John Marx of Form4 Architecture: Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As An Arc
Interview reposted from
Always strive to maintain, enhance, and explore the highest standards in what you do, balancing this with an understanding of how to negotiate compromise to create the best possible outcome from a less-than-ideal set of conditions.
Asa part of my series about the ‘Five Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful Career As An Architect’, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Marx, AIA. John Marx, AIA, is the founding design principal and Chief Artistic Officer of Form4 Architecture, a San Francisco firm that creates prominent buildings and campuses for Bay Area tech companies such as Google and Netflix, laboratories for life-science clients, and workplaces for numerous other companies. Marx is the recipient of more than 190 design awards and was named a Laureate of the American Prize for Architecture in 2017. He lectures and writes internationally on the topics of design, placemaking, and emotional meaning in architecture, and is the author of Études: The Poetry of Dream + Other Fragments and Wandering the Garden of Technology and Passion.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this particular career path? Mycareer could be seen as having a rather straight-forward trajectory, but, in reality, it has been more nuanced. I have always had a multi-disciplinary focus, striving to be an architect, artist, and poet. This comes from taking a deeply philosophical point of view about the connection between architecture and humanity. As we take a step out each morning, we are confronted by a balance dynamic with the world. There is a moment, in the lives of most artists, where we come see we exist in relationship to a complex world, a world of paradox — of abundance and scarcity, of pleasure and pain, of epic beauty and inexplicable tragedy. For me, this meant taking a reflective approach to marshal what abundance life gives you in order to create positive change in the external world. Ultimately, architecture proved to be the most creative vehicle to do this. This epiphany occurred when I was seven years old. My first love was for drawing, then painting, both mediums for the creation of imaginary worlds. In the Midwest, where I grew up, these were not considered suitable endeavors for making a living, and so after an illuminating career day in grade school, architecture became my chosen focus as it promised to be a creative profession. After graduating from the University of Illinois I worked for a variety of firms, both large and small, until in 1999 I joined two colleagues in founding Form4 Architecture in San Francisco. There is a certain freedom that comes from owning a small office that permits one to explore design in more creative and adventurous ways, and ultimately to advocate for change through design and writing. Throughout my career I have tried to maintain a balance of architecture, art, and poetry in the way I approach design, perhaps evidenced by my corporate title of Chief Artistic Officer at Form4 Architecture. While architecture has been my primary focus, this creative dynamic has come full circle with the 2020 publication of Études: The Poetry of Dream + Other Fragments, a book of my watercolors and poetry, which won the 2021 James Gates Percival International Prize for Literature. Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story? One of the most interesting stories involves my unexpected first experience of Burning Man, and how that changed and clarified how and why I create architecture. In Summer of 2015 I was chatting with a friend who related he was going to Burning Man with his daughter, to which I replied, “My daughter and I have been trying to go to Burning man for three years, but we could never get tickets.” He offered to host us both, and a few months later we woke up on the Playa at 7:00am. What impressed me most, and still does to this day, is the power of 70,000 people being self-expressive. As an artist, I have been self-expressive all of my life, but most people do not have that opportunity in their daily routines. After the week unfolded, I realized that beyond the artwork, art cars, imaginative outfits, and provocative events, people there on Playa changed in significant ways. This led me to believe that Burning Man encourages you to embrace community and kindness through participatory art. That art has power through emotional engagement, and I realized that this could directly relate to the design of cities and buildings. One example: Imagine a city of 70,000 people almost anywhere in the world with no trash or litter. In itself, that seems farfetched; in all of my travels worldwide I have never seen that. Not only is there no trash at Burning Man, but there are also no trash cans. The culture is so strong that people pick up their own trash, and also any litter they see blowing around. They bring that trash back to their camp and ultimately take it home with them. This is the power of art. Imagine if we can get people to act this way in a modern urban setting. Imagine what other issues we could solve if the empathy created by participatory art helped us to care more deeply about each other. Do you have a favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share a story or example of how that was relevant to you in your life? I developed