Interview with residential architect David Yum

Today I'm talking with award winning Bolster Architect David Yum about Roman baths, primogeniture and how the internet sucks for when choosing an architect.

What first got you interested in architecture?

I became exposed to architecture as a kid. I loved drawing and painting and playing with plastic models. I would buy a model ship and get really excited about the picture on the cover. I loved the idea of building things, putting 200 pieces together and watching something get assembled. All of these things translated into wanting to become an architect. Then in elementary school when I first saw a sectional drawing and understood the idea that a drawing could reveal the inner works of something (like a ship) it was a a really powerful feeling. Actually come to think of it my first drawings were ships.

Then when I became a practicing architect I realized that architecture incorporates so many other fields: engineering, history, culture, the politics of a city, the economics of our clients' businesses etc. so its a field that incorporates many different fields and then tries to synthesize them which was something I really wanted to connect to.

So do you have any architects that inspire you? 

That is a question I get asked often and always struggle to answer.

It's like the "what is your favorite movie" question.

Exactly, I want to say that I’m inspired by many architects plus I'm a living architect so don’t want to feel limited by putting myself in a certain camp.  

That's fair. Is there a period of architecture that interests you?

Yes.  One of my research areas in grad school was the late imperial period of Roman architecture and I've remained interested in it ever since. In these large Roman cities of the time you'd often find the grand Roman bath that follows the classical language of symmetry, motifs and columns and so on.

When you say the Roman baths are you referring to the Thermae?

Yes, these are the equivalent of private men’s club of the 18th and 19th century and are far more interesting because their design was less bound and restricted by the imperial language. People would go there for the baths but also to socialize and because they didn’t have big areas they could level to form these big symmetrical classical courtyard they often found themselves on these oddly shaped lots so there was tons of program. 

Image credit: Wikipedia

Can you explain to readers what you mean by 'program'?

Sure, the AIA defines program as "the thorough and systematic evaluation of the interrelated values, goals, facts, and needs of a client’s organization, facility users, and the surrounding community". 

Thanks, so the baths...

Yes so at the core there was the tepid, hot and cold baths, then there was a lounging space, an eating space and an interaction space and so the Roman architects of the time were able to use the bath type as an area to experiment with a lot. The space and the sections were laid out freely and were not tied to something like the house which had a certain domestic ritual or the temples which were tied to a religious format and had to abide by certain types of layout and motifs, it was very free. 

The idea that the space itself didn’t have preconceived ides or restrictions is interesting and must have given enormous freedom to the architects. 

Exactly, all the rooms had to have a certain liveliness and diversity but because the functions were not tied to anything specific the Roman architect had this wonderful freedom to really experiment with the shape of the rooms, the light and the form and then jam them all together in a sequence so the bather could go from hot to cold. It was just a big enough space and commission to warrant lots of experimentation but not so much so that it was a decade long project. I think this actually led to one of the most fun, interesting and experimental periods of architecture.

Before we started recording we chatted briefly about Downton Abbey and grand estates owing a debt of gratitude to primogeniture. Can you elaborate on that?

Yes so I've been involved with the historic preservation for sometime now and have seen a number of beautiful estates that have managed to remain in one piece for many centuries and I thought that was interesting. Then I began traveling around Europe and saw there was many grand country estates still in Great Britain but almost none on the continent of Europe. So on the continent there were these castles and palaces built by the royal families, but there were many fewer estates of private individuals and its because in Great Britain there was this cultural idea of primogenitor where the estate would all go to the first born son, or for most of history the first born son or the next male in line of the land owner, whereas on the continent estates would be chopped up and divided among all of the sons or siblings. 

Image credit: www.nps.gov

The whole of Downton Abbey is about the preservation of this beautiful family estate building and its costly maintenance and how they navigate that in times of uncertainty.

Yeah I think all the preservation of that house is sort of the side effect of the original estate holder feeling it had to go to the son because if it went to the daughter the family name could be discontinued. Also if you had a number of sons or children and divided it up, then all the great collections of art and armor could be destroyed. Many of these great houses are as much about their collections as they are about their architecture and that single collection would be built upon over time and was a way of insuring the family would stay in stature and maintain their wealth, political power and so forth. 

How do you think homeowners typically choose an architect today compared to in the past?

So before design ended up in mass media and on the web, people would select architects on references and would understand that the architect had integrity, was trustworthy, was intelligent, was able to complete tasks and from there they would go and meet the architect and actually see and experience the type of work they did. I think this was the most common way to engage an architect.

That’s a really good point, you would see the architect's work only after knowing about them first from others.  

Well I think drawings would have been used but not photography. How old is photography, 150 years?

My quick Google search indicates the modern camera came into use in the early 19th century.

So in the early days people would hear wonderful things from a family member or colleague about an architect or come across a house and experience it in all its multi-sensory glory whereas today people are mostly making decisions by looking at digitally enhanced images online. The problem with this is it ignores the owner's physical experience of seeing and feeling the work for themselves and promotes the idea that architecture is an inexpensive consumable and the problem with that is you are not consuming design by looking at images but rather you are consuming images, images that are edited and biased because of the way they are cropped and highlighted.

Also the fact that all the images you are looking at are free and come so easily to your senses cheapens the perceived value of the architect and so I think previously one felt like the design of a home was an experience resulting from a process with people, with the architect, with the contractor, and so people didn’t even think about it as this kind of fashionable branded consumable good, they were thinking "alright, I need to physically experience this thing, my home is something I’m going to inhabit and so I need to physically see and experience other examples to get a sense".

