March 22, 2011

Interview with Architect Marlene Imirzian

by: Taz Loomans

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A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting with architect Marlene Imirzian at her office in Sunnyslope. I’m a big fan of Marlene’s not only because of her fantastic work and embededness in the community but because she is a great example of a premier woman architect here in the Valley.

Below is our conversation.

Blooming Rock: Can you tell me a little bit about working with Gunnar Birkerts and William Kessler and how its influenced your work?

Marlene Imirzian: I am an architect because of Gunnar. Gunnar Birkerts is not well known today but at the time he was one of the most prominent architects in the world and his works were published all over the world.

He is the person responsible for the Federal Reserve Bank in Minnesota for instance and one of the most important schools that was built in Columbus, Indiana. When I was a junior in high school, a teacher in high school just agreed to have me sit in his office in the afternoon instead of a class because the teacher said he thought I might want to be an architect.

I had never known an architect or had known anything about it. But from the moment I walked in (to Gunnar’s office) that was it. I knew what I was going to be. I knew it immediately, like the clouds parted, it was that profound.

And so he had an aesthetic that turned out to resonate with me even though I knew nothing of what I was looking at at the time. It was very powerful. Then I worked there.

After I started my undergraduate architecture school I went to work there and he became the foundation of why I’m an architect. He was very innovative.

At the time he was at the forefront of thinking sustainably about work. He had chopped down a piece of his wall to put in an assembly to test a reflective light system that he was going to put in in a new headquarters for IBM and was testing the reflective light, put in the whole installation and changed it around, he was very very innovative.

So that’s what I thought practice was all about.

Blooming Rock: You talked a little bit about sustainability and I wanted to ask what sustainability means to you.

Marlene Imirzian: Sustainability means working in a way that minimizes the environmental effects and the amount of non-renewable resources we have to use. So to me it’s pretty fundamental. It’s about doing things well. It’s not about choosing things one way or the other.

It’s just good practice.

Blooming Rock: I wanted to ask this for other architects who’re going through the same situation, how have you fared in this really bad economic recession?

Marlene Imirzian: Well I’m not able to know what happened before because I haven’t had my firm long enough to know what it was like before, but it sure is bad. It’s terrible.

The worst is that it’s becoming an environment where the large firms get a larger and larger share of the work because people are retreating to safety by selecting firms that are the biggest in the world to do very small things.

So it’s really devastating to the small or mid-sized firms that are trying to do good work.

Blooming Rock: When did you start your office?

Marlene Imirzian: Fifteen years ago.

Blooming Rock: Have you always been in Sunnyslope?

Marlene Imirzian: Yes. I selected this (place). I’m from Detroit.

I think Sunnyslope is fantastic, it’s got all the things about being a community that’s going to be very successful. It’s close enough to Downtown, it’s near wonderful recreation, it’s got the natural topography of the mountains to view, and it’s got a close proximity of commercial with residential which I really like.

It was very problematic when I first bought my building, but it’s improved steadily. It think it’s the right move, it’s a great place.

Blooming Rock: I love Sunnyslope, it’s a neat place. What’s it like to be a woman in architecture?

Marlene Imirzian: I don’t know because that’s the only thing I’ve ever been!

Blooming Rock: Are there any particular challenges you face as a woman?

Marlene Imirzian: I’m sure there are many. I try not to think about it too much.

I think this is a tough profession anyway. It’s tough for anybody trying to make a place and establish a voice and a creative vision.

It’s a very very tough profession. It’s tougher than most because unlike law, or medicine, it’s not good enough to just be a good professional.

You have to compete for work in a way that those professions don’t have to compete for work, you have to compete in size and qualifications that those professions don’t have to.

You can be an excellent attorney, make a great living and do outstanding work as a two person firm. But it’s very hard to do that as an architect now and compete in this market.

So it’s hard for me to separate the realities of a difficult, tough profession from whether it’s tougher for me as a woman or if I were black or have any other issue that would make it even harder.

So I don’t know, except that, the other thing that makes it different for us architects is that, if you want to do work that’s in the institutional realm or is bigger private work you need to be supported by the people that are in power and those people are largely white guys, that are established with very strong networks and as a woman I’m definitely not in that network.

Blooming Rock: So tell me about some of your most favorite projects that you’ve worked on.

Marlene Imirzian: Well I have favorite things about almost all of them. I’m lucky to have done a nice range of work.

We just finished a new project for Paradise Valley Community College that I’m really proud of because I think it represents a vision about what science can be for the community that’s larger than the building or the campus.

I’m really proud that we could present that kind of vision and the collaboration and support that we got from the district for that.  So the thing that makes it wonderful is that it’s not only the vision and expression of the building, but that the building is comprehensively good in terms of how it works and how it was planned.

There’s lots to depth to why I’m proud of it. The parts that you don’t see I’m as proud of as the part that you see. The back areas where the lab technicians spend 8 hours a day, its usually a dark and awful place, in this building, they’re day-lit, open areas to work that are as good as any high end industry lab that you could be in.

Comprehensively I’m really happy with the way it turned out and I can say that it was under-budget on top of all that. So they got more than they expected and we can say that we didn’t ask for more money.

So that’s one. We’ve done some small things. We did a small tenant improvement for a salon in Chandler and it just shows what you can do in a small little space.

Recently we just got recognized for our office which is a very very modest project. I’m really thrilled with how it turned out because it’s really important that people know it’s the small stuff that adds up to the big stuff, doing the small urban transformations on small urban lots is really important.

Showing that there’s a way to do that, we can make our whole city better one small piece at a time.  It doesn’t take a lot of money.

I was joking with the guys (on the staff) that the client was a poor architect. But that’s the truth, right?

