Architects Talking to Architects: Michael Kaiser, Assoc. AIA

Michael Kaiser, Assoc. AIA, is a principal and director of design at The Beck Group in Dallas.

Michael Kaiser, Assoc. AIA – photo courtesy Emillia Garcia

If you had not studied architecture, what other profession would you have pursued?

I would have probably been some kind of designer — industrial or graphic. When I was a kid, I always drew and designed things — cars, airplanes, Star Wars fighters (I was really good at drawing explosions in space). When I was a teenager and wanted to be Eddie Van Halen, I spent more time drawing guitars and concert stages for my fictitious band than I did playing the instrument. My mother gave me great advice: You’re not very good at playing guitar…Stick to drawing. So I did.

Pen, pencil, or computer?

Yes, yes, and yes. The right tool for the right time. I have always embraced all things digital (Star Wars kid, duh!), yet sketching with a pen on yellow trace is still my preferred method of design. I love the crunchy sound the wrapper makes when you open a new Pentel sign pen — it’s filled with possibilities of great things to come. Plus, you can’t get too precious with yellow trace, so there is no fear that you’re going to mess up a drawing on a trash paper. Just throw it away if you don’t like it. Recently, they've stopped wrapping the individual pens with the plastic wrappers (not sustainable, I guess), and it’s ruined them for me.

I also like sketching on these Beck Group-branded notepads we have at work now. I find myself making doodles during meetings, as well as leaving design notes for our project designers on them. You can tear a sheet out and give it to somebody. I’ve amassed quite a collection.

Rick del Monte, FAIA, our chief design officer, is a big fountain pen user and has re-introduced many of our designers to them. Because of his influence, I now find myself going back to using Lamy Safari fountain pens from my school days. Fountain pens have a high gadget factor and make beautiful lines. The best part is that every couple of weeks, you can get a new nib or some cool ink, or even buy a new pen. My collection is starting to grow. Recently, we ordered these incredible custom ebonite pens from India that cost $35 and are incredible tools. They feel great in your hand. (Email me if you want the link to the shop.)

When the iPad and first styluses came out, I tried to do all sketches on it. I found that I missed the feel of drawing on trace. At some point, you mentally fuse with what you’re drawing and forget about everything but the idea. It’s harder to do that on an iPad. It’s also weird drawing on glass, and I’ve never gotten comfortable with the lack of resistance.

I also prefer to model things on the computer. In many ways, the computer has just replaced the parallel bar and cardboard model for me. I personally use SketchUp, because it’s the quickest tool for modeling, and it just gets out of the way and lets you focus on the design. You can model something, print it out, sketch over it, and remodel. There is the ability to generate many options quickly and see them overlaid on each other. Plus, you can fly clients through the live models, which always adds the “wow factor” to a presentation.

A collection of drawings from my Beck Group sketchbooks – photo courtesy Michael Kaiser

Where do you find inspiration?

l love being surprised by others' creativity. I find it everywhere — from the form of a nicely-designed object, to a great logo, to an interesting use of material. The great thing about having a camera on your iPhone is that you can capture photos of things everywhere, so you don’t forget. I also constantly screen capture anything and everything that I find interesting or inspiring. It’s always interesting to go back through the folder and try to remember why I thought something was worth saving.

I also read a lot — fiction and nonfiction, audiobooks, magazines, Kindle, and yes, actual bound architectural books. I’ve always sought precedent for what I do, so when I moved into my new role as a director of design, I wanted to see what other design leaders had done in the profession, as well as in other design fields. I was interested in finding process/collaboration/inspiration guides that aligned with what I intuitively thought. I found this in the IDEO books by Tom Kelley, which are great at explaining a proven collaborative process.

A recent book that I’ve found really helpful for my role is “Creativity Inc.” by Ed Catmull about Pixar. It’s a great book about how to lead a successful office focused on creative endeavors. It’s been a real eye-opener and helped me to solidify my thinking about how best to edit. I also listen to various podcasts focused on a wide range of topics —architecture, travel, soccer, design, etc. They are great for when you're working or driving and can engage your left brain while your right brain designs.

What is the one building that you just had to see for yourself?

For me it’s hard to just pick one. It’s like the question, “What’s your favorite movie?” I have a top 15, not one! As for buildings, I love visiting new cities and places and finding great urban moments or spaces. So, a great place that delivers on this is the High Line in NYC.

It’s a terrific re-imagination of a dilapidated city relic into an incredibly vibrant city park that floats above the city. It’s got an energy and rawness to it, as well as great details and moments, like the 17th Street overlook. While it has been well published, seeing it in person gives a true understanding of its sense of scale. There’s this sense that when you’re on the High Line, the ground plane is blurred, and you can almost climb up the buildings.

The project has also generated some terrific architecture around it. It’s interesting to walk along and look into these very expensive apartments and imagine living right there. The new Whitney by Renzo Piano had not opened when I visited this spring, but you could already sense the strong relationship it has with the High Line via its terraces and staircase overlooking it. I can’t wait to go back and visit it.

The new Whitney Museum engages not only the urban fabric, but also NYC's ever-popular and successful High Line park – (right to left) photo by Michael Kaiser, photo courtesy Flickr; inhabit

Do you have a favorite website or blog that you regularly visit? I have always liked the magazine and its celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit. As the iPad version of the magazine has evolved, they have embraced the format, and there are some great interactive articles. Also, Fast Co. Design celebrates ingenuity and has many great articles on sustainability, design, and architecture. I love the mix of architecture, industrial design, and art that you get on this online periodical. It’s also amazing how quickly building designs get published now. Several of our Korean projects have been featured through their self-publishing section.

Instagram It has become my inspiration app of choice. Our work is so visual, and the simplicity of format is really compelling. I’m inspired daily by it. It’s like an ideas repository and can be a great way to capture a snippet of your life or see someone else’s. Plus, I like seeing the blurring of the lines between the professional and the personal. My collection, and those of many other designers, have personal family photos mixed in with sketches, building photos, etc., and it's really representative of where we are in our lives. Where does work end and family life begin? For me, that’s hard to define.

What type of advice would you offer to young professionals?

Slow down…there’s a lot to learn. Embrace that you don’t know everything and ask lots of questions. There’s a reason that your 40s are considered young in the profession. Most great architects whose work you see these days is being produced in their 60s and 70s, excluding Bjarke Ingels — I really hate that guy (jealous!). It always gives me hope that there’s still time for me. By the time I am 70 years old, I should really have it together!

Also, get registered as fast as you can. It only gets harder as you get older and deeper into the profession. Keep learning, and what you do know, start teaching others. One of the reasons that architecture is such a great profession is that you’re always learning something. You’ll never know it all.

"Architects Talking to Architects" is a series on the Texas Society of Architects blog that spotlights members from across the state at different points of development in their career. All participants are given the same set of questions, with instructions to answer any six, giving them the opportunity to highlight the items they feel are most interesting. Is there someone you'd like to see featured in "Architects Talking to Architects"? Email to let us know.​