In Conversation: Lisa Iwamoto

Lisa Iwamoto of award winning, San Francisco-based firm IwamotoScott spoke to the Melbourne School of Design's Dr Sofia Colabella about her career beginnings, her shift from engineering to architecture and the diversity of projects taken on by her firm

Lisa Iwamoto headshot

Lisa Iwamoto presents ‘Across Scales’, the Dean’s Lecture Series public lecture on April 20, 2021. Register here

Your multilayered profile has been hugely influential for me personally. You are a Japanese American architect, educator, a structural engineer from the University of Colorado, and an architect from Harvard University. You're also a professor in environmental design at UC Berkeley College, and you are the co-founder of the award winning and internationally recognized architecture practice IwamotoScott in San Francisco. How did you start this journey into architecture?

Lisa Iwamoto: One small step at a time. When I finished high school, I wanted to study architecture but my father was a civil engineer and he felt architecture was not a stable profession. We made a deal that I would do my undergraduate in engineering, then I could do what I wanted after that. Honestly, as a 17-year-old, I wasn't sure what architecture really was. To me, there wasn't as vast a difference between architecture and structural engineering as it actually is in practice. So, I became an engineer first, and worked at a very large corporation. But all along I did plan to go to graduate school in architecture.

I started taking evening classes in figure drawing and painting at a local Junior College because I didn't know how to design buildings, and I knew I would need a creative portfolio. At the end of several years of night classes, I assembled it all together. This was before digital. I had to take photographs of my work and paste it up with Rubylith. It was a physical process, a labor of love. I applied to several schools and was really excited to get into them.

There was something about Harvard’s Graduate School of Design that just resonated with me. It was a big school, and there were a lot of very different voices there. I liked the work that I saw there. It worked with my engineering mind because it was very rigorous.

The whole time I was an engineer, I never felt like I was very good at it. I could do the calculations, but I didn't have an intuitive understanding of it. Interestingly, I have a better understanding now after being an architect.

When I got to Harvard’s GSD, I loved it. It was my milieu. I loved the conceptual design process, I loved drawing, and I especially loved the physical model making.  

Ivy Tech outside render
Ivy Tech Community College current project due to be completed 2022. Image via

SC: How do you combine working in practice with teaching and academia?

LI: I can't imagine not having them combined. I was fortunate to be asked to teach when I graduated. I loved it so I applied to some fellowships and went to Michigan and then applied to Berkeley. It was an organic process.

My partner Craig is also an academic and, in the beginning, it was teaching that allowed us to pursue the kind of practice we wanted, which was more experimental. Initially, it was not so much about bricks and mortar, it was more about craft, building installations or working with digital software, and trying to understand that.

Having worked as an engineer at Bechtel, one of the largest firms in San Francisco, I knew when I left that I needed to find a path that didn't put me in that corporate office environment again. Combining academia and teaching with our practice provided this different pathway.

Now, we're doing more buildings, but we're still very conceptually oriented. We care about space and form and materiality. Most architects care about those things. But what academia taught us was that we could spend more time on them, and that we wanted to have a practice that could nurture those ideas for longer, even if it meant it wasn't very lucrative. And teaching allowed us to do that.

SC: Did you have a clear sense of the type of office that you wanted to run since the start of your practice?

LI: Yes and no. We began like many other firms, just striving to be relevant. We thought relevant projects usually came about through institutional or educational vehicles more than commercial or purely residential. Now we do much more commercial and residential. We find relevance and creativity there. I love learning about those project types and bringing our design eye to them in a different way.

We had a loose understanding of what we want our practice to be, but Craig and I aren't planners. More than anything we have a lot of curiosity. We don't want to have the kind of firm where we've done it, we've perfected it and now we're just going roll it out in a bunch of different projects.

SC: IwamotoScott has so many projects spanning from installations to buildings, to interiors and speculations. How do you switch from one discipline or scale to another?

LI: Some of the diversity of our firm has to do with the different interests of Craig and myself. I was more interested in materiality and working at one-to-one scale, more on the installation side. I love model making. I just love the physical process of translating two dimensional materials into three dimensions. It is like an origami process. I always loved origami when I was little.

The landscape and urban side was more Craig's focus originally. He had had Rem Koolhaas as a professor in graduate school, and Koolhaas thought about architecture as a kind of urbanism. When we do bigger scale interiors, for example when we did the Pinterest Headquarters , we do think of it urbanistically. The small city that lives inside of a building. We try to sponsor diversity and spontaneity. We also work with great landscape architects too, it's a very different kind of field.

Hydro Net render
Hydro-Net SF2108 project render. Image via

SC: In 2008, you won the grand prize with the Hydro-Net Project for the city of the future to re-envision your city after 100 years. You had to consider water, energy and climate changes. After 15 years, do you think that we have achieved some goals in terms of better use of our resources?
LI: Maybe incrementally better, but not dramatically better. Any kind of building is highly unsustainable. In San Francisco, we often work within existing buildings so that has a certain sustainability factor to it. The city – like Melbourne and Sydney - is also very walkable and built around pedestrians, not just cars.
For Hydro-Net, we looked at the whole of the bay area around San Francisco not as a city with suburbs, but more like a whole regional network. This hasn’t changed, even though the project was a long time ago now. I think that has just expanded. If we were to redesign Hydro-Net today, I think we would still do some of the same things. We weren't asked by the organizers to look at sustainability, or water, or energy or any of those things. It's something that we wanted to look at because we knew it was of vital importance. I think we would still do that today.

