Brian Cavanaugh is an architect located in Seattle, WA. Brian runs ABC (ARCHITECTURE Brian Cavanaugh).

When did you realize you wanted to be an architect?

I was always going to be an architect since I was really little. As early as I can remember. I don’t actually know how I discovered what an architect was and I think, to a certain degree, my parents might have suggested the profession to me. I actually can’t remember a time when I imagined being something else other than that.

What appealed to you about the profession?

Early on I think it was the idea of drawing buildings. The notion of construction, per se. I was always, as a child, creative. I liked drawing, painting, and sculpture, artistic activities in general. Left to my own devices, I was always interested in drawing buildings and plans, probably even before I knew what that was. Even early on, I remember in elementary school, and I think I was in the fourth grade, and our school had started this program up, after school activities, where each one of the teachers would volunteer at something they could offer. My fourth grade teacher’s husband was an architect, so she developed this architectural appreciation class which the kids who had signed up would draw, sketch, and go walk around downtown Portland, visit architecture offices and things.

Is there anything specific you look for in a project that you take on?

It’s interesting. Much of how I’m trying to develop and practice and the kind of work that I want the practice to be able to get stems a little bit from my time with Michael Maltzan’s office in Los Angeles in which I began to really appreciate Michael’s desire not to go after any particular type of project, rather, as he stated, projects that engage the public realm. That stuck with me. For me, it’s about projects that can really impact a broader context, a cultural context or an economic context, something that have a broad impact on the world around it. You start to think about that. It sounds grossly general; you wouldn’t think that would eliminate lots of projects. But in actuality, when residential projects came into the office and the office decided to take them on, they were usually quite interesting projects. You could usually select a project based on a real simple criteria.

On the flip side, we're also working on the initial planning for what will be the first of about five or six preparatory academies in Africa; the first one’s going to be in Ethiopia. That project obviously is interesting to me on a number of different levels.

It’s not necessarily a specific type of project. It’s going to be the ambitions of the project that get me interested in it.

Could you go into a little more depth on the details of that project?

The organization is the International Leadership Academy of Ethiopia. It was founded by two Ethiopian-Americans here in Seattle. They’ve been working on this project for a couple of years now, in terms of the planning. The country of Ethiopia has been, for the last ten years, investing heavily in their educational system because that’s sort of non-existent. What the two founders observed was that this funding was only used for up to grade eight. They saw that, after grade eight, if you’re a student having a certain potential there just wasn’t a place for you to go. They saw this gaping hole in this program that they needed to deal with, secondary education. The two of them envisioned a leadership academy and it just sort of grew from there. Now that I’ve come on the project, we’re finalizing a lot of the capital campaign materials and will be launching into conceptual design, shortly.

Do you feel like architecture is growing into a new role, tackling more meaningful projects, and imposing change?

I actually wouldn’t be interested in architecture if it was just solely about one building after another. There’s types of projects where you have to be engaged really early on, envisioning and really providing a larger role than just strictly the design of the facility.

In terms of cultural change for our practice, I hope that’s something that our practice will have more opportunities to be involved in. It would be something, to a certain degree, where one can’t steer a practice into a particular direction or another. Those would be the types of engagements that I would be interested in. For me, it really comes down to the question of what constitutes a relevant practice in the 21st century. What should the profession and the individual practices be doing to actually be relevant besides the traditional service that they provide?

What things inspire you outside of architecture?

Film is a big influence on me. Actually, I had a slight diversion early on in my education where my undergraduate studies were in film. My wife’s a filmmaker and that’s probably something that’s influenced my thinking. Film is always a presence, whether it’s an overt influence or whether it’s something that’s always there affecting my cultural experience.

Any directors in particular?

Terence Malick is someone whose work has always had an impact on me. I’m always interested in film that operates within very strict genres but are somehow able to transcend the genre, usually by virtue of taking the genre very seriously. Every now and then, for instance, there’s always a science fiction film that is able to be much more than that.

My hope in my work is that the building can transcend its immediate functional requirements, that it becomes more than just meeting program requirements. To be able to establish a deeper connection, a broader cultural currency, it’s actually quite fundamental to the definition of architecture. Something more than a building, actually architecture.

Hearing you talk about that makes me think of the Skid Row project that you did. That’s affordable housing, but it’s also desirable housing.

I would say that notion was fundamental to whatever we were going to do on that project. Whatever it was that we ultimately designed, fundamentally, it actually had to achieve that. In a way, it had to do with not just that building but the Trust is one of a number of affordable housing developers in the city, and increasingly I think that there’s a pretty fundamental question to ask. The residents of these housing projects are part of an integral community. There was this fear that somehow that those organizations would have to go elsewhere to find new properties to develop and buy more housing, which kind of turned out to be the case. Those buildings and those organizations deserve to have an integral role in the community. And the way that you do that is just treat it like any other housing project. A very rich context for people to live their lives.

What’s your process like on the beginning phases of a project?

More times than not, there’s a couple initial reactions to the sites.

Do you have a fairly set idea before you see the site? Or do you let the site dictate the next step?

I let the site and the program dictate the specific direction, but I definitely come to the table with a fundamental, broader ambition for the project. It’s important for a practice to have some clear positions on the work they’re trying to do. An office is working to achieve and explore those issues, no matter what the project is. I come in with a set of principles, priorities, what have you, and those evolve as you do more projects. Generally, more times than not, its born out of some pretty deep and rigorous research on the project that tends to be less architectural in nature.

On your site, you talk about the importance of collaboration. Would you elaborate on that?

A little bit of this belief on collaborations comes out of the circumstances of having worked large scale projects where that’s essential, and you come to know that all great architecture comes out of collaboration. I realized, whether it’s the context of the studio and your fellow co-workers at the studio, or within the context of a broader design team, to get the right mix of people together, everyone’s bringing something. In reality, you keep getting back to this notion of a practice in the 21st century, the profession just has to embrace this idea that projects tend to be increasingly more complex. At least the drivers are more complex. You have to bring people together that truly understand the dynamics of any given project and let that collaborative dynamic drive the process. Inevitably, the best results come out of that.


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© 2009

Brian Cavanaugh Interview

Marshall Rake