Changing the Game: Mitch McEwen on Global Architecture, Process, and Recklessness
By Julia Gamolina
V. Mitch McEwen is principal of McEwen Studio and co-founder of A(n) Office, a collaborative of design studios in Detroit and New York City. A(n) Office and McEwen Studio projects have been commissioned by the US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and the Istanbul Design Biennial. McEwen Studio projects in Detroit have produced a series of operations on houses previously owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority.
McEwen’s work in urban design and architecture began at Bernard Tschumi Architects and the New York City Department of City Planning, as well as founding the Brooklyn-based non-profit SUPERFRONT. Mitch talks to Julia about her unique background in finance, the power that architects hold, and their ability to change the game, advising young architects to take advantage of being able to be reckless early on.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
MM: I started talking about architecture when I was pretty young, mostly because I was invested in math. By the time I got to the end of junior high, they had to make a math class just for me - I was getting college textbooks and teaching myself. I also always loved to draw - I grew up in DC and I went to elementary school on Capitol Hill, so when we went out to draw, what we had to draw were the front facades of the townhouses there.
At some point, people started saying I should consider architecture. Coming from DC though, I didn’t know any architects – in most places in this country, you don’t know architects. I had it in the back of my mind but didn’t take it seriously – I wanted to be a diplomat and to be taken seriously from a Washingtonian perspective. When I got to college, I ended up taking classes in a Corbusier building, the Carpenter Center at Harvard. I didn’t know who Le Corbusier was, and my painting teacher railed at us about how ignorant we all were not knowing who that was [laughs]. I fell in love with that building.
You didn’t go to grad school for architecture right away – what did you do after Harvard?
I was in college at a time when everybody was going into finance – when you could still do that without being completely ashamed of yourself – so I went to Silicon Valley and worked in finance there. Finance is where I got to jam on spreadsheets, and where I dealt with computation in a direct way - the relationships between numbers.
I was working in a small boutique firm focused on mergers and acquisitions, so because of that, a lot of the work really was thinking about physical reality at different scales. I was focused on semiconductor and micro-processing companies and I worked with Intel. To do that, I had to understand the chips, the wafers, how they landed on these semiconductors and also understand the fab labs and the scale of acquiring new semiconductor fab labs in Thailand.
How did you finally realize that architecture was it?
I was doing these research projects within that context of finance, but at the same time, confirming what my education and the cannon of social studies outlined-- that there was this childish greed at the heart of the complex of high tech capitalism. With that confirmation of what I expected from my more social theoretical background—having read a lot of Marx, Weber, Freud, Keynes, etc - I had no interest in working in that world.
Then I thought, if I won’t do finance, what will I do? I ended up deciding between film and architecture school, and applied only to the architecture schools I was most interested in. Just to indicate how little I knew about pedagogy, at the time I chose Yale and Columbia. In many ways, they could not be more different. I ended up at Columbia!
How did Columbia shape your approach?
I landed in the best situation for me at Columbia. I was there in the early 2000s and Bernard Tschumi had just left. Interestingly, part of the reason I chose Columbia was because of him but I was so naïve that I didn’t even know Tschumi was stepping down! I ended up working for him afterwards. Columbia still ended up being the best place for me – I realized that everything that I had been doing in terms of social sciences - studying economic development, reading Habermas and Foucault, developing the critical take on the mechanisms of society when I worked in finance—all that was totally relevant in architecture.
What was your first job out of Columbia?
I first worked in city planning in New York City. I was at DCP for two and a half years and worked on projects that are just coming to fruition now, including Hunter’s Point South and the Jamaica Plan Rezoning. In your early experiences in architecture, everyone says that’s when you’ll find out that “real” design doesn’t matter in the world, and all that you’ll be doing is working for developers – fortunately, working for City Planning, I saw how much potential there is to actually change the game!
I thought the Jamaica Rezoning in Queens wasn’t going to have the impact that it’s had, in terms of being able to support more affordable housing. The Jamaica Plan rezoning actually seems to have predicted things, including reclaiming some of the more industrial style buildings there, which is great. With Hunters Point South, I learned a lot from watching Justin Moore, standing up and saying, “The kids need a library, the kids need a park, the kids need a school,” and then seeing it happen – there is now a library, and a park, and a school. From him I learned the power of urban designers to change the whole program brief.
Why Tschumi afterwards and how was that time?
Totally different. Working for Tschumi was my way of connecting with him, feeling like I had missed out on him in grad school. He hired me because I had this master planning experience doing these rezoning projects for New York, so I was working on big projects in Singapore and in Abu Dhabi.
My time there was wonderful – listening to his stories over whisky hour, understanding more about his path working for Cedric Price and the Archigram years, all that was amazing. Working for him was also an insight into the global architecture world; you see it as a student, but to be in it professionally and to be working directly with these oligarch governments is another thing.
What has this global perspective brought to light for you?
That it’s tricky out there – I think architects could have done a much better job at letting the world know what was happening with these autocrats and the power that they’ve been gaining, because we’ve been in it! We’ve been facilitating not just the rise of autocratic power, but the laundering of it.
We make it look futuristic, we make it look cosmopolitan, and we make it hit the ground in the way that it ends up in hip hop songs – that’s us doing that. Architects doing that. Rihanna wouldn’t be singing about Dubai if it weren’t for architects. So I feel like we’ve done a disservice to civilization broadly, by not communicating what was happening.
