Humor and Humility: Jenny and Anda French on Their Close Practice as a New Model
By Julia Gamolina
Jenny and Anda French are the founders and principals of FRENCH 2D, an architecture studio based in Boston that combines formal exploration and participatory design in residential, civic, and commercial projects, focusing on housing and mixed-use projects that combine ideas of domesticity with more radical organizations and typologies. They work on civic installations and exhibitions that bring people together for familiar rituals in unfamiliar spaces.
French 2D was a recipient of the 2019 Design Vanguard award from Architectural Record and was one of five finalists in the 2013 MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program. The firm was featured as Architect Magazine’s October 2017 Next Progressives, and invited to create an installation on Boston City Hall Plaza for HUB week. French 2D was also most recently recognized by Archinect in an article titled “The New Wave of Female Powerhouses are Pushing the Boundaries of Professional Practice.” In addition, Anda serves on the Board of the Boston Society of Architects and Jenny is an Assistant Professor in Practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In their interview, Jenny and Anda talk about collecting various experiences to build a new model of a practice, advising young architects to figure out how their foundational skills can match their desired impact.
JG: How did the interest in architecture first develop for each of you?
AF: I went to a Progressive/Montessori, now Reggio Emilia, school through sixth grade where there was a lot of lateral thinking. It was focused on spatial awareness, material practice, and how to defamiliarize people from the given concepts of what they see and think in the world. That was fertile ground for us to start questioning everything around us.
JF: We both went to a Classical high school where we studied Latin and epic poetry, which I think encouraged our old soul tendencies. We were participating in larger scale conversations across centuries by translating them. Similarly, we see art and architecture as objects that hold timeless conversation.
What did each of you learn about yourself in architecture school?
AF: I did my M.Arch at Princeton – at that time, there were two distinct ways into architecture: practice or academia. You signed up for a track and ended up in a certain place, i.e. a type of practice or pedagogy. I wasn’t going to sign up for a single track and a constrained persona, so I struggled with what might exist for me.
In my final year of grad school, Sarah Whiting showed up at Princeton and was eventually my thesis advisor. I could finally see a way forward. She had honed her intellectual interest and tied practice into that. As a woman in the architecture world, she demonstrated that you could be fiercely intellectual and disciplinary, while also a real and kind person.
JF: I began my M.Arch degree at the GSD a year after Anda graduated from Princeton. Through the osmosis of our conversations about her experience I didn’t see myself fitting neatly into any of the personas or niche focuses that had straightforward trajectories either. The conversations we were having were able to thread through the divergent paths presented in my architectural education and became a provisional way for me to navigate. I found a richness in not being in any one camp.
AF: She was her own camp.
My whole life has been defined by multitudes of different hybrid influences and never being just one thing, so I understand that completely. What were your first jobs out of school?
JF: For both of us, there was a relatively short runway into our practice, but we accumulated a collection of experiences that proved to be useful to us later.
AF: Out of Princeton I first shadowed my professor, Bob Hillier - an architect and developer who ran a large multi-city company - in order to learn what it takes to run a practice alongside development work. Because I went with Bob everywhere, I had an incredible exposure to every scale of client interaction. Then I went back to academia shortly after and taught for nearly a decade while laying the foundation to practice with Jenny.
JF: I was briefly at SHoP, working with the partners on their monograph. The experience was formative because it allowed me to absorb the history of their firm and how they were positioning themselves as a hybrid practice, both taking on development work and staying involved in academia. I also dipped a toe into self-directed practice when I won Harvard’s Appleton traveling fellowship. I was by myself in Europe, Asia, and the Western US for a year with the funding to produce a speculative project. I was essentially looking for ghosts at the sites of significant unbuilt architectural proposals, which is a loaded way of considering practice. Finally, I spent two years in experience design for offices and retail environments. That’s the end of the story. In 2014, Anda and I were in the same place at the same time with enough work to support ourselves and our full-time practice was formed.
Tell me about starting the practice. What were the milestones in launching?
JF: While Anda was teaching at Syracuse, we were finalists for the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program. That was our first foray together into the broader world of architecture. We worked non-stop for three months, without help. This was a milestone for us in that it presented the freedom, format and audience to test ideas that we had been evolving in our personal conversations. That, to me, was the start of our intellectual practice.
AF: A year later, I made the decision that I was not going to stay in full-time academia and that Jenny and I could make a go of the full time practice in Boston. Our next milestone was taking on a substantial project of 180 micro units in Boston, the first compact living building in the city. This was a trial by fire – we were originally meant to be the Design Architect only, but ended up running the project through construction. We were involved in all the aspects of the building – including the interior shared spaces and graphics. We had to stop and say, “What are our interests?” and affirm that we’re interested in housing, in civic spaces, in objects.
Since we touched on your interest in the business of architecture earlier, how do you integrate running a business with the actual making of the work?
JF: Anda does an amazing job as essentially our CTO, CFO, and countless other roles that allow us to clear the decks for design time. Of course, making sure that we have moments to design and think, and not just feel the weight of deadlines or management or billing, is essential.
Anda: A lot of this is because we run a close practice - because we touch everything, we know how much we can bite off and chew. We also, for better or for worse, because don’t have a large staff, aren’t spending a lot of time redlining and directing. We are just doing it. I’ve worked in large offices where the redlining takes just as much time as doing the work.
Where are both of you in your careers today?
