“Virtually anything you do can be done better,” says Kevin Daly, Founder and Principal of Kevin Daly Architects (kdA) in Los Angeles. “We’ve never been the kind of practice that just really falls in love with something we’ve done. I think it’s important to always be striving, be critical of your own work and keep pushing forward. “Project specific research in materials and construction process are essential to the design process of the studio, so in a way we are always tying to look forward while we look back at what we have done.”
“I remember hearing this – maybe apocryphal – story about Bernard Maybeck and how he could never design a dining room table and a set of chairs because by the time he got to the 8th chair he wanted to change it,” Kevin laughs. “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’m sympathetic. The impulse to iterate, improve, beta test and reconsider is something that’s really important to how we think about our work. The studio relies on models and mock ups of varying scales and detail through the design process to confirm design assumptions. The centrality of model making to the design process may be the legacy of a career that began in Frank Gehry’s office: “when we look at models, interns engineers, clients, contractors…everyone is seeing the same thing. We really see it as the lingua franca of architecture.”
kdA’s portfolio features three kinds of projects: housing, public buildings including schools and universities, and workplace design. “Like many independent practices, we really push back against the idea that we specialise in any particular building type. For better or worse, I think we subscribe to the sort of Bauhaus ideal of taking on projects of any scale. The economic momentum works against that, of course, because any time you do something for the second time it’s a lot more efficient. But the challenge of new questions, new problems and new ways of thinking about things is something that’s really central to what motivates us.”
In discussing his work, it’s clear that Kevin’s approach bridges both the conceptual and the functional. “At some level, the alchemy of materials coming together and the practical magic of synthetic work is central to what we do. A lot of our design process is about understanding the way the work has to be done – construction convention, tectonic logic, everything that goes into the ingredients and labour of making buildings – and using that in a way that contributes to the virtuosity of construction. We acknowledge that we play a small role but critical in the overall building effort; we set the circumstances for a well-executed building.”
When crafting those circumstances for great execution, Kevin says his team would rather be focusing on the physics than the sum of sustainable design features. “The idea that you could produce a house that’s 5 or 8 thousand square feet and have it be sustainable or be a LEED Platinum structure to me is so absurd that it really is a different kind of conversation. For us, the performative basis for architecture is one that integrates characteristics of the fundamental structure and how you approach the very nature of the building, its envelope and its relationship to the exterior environment, and then the overall physics of the building: its exposures and orientation and apertures. When we feel like we’ve done a really successful building, all those things do come together as a single, integrated entity.”
Kevin highlights one of kdA’s earliest projects, Valley Centre House, as an example of all of those design and physics elements falling into place together. “The house had a dynamic envelope and a big, mechanised shading system with folding doors that operated in a couple of different ways. It was a very rough and simple building with 3 rectangular volumes that came together but it also did knit together a complicated social programme. It was a house for a multi-generational family where people would come together and visit. It also had very rugged landscape and site context. There was a very difficult set of circumstances in that it was replacing a house that burned down, so we wanted to ensure that it was really resilient and durable. The design focused on the metaphysics of the parts of buildings that are neither inside or outside. Technically, I think it was well-executed.”
Alongside his professional practice, Kevin has been teaching at UCLA’s Architecture and Urban Design Studio for more than twenty years. “I feel like it’s my obligation at the University to address issues in building design that are otherwise difficult to address, in particular rigorously challenging students to define not just what they are proposing but how they would develop their proposal. Conversely, I also get real benefit from being forced to answer really fundamental questions when I’m teaching. Why would I do it that way? Why is this way better than that way? It’s a really good way to examine and evaluate assumptions. In both the classroom and the practice, what we’re doing is like sort of like creating recipes; imagining something and then explaining the process and materials that make that come about. kdA is always in the role of explaining what we’d like to do and why. We’ve never really bought into the idea that you could practice architecture as sort of an auteur where you snap your fingers and expect things to be done”
“I’d always loved building and making things with wood, but I was kind of sheltered as a young person. I never could have imagined that there was a way to have a career as a furniture designer; otherwise I might have done that. But in high school I was doing construction work and somebody I was working with said: ‘If someone tells you to put down the shovel and pick up a hammer, never put down the hammer again. You should always be pushing yourself forward.’ Despite pushing ever forward in the years since, Kevin says he still hasn’t lost his love for the construction process. “I have a hard time not stopping every time we have a concrete pump at any of our Los Angeles sites,” he laughs.
Daly studied biochemistry in university prior to studying architecture; a type of scientific method informs the everyday work in the office.“I think that the material inquiry for each project is really important. We have a sort of if/then dialogue in the office. If these are the circumstances, then these are our options. And of those options, which one makes the most sense and what are some variations on that? Within our own design dialogue, that’s a really engaging part of what we do and its the glue that holds the people in the office together. When it’s a logical or rhetorical strategy like that, everyone can have an opinion, regardless of any specific knowledge.”
As the firm has grown, kdA has taken on projects throughout the US and embraced an increased focus on collaboration with other firms. But looking ahead, Kevin says he’s eager to keep his eye on more immediate projects closer to home. “As projects get larger, they get slower and it can be hard to keep momentum when you have projects that take 4 or 5 years to get something out of the ground. We’re also aware that the things we want to be working on in 10 years, we need to be identifying now. Architecture is often characterised as an old person’s profession and I definitely feel that way sometimes,” he laughs, “but that’s also a logical consequence of the fact that things move quite slowly.
“I’m really pleased with the work that the people in the office are doing. Some of them have been here now for 10 plus years; their level of capability is astounding and that’s great to see. I’m also enjoying the exploration of this recurrent idea of lightness in terms of construction, lightness and layering and translucency. I think, initially, we saw that as an architectural characteristic but now we understand it more as an issue with some urgency. We’re working to minimise the environmental impact and the material intensity of projects and taking it on as a way of engaging with the inevitable environmental impact of building. The future belongs in a configuration that’s smaller and lighter than the past.”
To learn more about Kevin’s work, visit https://kevindalyarchitects.com/ and follow kdA on Instagram and LinkedIn.