Interview by Erin Kuschner
Photographs by Joe Mrava and Shanice Trimboli
Spatial Affairs Bureau is a small coalition of designers with offices in Richmond, Charlottesville and Los Angeles. Peter Culley started Spatial Affairs Bureau after his work on the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts left him with strong ties to people in Richmond. Their work is evidence of a fondness for landscape in architecture and a creative commitment to their clients. In our interview Peter explained what makes Spatial Affairs special and what he enjoys most about managing his firm.
Can you explain a little bit about the way you have worked with both landscape and architecture and how that has had an effect on you?
I feel like the exposure that I’ve had to the true discipline of landscape architecture has been very important and the horizontal plane is an important aspect for architecture. Also somebody recently was talking about architecture, or facade, being an interstitial moment between landscape architecture and interior architecture which is kind of true. Architecture is a result of those two forces. I think even in the project where we are at the other extreme away from landscape, somehow principles of it are coming through. Landscape often has an important role in tempering the building or adjusting your perspective of the building. It’s interesting that we’re wedded to landscape as an office, but also that we have lighting as part of our office. Lighting is essential in terms of the interior world and then landscape is as I said, the other extreme, and then maybe architecture finds its way out between the two. The bridge park is entirely a landscape project, but it’s very much a built form. That resonates with me. It’s an architectural element but overall a two-milelong project. I like that. We designed a little bench at the metropolitan museum, and we’re designing a kiosk now. I like that we have these different scales.
Can you tell us what makes Spatial Affairs Bureau unique?
I have a background in cultural work and some of what we are doing still comes under that category. Until recently, I would have said it all did, because we are doing a house in London for an artist and it doubles as an art gallery.We also have a big advertising office in LA that we are doing work for so that doesn’t totally come under the same kind of cultural heading, but the client is very creative. In my conversations with the client I always find that we’re connecting on a fairly significant creative level and I will be stimulated by it. The client is a huge part of the energy behind any project we do. They have to be people who I will learn from in the discussions that I have with them. Not all clients in the industry have a strong creative manifesto, but I think ours do. They’re always demanding and idiosyncratic.
What responses do you get from clients about your work? If you showed them what you’re working on how would they challenge your work?
We always show the work in a way that the client can understand what we’re giving them. We get them right inside of what we’re doing so they can give the right pushback. We typically show options that have similar outcomes. That way we’re answering the same needs but in different ways, and they can give a response quickly, because they can imagine it next to a different scenario. In the Bridge Park project we did exactly that. It’s a matrix of opportunities, shortcomings, costs, time tables and cultural needs and community needs…we start to develop a really big matrix of pluses and minuses. In the end you just have to be able to embrace the limits and the pushback you get from the client. Sometimes you feel like you’ve got a wonderful plan and everything’s working well, but then it’s not really answering this need, and then immediately I think, ‘Oh, well it’s not a wonderful plan, we need to answer that need.’
Can you tell me a little bit more about your office being split into multiple locations, and how you chose those locations?
LA was much more exciting to me as a city than Richmond. Also I liked the collection of architecture schools there and I had some connections, so that was really the push of it. I really wanted the Richmond office to keep going….all the time that I’d invested in Richmond with the museum, but also in the wider community, and then all of the connections that I’d made with people locally. It’s a growing reality that my time and my association with Richmond is very much alive, but I think it’s a more sustainable model if I am in an international condition. In the end it probably helps the Richmond group. Then we can decide where and how we do projects. For communication in the work that you do, would you say that is achieved through personal visits or technology, or are there any other steps that you take? I think that probably it’s only technology. In fact, we’re still working towards that. The aim is to move towards systems that liberate you to do creative things in different places. We do a lot of this WebEx stuff, because you can see that it works very well. When we were doing VMFA, it was phone calls and a huge number of emails with mark-ups, but WebEx really didn’t exist in quite the same way then. If you went back twenty years, we definitely couldn’t do an office like this. It would be a complete nightmare. If you have a certain amount of direct contact time, it allows all the digital stuff to be gone for a while, but then you end up needing to get back the direct energy of being in front of each other.
“I think you have a certain hunch of what people might be ideal for and I do like to develop a kind of connection. That’s very important when you’re smaller, to see how people are going to work between themselves.”
What do you think you gain from having people work all together in a building if your work is so easily sharable through technology?
I believe in human touch. I think that’s really essential in everything. Clusters of people where there is a primal social structure are important. The aim is to have clusters where people feel like they’re supported with physical interaction. If you imagined everybody always working in isolation, there would be a dialogue missing. But at the same time, being able to sometimes work differently, and being on your own for a certain amount of time is important for certain tasks, so I think in the end you want to offer the best of both. There’s this idea now of being able to offer different environments to work in, and I’m sure it’s come about from the technology we have. It allows us to move around the house and sit in different spaces. I’m used to working on my laptop in many different settings, it’s almost like we’ve been able to return to more instinctive ways of working. For example, sometimes I would stay at home a little bit longer to get through something. That’s good, because I can be completely focused.
At this point in your career, what would you say is the most rewarding part about being here at Spatial Affairs?
I think it’s wonderful to see something growing. I was thinking on the way here, that I don’t have any projects that I’m not super excited about. That’s extraordinary. We have several projects, and they’re all fascinating in their own way, and the sites are fascinating, the clients are fascinating. To get all of this going financially is very tricky, and cash flow is a real issue in architecture generally, but I think it’s interesting that we have different things in different places. I feel fortunate and excited that there are these different scales of projects that are at a reasonably high level. I feel like we have high-level clients...Did you ever look around in the back and the workshops and all of that?
Yeah. It must be exciting to have people working back there. Sometimes I question the work that I do like that at school. We have a printmaking lab and a woodshop and stuff. It’s so good to do those things and then I wonder, “Am I wasting my time? Should I go back to my desk and work on my projects?”
No, because it’s real. The thing is that if you do stuff in wood or metal, that’s architecture. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is, and the models you make on your desk are not actually architecture. I mean, they’re architectural spaces and they’re architectural representations, so it’s very important work. By the time you use a material that goes into making a building I think you’re doing architecture.
So my last question for you, since this is a publication that is written by students and largely consumed by students, is there anything that you would say to people who are maybe not sure what they are going to do after college and how things are going to go?
There are two things I think that are very important. One is that you must be uncompromising in terms of who you look to work for, and that you do a really significant search. Of course it’s good just to get a job and economics are a part of that, but I’d just say really strive to find an office that resonates on some level with what you think you’ve become while you were a student. And don’t forget your own work that you did as a student. It’s probably the last time you’ll get to do work without much in the way of limits. Even if you’re running your own office, you’ve got lots of limits coming to you from clients to economics and site. It’s difficult to realize it at the time, but you’re currently in a situation where everything is focused towards you. You have professors responding to your work. It’s an incredible luxury in school that those people are spending their time to focus on your work and that you can chose how to take that and go in your own direction. That is not to put pressure on what you do with your work right now, but treat your portfolio as something quite precious because in some sense it defines who you are.
Peter Culley is a graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture, London, where he has subsequently taught, and University of Liverpool. He conceived Spatial Affairs Bureau in 2007, as a loose container for strands of interest from orthodox architectural practice to experimental spatial investigation. He now runs a busy studio with projects across the US and in the UK, and currently teaches in the graduate and undergraduate school at Woodbury University School of Architecture, Los Angeles, where he was awarded the title Professor of Practice in 2015.