JF: We have been thinking about this particularly with regard to how we might describe ourselves, not as a “small” practice but instead as a “close” practice. We are close to our clients, we are literally close to each other, and we are intimately close with the work that comes out of our office. That kind of level of control is something that we don’t want to cede just yet.
AF: Jenny touches on this idea that the typical model is to transition from being an “emerging” architect to a “mid-career” architect, and to naturally become less hands-on and into more management. We see ourselves more as a collective. We may always be hands on and remain interested in a practice and lifestyle that are flexible. In many ways that is the close practice. We are not for a stepped and tiered hierarchy that produces work - we are for a flatness and evenness.
Looking back at all of it - what have been the biggest challenges for both of you?
AF: Inventing a practice and then reinventing and recalibrating it to our professional and personal needs has been a big challenge, especially in terms of which projects to do. The uninvited competition is something we have taken a stance on. We don’t do it. We decided that if we do have the time or the resources to do something similar that would move along our larger disciplinary project, we instead will create a self-motivated project that might engage directly with the world. An example of this is our Place/Setting project. That challenge has been a big piece of our intellectual puzzle as it meets up with an ethical model. The project was self-funded and self-motivated. We created a stage-set like environment and produced semi-public dinner forums with civic, academic, and business leaders That was a highlight for our practice because it said that we don't have to just make an object and hope that it has some influence. Instead we can create experimental work and immediately recognize and recalibrate its effects.
JF: What that also plays into is trying to find opportunities to test or evolve our conceptual design work in the context of any given commission. An example of this is when we explored architecture as both textile and the gendered form of female representation in architectural photography by creating dresses that participated in the graphic pattern of our recent Kendall Square Garage project.
You mentioned the challenges of building a practice to match your personal and professional needs. Can you elaborate on what those needs are for you?
AF: One need is to push the boundaries. This has meant that we will take on a project that is smart financially, as long as we can find an opportunity within it, which is not always easy. We can then balance being able to self-fund more experimental projects.
In terms of lifestyle, I have a four year old son, and I think that designing a practice where it has been pretty seamless for me to have a kid, be out for four months, and still chat about the work, is really lucky. We are sisters, so in the early days of having a baby, Jenny would come to my house so that we could work. For me to seamlessly come back into the practice and have that still be part of our lives has been amazing. That has required however a recalibration of how many projects we take on and in what way.
JF: I also have been teaching at the Harvard GSD for the last three years, which means that I am in studio with my students two or three days a week for big chunks of time. Trying to realign our schedules around those big blocks is hard work, but entirely worth it to remain part of academic conversations.
What would you say has been your general approach to your career?
AF: Our parents encouraged us to be vulnerable and put our ideas out there and if someone doesn’t respond, then that’s not our audience and that’s ok.
JF: We recognize that there is a kind of humor and humility needed to run your own practice and that you have to enjoy autonomy. We try to connect with our clients with a warm and positive outlook. Those interactions matter. Maintaining shared humanity while engaging in big ideas is what keeps us engaged in general.
I love that you guys mentioned humor. Looking at all the visual elements of your practice, the mood of everything is so playful, warm, and positive.
AF: I appreciate that! Particularly in light of the fact that as women in architecture we are often under pressure to be very serious and to not make a mistake. The fear is that if you are trying to be funny, it will not be well received and people won’t trust you as much. We have to remind ourselves: do you and see where that goes. For us that is trying to be a little playful and be disarming through the work.
What advice do you have for those wanting to build their own practice? For women wanting to build their own practice?
JF: In our current moment, where mid-sized firms are going away, scale is something not to be taken lightly. When people ask us about how many employees we have the assumption seems to be that we should be moving toward some other, larger scale of practice.
Choosing to not absorb that pressure can be difficult, but with experience we know that it is our leanness that has allowed us to continue practicing. We are very aware that we have to be smart about scale and that is something that we want to affirm for others – that perhaps not everybody should be working towards 2000 – or even 20 - employees.
Just because a firm is growing bigger, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are becoming more successful.
AF: We understand, of course, that it is a privilege to be able to say “no” to work. Starting out, you have to take whatever opportunity that you can. For the first two years we took almost anything that came in our door. The best advice that I was given, and that I give, is to think only in two years increments. Reevaluate two years later, edit, and think about where you want to be. Rinse, repeat.
AF: Also, perhaps this isn’t advice to women, but advice to those speaking to women in the field - one thing that I find amazing about these interviews that you do is that they are specific to understanding the architects and designers that are women as individuals. I appreciate that they don’t fall into the interview trap where the airtime that a woman is given is focused on addressing generalized gender issues. Interviews with women typically take 30-50% of the time to make them situate themselves in the larger problem of gender and the change that needs to happen, so a woman literally gets less time to talk about herself and her work.
I have worked hard in other forums to address gender disparity, and I am happy to talk about that in other contexts. I really appreciate the model you give to women to provide a way forward, in which they can focus on talking about their work and their contributions to the industry as a vehicle that in and of itself addresses the topic of gender imbalance.
Thank you. The focus of these interviews, which you rightly pointed out, is entirely intentional. Finally, what advice do you have for those just starting their careers in architecture?
JF: Taking seriously that our skills are broad – that design thinking, communication, the ability to abstract, synthesize, and translate, is important. There are many venues in which our skills apply and in which a practice can take shape. Are your aims political, formal, environmental? Be less narrow about specific metrics or models of career success. Instead consider your strengths and what scales or registers of impact matter most to you.
AF: I like that. Figure out where your foundational skills can match your desired impact, and reverse engineer your career from there.