Commitment to Practice: Brandt Knapp on Healthy Habits, Support, and All That it Takes to Launch
By Julia Gamolina
K Brandt Knapp is a co-founder, along with Jerome W. Haferd, of BRANDT : HAFERD, a Harlem-based architecture and design studio whose work includes academic research and a range of built projects - from the domestic to the workplace to the urban - that challenge the limits of design practice. Haferd and Knapp were winners of the inaugural 2012 Folly Competition held by the Architectural League of New York and Socrates Sculpture Park. Another architectural installation, caesura, at Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park in 2015 was a collaboration with artist Jessica Feldman, and supported by grants, the NYC Parks and local organizations.
Performance and Play, Abstract vs. Built Form, and Nature and Territory are some of the interests explored in the practice. Their work has been exhibited at various institutions including Storefront for Art & Architecture. Brandt received her Masters of Architecture from Yale School of Architecture. She has taught at MICA, NJIT, Pratt Institute, Columbia’s GSAPP, PennDesign, and Barnard College. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Brandt shares her unique path to architecture and unexpected experiences along the way, advising young architects to find mentors , take time to rest, and to be the change that they wish to see.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
BK: I think this is a typical thing to say, but as a young person I loved math and I loved art. I didn't realize for a while that architecture was something to study or that I could have an interest in. I graduated high school quite young and went to the university down the street, taking a semester off here and there. I was sixteen and in certain ways I was very mature, but in other ways I really had no idea what I wanted to do. At some point, I opened a used book store and just lived life a bit.
Then one day during this time when I wasn’t currently enrolled in classes, while I was driving, I thought, “The last day of registration is tomorrow and I could study architecture.” I turned the car around and drove to my father’s house and presented the idea to him. That was four years after I left high school. I took a year or so to get to Arizona State University where I did my undergrad, and I studied both art and architecture.
What were the main takeaways from ASU?
Being there was wonderful. Tuition was affordable and in general, the school had a perfect environment for me. I liked that I bounced between the art and architecture schools. My main takeaway was that I learned that I was very passionate and had varied interests. Looking back now I can see that even though I went down rabbit-holes, I was still very balanced. I loved construction class, I loved structures, I loved women’s studies classes, and then of course the art and architecture studios.
What did you do between your time at ASU and Yale?
I had applied for a Fulbright scholarship and was placed as an alternate, meaning that if one of the two students selected for the country I was hoping to go to, Switzerland, decided not to go, I would. Of course, they went - but, because of the application process, I didn’t directly apply to graduate school. I got another scholarship to travel to Europe, visited thirteen countries over the summer, and then I went back to my family’s house in Baltimore and had an internship at an office there.
Why did you choose Yale and what were the takeaways there?
The decision was difficult - I debated between Yale and Princeton. I finally decided after conversations with mentors. Coming from Arizona, I was lucky to have had professors that had very real and practical advice. Many of them said, “You know you’re a great designer - do you really want to go to one of these schools on the east coast? If you want to teach, definitely do it, but if you know that you want to practice, there are plenty of other schools that may not be as expensive.”
When I decided that yes, I did want to teach, I chose Yale - mainly for its pluralism. During my time learning about the various schools and attending open houses, I reflected on how formed I was by the school I had attended and I wanted to know more about different ideologies, pedagogies, etc. I also liked that there were a lot of people who moved directly from Yale to New York and practiced right away, but still taught.
What did you do right out of Yale?
In the spring of my final year, I went to Berlin for a few interviews. I took a position at Sauerbruch Hutton, but very unfortunately, about a month before I was supposed to go, I got a letter that my visa did not go through. I went to the embassy in DC and they said this would most likely be straightened out, so I found an apartment in Berlin and moved there anyway, hoping for the best. I was in Berlin for six months and probably went to the immigration office seventeen times and then went back to the US - those six month were very difficult.
Looking back on it, I met amazing people who have become lifelong friends and I was able to take German classes and have some time off which in some ways was really good. But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going from a highly stimulating environment, like the Yale School of Architecture, to a city that is cold, where you can’t work, and where you don’t know the language. I had a difficult start, though there is a joke that it takes a year to recover from architecture school - so I guess that was my year [laughs]!
After that year, what was your next step?
When I came back to the States in early 2011, the recession was still very much a thing and there weren’t many jobs available. I ended up working for Richard Meier. I had a goal for being there - I wanted to learn how to make beautiful drawing sets, for real projects rather than just presentation drawings. What was great about my experience there was that I was able to do that three times over and the drawing sets are indeed very beautiful. I learned a ton when I was there.
I learned how to detail, I learned how to talk to consultants, and I learned how to work on big, international projects. I got a lot out of the experience, but I will also say that it was a tough place to be in - the pay was terrible. I wasn’t living within my means so I knew after some time, I needed to leave.
After I left, I started working for a practice founded by a former professor of mine, Joeb Moore & Partners - a small, high-end residential practice out of Greenwich, Connecticut. My goal in wanting to work there was that I wanted to learn how a small practice worked, and I wanted project management experience. This has been extremely beneficial for me in setting up my own practice, and I still look to the standards and best practices I absorbed while working in that office.
Tell me about starting your own practice.
I started collaborating with my design partner, Jerome, while I was still at Yale. We would present in seminars together and we were in advanced studio for Peter Eisenman together. Our first built project was in 2012, and it was the Folly, the first inaugural one at Socrates Sculpture Park.
