Interview with Andrew McLaughlin

ANDREW McLAUGHLIN is the executive director of the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (CITY). He previously co-founded Higher Ground Labs and worked as Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the Obama Administration. He led global public policy for Google and ran business operations at Medium and Tumblr.


SDB: [Having just read a draft of our editor’s statement outloud] Hopefully you have some ideas as to why we wanted to sit down with you.

AM: Of course. Paprika is a sustained multi-year manifesto. There are threads of continuity where you are all grappling with substantial change and circumstances in your profession.

MSE:  You’ve been adjacent to architecture for your whole career. Can you speak specifically to some of your experience and knowledge of the profession?

AM: I should confess my bias from the outset. I was one of these Yale undergrads in the late 80s and early 90s who had the transformative Vince Scully lecture series on architecture. I geeked out on architecture as a non-major but in a significant way because I thought it was so mind expanding. I’m infected by that experience…

Here’s the way it kind of looks to me. There are a lot of professions being upended by advances in materials, fabrication techniques, and software. These three things are having a huge effect on medicine, on transportation, and architecture is potentially the most dramatically affected by this.

There’s this great quote—“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” [William Gibson]—which to me sort of captures how parts of the architectural profession already live in a reality where the advances I mentioned create new possibilities. Economic, professional, and building possibilities. Then there are a whole lot of people who are petrified that these changes are happening and that they don’t have the tools and capacities to keep up.

The architects who take advantage of the advances in those three areas can now realize visionary projects at normal costs; they can exploit a kind of plasticity of form that would have been prohibitively expensive in the past. The conversations that I started with Deborah Berke last fall have been really interesting: It’s become clear that the demand for architects is as great as it’s ever been. If anything, as the world’s population grows, people’s expectations of what good architecture can be have deepened. There’s going to be an ever increasing demand for people who are skilled at making dwellings and offices and places in which to live. It’s only the formal structures that are shrinking. Big firms are just not what they used to be. Which means there’s a whole new set of skills and types of agency that architects need to have. A place like Yale has to get a lot better at figuring out how to prepare their students for this new reality. It’s a moment of incredible opportunity—less security, greater instability in career paths, but there’s real opportunity for people who can figure out how to make the forms and figure out how to realize projects.

SDB: What’s your definition of an architect?

AM: To me an architect is someone that has an artist’s ability to envision and a draft-person’s technical skill to realize things. What I love about architecture, from the perspective of Tsia CITY,  is that the discipline that has been honed pedagogically by the architecture school is the model we are trying to replicate elsewhere in the university.

Basically, take a problem, figure out a hundred ways you can solve it, hack that down to the one thing you’re gonna try and go build that. The one difference is that typically in architecture you don’t  get the ability to iterate. You get to build once and see how people use it and then build something else. But I will say, as materials and fabrication techniques improve, it’s going to be more possible to sketch out an idea, literally prototype a space and see what happens!

MSE: How do you see architects—with those skills you mentioned—getting involved here at Tsai CITY?

AM: There are a couple specific things right now. For example we’re doing a placemaking intensive. New Haven has identified a few empty lots, so we’re first trying to study and understand the needs of the neighborhood where they are to deeply understand the social stuff. Then we’ll build something on these lots and iterate those interventions over time. As opposed to just showing up and building a bench and taking off, we’re going to be around for the long haul, trying to actually connect to these places and neighborhoods. That’s a place where architecture students will be involved.

We’re also doing something called “clinical redesign” at the Medical School and Yale-New Haven Hospital. There’s a cluster of physicians who are focused on sequences of treatments and on improving treatment  processes. Basically, they’re taking a recurring problem and trying to figure out the combination of devices, physical spaces, sequences of interventions, and software that can make things work better. It’s super exciting and it’s very susceptible to contributions by interdisciplinary teams.

The whole thing got started because an architecture student came up and asked about wanting to get involved with such a project. We got him in touch with an awesome mentor and now Yale will be building a new clinic. So in this case we’re taking a problem like patient care and trying to tackle it with the help of a space designer. [Winston Yuen, M.Arch’19, is that student.]

SDB:  Interdisciplinary becomes a very important word as we go into our careers. How can we strategize on finding work or getting feedback processed once projects are completed?

AM: So I have a law degree—I’m no longer a lawyer, but I have friends who are—and one of the things that’s interesting about the legal profession is that it’s a client-based service profession, but the happiest lawyers I know are the ones who have agency over where they litigate. In other words, they have a mission in mind, they find the client, and bring the lawsuit. It’s broadly called “strategic litigation.”

Similarly, architecture is often seen as a client-based profession: the clients have the money, they come to you with a piece of land, and you go build what they want. But a strategic architecture practice is one where you might independently think about what ought to be, and then you go find the client. Of course that is easier said than done, but it does strike me that there is a shift going on. Having more of a freelance model with a more strategic perspective on outcomes is a more viable option just because of those changes in the nature of the work that we spoke of earlier.

What does it take to be a good strategic architect? You have to know how to gather data on human behavior and analyze that data. If you’re going to make a building in the middle of a dense environment you now have access to enormous amounts of publicly available data sets that can be turned to for insights as to how to build what you’re going to build. That could feed the business, which could feed the process of finding the right client by making a more compelling argument for your proposal. It strikes me that from the technical side, skills like software development and data analytics are a lot more central to the profession as I see it now. That kind of interdisciplinarity will pay off to architects who would like to have greater agency over what they’re doing rather than just responding to clients.