Faculty Spotlight: Rob Berry
Faculty Spotlight: Rob Berry
Rob Berry is a licensed architect in California and New York. He received his Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Virginia and his Master of Architecture from Yale University. He is a Lecturer in the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California. Previously, he taught architecture and design at Parsons the New School for Design and New York University. He is a co-founder of the firm Berry and Linné.
Can you tell us a little more about your background and how long you have been teaching at USC?
This is my fifth year teaching at USC. I primarily teach core undergraduate design studios. I’ve taught fundamentals of form, and I also teach materials classes to the undergrads—their first introduction to materials and assemblies and how architecture goes from abstractions to design decisions.
Prior to teaching at USC, I was living in New York and had been there for about seven years after grad school, working and practicing in firms. Most of my time I was there I was working at a firm called WXY Architecture and Urban Design, working on public space projects under the Bloomberg administration. There was a real investment in spaces like this at that time. So I was working with the Parks Department, and one of the larger projects I worked on was the redesign of Astor Place on Cooper Square, right around Cooper Union, which was the reconfiguration of the sidewalks and transformation of those into a series of public spaces. This work continues to have a large influence on the work I’m doing here.
What is the genesis of the work you are showing and what you are striving for there?
This is the first time we’ve shown work together. These are different projects that we’ve been doing, and we are starting to understand what the position of the work is and, in a way, taking stock. The interest comes from part of my professional background of working on these types of projects in New York, but also in my academic background: there’s an interest in the everyday, non-monumental spaces of the city and how, as an architect, you might start to participate in the design of these spaces as well as those things that we quickly recognize or think of as being designed by an architect. So the work has been seeking out opportunities, as we are starting our practice, to do smaller scale public space projects that can really become part of the fabric of the city but not necessarily get consumed by it.
We’re always working with the thought of it being a little bit unexpected—that it’s not necessarily out of place, but it’s also not completely ordinary, so that the use of color and materials and program in the work makes it stand out just a little and makes people pause or helps people define the space, in a way. As we’re doing this kind of work, we’re starting to see these recurring themes: material and color and how color can be a sort of detail in the city. The detail aspect is coming out of seeing a number of the projects come together. There’s obviously an interest in the materials and how they’re put together as an idea about detail, sort of a more conventional idea of how we detail in architecture, but there is also thinking about these details of the city so they become moments where different parts of the city become more expressive or expressed in a different way from a normal structure. So taking that idea of what I might be thinking of as an architectural detail and applying that as an urban detail, so moments of, not quite ornament, but that sort of expressiveness can make that translation between architecture and the city. And color becomes one of those elements. Color is not something that is just applied, but it’s integral to the expression of the projects and how they situate themselves within the site and context.
What are the unique challenges that you face doing this type of work?
The challenges and the rewards are that these are projects that, while we are working with clients that are cities and non-profits in some cases, the actual user is anyone that happens to engage with the project, anyone that happens to be on the street or going to the library. So some of the challenges are making a space that starts to address a larger collective and a larger sense of viewpoints but also take a position about space. It’s a very different way of working in the public realm as opposed to a private client with a potentially much more contained set of influences. The reward is actually thinking through the project in a way that we think about how many different groups of people might engage with it and how it might put a smile on their faces or make them think about the space differently or give them a place to sit down. It’s challenging to do that because it has to be out in the world and can withstand the abuse of being out there and taking all comers, but it’s something that can engage a larger audience. It’s not something that’s in a gallery or a private residence.
So given that more expansive audience, have you gotten any feedback about this? Do you actively seek this kind of information about how it’s living out in the world now?
In different projects, we have. It’s more informal feedback. Kaleidoscope is a project in West Hollywood which we did with our frequent collaborator Daveed Kapoor, a series of mirrored acrylic prisms that move; that one has gotten a lot of good feedback from a variety of different networks, like peers and colleagues in the design world and people on the other side who are coming from planning, city building, and working for city agencies, and in that world, it’s sort of the effect of being in the space that people are responding to. Sometimes, we go out to the spaces and are around photographing and get feedback just from observing. Kaleidoscope has been interesting, because it’s in front of an animal hospital, and when the people are going around and sweeping up around their building, they sweep around Kaleidoscope as well, in a way, taking ownership of it as part of their world.