an axiom after several years: Art is the act of sharing your humanity with others through an expressive medium. I have always seen myself as an artist where self-expression was at the core of my creative process. When I started this journey, what was missing was the importance of sharing my art with others, and the almost sacred nature of seeing this as an act of sharing my humanity―of seeing art as a gift, one that we should share with each other. So many of the world’s problems stem from the restrictive nature of cultural norms, of society requiring us to conform or to be outcast. This is true about racial, religious, and gender issues. The interesting thing about this is it is yet another balance paradox. While we strive to be our own authentic person, free to explore what that might mean, we also have the need to be part of a group and community. It would be a very interesting world if we were able to celebrate both our differences and our commonalities. Humanity thrives, as a species, because of our diversity and adaptability. Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people? In a very exciting turn of events, we have become designers of the Metaverse. In many ways architects are perfect for this emerging new environment, as we match human needs and experience with physical form. We do this primarily by designing in 3D modeling software. We imagine and live within these virtual worlds. The next step is to bring people into both those worlds and see what the future might bring. In 2020, our first project in the Metaverse was the Museum of No Spectators, a physical installation I designed for Burning Man that became a virtual experience when the in-person festival was cancelled due to COVID. We translated what was intended to be an engaging human experience into a digital one, simulating what we envisioned happening in reality. Before this, from 2000 to 2007, I taught a course at UC Berkeley entitled “Place-making in Cyberspace,” which studied how to create emotional engagement in a virtual world. In 2021, we designed a large-scale project where we combined the Metaverse with the concept of a Creative Community. The richness of the Metaverse will come from the overlapping and synergy of virtual and physical worlds. The fundamental focus of this project was to understand the potential this overlapping would have to create one of the world’s most vibrant hybrid cities. Our combination of a deep understanding of what we refer to as “emotional meaning,” urban design, expressive form, and a sense of how the virtual world can create “place” (significant emotional bonding to a space) are key to helping to create a vibrant and emotionally abundant hybrid future that people can relate to and fall in love with. What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story? What makes Form4 unique might be summed up by our 2020 Vision Statement: In order to return a sense of humanity to design, we advocate for a re-balancing of Modernism with emotional meaning and poetic design. While this might seem to be what architects should be already doing, if you look around your normal environment, at the average buildings in the community you live, how many of them do you love, really love? Architects have not been allowed to design beautiful buildings in the past 50 years. In general, the profession of architecture has placed its design emphasis on things other than emotionally meaningful buildings. We would like to change that notion. We are advocating for a fundamental change in the way architects design, with the intention of re-balancing Modernism toward an architecture of abundance, rather than its current focus on an architecture of abstraction. Form4 Architecture measures success by our contributions to society through a 2nd-Century Modernist approach that balances expressive design, rigor, empathy, and sustainability to create captivating buildings and spaces that resonate with people and enhance their lives. This was the basis for our winning the 2017 American Prize for Architecture. We recently had a chance to test this notion from a marketing standpoint. During the past six years we have been courting a UK-based firm that facilitates design competitions, without much success. Toward the end of 2020 we decided to reach out to them again, but with our new messaging. Instead of just showing a portfolio of our new projects, we created a booklet outlining our advocacy efforts from lectures, to exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, to publishing an Advocacy Monograph with The Architectural Review. They responded enthusiastically to this new direction and placed us on a list of 30 internationally renowned firms vying to be shortlisted for one of the largest and most impactful design competitions in the past 20 years. We followed with a proposal based on a two-page provocative poem about the “arc of humanity” and were selected as one of five firms paid to participate in the design competition. None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that? The person who had the greatest influence on my career was Charles Warren Callister, whom I worked for in the 1980s. We would have these wonderful full-office communal lunches on a shaded redwood deck overlooking the San Francisco Bay. He integrated poetry into his architecture, and largely focused on high-end residential and large community developments. Warren