Edited by Samantha Given-Dennis
Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore of Interboro Partners are pioneers working at the frontier of the architecture and urban design professions. Their firm embodies the expansion of architecture beyond its traditional boundaries and offers a model for designers to incorporate unfamiliar, underserved populations into their practice. They recently joined The 1% as the 1000th firm participant.
Public. What does Interboro do?
Dan. ‘We work at a port of entry for architectural possibility where the capacity for change rests in architecture’s ability to account for what exists, to recognize the limitations of a site and recast those limitations as an opportunity for intervention.’ Someone wrote that about us once. I think it’s a nice description of what we do.
Public. What do you believe in? What are you interested in?
Tobias. We believe that there’s a big role for architects to play in working with communities that are excluded from processes that envision the future of their city.
Dan. We’re interested in the everyday life of cities and of people in cities. We don’t have any isms. We try to be very conditional and approach things as they come to us. We certainly don’t have any recipes for making places or cities better. We have principles, we have strong ideas, and we try to be good listeners as well as experts who don’t always know the answer. I think that a lot of our work is infused with that spirit of being context and situation specific.
Public. What early observations did you have as you came into the profession that led you to adopt this philosophy or nature or whatever you’d call it?
Dan. We all studied together at Harvard. There, we took classes with Margaret Crawford. She was very influential, although I think we came into the program with the same sensibilities that she had in terms of not jumping to conclusions about how horrible the everyday landscape is and seeing how it can sometimes work for people even if it is ugly or seems chaotic.
Public. So your work is infused with the public interest. What are your feelings about the movement towards “social design?”
Georgeen. We believe in everything that it is doing but we also believe that “design for social change” shouldn’t be a special category. When we started thinking about our practice we decided we would develop it with this idea at the forefront of our minds.
Public. We don’t disagree with you.
Georgeen. There’s no reason why architecture can’t provide the kinds of services that clients and communities need and also aspire to make the world better, without getting into platitudes. People usually think of architecture with a clear disciplinary boundary and we’re trying to be more expansive about what architecture can do and what the products are; in doing so you can be more flexible in incorporating more and new goals into a project.
Public. How do you fund your projects?
Georgeen. We do everything from getting grant money to trying to opportunistically capture streams that don’t stand out in the open.
Public. You’re vanguards. What is it like?
Georgeen. We’re constantly trying to rethink: what are the services we provide and what are the products we produce? And once you’re looser about boundaries it is easier to be unconventional.
Public. For example…
Georgeen. We identify the client as opposed to the client identifying us.
Tobias. Normally you have the client coming to you saying ‘I want to do this and that,’ but most of our projects start as observations. We identify a phenomenon, we research it, and then define our position as designers and planners in relation to it; in doing so, we discover our client. Take for example our projects in Newark and Detroit.
Dan. Even in projects initiated by a client we try to create a new base. For the PS1 project, Holding Pattern, the museum was the real client. They came to us and said you need to design something for our courtyard, it has to have seating and shade and a water feature. Instead of designing for just the museum, we decided that we could do better if we went out and asked the community what they would want out of this temporary summer installation. So we took one client, the museum, and turned it into over one hundred clients. It was challenging because we had different things that people wanted but it was also an opportunity. That is when design is interesting, when you have lots of conflicting demands on you and your program. And it turned out to be this iron chef of design, where you’re given lots of different ingredients that you didn’t choose but you still have to make something delicious.
Public. What was unique about your project in Newark?
Georgeen. We worked with the City of Newark to do a neighborhood redevelopment plan. In that project there was an established venue for community participation – the design charette. In doing our research and spending time in the neighborhood, we knew that there were lots of people with different needs and aspirations who were not represented in the charettes. We set up a physical model of the neighborhood out on the street next to a bus stop at a time when we would capture people who didn’t show up to the charettes on their way to work. We let people know that we were working on the project but also in a non aggressive way talked to them about the neighborhood, subtly engaging them in the process.
Public. You put a lot of creative energy into community engagement.
Georgeen. You always have to think of new ways to engage with people to better understand the needs of the groups that do not participate in the traditional models. When we reach out to a certain group of people, we find the best place to make contact with them, keeping in mind that it is important to invent, to not take existing strategies too seriously.
We did a project on NORCs – naturally occurring retirement communities. To learn about how the elderly were using a particular NORC on the Lower East Side, we set up an informal polling station in an elevator there. Why was the elevator the best place to capture opinions? Elderly people always use the elevator because they don’t want to climb up the stairs. We had a very captive audience.
Public. You mentioned a project in Detroit. What was that?
Dan. We did a project called “Improve Your Lot!” to look at what people were doing in response to the terrible situation there. We noticed that residents of Detroit had started to accumulate property next to their house – they would have a house, then buy the lot next door, the lot next door to that one, and the lot on the other side, forming big suburban scale properties. The reason we decided to do a project was that nobody had given this behavior a name, no one had called it out as a phenomenon, no one had paid attention. It got left behind in the spectacular discourse of decline in the city. We organized workshops where we invited some of the people who had been purchasing and acquiring lots next to their homes and had them swap stories. After conducting a bunch of interviews we decided maybe this was a good thing for Detroit and the best thing we could do – even though we’re architects and we want to design and build stuff – is make this known and make people who do this more aware that what they’re doing is cool and important. We came up with the word “blotting” so the phenomenon could be operative in a discourse. Sure enough, in recent months even though this project is six years old, we’ve seen a lot of stories about blotting. It’s as if the word came out of nowhere, some of these stories don’t even mention us— but that’s okay because it’s a sign that the project succeeded.
Public. You have a great ability to look at something that exists and approach it in a new way, you leave precedent and tradition behind with great ease. How do you do this?
Dan. When we get together and talk we strengthen our convictions; we have a lot of ideas and the way we work together builds our confidence. Over the years, if you insist on something long enough it becomes true. Maybe that’s it.
Public. Any last words?
Dan. (Laughs) It’s great to be part of The 1%.