Alumni Q+A: Michael Lehrer FAIA, MArch ’78

Michael B. Lehrer (FAIA, MArch ’78) founded his practice, Lehrer Architects, in his native Silverlake District of Los Angeles in 1985, almost eight years after graduating from the GSD. Lehrer Architects’ work encompasses institutional, commercial, industrial, residential and urban design projects and has been recognized with over 80 major design and sustainability awards, including over 30 from the national, state and local chapters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Recently, Lehrer Architects was shortlisted for the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award.

Michael’s ties to the GSD are strong. He met his wife and then landscape architecture student, Mia Lehrer (FASLA, MLA ’79), on his first day on campus. Their son, Ben Lehrer also followed family tradition, graduating from the GSD with a Masters in Architecture in 2011, and joining Lehrer Architects as a project designer in 2013. Michael leads the school’s alumni as Chair of the GSD Alumni Council, the primary representative body of the School’s alumni community.

When did you realize you would be an architect?
When I was eight years old, I fell in love with a girl in third grade whose father was an architect. She brought in blueprints of a high school he designed, and at that moment I decided to be an architect. As a kid, I used to stare longingly at Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings. The turn-on of architecture for me has never changed since then.

Are there people who inspire you?
My wife Mia, who is an accomplished landscape architect. We raise the bar for each other. She is a life force driven to change the world. We share that fix and the fix of loving community by doing our best to make beauty.

Peter Walker. It is worth noting that Mia and I met and became lifelong friends with Peter at GSD. He is my design daddy. Peter called me one day seven years after I graduated and told me he told his friend Frank Gehry to hire me. Frank did. Thank you GSD.

The Franks: Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Frank Stella. Also Richard Meier, David Hockney, Ray Kappe. The historically relevant influences are Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Alvar Aalto, Michelangelo, Palladio, Caravaggio, Egon Schiele, and Donald Judd. Art is also a profound formative part of my architectural thinking.

Do you have a philosophy of design?
Simply put, it is to elevate the everyday and celebrate community. My personal definition of architecture is the “shaping of space using objects in light to create practical and emotive places.” My work is grounded in the idea that beauty is a rudiment of human dignity. I design for community with a reverence for light and space. Delight is a matter of extreme gravitas in my work.

What’s your favorite city or place?
Griffith Park in the Hollywood Hills. It is my primal home. The flora, the smells, the sound and sight of nature and of the City below, its architectural lineage—Wright, Schindler, Neutra—are all part of my hard wiring as a human being and as an architect.

Tell us about your work
The work of the work is to create places that make people happy to be alive in: living, working, playing, being. Materializing ideas, we turn meaning into form/space and joy. The work leverages light and space and context in ways that transform place and institutions and the people who experience/identify with them.

What types of projects does your firm work on?
We prefer mission-driven clients. Otherwise we help our clients find, illuminate and celebrate their mission (often before they realize they have one) through architecture. Our notion of elevating the everyday cuts across a broad range of building typologies: housing—from the homeless to the homed to the masses, institutional, universities, museums, spiritual campuses, public work, landscape, urban design. Our current and future work is always the most exciting and the range of work is often exhilarating. On one hand, we just finished the new entry to the UCLA Botanical Garden and the Keck Institute for Space Studies at California Institute of Technology, a scientific creativity think tank where space exploration is done like an architectural charette. On the other hand, we are now completing construction on the Trina Turk Fashion Studios.

What is your biggest professional accomplishment?
Building a continuous practice, going on 30 years. Producing work and a practice that I am proud of, that touches people’s lives and joyously honors the consummate human enterprise of architecture.

Biggest mistake?
Not living until I am 120. Architecture is an old person’s profession. Glorious, majestic, honorific, horrific, nasty, grueling, nuts. Would not in many lives do anything else…not for the short-lived or weary.