And so we had not much money and we did a very sustainable demonstration of how you can still transform the site and keep an existing building, make it a great place to be and still show how you can enhance the community at the same time.

Blooming Rock: You mentioned the two that got you started, but who are some of the other architects that you admire?

Marlene Imirzian: I admire Tom Kundig in terms of his practice very much. I admire Bob Berkebile of BNIM who I don’t know very well but I’ve gotten to know his practice.

I’m really in awe of what he’s been able to do over the course of his career. I’m not picking the obvious ones, I’m picking people that are inspiring in terms of how we do our work and what we aspire to as professionals doing our work.

I’m inspired by some of my friends here who really still try to do creative, innovative work in a really tough climate. It takes great fortitude, conviction and on-going passion. The ability to keep that high level of engagement through the years is impressive to me.

Blooming Rock: So what’s important to you as an architect? What do you want people to get from your work?

Marlene Imirzian: Architecture is not just about creating what the building is and being concerned about the way the walls hit the ground, it’s about creating a place in totality.

It’s important to me that the work is seen not only as an isolated object, but more as a place in the community and a place that says something about the aspirations of the people that are going to use it and may use it in the future.

It potentially opens up different ways that people can be stronger together in how they work or live or play or create.  Any of those things and most work has some component of that in it.

So to be able to express and find those things that are more than what the limit of the program is really important and that’s what makes architecture.

If people can find that or even if they can’t find that intellectually but they can feel that there’s more richness in their experience of whatever they’re doing, if there’s more comfort, if there’s more productivity, happiness, all those things are real words that matter in architecture.

Blooming Rock: How would you say that your work responds to our local context?

Marlene Imirzian: Well locally, weather is a constant, but context is varied.

The climate is somewhat consistent locally in that it’s usually quite hot and we have east and west sun issues. That stuff is actually fairly simple to deal with.

It doesn’t matter where you are, it doesn’t matter what kind of a configuration site you have, there’s no reason why that can’t be dealt with in some way.

You don’t just say I had the wrong kind of configuration of site. So I think climate is a factor that is a wonderful opportunity for us and why a lot of us like to practice here.

It makes for such a rich opportunity for design, responding to the climate. That’s common.

What’s not consistent is context in terms of the physical environment around a site. So it’s really important that all my projects are different and differentiated depending on what is happening at the time, or intended to happen or could happen or could be ehnhanced with the building coming into that environment.

So this building for instance is all about that. It’s all about the street and the layering from the street and coming up to the building with higher levels of privacy that are clues where you don’t have to read a sign that says now we’re private, but you can see it just in the progression of the design.

And I think that applies to everything. So the more urban of a site you’re on, the more opportunities you have to articulate that kind of layering.

And if you’re on a site that’s in a completely natural area, there might be other ways to deal with it, whether you touch it lightly or burrow in, and those are really important decisions in our climate that doesn’t take being changed very well.

We know that the desert doesn’t recover very well.

If we’re going to burrow into areas that have not been touched before, we better be sure that’s what we want to do.  For instance, we have that kind of a site on South Mountain and I’m not going to be carving into the ground, I’m going to be largely floating above the ground and letting the mountain continue under the buildings.

Blooming Rock: What’s this project in South Mountain?

Marlene Imirzian: A new camp for the Girl Scouts.

So those kinds of decisions about the way that we build have a big impact on the creative direction obviously.  And other aspects of the context in an urban setting would have other opportunities.

The thing we don’t do, I think, very much, is creatively address that almost every project has a public component, including a single family house.

Blooming Rock: What do you mean by that?

Marlene Imirzian: A single family house has an attitude about the street and about the guests and about the visitors. And most single family homes really don’t need to be gated precints within which you don’t see out and you don’t see in.

I don’t think that’s necessarily good for the community. Almost everything I’ve done, actually everything I’ve done has a point of view about that particular project and how it functions as a place in a community.

Which we really need a lot more of in Phoenix.  If everyone thought about their projects in that way, I think our city would look a lot different.

Blooming Rock: What advice do you have for up and coming architects, in particular, women architects?

Marlene Imirzian: I would say that there’s a need for really good-thinking and talented people through the whole spectrum of architecture.

And I would very much hope that those who are interested in architecture really dig through and see all the opportunities that there are in our profession to make amazing contributions to the built environment.

They may not all be in design in the classic way, and I’m hoping that our profession changes in terms of how most are judged so that everyone doesn’t have to do what I do, which is focused on what’s a fairly traditional practice of doing design.

We have all kinds of other people that we need to make our work function and be well and those are super important collaborators.  So we need those people in our profession.

So I would say make a place that feeds your passion and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the one that’s making all the design.  There’s plenty of passion in all of building development and opportunity for people to practice it.

There’s just not that many that stick around to develop it.  I think that it can be very discouraging, so I’m hoping there’s more opportunities in the future.

I would say make sure that you work, at least volunteer and make sure you want to do it.

And if you do, then go get licensed!  Because licensure is an important part of being a professional, it shows you’re serious and it’s absolutely essential in order to practice in my opinion.

I’m shocked at the number of people who go through school and don’t get licensed, in particular, women.

It’s easier to do it (get licensed) in the beginning.  I’d say if you like it, the biggest message I could say is that there are great opportunities for creative endeavor throughout the design process and if you are passionate about it then follow it and keep going, there’s no reason to stop.

What I’ve found is that there may not be a path that someone else has set that’s really obvious, but you’ll find it if you have a passion in whatever piece that you’re pursuing.

You’ll find a way to make it happen.  There’ll be a way, you just have to keep searching.

Photo Credit: A photo of the entrance to Marlene’s office in Sunnyslope.  Courtesy of Marlene Imirzian.

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