time that way. But, it’s nerve wracking for us to work on something without an agenda. We are also the product of our environment. To have the baggage of theory and some clever ideas backing you up is comfortable in that environment, that is what we have been taught and experienced. But what we are currently working on can only be described as arbitrary if you look at it through a rigorous disciplinary lense. So, in short, I guess we are working on how to be arbitrarily productive in a way that pushes us out of our comfort zone.

CNB: We are also working on a vacation house in LA. It’s nice to work on something so tangible – within driving distance of our office – alongside our more conceptual work. We’ve really enjoyed thinking about houses and how to design them to the specifications and idiosyncrasies of their occupants. I love working on houses, particularly vacation houses.

How does academia work its way into your work?

YHW: I am teaching graduate school topic studios and thesis at USC’s School of Architecture, and Dingliang is teaching urban design at GSD. At this stage, our teachings and office work have been two parallel efforts, for the most part. At times, there are some overlaps, for example, the knowledge that we gained through research and preparation for classes sometimes feeds back into our practice. However, all in all, I can’t say teaching has a quantifiable impact on our work and vice versa. First, we are trying to experiment with different topics in different settings. In the office, the ideas are often in development, unstable, and thus lack the the clarity and structure which are crucial for teaching. To teach an idea, it is required to be well thought through both in terms of its concept and methodology, yet it must remain open-ended for students to participate and develop their own idea under its umbrella. Personally, I don’t like to push my students to do my thing, so to speak, but rather obverse and learn from what they come up with. Second, sometimes the nature of the class doesn’t lend itself to more concurrence with our practice. For example, one of the classes I am teaching with Brendan Shea at USC is 564 Descriptive Geometry. In that class, we are trying to introduce contemporary practices in relationship with geometry to the students. The nature of that class determines that we would be looking more into other practices instead of our own.

CNB: Having all spent a long time in school, it’s nice to be practicing, to have the freedom which goes along with heading a firm, and to be charged with the responsibility of achieving success, however that’s defined. Of course, we’ve all been fortunate enough to have studied under many great architects, and we undoubtedly carry a lot of their ideas and methods with us. We remain coupled to academia, and receptive to the new concepts and directions which it generates, but we also like to forge fearlessly ahead with our own ideas.

What is the normal working process to your office and in what mediums do you work?

CNB: Most of the people who work with us are recent graduates from schools around LA, like SCI-Arc and USC. It’s nice to see the work which is coming out of these schools and to participate in conversations with their graduates. We’ve also had interns from a variety of places. We always appreciate technical and conceptual approaches that are different from ours.

CNB: Sometimes one of us will start something and someone else will develop it, sometimes we will get ideas together and one person will work on that idea for a while, and sometimes one of us will get an idea and we will all work on it together. Sometimes one of us will have an idea that we decide together should be forgotten. We’ve become pretty familiar with the meanings of each other’s signals (e.g. the difference in enthusiasm communicated by a “Hmmm” vs an “Ok”). But, every project is different, and our roles are very fluid. We do each have a tendency to get excited about developing different parts of a project, so we naturally fall into different roles. We learn a lot from the conversations that we have and from watching each other work.

When it comes to the office as a whole, we like to leave things very open. Everyone is welcome to participate and to contribute to any project, of course. And we like to work with all media.