Women In Architecture:
Karen Curtiss of Red Dot Studio
The fourth in our Women in Architecture interview series features Karen Curtiss, founder of Red Dot Studio in San Francisco. Find out what philosophy, fencing, and architecture all have in common (hint, it’s Karen), how research and experimentation shape her practice, and how many different types of housing one firm can possibly handle at once.
Was there a particular moment or defining experience that made you decide you wanted to become an architect?
When I was in middle school, I visited my older sister in the “then” boom town of Houston, Texas. I remember being intrigued by all the new construction and the proximity to the small-scale housing of the residential areas of town — called Wards. I came home and started drawing floor plans for each, wondering how to bridge the scales.
Turns out I still wonder this as I work in San Francisco and see the growing pains of our City and the housing crisis.
What made you decide to study in Scotland and then move to Hungary?
My father had the opportunity to travel for work. He went to all seven continents and came back with stories and presents. I knew I wanted to go overseas for University. My parents were less keen on the idea. They joked later that they should have let me do a junior year abroad in High School to get it out of my system. When it was time to choose a university overseas, I only spoke English. After scaring them by applying to the American University in Cairo, St Andrews in Scotland seemed like a really good idea.
I was an epee fencer. After University, I moved to Budapest to train and compete in World Cups. Eventually, coming to train with a US coach is what brought me to San Francisco.
You’ve studied both philosophy and architecture. Do you find there is a relationship between the two?
I have a MA in Philosophy and a MA in Interior Architecture and Design. I received my architecture license through apprenticeship.
Philosophy taught me critical thought and how to gather and think through information. Rather than just problem solving, it taught me to question the premise and make sure we are asking the right question.
Much of professional practice is spent problem-solving the object, the building. While that is an important part of our responsibility to society to create safe buildings, problem-solving is not my view of the profession.
Architecture is not the object, but the space in between where life happens, and a place is made.
Our work strives to be neither passive nor overwhelming to life. As we follow this train of thought to a natural conclusion, we start to look for ways to make architecture that can live and grow and regenerate.
The link between philosophy and architecture is an internalized way of thinking.
What made you decide to go out on your own?
When I was in design school, I was pretty clear that I would one day run my own firm, and it would be called Red Dot Studio. I went out on my own a little earlier than I felt ready to, but it coincided with having a baby. Red Dot Studio grew with my kids.
Talk a little bit about how culture is reflected in your work.
Our firm is made up of people from a variety of countries, so they bring different perspectives to the practice. Design dialogue in our office is robust, and so we have an office culture of hearing and gathering the best ideas.
You have a wide range of project types, including schools, houses, and even master planning for the Shaker Village in Maine. What do you look for in a client?
This is simple.
We like to work for nice people and organizations.
Tell us a bit more about Shaker Village. What drew you to this project, and how does this work into your firm’s ethos? Do you feel there are things we can learn from their past to design for our future?
Shakers influenced America. This relationship is seminal to our future. The Maine Shakers call their home Chosen Land. With that comes respect for the place. Last year we did the master plan. Next spring, we will break ground on the Herb House. We spent time learning about the place before embarking on our first building project there.
On firm ethos:
“If it is not useful or necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to make it. If it is useful and necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to enhance it by adding what is not an integral part of its usefulness or necessity. And finally: If it is both useful and necessary and you can recognize and eliminate what is not essential, then go ahead and make it as beautifully as you can.” The rule of thumb for Shaker creations, from ShakerBuilt by Paul Rochleau & June Sprigg
On learning from the past, a quote in the Shaker Village Master Plan:
“… NOSTALGIA, in my view, is not always retrospective; it can be prospective as well.
The fantasies of the past determined by the needs of the present have a direct impact on the realities of the future. Considering the future makes us take responsibility for our nostalgic tales. Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory.” Svetlana Boym (who is not a Shaker)
On thinking about the future:
“Do your work as if you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.” Shaker Maxim
“The ideals of Shakerism are easily adapted and used by all because what it calls to is a more humanitarian way to live. Having a firm foundation, to be built on communalism, to be built on equity, to be built on the fact of universal love. This is reflective in our landscapes and our buildings and our daily worship and life.” Brother Arnold Hadd
I know that sustainability plays a big part in your practice (for instance, you are a founding member of GFDA). How have you adapted your way of practicing and/or help shape new ways of thinking about architecture?
There is a tactile and tangible component to research and experimentation in our practice.
Yesterday as we watched a pre-fab house get delivered in San Anselmo, Mark Myers, the project architect on the job, pointed out how many different structural and delivery systems we were working on at the office, including:
- Straw Bale
- Timber Frame
- And possibly a Hemp Panel Project
In addition, four projects are installing the Greyter Gray Water System, and we routinely have rainwater catchment. We are influenced by Bruce King (who we were lucky enough to work with on the straw bale structure) and other regenerative thinkers who move beyond making architecture that is less bad and look at creating a net good.
Is there a social responsibility that you feel architects should have?
How we as architects terraform the earth is reflective of our values. I hope Red Dot Studio’s terraforming values life. This is how equity and the environment go hand in hand.
How has housing evolved for your firm over the 15+ years you have been in business?
People’s feeling of home affects their life. It is a privilege to design someone’s home. However, over time as we became more successful, it became clear that we could design exclusively for the privileged and go the path of designing ever larger homes, or we could expand our practice to include a variety of homes and project types.
We are working on a master plan in Rwanda for 550 housing units.
We are working on a farm homestead where the family will grow 1/3 for use, 1/3 for sale, and 1/3 to donate.
We are working on a two-unit building near a transit stop in San Francisco.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges of being an architect today? And of being a woman architect?
Climate change poses an existential threat to all parts of our lives. Fire, drought, sea-level rise are real risks on our projects.
I’m not sure I can tell a challenge of being a woman architect as opposed to being a man or non-binary. It is all I know.
Covid was feeling like it was coming to a close, now the Delta variant is running rampant. Do you think the pandemic will have profound impacts on design?
The pandemic has had profound impacts on people. Design will change because people have changed. I can speculate on what some of those changes might be, but I am not that kind of futurist. I prefer to think of possibility rather than cause and effect.
To view Karen’s work and learn more about Red Dot Studio, please visit: http://www.reddotstudio.com/
Thanks for reading, and see you next time!