taught me how his practice was based on the concept that architects were artists, and architecture is an art form — a commitment he followed throughout his long career. When Warren died in 2008, we were honored to be asked to finish his last design for a church in Aptos, California. The first phase of the project was finished in 2010. In 2020, we were asked by the church to design an outdoor Columbarium. That project, called Intertwined Eternities, is a sinuous homage to Warren’s love of light, materiality, and beauty. The design approach and vision for Intertwined Eternities was to show that the dynamic between heaven and earth and between life and death, is an eternal question, unanswerable solely with logic; it requires a combination of an open mind and a gentle heart. The role of the architecture here invites the participation of the user in a way that asks profound questions, that encourages the user to explore, rather than attempting to provide simple answers to complex issues. You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each? I have an overarching trait that informs all three of these listed below, which is balance. We often underestimate the importance of balance in our lives and careers. We go through our lives trying to navigate, to make the best of the conditions we are confronted with, and with the tools and skills we possess to achieve an optimum outcome. Balance might be seen as a state of equilibrium between opposing forces, some of which we can control and some we cannot predict, manage, or prepare for. These forces shape the course and quality of our lives. Balance is where we exist at any moment in a dynamic spectrum. It is most effective when it follows a concept of both/and rather than either/or. Another way to look at this is that we should strive to embrace the paradoxes life offers us, rather than try to resolve them. As many people have commented, “The only constant in life is that it will change.” A fundamental aspect of the human condition is to be entwined in a persistent state of rebalancing. 1. A deep and unrelenting passion for what you do, balanced by a profound caring (compassion) for the people around you both locally and globally. 2. The ability to formulate a strong, thoughtful, and effective vision. It should be a vision based on deep listening, not just in the moment to the particular issues of a client or project, but also to a larger/longer world view. Strong Vision needs to be balanced with a commitment to collaboration, it is the creative tension between these two things that results in extraordinary achievements. 3. Always stive to maintain, enhance, and explore the highest standards in what you do, balancing this with an understanding of how to negotiate compromise to create the best possible outcome from a less-than-ideal set of conditions. Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Can you share 3 things that most excite you about architecture and the Real Estate industry in general? If you can please share a story or example. 1. There remains a deep passion in architecture and real estate to embrace innovation. One of the most exciting areas where this has been the most effective is in new materials, products, and awareness regarding sustainability. This has taken many forms, and I am especially inspired about the potential for mass timber, as it is highly sustainable, renewable, and a wonderful way to sequester carbon. At the same time wood is almost universally considered to be beautiful. 2. COVID has given us an incredible opportunity to study what is important to society on many levels, especially workplace design, commuting, and our need for human interaction. We have been fortunate to have clients who are interested in experimenting with these variables in provocative ways that would not be possible without a crisis such as COVID. My partner Paul Ferro was an early visionary studying the crisis and has written numerous articles on this topic. 3. In the past 15 years we have seen an incredible increase in Silicon Valley of the participation of women in lead roles in facilities, development, and construction. In fact, most of our end-user technology client teams are predominantly female. It is very heartening to see a traditionally male industry change so quickly and effectively. Female Project Managers in the construction industry are particularly talented in creating well-coordinated teams that are supportive rather than adversarial. Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest? Please share stories or examples if possible. We have refocused our practice to advocate for a fundamental change in the way architects design, with the intention of re-balancing Modernism toward an architecture of emotional abundance, rather than its current focus on an architecture of abstraction. This might take three forms: 1. Emotional Meaning. We started advocating for emotional meaning publicly in 2015, with an article I co-wrote in The Architect’s Newspaper, and have continued to do this since then in a wide variety of ways. We are responding to the notion that architecture has disengaged with society and is losing its cultural relevance. The evidence of this is overwhelming, but the profession has been slow to respond. In 2018 we launched the concept of 2nd-Century Modernism, during the Venice Biennale, to convey a vision of what a new future might be. Second-Century Modernism creates an architecture of abundance, richness, and community through placing a higher priority on emotional meaning. 