City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Austin Kelly

Next up, Austin Kelly, one of the principals of the firm XTEN Architecture, as interviewed by David A and David B of ArchDaily/Plataforma Arquitectura. Intriguingly, the two principal architects at XTEN are Kelly and Monika Häfelfinger, who come from very different backgrounds: Los Angeles and Switzerland respectively.

In responding to the Davids’ question as to their profile, Kelly starts with this fact. He notes that Monika coming from Switzerland lends a very different sensibility to the office – her education and experience combining with his in interesting ways (elsewhere it's been described as "minimal vs. expressionist") – particularly as they strive for an open office environment, characterised by frequent “debates and arguments in the office”. Kelly says they have a “very horizontal office” in this respect. (Having been a manager of teams large and small myself, I recognise that this is the kind of thing we managers often say, frequently with little justification. Kelly sounds like he means it though, and his thoughtful, considered answers lend credence to his claim.)

Austin Kelly

In response to the question “what is architecture?”, Kelly replies that it’s “a process of questions, a method of inquiry. From the questions we develop 3D models, diagrams, drawings etc. Then we debate, and then we start synthesizing these ideas into material dimension – physical, connected, spatial ideas …”. It’s a literal answer to a question that is often interpreted in more abstract fashion, but in almost instinctively focusing on their work, their practice, Kelly says a lot about their firm with this answer. 

XTEN Sapphire

XTEN Sapphire

When asked about the role of architects in current society, Kelly tentatively suggests that “we do have wider role.” By way of an example, he suggests that the school system in particular “has not been addressed in Southern California”, and that if “architects can get a seat at the table” they would have a lot to offer to that thought process, amongst others.

A question on the role of innovation in their practice. He answers that they do base some of their built form on the possibilities afforded by technology – such as their laser-cut Diamondhouse – but they think innovation manifests itself more in collaboration. They use competitions to derive ideas, as many practices do, but innovation seems to emerge more through working together on mock-ups, and in particular work with fabricators, and so on. He notes that “lots of fabricators are coming out of automobile design industry, developing composites and glues …”

XTEN Diamondhouse 

XTEN Diamondhouse

(This is fascinating, and as I noted in my PostOpsLA summing up, a real theme in Los Angeles architecture, perhaps emerging originally in boat building and the aeroplane industry, and then in automobiles – and still prevalent. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be part of a UK Government-funded research tour, around the theme of user-centred design, along the entire West Coast of the USA. The stop-offs at BMW and Volvo design labs rarely revealed much in the way of user-centred, or people-centred, design practice, but they were still fascinating. To see how car designers work is always interesting to me – there are good things and bad things about it – but it would be particularly interesting to explore this elision between LA-basedarchitecture and the history of design as pursued by the fabricators of the local car/plane/boat building sector.)

Austin Kelly

Kelly then talks about how they split work over their offices in Switzerland and USA. He clearly finds it amazing and inspiring (as do I) how the Swiss manage to attain such high standards in design (albeit generalising somewhat). He asks “why the post office is a brilliant architectural building, or grocery stores …” He mentions a particular grocery store in Lucerne as “a brilliant piece of work” (tried to find a reference and couldn't; anyone?).
He puts this down to the competition system in Switzerland, in that they have ”competitions for almost everything.” He outlines briefly how the Swiss equivalent of the AIA administers competitions, governs rules, and ensures towns get incentives if they do a competition. As he notes, this is very different to the USA (and indeed Australia), where they “don’t do competitions much.” (I think this is profoundly important cf. recent UTS competition here in Sydney, in terms of creating an open and discursive culture around design in concert with raising awareness of, and therefore quality of, design.)

Kelly’s answer to a question about how the office does ”social networking” is a nice one, I think. He says they “don’t really go to cocktail parties … We tend to focus on the work and let the work go out and network for us …”

I asked a question about this overlap with industrial design, and the use of contemporary fabrication techniques (laser-cut, pre-fab etc. etc.) As well as a technical overlap between industrial design and architecture, I’m interested in these two ideas of the building as one-off, due to particular constraints of site, client etc. – ‘every building is a prototype’ – versus the ideas at play in industrial design, where you might think of a building as a series of designs which iterate over time. In short, that if you draw from the tools of car design, can you – and should you – also draw from the processes and systems of car design? (I should note that one of the foremost thinkers on these issues is the Australian architect Michael Trudgeon of Melbourne firm Crowd Productions, who currently has an exhibition in Melbourne – I haven’t been yet, but I know it will be worth checking out. I was lucky enough to read Trudgeon's fantasitc Phd thesis around these ideas.)
Kelly thought this was interesting theme, and said that they do have a prototyping culture and are very much oriented towards fabricating off-site and then assembling on-site. He suggests he hadn’t thought through whether that could in turn enable a kind of iterative, “series approach” to architecture, as with cars and other industrial design, and seemed intrigued by that idea.

Another question from the audience concerns whether and how they swap architects between the Swiss and US offices. Kelly replies that they do work across both offices, and notes that “it’s difficult in terms of timezone and things” but otherwise straightforward and often beneficial. All their team know metric, but getting their head around the codes in Switzerland is more difficult, as they are “intense”. He says the “energy requirements in particular are probably 20 years ahead of US in terms of everything – in terms of the performative aspects of a building”. (Which is interesting.)

I enjoyed Kelly’s approach to these questions, and the thoughtful considered responses, particularly those highlighting issues around the design process and fabrication, as well as insights into the cross-cultural Swiss-US practice straddling such different working environments.

XTEN Architecture


One response to “Austin Kelly/XTEN Architecture (Postopolis! LA)”

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