Interview with Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA

Categories: Articles

By Andrew Caruso

The Cherokee mixed-use building in West Hollywood, California, which is nearing completion. The project is expected to achieve LEED Platinum certification. Photo by Tara Wujcik.

National Building Museum (NBM) Online: Pugh+Scarpa describes “investigation” as a foundation for its practice. What motivates this approach to design?

Lawrence Scarpa: In some ways, it’s a personal fear. Throughout the careers of architects I admired, they progressively plagiarized themselves. Their work became more predictable and I am always concerned of falling into that same trap. I strive to remain fresh, to never be afraid to do things differently or to take risk[s].

Our office pursues ideas that are experimental in nature— investigative things. This process requires you to be somewhat uncomfortable not only with yourself, but also with your clients who may bring expectations about your work. Through our clients’ interaction with the remnants of these explorations, they help us to advance new ways of thinking.

Inspired by Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella House of 1953, the Solar Umbrella House in Venice, California was designed by Pugh + Scarpa principals Lawerence Scarpa and Angela Brooks as their home. The home use photovoltaic panels to provide 100% of the home’s energy needs. Photo by Marvin Rand.

NBM Online: You talk about the importance of being uncomfortable. How do you foster or shape that type of culture?

Scarpa: It’s hard. I always tell people that I wouldn’t recommend our type of practice as a business model. We don’t want to settle in and we’re constantly working at it, I guess.

At times we have to remind ourselves of why we are here: out of a love for what we do comes the energy for constant maintenance and the challenge to continually question yourself.

NBM OnlineI: Teaching has been a career-long pursuit for you. How has your engagement in academia impacted the way you practice?

Scarpa: Being around students keeps you fresh. Their excitement makes you think about everything. The teaching environment becomes a laboratory for ideas and it is a part of my practice. I don’t see them as two different things.

Step Up provides a home, support services, and rehabilitation for the homeless and mentally disabled population of Santa Monica. The new structure provides 46 studio apartments of permanent affordable housing and includes ground level commercial/retail space and subterranean parking. Photo by John Linden.

NBM Online: As a child, you described building and exploring things in the back yard with your father. How does that time parallel the current?

Scarpa: I never really thought about it until recently, but it had a big impact. My father was a blue-collar Italian immigrant who often built small home additions and other construction jobs to make extra money. I thought my dad was an architect and I just wanted to be like him. As a boy, I thought I was helping him while he did these things, but now I realize now he was just watching me after school.

Many years later, the experience of making things remains a major interest for me and is an important part of our architecture.

Custom water jet anodized aluminum panels on the main façade of the Step Up facility create a dramatic screen that sparkles in the sun and glows at night, while also acting as sun protection and privacy screens. Photo by John Linden.

NBM Online: Your practice is founded on a partnership with Gwynne Pugh. How has this relationship changed over the years? Where do you see it going?

Scarpa: Architecture has become such a complex profession. When I worked for Paul Rudolph, I looked at some construction drawing he did for a house in Florida in the early 1960s and it was about five sheets of drawings. You can’t do that anymore. The profession is so large and complex that it’s no longer a one-person, heroic profession. If you try to practice that way, I think you are bound to fail. Today it takes a collaborative mentality to be successful, to get things built, and built well.

Gwynne and I have settled into our roles, even though early on that was a struggle for us. I’ve always been the voice of what we do, but the vision is only a small part. Gwynne has been the one to know if I am pushing too hard or not hard enough. He sees that our projects actually get built while our third partner, Angela Brooks, ensures that the design concepts actually work from a technical standpoint.

We work like a triangle on all projects. I generally lead the direction with input and management from Gwynne, and Angie really gets it done. It’s not a linear process; our office doesn’t work that way.

View of the main entry to Colorado Court, an affordable housing development in Santa Monica, California. Colorado Court is 100% energy neutral and acheived a LEED Gold rating. Photo by John Linden.

NBM Online: The partners’  active roles in each project must pose limits on the firm’s capacity to take on work. Is it worth it?

Scarpa: Yes, it does pose limits. People have asked me about growth, but ultimately size has never been a key objective for us. I think we could get big, but there are other models too. Some companies measure success by size or growth, but I don’t measure that way at all. At the same time while we have grown significantly, I’ve never felt like I’ve lost any control or that there are limits on the vision.

The Fuller Lofts project is a 103,500 square foot adaptive reuse and nearly 30,000 sq. ft. expansion of an historic 1920’s building into 102 affordable, workforce, and market-rate lofts and commercial space. Photo by John Linden.

NBM Online: How then does Pugh+Scarpa measure success?

Scarpa: Success for me is being able to produce great buildings. “Great” is a couple things, but most importantly, it’s the way that people enjoy the building. I often visit many of our previously completed projects, and I find that almost everything has remained exactly the way we designed it. Success is achieved when people maintain their space because they love it and it works for them.