2. Process. We need to find ways to balance an overreliance, in the profession of architecture, on a linear, logical, and verbal thought process with a rarer three dimensional, intuitive, and visual creative process. We believe that through a shift in the design process, that balances the rational with the intuitive, and through a Less + More approach to expanding the range of cultural values we can inclusively balance our environments. It welcomes you to embrace the paradoxical qualities of human existence. 3. Sustainability. We passionately believe in the importance of sustainability, but there is an almost universal focus on technology as the only pathway to success. We believe that emotional meaning plays a vital role in sustainability in the sense that the most sustainable things in life are those things you will not throw away because you love them too much. Without an emotional engagement with loveable buildings and cities, we will continue the throw-away culture that haunts modern life and damages our planet. Ok, here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share with our readers the “Five Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful Career As An Architect?” If you can, please give a story or an example for each? We recently conducted a visioning session open to our entire office to explore what our employees thought were the “Five Things.” I was delighted to find they closely matched my thoughts on the topic. 1. A deep and unrelenting passion for what you do, balanced by a profound caring (compassion) for the people around you both locally and globally. 2. The ability to formulate a strong, thoughtful, and effective vision. It should be a vision based on deep listening, not just in the moment to the particular issues of a client or project, but also to a larger/longer world view. Strong vision needs to be balanced with a commitment to collaboration. It is the creative tension between these two things that results in extraordinary achievements. 3. Always strive to maintain, enhance, and explore the highest standards in what you do, balancing this with an understanding of how to negotiate compromise to create the best possible outcome from a less-than-ideal set of conditions. 4. A “worth ethic” based on thoughtfulness, effectiveness, trustworthiness. This in addition to talent, which can take many forms: design, technology, management, client relations, innovation. 5. Understanding the importance of emotional meaning, and how to support the form making that can express our human potential. Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-) Probably the most important lesson I have learned from my Burning Man experience is that, to do the most amount of good for the greatest amount of people, you need to inspire them to care. Absent care, most all forms of progress are hollow and ineffective. I believe there are four primary forces that can effect change: technology, laws, social programs, and culture. The most powerful force for change is technology. Innovation, through technology, has created undeniable changes in the world by its very existence. These are foundational changes; they affect everyone in some way over time. As much as technology changes the way we do things it does not always affect the fundamental core of the human condition. Laws define our rules of conduct, what is acceptable behavior, and punish what falls outside those norms. They protect the right to property, to equal rights, to dignity. Laws are critical to civilized society, but they come with a deeply heavy set of constraints. They tell you what not to do, rather than what could be accomplished. Social programs fund wonderful things, such as poverty remediation and school lunches. We invest in things that will help people thrive and pull themselves into economic, educational, or mental stability. They provide the resources and support change that is seen as desirable to the people who make these investments. These can be forward thinking, creating a context for a hopeful future. But, if you want deep and profound change in the world, change that will last and endure the hardships of life, you need to care, you need to care about yourself and others, care about the world in all of its absurdity and grace. Technology, laws, and social programs, alone, will not inherently inspire you to care. For people to care about each other, and to treat each other with dignity and respect, you need culture, you need the arts. In art, there is a powerful force for change. In the past few decades, we seem to have forgotten the power of culture. Culture can tempt you to care, tempt you to love, show you the vast potential of the human condition. If I could inspire a movement that would change the world, it would be one that encourages you to embrace community and kindness through participatory art. This is a profoundly powerful spark, that, in turn, will inspire you go out and change the world in myriad unimaginable ways. How can our readers further follow your work online? Website: https://Form4Inc.com Instagram: @Form4_Architecture LinkedIn: @Form4-Architecture-Inc. Twitter: @Form4Arch Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/John-Marx/e/B005PZLVZI Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.