Interview: Angela Brooks and Lawrence Scarpa

Photo by Amanda Friedman

The winners of the 2022 AIA Gold Medal, the organization’s top award, are Angela Brooks, FAIA and Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, co-founders of the Hawthorne, California–based firm Brooks + Scarpa. Those familiar with their work will not be surprised to learn that this well-deserved honour has been over 30 years in the making—with much more in store.

AIA Canada Society’s Pauline Thimm caught up with Angela Brooks and Lawrence Scarpa this July to find out more about what they stand for, how they have evolved, and where they are going.

Pauline Thimm: On behalf of AIA Canada, I am thrilled to congratulate you on your Gold medal win.  At this moment of intense interest, how would you like people to know you?

Lawrence Scarpa: We want to be known as ‘artists who are citizen-architects’.  We really believe that good design is for everyone.  Art and craft are important, and that has always been part of the artistic mission, but purpose is equally important. We work with purpose.

Angela Brooks: Not everyone knows that we did not start out working together. We first met in architectural school in Florida, and moved to California after school. Larry started a small practice with another partner. I started out working for a non-profit development company, to get a more pragmatic understanding of how communities are developed. I was never really interested in only designing a singular building—I’ve always been interested in exploring the bigger ideas. I was a frustrated urban planner—I just didn’t know it then!

In those early years, we worked together on ‘fun’ things—like competitions—on the weekends.  We eventually started working together, first with another partner until 2010, and then with just the two of us as partners for the last 12 years.

LS: I also worked with Paul Rudolph early on. I used to dig out archived drawings when we worked with historic structures. They were incredible to see—sometimes just four sheets, with simple notes like “contractor to build best quality possible.” We can’t even do general notes like this anymore, let alone an entire drawing set. It is really a different world, and it requires a team effort. It takes a lot of expertise; it takes a combination of strengths in many, many areas.  As a firm, we think of ourselves as a small soccer team that comes together around projects—everybody does everything at Brooks + Scarpa.

Angie and I complement each other with real and equal strengths and interests. Now we work alongside each other every day. Thinking how to work through a project, Angie starts off with the big-picture context, I take it through the design stages, and Angie closes it—she is so detail-oriented.

AB: I believe that in another life, Larry would have been a sculptor.  He is a true artist—and he is always designing.

The SIX is a 52-unit affordable housing project in L.A. that provides a home, support services, and rehabilitation for disabled veterans. It includes generous public areas, including a large raised courtyard, that encourage community-oriented living. Photo by Tara Wujcik

In our current era, there is an emerging recognition of social purpose in architectural awards—with this AIA Gold Medal, as well as with recent Pritzker Prize winners. How do you see this evolution, and how do we keep moving forward from here as a profession?

AB: There was also this year’s AIA Firm Award for MASS Design, as part of this increased recognition of social equity and climate justice.

LS: We are just doing what we think is right.  We are lucky that people think that what we have done—and continue to do—has meaning. The aspect of doing work that matters for other people is equally as important as the artistic endeavour. They don’t need to be mutually exclusive. We consider ourselves artists—plying our trade to the highest standards—and we also do it with purpose. 

AB: We work with non-profit developers [such as Livable Places] who tell us that good design makes people heal. It doesn’t necessarily cost more to design well, in fact, it often costs less because you are designing in a way that is reflective of a symbiotic relationship to how people really live.

AB: Our profession has so much to give back to our communities, but often by the time architects get involved, all the big decisions have been made. We have always felt that we could make a bigger impact designing for under-resourced people and communities. And now we know that’s true.

LS: It’s not just for—or about—us, it’s for the greater good. We’re lucky that the stars align now, and that others think this approach is important too. It’s a great trend.

You’ve noted that you don’t want Brooks + Scarpa to be viewed as a brand, and you eschew labels. Why is this important?  How does this impact the work you are able to do?

LS: Everyone wants to pigeonhole designers today—as school designers, affordable housing designers, etc. We’ve always been interested in doing a lot of different things—there is a lot to learn and contribute. Our goal is: “Don’t plagiarize yourself!” This can happen when you get branded and end up doing the same thing repeatedly. It can sometimes lead to having less and less impact.

AB: Sometimes, when working on a project type you’ve never worked on before—you can bring a fresh perspective.

LS:  It’s not rocket science to do different typologies, but we aim to do it well. We tend to pick the things that are not seen as glamourous and where the existing work is often really bad.  In affordable housing, for example, we initially thought it wouldn’t take much to be a hero; we found out it wasn’t easy. We like those kinds of challenges—when it is not just about the design potential, but the chance to provide good design to those who don’t ordinarily get it.

AB: I’ve asked Larry, “Can’t we just do the same project type twice? Do we have to do something completely different every time?” I realize now how our approach has made Brooks + Scarpa stronger, though. Because we have such a diverse range of project types, and as a team we represent a lot of different interests, our diversity has helped us weather adversity. We survived the 2006 recession because we had so many different things happening—it’s what kept us going.

The rigour and discipline brought to your work is really apparent, as well as a deep sense of curiosity.  The inherent beauty of the resulting design response is so often complex and layered. What feeds your curiosity?

LS: I’m always interested in finding a better way.  And I teach. I tell my students, “I am here to learn as much as to teach.” I’m inspired by how students take the most mundane things and turn them into a design problem. It’s always interesting and usually not something I would have necessarily thought about. I am always learning something.

It’s also important to always be aware of what is right in front of you—to try to tell the story of what is already there. There is so much to learn right in front of your face!