How has your professional role evolved over the years?
When I was at the GSD—fortunately still a time when owning Le Corbuiser’s Oeuvre Complete was still de rigueur—I would look at Corb’s sketches and be awed that his tapestries, collages, paintings and architecture were all of a piece. I wondered about my own voice and how it would/if ever manifest. This raises the important question for me of the lifelong search for one’s own voice, that is, “Who are you uniquely and what is your unique gift to life?” The answer is only evident retrospectively.

It took me a long time to realize that my own sense of awe and joy is something that is not universal. My credo of “elevating the everyday” springs from this fundamental sensibility. “Delight as a matter of extreme gravitas in our work” does as well. Early sketches, doodles, special details of projects, these eventually become built buildings, landscapes and chunks of city. My voice formally, I believe, articulates the attenuated line, spatial rigor and finesse, lightness and muscularity, invention grounded with a classical sensibility, freedom and gravitas, spatial unity trumping interiority/exteriority, (and more like a landscape architect) celebrates the centrality of flatness and the ground-plane…all basking in massive natural light.

My experience of working with Frank Gehry, and seeing how he solved real problems straightforwardly—without prejudice—and created authentic, groundbreaking work, illuminated my personal definition of style: “The recognizable pattern of the marks left in the pursuit of truth. Beauty is the outcome of style grounded in resonant rigor and grit.”

The point is that the work is to solve problems with clarity and rigor… and if you are rigorous and good enough, you might well develop a compelling oeuvre. Starting my practice was the scariest thing I have ever done. It, along with family, is the centerpiece of my life. I lead a practice because I love my community of collaborators and co-conspirators. I have always worked in the same room as my colleagues. Designing, teaching, /learning, /nurturing, and being nurtured by them—bright talented and generally kind–speaking the toughest truths, with respect, humor, and often admiration, is the key to fulfilling lifelong practice.

The trajectory of my practice—from mainly residential work early on to primarily public and private institutional clients today—is one of forever learning human nature and how psychologically-driven the making of architecture is. Leadership, teaching, and engagement—a subset of bringing architecture into the world—have always been second nature to me. Like parenting, when you love something, you want/need to pass it on to others. Leadership and design are synonymous for me, because I believe that architecture is a primal human endeavor.

The familial connection is strong with both your wife and your son having GSD affiliations. What role has the school played in your lives?
To be clearheaded about it, the GSD has radically affected our lives. I met Mia there and we connected immediately. Because of that, our circle of friends, then and since, has largely grown out of our GSD extended circle. They were and are a good chunk of the leadership of our professions in the world. The ultimate tie that binds, I believe, is a robust sense of excellence, in general and across the domain of design, shaping space and making place in the world. With our son, Ben, his experience there, and his wonderful circle of friends, the lifelong GSD circle grows profoundly. Ben has joined the practice in the past year. Wow. Words can’t really describe.

Tell us how and why you became involved with the GSD Alumni Council?
Mia had served on the Council and it seemed an interesting way to reconnect with the GSD. When I was nominated to the Council, about 11 years ago, I felt honored and respected, and joined. It was interesting and enjoyable, and occasionally very effective. When my term expired four years ago, I was asked to be a GSD-appointed director to the Harvard Alumni Association Board of Directors. A very interesting group. My fellow GSD Director Ron Ostberg and I have been very assertive representing GSD and design. I believe we have significantly raised the School’s profile and respect on the Board. As it should be.

Explain your current role as the Council’s chair
As an architect, I like to make transformative change and leave legacies in the form of the places I design. I realized that there was an opportunity to do that here, for and with GSD.Then I developed a design manifesto, the “Engagement Parti,” an architecture of the GSD lifelong community. The basic premise is that our 12,000-person “lifelong, multi-generational, extraordinary, ubiquitous design community impacts the world in important ways daily.” Moreover, like most alumni communities, the GSD is a profoundly undervalued asset of the institution. To realize this new paradigm, the Alumni Council had to assume leadership of our community. With the Engagement Parti in place, it becomes a matter of time and hard work, just like on any project. That’s what I’m in the process of doing with my colleagues and co-conspirators on the Alumni Council, in the administration and on the faculty.