How did you decide to start your own firm after your time at Tschumi’s?
While I was at City Planning and Tschumi’s office, I had been doing my own projects as collaborations in the form of a gallery – Superfront. There was some design in terms of exhibition design, and drywalling a space in Brooklyn and things like that, but it was mainly collaborating around ideas, curating publications, and that set the ethos in terms of the design ecosystem that I wanted to build for my practice.
After I got to Stuttgart on a fellowship, I set up McEwen Studio for my own exhibition scale projects. I kept moving between exhibition scale and interior and renovation projects until I started ending up in a collaborative framework with a few partners in and out. One partner, an extremely talented designer and technologist named Oliver Hess, passed away, unfortunately. The practice ended up with me and Marcelo Lopez Denardi, who was the co-principal on the Venice Biennale project that we did in 2016.
What are you working on now?
One has been my work in Detroit, working on one of the core neighborhood strategies outside of downtown. There is an apartheid situation in Detroit: downtown a billionaire supports development. Detroit is a 40% below poverty level city overall, and outside of downtown, that number just jumps up. It’s a majority black, half very poor city, and the neighborhoods outside downtown are where that reality hits the ground.
I’m doing a house in Detroit as well – a scale I never thought I’d be working on, but in Detroit, that’s a lot of what the fabric is. The perfect client found me after the Venice Biennale – our project is the first geothermal residential adaptive reuse of a Detroit Land Bank Authority House. We are doing radiant heating and cooling, both for residential and to support small businesses with a basement grow space. Being in this conversation with Detroit has been really great.
Tell me about your teaching.
I started teaching right after grad school, for a studio or a visual studies class here and there, picking up on my skills between urban design and architecture. My first full-time faculty position was at the University of Michigan. I got to teach both urban design and architecture and do studios around the world, picking up on the global background that I have.
One of the things I’m working on now with the symposium at Princeton is an incubator of architecture and poetics that is cohosted with African American Studies, and how something like poetics and African-American literature can be part of a way of working in architecture.
Where are you in your career today?
The New Museum approached me to curate Ideas City, something I’ve been tangentially a part of since its beginning cycle in 2011. It feels like another scale to keep developing the relationship between curatorial work and practice, which is where I started in my work at Superfront. To be able to keep doing that but within a larger institutional framework and a larger audience is really exciting, with New Orleans and New York.
Now we are also really starting to test the office model we’ve set up. We haven’t been leading too many projects; we’ve been on teams, or doing smaller work, but I think our skill set really works for leading larger projects. That’s the test, to do that where everyone involved has ownership, and where there’s transparency, and where it’s not an authorship name game, but where the work can speak for itself.
What have been the biggest challenges?
It’s a challenge to get the clients that you want – I think that’s a challenge for everyone. In some ways, I also haven’t wanted to be “American” – I thought I would be an expat, but I ended up staying here, and I want to take that on as much as I can. My practice is really rooted in this country, but it’s a lot of work to do that in a broad way because this country isn’t interested in architecture. There are these pockets of luxury that are interested in architecture, but in a broad way? No.
You go to South America, to Europe, to India, and people are interested in architecture – in this country, that’s not a broad interest at all, and that’s a challenge. We as architects also do not tend to help that. That’s what comes out of my curatorial work, changing that dynamic a little bit. I have to have some optimism that things will shift, as I’m doing my own work; one can’t be constantly inventing a client.
On the flip side, what have been some highlights?
There are a lot of good things – my work for the Venice Architecture Biennale is one, as far as me not having been to Venice before, to the Biennale before, so just to be there was incredible.
To be at Princeton now, and to be in a place that has the resources for the kind of lab that I’m setting up with the dual robotics cell, Sisterbots – that’s more of a milestone. Princeton is the only architecture school I know that has a large dual track running on this extra axis. The work that I do there is more about process than form – playing around with different ideas of assembly – and doing that is a highlight. And to be in a place that has a 1:5 ratio of faculty to students; that’s something you don’t see very often.
What has been your general approach to your career?
I’m a dancer and, at heart, a martial artist. I do Capoeira and I learn a lot from people who are smart with their bodies, more so than people who are smart with their books. I love to read books, and ideas, but how can you take Nietzsche and Foucault as a guide to live life and do the work? You would end up being an asshole or being afraid of everything. The people that use their bodies intelligently are the ones who help me the most.
My Capoeira master is often in my head – in the simplest terms, just knowing the game you’re playing. Sometimes the game can change in the middle, sometimes you’re changing it, and sometimes what you’re in dialogue with is changing it. Knowing when to sit it out, knowing how to follow and sing along, and also knowing how to jump in and lead when the situation really needs it – all that is important. That’s where I get my approach, not so much from the professional and the intellectual world.
What advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
When you’re starting out, let yourself be more open, more risky, and more stupid than you think you deserve to be. You can always become more serious, more respectable – it’s hard to start out respectable and then become stupid. Use the time when it’s actually useful and OK to be stupid.
Most times in the world, there’s a reason to be reckless. Right now, the political environment is insane – that’s a reason to be reckless. We’re also in a major technological shift with fabrication and the digital and robotics, and that’s a reason to be reckless. Own that you don’t know it, that you can screw it up, that you can be reckless. Take risks, and do things that don’t seem to make sense. When you’re starting out, just own it.