All of this was happening while I was still working at an office - I was in the process of designing the third large scale public art installation when I finally left Joeb’s. Jerome and I were working on the public art installation and we were about to start construction on a loft renovation, so I knew it was time for me to go off on my own fully.
What was it like going out on your own?
Jerome was still working full-time for a while, so I actually spent a lot of time at the beginning working by myself. We wanted to ramp up the practice and then we realized that it would take ten of these small residential projects for us to afford to live in New York City. We halted - we knew we didn't want to only do that sort of work. We also knew on the extreme other side that caesura: a forum -the public art installation that we were working on, which was an amazing project, was draining us. We were hemorrhaging money.
We asked ourselves, how do we do this? What kind of practice do we want to have? What we realized is that we needed to build our practice slowly. Around that time people also started coming to me to teach. I was hesitant at first because I think I was worried about getting swept up in it - I love to teach and I love school. However, the time was actually perfect for me to start teaching, as we slowly continued to make plans. I started teaching Fall 2015 and just last fall in 2017, Jerome stopped working for an office. We finally have our meeting at 9am on Monday morning rather than a meeting at 9pm on Tuesday night [laughs].
Since you’ve both been full-time with your practice, what have been your main milestones?
The big thing is that we started renting space in January. We have projects that we are really excited about - we have a yoga studio that we are renovating, and we’ve also worked on more public projects. We were part of this 24x24x24 project that was at Storefront over the summer. Additionally, we have a few small residential projects as well. We have set up our server, we have standards, and we have book-keeping.
One of your questions was about when we launched our practice. I love that as a word and an idea, but there are a lot of ways you can define a “launch” - for example, we’ve actually been collaborating for a decade. We built our first project in 2012 but we didn’t start renting space until this last January. We launched a website in the fall, so all this to say that there have been many smaller moments that have added up to a launch over time.
Where do you feel like you are in your career today?
Running the practice fully and also really engaging in research and teaching, and how those things are connected, is our main focus right now. Jerome and I have taught at a lot of the same institutions: NJIT, Columbia-GSAPP, Pratt, to name a few. This semester I’m teaching at UPenn, which is really exciting. What I love about teaching is that you are a facilitator, and doing that also helps you facilitate how you run a practice.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career?
The prevalent unhealthy and oppressive modes of practice and studio culture. Obviously when I was really young, I don’t think I saw them for what they are. In hindsight now, I see that healthy habits are good [laughs]. I’m continually trying to learn how to incorporate those healthy practices into my life.
Do you mean things like sleep and what you’re putting in your body?
Yes. We should absolutely not be pulling all nighters. We should not work for free or even close to it. There should be more diversity in architecture - gender, racial, socioeconomic, all of it.
It’s also difficult to start a practice in what has been a gentleman's’ industry. I wish I had healthy examples of who to follow. I know people that are ten years ahead of me that I look to for some types of models, but it’s still really hard. That’s why it’s been so hard hiring somebody. I can’t pay myself regularly, so how can I pay someone else regularly? I have this labor sensitivity. Part of the reason I try to do this slowly is to be able to share a healthy experience later on.
What have been some of the biggest highlights?
The biggest one has been the first folly and having it be experienced by so many people - especially kids, who are the best critics - was pretty amazing. In terms of what I am most proud of, it’s probably our consistency through time - our commitment to practice, to architecture.
What would you say has been your general approach to your career? What’s your guiding philosophy that you apply to difficult decisions or tough situations?
I think it's important to have mentors and peer groups. The first year out of grad school, there was a group of us that would get together - we called it BYOA: Bring Your Own Architecture. We would share what we were working on outside our employment - whether it be some product they wanted to put on Etsy, an application for a scholarship to travel, or a design competition - whatever it was, we would share what we were working on outside of our day jobs.
Even now I’m part of a group and we have an email chain and a slack channel and we call it Architects Support Group. In that channel, all kinds of questions are asked, like, “Do you have a recommendation for a fabricator?” to, “What about this contract, can you look this over?” Having support and being active is important.
What advice do you have for those wanting to start their own practice?
Get advice, set yourself up, and don’t be afraid to take the leap. I made “the leap” of going off my own with two projects lined up that I knew would sustain me for some time, but there are many leaps - even the leap from working in a big firm to a small firm was part of my story. There are many modes and models of practice these days, so get different perspectives and find what’s right for you.
What advice in general do you have for those are starting their careers?
For recent graduates, I would say that working in an office at first is really important. When you do, find at least one thing that you definitely want to take away from that opportunity - you will definitely gain more - but it’s important to have a goal that you can assess against.
I would also advise very recent graduates not to put too much high pressure on yourself - remember that year of recovery [laughs]. Try to get a job so that you can pay rent, learn about the practice of being an architect, be present, and don’t worry too much about everything else. If you want to get licensed, I suggest getting that done within a few years and while you are working for someone else. A lot of places will pay for at least a portion. I had only taken half of my exams while I was working, so just get it done when you have a job that’s guaranteeing your rent - hopefully a job that’s easy to turn-off once you leave at night [laughs].
Finally, I would say be the change you want to see in our profession and academic discourse. If you want to see certain things talked about, don’t be afraid to bring that to the table.