I also developed this idea of the “Virtuous Cycle of Engagement.” It begins with GSD as the font of our community: Intellectual and Creative Capital presages Social Capital which begets Financial Capital which nurtures Intellectual and Creative Capital – renewing the cycle.

My major contribution will be to cultivate—hopefully to joyous and consequential effect—Social Capital. I have developed a new rubric, called Mapping, Metrics and Storytelling, that can describe visually, qualitatively and quantitatively our GSD community’s stunning (particularly visual) impact on the world. Our target audiences are, in order: the GSD—how critical our alumni community’s work is to the entire GSD oeuvre; Harvard University—understanding the consequential role the GSD plays in shaping the visual/physical world; the design community—creating a new model for understanding design’s impact and import in the world; the culture—providing new models for viscerally knowing/appreciating/feeling the centrality of design and making to the culture.

What is the most significant thing you learned at the GSD?
The fix of excellence and rigor: Learning the vast range of characters, characteristics, psychological profiles of the extraordinary, profoundly effective, bright, creative people for whom the pursuit of excellence is second nature. Excellence and its pursuit is ordinary at GSD. That is extraordinary. That never leaves you. That’s the fun of it, that’s the meaning of it.

Do you have a favorite memory of (or story about) the GSD?
Endless. Here are a few…

Mia and I set eyes on each other on my first day on campus, September 1, 1975. We flirted for three months, in an orchestration that the architect John Andrews must’ve envisaged. I came to recognize her steps walking down the metal stairs, so I would flirt from my first tray desk and occasionally at the desk of our mutual friend, Cathy Deino (Blake). After three months, I asked a new mutual friend, who Cathy introduced me to, David Gavrich, to introduce me to Mia for my 22nd birthday present. In December 1975, he did. We went on our first date that Christmas vacation, in LA. She was visiting her brother; I was home for winter break. We have lived together from when we both returned to Cambridge that January, to this day.

During my first semester, fall 1975, Peter Eisenman came and gave a wonderful lecture on his work with a long riff on the logical sequence of his design process for House Number 10. At the end of the lecture, Jersey Soltan got up and affectionately asked, in his inimitable and beautiful Polish accent, “Peter, in Le Corbusier’s Modulor, after pages of charts showing the different mathematical permutations of his proportioning system, he draws a little freehand flower which says ‘FUCK YOU!!’ to the system. Peter, my friend, where is that flower in your work?” Lesson learned: the loving respectful, joyous attack.

When I got to the GSD, I was placed in the fourth semester, into an upper level design studio where each of my seven colleagues could’ve easily been my teacher. I was fresh off the boat from Berkeley, having gone from nursery school to my master’s degree. The great industrial designer George Nelson flew up from New York for our first midterm review. Unfortunately, he had just seen a show of the most ravishing drawings from architectural history, the pivotal culture-changing show at MoMA on the drawings of the Ecole de Beaux-Arts. So, here he was at Harvard, seeing our very first drawings of the semester (my first pin up in graduate school) having just seen the most beautiful drawings in architectural history. It seemed he was really happy to rub our nose in it—little upstarts from Harvard. He was so tough, probably even a little abusive. I just remember had I had to say one more word, I would’ve just broken down in tears. I survived. It was actually quite extraordinary.

What advice would you have for young GSD alumni?
The first few years out of design school are a real “roll-a-coaster.” This new beginning, where one’s inexperience is very palpable, can be dispiriting. Minimal experience, questionable compensation, not too much respect. One can quickly forget the consuming passion and sense of shared enterprise—joy and suffering—experienced in school.

Two things are critical. Remember that happiness—in all of its complexity—that kept you in the game at School (it surely wasn’t because your professors told you how great you were every day). You will need to harken those moments often in the beginning. It is a long haul. Make sure that your primary relationship is to the work. Anything extrinsic will make things a little better or a little worse. If the work is your fix, over the long haul you will be fine.