AB: And we bring our strength as big-idea thinkers. It’s so hard to take an idea from concept through to construction. Everyone who works with us is a good designer who sees and knows what good design is—they all understand. This is how we are able to consistently deliver on our big ideas, even if there has been an evolution of the details.

Located in Santa Monica, Colorado Court Housing is a five-storey affordable housing project that is designed to be 100-percent energy independent, providing a model for sustainable living. Photo by John Linden

Can you build on that notion of delivering the big idea and talk a little bit about your design process, including how you give voice to the user? Do you engage in post-occupancy evaluation as part of your process?

AB: Brooks + Scarpa is really good at carrying the key design thread through a project. We would never give the construction phase to someone else—we are involved all the way through. Even after construction is complete, we’ll go back to the client and see how things worked out. We really like surveys—and not just those that are sustainability-focused for the energy side of the analysis, but also surveys for the users.  We ask: How is it working? What do you like? What don’t you like?

We translate this thinking and this feedback beyond the building to its context—constantly thinking about the larger view, the bigger ideas around the projects and in the neighbourhoods where we are putting people. When we create multi-family housing, dense housing, and affordable housing projects, we really want it to be near transit, or in commercial areas or zones.  We are constantly telling the story of how neighbourhoods are for everyone.

Our profession could do a better job of telling the story about how communities can look in the future and how they can be better. Then those deciding where transit goes, how wide streets will be, and how dense projects can be around transit will actually see that this is where we could go.

Our commitment to the follow-up has created a lot of repeat clients for us. The message is that beyond good design, we are shepherding the process all the way through, and we are going to make this work for you in the best way possible, so you will end up with a great, well-designed project.  We really care about that.  And we know this means a lot to our clients as well.

You have spoken about how you’ll often come to a project and rework the design problem, as a way to address the big picture. How do you tackle that, so that the design problem is understood to be more holistic and community-based? How do you bring clients along on that journey?

AB: It really depends. Effecting change is sometimes hard to do on a single project, so we’ve created projects for ourselves. We get involved in really knowing the policy context, the zoning code. We take our lumps, and always ask how we can do better next time. It usually comes down to the ability to change the code in some way, or finding additional money. For our Colorado Court housing project, Larry found half a million dollars of unused grant money with the utility companies that could pay for the project’s solar panels.

LS: Brooks + Scarpa wrote the Small Lots Ordinance for the City of Los Angeles [passed in 2005 to regulate the construction of single-family infill housing and restore small lot development] and we have affected state-level policy change on the energy code. It took threatening to sue the state, and enlisting state representatives to agree it was a good idea. We believe the effort is worth it—getting a policy change in place changes it for everyone. We also realize that, for better or worse, policy is not permanent—in fact, it is less permanent than the buildings themselves.

AB: We’ve found that when clients see that you are all-in, that you will do what you need to do to get it done, people tend to get on-board and help you. They see you are working towards a vision that it is bigger than just a project. A recent example, in our era of mass shootings and hardened schools, is the need to deliver projects that are fully-secure—with bullet-proof glass, gates, etc. It’s about showing the client how there can be multiple solutions—that through design, you can make a project feel really open and look really open, yet be completely secure.

LS: It’s not always easy, sometimes you have to wear them out. You need a bag of tricks. And sometimes you still lose.

AB: We are persistent. We show our clients that we will figure out a way to make it work.

Thinking about the life of a project, and how inhabitants and the building will function in the future, how do you approach design solutions tuned for the next 100 years?

AB:   The way we approach and talk about projects really depends on who the owner is, and their stake.  Long-term owners are often easier to talk with—they want a building that will last into the future.

LS: We focus on things my grandmother would say are just good Jewish common sense: natural light, cross-ventilation. We know these elements are the foundation of good design. We believe that if you do these common sense things that make a place good to live in, the building will have longevity. If it’s just an exercise in form-making, it’s not as likely to have a long life.

I like to quote James Wines [architect and founder of SITE Environmental Design] who in essence says that a building that is an energy hog that everyone loves is ultimately more sustainable than a net-zero building that no one likes or wants to live in. In other words, if anything is to have longevity or sustainability, it has to be loved. It comes down to fact that good design matters. If you can inspire people with what you do, they will love it and care for it. If you don’t treat it that way, it will not last.

The Unplanning Miami research project investigates a new framework for urban design and architecture that uses amphibious strategies to adjust to rapid sea-level rise—a necessity for adapting to climate impacts in South Florida. Courtesy Brooks + Scarpa

Is there a design problem out there you are dying to get your hands on?

LS: Climate change—sea level rise and coastal areas, specifically. Our Founding Peoples have always lived near water. We need water to survive. We are at a time now where all major places to live that are near water are on track to a catastrophic future. Brooks + Scarpa has spent the last five years writing an elaborate manual for coastal adaptation for the east coast of Florida, where sea level rise issues have been occurring for over a decade.

AB: The City of Fort Lauderdale hired us because they wanted creative minds who would think outside of the box—they wanted experts to apply design thinking to the complex problem. They enlisted designers to lead multidisciplinary teams of coastal biologists, engineers, and others to really think about what the future will look like. 

This is the type of complex problem that architects can lead. We have the design process and vision to bring everyone else along. We have the capacity and skill to be not just problem solvers—but to be problem-setters. We are the ones who can identify the true nature and scope of the problem into the future, and then start to think about how we can go about solving it now.

It would be great if more of us could get involved in the design of infrastructure. As architects, we are ideally suited and should be involved in this bigger picture context, and in visionary future-thinking. This is where the profession can start to evolve and grow.

Architect Pauline Thimm is an Associate at DIALOG, and AIA Canada Society’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.