We would be using different types of technology now. Back then we talked about algae making energy and hydrogen tunnels and this whole other kind of infrastructural network. Now, post-COVID, our infrastructural network is highly decentralized, which is a very different model. While we had some decentralization in 2008, it's not as extreme as it is today. The whole Zoom way of meeting and the flow on effect is just not what we did in 2008. Technology has afforded us a very different way of living in and around cities.

SC: Technology can definitely foster our imagination and our creativity process. What's your recipe for creativity, considering it is essentially a vulnerable process?

LI: We have very talented designers at our firm. Craig and I run our office like a studio. We're not the master architect that does a sketch and asks others to just execute it. We give a lot of leeway and ask our employees to come up with ideas, then we'll critique them. I can be very direct and sometimes even harsh. Craig is a lot more patient in this process. What I look for in the design process of ideas being generated is that they are innovative without being excessive. I'm interested in things that have an ordinariness to them and are not solely spectacular. I like things that are a bit quieter but have an edge that makes them slightly unusual or novel.

SC: Students or very young designers can sometimes just want to make something crazy or outlandish. This can be a very modern approach to architecture. What do you think about this approach in relation to your own firm?

LI: Our work is not so much about disruption. It's more about evolution. We’re very happy to be in that space. I love some architects who are very disruptive. Lebbeus Woods’ work, for example, is fascinating. But it's not who we are. We prefer to evolve a language.Even though I'm Japanese American, I'm not very Japanese. I grew up in the US and the first time I went to Japan was just a few years ago. My parents and my family were all interned in California during World War Two. They were put in the camps. They had a hard time when they were younger. But I didn't experience any of that. I learnt about it much later. And I felt fairly assimilated.

My grandparents were very Japanese, culturally. They valued a certain aesthetic sensibility. It permeated our household, and it kind of provided a sensibility that I gravitate towards. Working within constraints and limitation is partially shaped by my upbringing.

Cloud installation
Voussoir Cloud installation. Image via

SC: Creativity is very much about daring to learn from our mistakes. Is there any misstep that you could share with us that led to an innovative idea or career turning point?

LI: Every project has mistakes in them. And that's important because that's the creative process. For the Voussoir Cloud Project, we started working with these very small modules. I was building little handmade models, not even digital age, just with paper and no inherent structure. I had some sense of how it could be, that it had some rigidity to it. It was only when we started working with an engineer that they said, "Lisa, you're making a form that can't span." It is ironic because I do have a structural engineering background. It was a very interesting mistake because I started to understand form in relation to the flow of forces.

More recently we're doing the Ivy Tech Campus building in Columbus, Indiana. We had always wanted to do educational work. We had been doing more tech headquarters, residential, lab and office buildings so when we got an opportunity to do a school it was a real learning process. The process of finalizing the design has so many external forces to it. This project was not only regulated by budget, but also by a very stringent program with many stakeholders. We didn’t necessarily make mistakes, but it was a huge learning curve to design with so many voices. They are a great client, we love working together. But it was a very different type of design process compared to what we had done in the past. There were so many criteria to meet.

SC: Has there been any thought about designing for a post COVID environment in terms of working remotely or being able to accommodate different scenarios?

LI: That's very interesting because at Berkeley right now we're in the middle of our semester, and we're working 100% remotely. I actually like it. Except for the physical model making part and the physical side of it. People seem to be more focused.

For the Ivy Tech project, they do have an initiative called ‘Learn Anywhere’ where cameras are set up in classrooms, and they're implementing a hybrid model, so it is very technologically focused more than the space, programmatic requirements of classrooms and things like that. You still need a similar kind of classroom with the seats in them and the whiteboard and all that, but it has more integrated technology.

Ivy Tech inside render
Ivy Tech Community College project render view of 'Social Spine', exhibit wall, central stairs and terraced lounge. Image via

SC: How has the pandemic impacted IwamotoScott?

LI: Some of our projects did die, which was unfortunate, but we also got some different kinds of work. We're doing an exhibition pavilion for the Chengdu Future Science City being designed by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA and GMP in China.

Everyone has set up at home, and every day we meet online at 9am for half an hour and talk about all the current projects. I miss the informality of sharing work and generating ideas in the same physical space but our “daily sync” meetings are an organized way of sharing the work. A positive is that we have fewer meetings overall and people can spend more time focused on the design work or the project. Construction sites are open with COVID protocols in place, but we don’t go as often. We're doing more open space capture and sharing FaceTime videos and more of that now, which is mostly effective.

We designed the entire Ivy Tech project from start to finish this way over the last year.

Ivy Tech digital model
Ivy Tech Community College digital render aerial view with 2nd floor removed. Image via

SC: In 2018 you won the Women in Architecture Award in the New Generation Leader category. What does it mean to you to be recognized as a successful woman in the field of architecture and construction?

LI: That was so exciting. I've been lucky because, in San Francisco, I have worked on a lot of project teams with a lot of women. When I was an engineer, I was one of the only women. I've definitely seen that part of the industry change. Historically, significant women like Eileen Gray have been forgotten or had their achievements underplayed, so it’s very important to acknowledge the role women have in our industry.

Lisa Iwamoto was interviewed as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series at the Melbourne School of Design, the University of Melbourne.