Leo Marmol on Perils of Technology and Modernist Thinking

Leo Marmol on Perils of Technology and Modernist Thinking
Photo by Roger Davies

The Midnight Charette is an explicit podcast about design, architecture, and the everyday. Hosted by architectural designers David Lee and Marina Bourderonnet, it features a variety of creative professionals in unscripted conversations that allow for thoughtful takes and personal discussions. A wide array of subjects are covered with honesty and humor: some episodes provide useful tips for designers, while others are project reviews, interviews, or explorations of everyday life and design. The Midnight Charette is also available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

This week David and Marina are joined by Leo Marmol, Architect and Founding Principal of the hugely successful design-build architecture firm Marmol Radziner. Leo discusses the benefits of design-build, the struggling profession of architecture, the perils of technology, smart homes, modernist thinking in design and much more. Enjoy!


Leo discusses his diverse undergraduate education (00:00)

How Marmol Radziner started and key aspects that helped them become successful (07:45)

  • Taking on the construction role did a number of things. Number one, it allowed us to engage with the client for more scope of work. It also gave us a perspective and an experience that the traditional architectural practice could not offer. (11:10)

The benefits and challenges of having satellite offices. The cultural differences between San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. (11:46)

  • San Francisco and LA are two different worlds. In fact, I grew up in Northern California and in elementary school I was… I’m sure directly taught that everything evil from Los Angeles: Sprawl, gangs, smog, freeways and the Hollywood disaster. So for me to move from San Francisco, Morin County to Los Angeles was like defecting from my country. These are serious cultural tensions between the two communities. (sarcastically stated at 16:10) 
  • San Francisco for all its cultural liberalism, its aesthetic perspective, has been very conservative. It's been a very, Beaux-Arts community as it applies to architecture versus Los Angeles’s modern exuberance. You can see in San Francisco a different client base. Prior to the tech explosion, the client base was more financial, longer, older money. Los Angeles had Hollywood and the aerospace industry. It was younger money. It was money that wanted to be more seen. (17:24)

Leo discusses having a modernist perspective, user experiences, technology and how the three relate to architecture (20:14)

  • …So there were many things that were pulling the two cities apart. And I think in many ways the tech world has kind of thrown a wrench in that clarity, where you could argue that Apple with its founder, he turned everyone into a modernist in that he showed that design mattered and that you could grow value out of a focus on how things really looked and interacted with us. (20:14)
  • I think part of our alienation from it (modernism) had to do with the personalities that were pushing modernism at the turn of the century. When we think of modernism as a historical period, those personalities needed to be very bold and very aggressive and arrogant because they were breaking from the past so strongly. They had to take a very militant stand against the architectural traditions of the day. But today I think we can take a much more humanistic perspective. I think we can think about it much more quietly and softly and think more in terms of those relationships and try to create a sense of modern that is accessible, warm, scaled appropriately, and all these things that will make modern design more palatable. (26:23)
  • I think modernism is very relevant today in our current context. That is, today we live this life of you could argue total interconnection… and isn't that what modernism's talking about this connectedness? The problem is that that connectedness is often very cool. It's very separate. It's very alone. We're not talking about physical connectedness. Often we're talking about electronic connectedness. And while that can be wonderful… at the same time, that's not the connectedness that I think we really long for. (28:46)

Leo discusses their take on smart homes. (35:07)

  • We have done homes that are completely connected in this smart way, but we don't encourage it. It's complicated. Even though it's sold on this illusion of simplicity, it never is. It never makes your life simpler. It makes it more complex. We would rather invest your money on the quality of materials, the character of the architecture, not in the wiring in the walls and the gadgets and buttons you can push to make things happen. (35:24)

Leo on the consistency of their work and taking on different projects. (40:04)

As architects, we get to make things in the landscape and, and, and there really is something fundamentally human about that. (46:35)

  • Often technology moves us away from the process of making things; it’s more about experiencing things. [Where as] architecture and art are about making things, which is a very joyous act. It's fraught with fear and anxiety and disappointment and vulnerability because you're throwing yourself out on the landscape for everyone to have an opinion. (46:54)

Leo discusses honesty, authenticity, failure, and what it takes to become successful. (52:07)

  • I think that success for anyone I hope is a search for ‘self’. It's that for the search for something that's truly honest about who you are, and the expression of your work is part of that… I think there's an authenticity to that, that I think the world is often lacking. (52:03)
  • Don’t let me and Ron fool you. We are tough sons of bitches when it comes to the craft. I mean, we're relentless. We don't give up. We don't let up. And our staff I'm sure will attest to this. I don't think our office is a… in fact, I know it's not a fun, pleasant, easy place to work. It's professionally very challenging. The expectations are very high. Not everyone survives it. Not everyone wants it… I would rather fail at being perfect than succeed at being mediocre. I think failure is part of the process… And you hear about that all the time and you read the books that it's all about failure, but living that sucks! It means you're making mistakes and you're having to stand up and say, you're right, I'm wrong, and I'm sorry, we will fix it. (55:08)

Leo discusses the challenges of practicing as an Architect, why the profession is struggling, and their process. (59:56)

  • I wish that in our profession we could be willing to make ourselves a little more vulnerable and learn more from the other disciplines. Architects are the most guilty of self-righteous arrogance. We are! And the AIA contracts reinforce this and we somehow have this kind of elevated presence in our profession and it's not healthy. It's not beneficial to our profession. We have to learn how to work better with other people… Our industry's in a very difficult place and we're all responsible for it. But unfortunately, I think our profession of architecture has done a lot of damage in its relationships with other disciplines. (01:15:13)

The business benefits of having a design-build architecture office. (01:23:48)

Leo shares his biggest mistake in his professional career and his favorite Netflix show. (01:28:20)

About this author
Cite: The Second Studio Podcast. "Leo Marmol on Perils of Technology and Modernist Thinking" 01 Feb 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/932969/leo-marmol-on-perils-of-technology-and-modernist-thinking> ISSN 0719-8884

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