Basically there was a different expectation that to build a house would take a long period of time and it wouldn’t magically appear because I click a button. So that's changed.

Do you think finding good clients then is one of the hardest thing about being an architect today?

I mean there are so many challenges but I can't say enough that a great client isn’t about a blank check or a blank brief. The best projects come out of clients that have the most interesting and clear minded ideas about their identity, their needs and their vision. They also tend to have a willingness to trust the process they are embarking on.

What about the inverse, is there anything easy about being an architect?  

I think the easiest thing about being an architect is that there are always interesting challenges and a diverse range of things to become involved with. 

Do you think architects can learn from clients?

Very much so. Incidentally "99% Invisible" did a podcast recently called "The mind of an architect" where a panel of famous architects were given a hypothetical client dilemma. Do you know it? 

I’m a big fan yes.

This particular episode was referring to an ethics problem faced by a fictional architect called Mr. Brown as part of a study on creativity at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) at The University of California, Berkeley. So Mr. Brown has just finished the preliminary drawings for a very challenging and important structure and his client has told him that he likes his proposal and will accept it if he changes one thing that turns out to be fundamental and devastating to Mr. Browns sensibilities. He of course wants his client to be happy with the building but he also has to support himself. So while he is thinking about it the phone rings and the client demands an answer.

Image credit: 99% Invisible

What I thought was funny was that the older architects on the panel (Eero Saarinen and Philip Johnson) said he should drop the commission while the younger architect (Victor Lundy) seemed to say architecture is more of a collaboration and he could learn something from the client. I definitely think that the younger architect still needed to pay lots of bills and for the older ones that was not so much on their minds. I also think the question itself is heavily influenced by this whole idea of the master builder, the master architect that this common stereotype of the great architect. Johnson had a very good answer though that it doesn’t really happen that way because when an architect engages with a client they’re coming up with the solution that’s been formulated via dialog and in process with the client the idea that they would come to a point where the design is great but there was something that the client didn’t like is kind of unrealistic.

I think its very important when clients are clear about the program and the things they need, their lifestyle, the way they use their homes, the types of spaces they need etc. but it is less productive when the client tries to design the project and gets so specific on the design (e.g. I want four cabinets here, 18 inches each and it should be this color) because the one reason to engage an architect is the idea that they can make a client's vision even better by bringing skill and experience to it.

So, for obvious reasons, hairdressers don’t cut their own hair but are there instances of a well known architect hiring another architect to design their home?

Oh of course.

Really? 

Yes. I don’t think it's that common, but I don’t think it's uncommon. I think architects mostly end up designing their own homes but I know of at least one example where an architect hired a famous architect to design her house but it was more because that architect never did any residential work. I mean they were good at towers and shopping malls but they knew it was a very different problem to design a home. 

What's it like to win an award for your work from your peers?

To me that [AIA Honor Award] was a really special award because it's my peers saying that we think the work is notable. It’s the kind of thing I would sacrifice 20 magazine covers for because it's by my peers rather than some editor.

What was the project?

It was for a winery in Santa Barbara for a great client.  He had a very clear idea and through the process was open enough to new ideas that ended up being a huge boost for the company, for the investors and for the architecture itself. I think about that a lot because it was one of the greatest processes my firm went through because we explored what the client wanted but were also able to show them another way of looking at the building and their own company and we did it in a way that they were receptive to and that others outside of the client / architect group could understand and get excited about. In the end he sold his company for some crazy amount of money.

Well that’s great,

That is great but he didn’t build the winery.

Wait, the winery didn’t get built?

No it didn’t. The owner sold the winery before the design was built. 

That sucks, so wait, the AIA awarded you for the design without a building? 

Yes. The award doesn't necessitate the design being built. The design has to be for a real client and for a real project but you can do it before it breaks ground. 

So does it matter to you that it didn't get built?

Yeah it still matters very much. It's greatly disappointing because ultimately architecture is a physical thing that is meant to be experienced and I'm an architect because I want to have an impact on other people. So when your design isn't built, award or not, it impacts many fewer people so yeah, greatly disappointed.

Do you think your design will be built in the future by another owner?

I think so but it may take a while. The new owners wanted a very traditional architecture that would make no sense out there. The group was from Dallas and they couldn’t understand why a winery could have a modern expression and I couldn't understand why it would have a colonial Williamsburg expression. Not a good match.

Image credit: David Yum Architects

Do you have any advice for new architects? 

This question was asked just recently to Art Gensler (who founded and runs the World's largest architecture firm and designed some of Apple's offices and stores) and his advice was try to get as much experience as you can in as many forms of practice as you can because ultimately good architecture comes out of a lot of good experience. In science you are looking for a breakthrough but in architecture it's more about solving the same problems as they manifest themselves differently. In certain ways when it comes to creating a home for someone there aren’t that many new solutions and we are living in the same homes that we did 1,000 years ago– there are places for sleeping, for cooking, for eating, for gathering but nothing new and so a lot of great design is about the refinement of solid choices made in the past. It's kind of like an old person’s profession because it's not about one or two brilliant ideas that you discover but rather about being able to look back on a lot of different circumstances and problems and seeing how they have arisen and how to use your experience to create solutions.