I don’t really look back on my work very much. After 15 years, my first interiors client relocated. Someone asked if I wanted to prevent a new tenant from gutting the space, but I couldn’t care less. I had made it for my client, not for me. Once I’ve done it, I’m done with it. I’m more concerned with what I’m doing now. As long as I can continue to work and practice what I believe in, I think that is success.

NBM Online: Pugh+Scarpa often presents work that is decidedly “of the people.” Would you describe yourself as a populist designer?

Scarpa: I hope that’s not the way I am perceived. I think about being categorized like that and it scares me. Our work is about art and the creative process, and just because someone is not part of a certain group doesn’t mean that they should be excluded.

NBM Online: One might suggest that there is a playful whimsy in many of your projects, an expression of hide-and-seek in the skin, composition, and materiality of the architecture. Is this quality motivated by notions of user experience, sustainability, or other issues?

Scarpa: It’s about all of those. As a designer, I try to look right in front of my face instead of looking to the stars. I tend to find the extraordinary within the ordinary; the potential of things which are common or taken for granted.

Brushes, ping-pong balls, plastic cups… no one would ever think of them as building components. Yet I look at the quality of them, their shape and how light broadcasts through the material. I see the object in abstract. I find beauty in an assembly that people love because it is familiar to them. When they get close enough to recognize a material with which they are familiar, it actually heightens their experience.

In this way, we try to leave something behind with each user; a memory of the experience rather than the object that they have seen. Art is not what we see, rather it makes us see.

NBM Online: You have often described a unique and rigorous design process. How do you approach design from a beautifully pragmatic perspective?

Scarpa: Well, not everything is that way, but most things are. Even when you have very large budgets, it’s rare that that our clients are not concerned about time and money. Our first challenge as architects is to solve problems. By and large, if you are successful in addressing the pragmatic issues, people will leave you alone to practice architecture as an art.

NBM Online: Do you ever apply creative pursuits to the financing aspects of a project or to activities less typically understood as “design”?

Scarpa: Absolutely. I think architects are the best-suited people to shape our environment, yet it’s really controlled by developers and those with financial resources. I always try to tell students that you should think about what a building should be in a city and not take for granted a given program. You’ve got to be proactive.

Our firm tries to bring more to the table than our clients expect from us. When one of our clients had no ambitions of making their building green, we went out and found the money to do it.

NBM Online: Pugh+Scarpa has been recognized with many awards for the social relevance of its design work. How have you shaped your practice around these ideas?

Scarpa: I think it is an architect’s responsibility to make our world better, or at the very least to try. Charles Eames once said that ideas are not subject to ownership. They exist in the world for people to develop or work upon. He described the responsibility that came with this. He said that a designer must treat these ideas with the utmost of care and invention, otherwise, the idea would be ruined forever for all others. I always consider this as part of an architect’s responsibility, but it doesn’t preclude you from practicing architecture as an art. They’re not mutually exclusive.

Ten years ago my partner Angela Brooks and I started our own nonprofit named Livable Places. It was founded with a mission to create well-designed, affordable, sustainable mixed-use communities. Given how bad some of the affordable housing projects were, I thought it would take no effort to look like a hero. As it turned out, it was extremely difficult.

We teamed with bankers, affordable housing developers, environmentalists, contractors, and others. We wrote guidelines and hosted design studios and student projects, ultimately deciding to pursue grant funding which resulted in almost a million dollars of support.

The key was that we weren’t interested in being another “bricks-and-mortar”  non-profit. We developed a policy wing while simultaneously creating demonstration projects to support our ideas. Our hope was to change the way things normally get done and influence policy makers who shape our built environment.

My next adventure is an Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute, which will bring together non-profit and community developers and redevelopment agencies with resource team members to help improve community projects within our cities.

NBM Online: You speak a lot of the relationship between design and policy. That intersection is not where many architects care to stand.

Scarpa: But they should. There once was a time when architects were the political confidants to the king. This is not the case anymore, partially due to our aversion to risk. Yes, some in our community get involved in policy, but it is not an ingrained way of thinking in our larger system of education or practice.

A former mayor and architect once told me that he did more for his city in one week as the mayor than he did in 20 years as a practicing architect. There’s truth in the power of policy.

NBM Online: Do these initiatives signal a shift for Pugh+Scarpa down the road?

Scarpa: I don’t know. I don’t have a particular destination in mind. In fact, if you had asked me if I would be involved in affordable housing 20 years ago, I would have said you were dreaming.

This article was created in tandem with a Spotlight on Design lecture with Pugh+Scarpa. Spotlight on Design is sponsored by Lafarge, the world leader in construction materials, with additional support from the American Institute of Architects.