Christopher Brown knew since the beginning of his design education at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo (California) that he was going to start his own architecture practice before the age of 35. And he did, establishing Arkitek in 2012, at 32, in the small town of Ashland, in Southern Oregon. Experience gained through seven years of work in a local firm and the patronage of valued clients, allowed him to become independent and gradually grow. His “open source design-hub”, as he likes to refer to his firm, now counts 4 staff members and works on residential and commercial projects in the region and in other U.S. States. His focus is on a collaborative approach to architecture, which favors creative dialogue and interaction in the work place.
Tell us about your idea of developing an “open source design-hub“.
The inspiration behind the formation of an open-source design environment or design-hub is one that references the solution to a problem not necessarily evolving from any one single perspective, but rather a multitude of vantage points. I have always had a sense that design in its inherent form is similar to the construct of a language in flux, one that is not static, although we build from fixed points of reference, ultimately we strive to reach forward into new semantics, structure, and form through the process of design, thus revealing the cipher that is created within.
Would your idea of a “design hub” imply involving the community in the design process?
Yes, I feel that community is an integral part in design, as ultimately it is the human scale and user that is the appropriate measure of success or failure. I enjoy working with the craftsmen (and women) of trades and arts as well, as design truly is a universal language with many facets and forms.
What were the major difficulties, if any, in starting your own business?
Of course there are many small steps involved, such as paperwork, establishing a legal identity, insurance, etc. I found the most interesting challenge to be the management and understanding of time. Communication with peers and assistants is invaluable, and the education of working towards a shared goal, essentially brought about the enabling and encouragement for each collaborator in the office to take responsibility for the end result of the project, thus bringing forth a shared working environment, design-lab setting rather than an office environment.
What was key in opening your own office? For example networking, experience gained working for others…?
Your work will precede you in anything you do, thus if you have established a relationship with a place over time there should be a network of connections and experience to reference. Working outside of a major metropolitan area, this network becomes more crucial as it is immediately evidenced within 2 or 3 degrees of separation, ultimately taking pride in the work and craft, and performing to the best of ones abilities, will serve well to support and further the effort.
Were there any aspects in your previous work experiences that you didn’t agree with and wanted to change once you had your own firm, but are now finding difficult to avoid?
In my experience from working for architects, I sought to isolate the strengths each brought to the table, and do my best to learn and build upon each of those traits. Now as a principle, I see myself encountering many of the same challenges that I once critiqued. Specifically, the ability to establish a clear open space within the logistics of budget/timeframe/production to truly engage in a meaningful design investigation, for example, going above and beyond the minimum required effort to build/model/draw and truly engage the poetics inherent in a project, rather than just simply trying to move on to the next for profit or commercial enterprise.
What is the second project you’re most proud of, and why isn’t it the first?
I would have to respond with the “Metaphysical Library/Media-Exchange” project. Although not necessarily the most creative or technical, it has a social component that engages with the transfer/exchange of knowledge and information between people without cost or money. I find this provides an inherent value to be of service to the well-being and advancement of social progress.
Did you develop a design-philosophy for your practice or do you mostly design according to clients’ wishes?
I approach each project as a unique set of circumstances, specific to each client. Often I perceive myself as a lens, through which allows for the focus and refinement of a vision the client already has, perhaps buried deep, and we involve ourselves in the uncovering and discovery.
What are your goals for the future?
To reach further into the public/social sphere of influence. I would like very much to engage in the realm of architectural design beyond the immediate, however it is a process not too fast or slow, just currently at the pace of growth allowing for stability as well as challenge.
What advice would you give to young architects who wish to set up their own architectural office?
Remain true to your vision and intuition. Often times the choice or decision to step into a new realm is full of uncertainty, such is the profession of architecture, and even more so as an independent practice. However, the experience and education gained first-hand is indispensable, and in my opinion beyond value. I have no regrets, regardless of success or failure, the gain is in the journey.
portrait photo © Rory Finney