That’s the hope. That it’s seen as approachable in that way. Another project, Todos Juntos, which is a plaza of sculptural pylons at a library, was built with a non-profit here in L.A. to get it going. We hear back from them that the experience of actually getting into the library, as sort of a simple act, has been greatly improved because it was very defensive beforehand. So this was one way of making it approachable.
How do you get these kinds of commissions?
Some of the earliest projects came about by just being engaged as citizens and architects with community groups on a volunteer basis as they were starting to think through possibilities for public space. You know, they come about in different ways. Todos Juntos in Boyle Heights was a proposal that my collaborator Siobhán Burke and I put together and interviewed with the neighborhood steering committee who selected the architects, but it was a non-profit. It was a very typical way that you might go after work. You submit your qualifications, they get reviewed, and you interview. We found out after the project was done that they had selected us because when we went in to the interview, we were the only firm that wasn’t focused on Mariachi Plaza, which is one of the main public spaces, but we were looking at the street and other spaces in the neighborhood that could have a potential for a new public project. Others have been competitions. The bicycle rack was an artist call competition that we submitted a proposal and were selected for. Others were invited. Kaleidoscope was invited, and then we were selected and went through the whole process of realizing it. The lesson is that you can propose a lot of things in a competition but then to realize it is a whole other design process.
Thinking about how you consider the end user, do you go deep into that process when you are doing this kind of work? Are there behavioral or psychological or cultural goals and are you consciously going after these places of respite or repose in the frenetic city? How do you think about it?
It depends on the project, how we’re thinking about the end user. For a project like Todos Juntos, we were working with a group of neighborhoods, business owners, activists, artists, and a steering committee. There, we were talking with them about their perceptions of the neighborhood and what a new public space could be. We also went out to the local farmer’s market and did surveys, written as well as visual, where we showed imagery of different types of projects, not necessarily ours, as well as locations, and had conversations with different groups and then processed that into how we thought about the design and how we positioned it. Others are coming from a more formal standpoint, thinking about the unexpected natures of form or materials, and how to present those moments along the street. I think the goal is maybe sometimes someone will smile a little bit when they see it, or just pause and engage with it in different ways. Which, in a way, is maybe counter to how we think about building cities. We maybe build cities too seriously, and we cordon off the things that we think are sort of fun or amusing or delightful or humorous. It gets pushed into certain quadrants. We have parks, and we have cities. A little bit of fun goes a long way to how we all sort of live and move and go about our daily lives. And also hopefully people put their guard down a little bit, and maybe they start to talk to someone because they’re in this object; or they’re both sort of perplexed by ‘why these rotating acrylic mirrors in the middle of the sidewalk on Santa Monica Boulevard?’ It becomes a sort of instigator or prop for those sort of interactions, those more informal ways of moving through the city and the daily rituals of life.
That’s refreshing to hear. What are you working on now?
We just finished up Kaleidoscope, and we’re in the midst of pursuing other types of work like this. We’re also doing some residential work. In addition to teaching, I’m also working on a couple of writing projects through the LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design. I was a board member for a number of years until just recently. We’re working on collected writings and helping edit and write introductions for some works that are talking about the city and thinking about L.A. as a place.
Any additional thoughts?
You know, something I think is important when I talk to students about the work I’m doing is that it’s not necessarily buildings that we do, but it’s architectural in my thinking. It’s the same set of issues of ways of thinking through a problem that has scale and materiality, that have a sequence of space or how does one move in and out and what are the effects. That’s something I like to stress about the work, particularly with students because it also helps them understand, hopefully, that there is a sort of wide range of types of projects and types of work that you can do as an architect. And it develops as you develop and you start to work on things that can actually get you engaged in the life of the city. And I think the other part of that is starting to take a position about the work you are doing and formulating that and revising as the work evolves. In our case, it’s been a very deliberate position that we are interested in working on projects that are public and in the city, and because the firm is young, those are necessarily small scale. To our mind, this is seen as an advantage to our position, to do these things that are details or moments, that aren’t a hindrance. We hope to do more of it as we continue to grow.