Episode 8

The culture of an office | Interview with Bruce Kuwabara

Vincent interviews Bruce Kuwabara: Bruce Kuwabara is a founding partner of KPMB Architects and the Chair of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

In this conversation: how to grow an office and maintain its culture, drawing and the design process, value of and more.

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Bruce Kuwabara

ArchitectKPMB Architects

Host: Vincent Van den Brink, Architect + Partner, Breakhouse, Inc.
Guest: Bruce Kuwabara, Architect, a founding partner of KPMB Architects and the Chair of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.
Announcer: Danielle Pottier, Senior Architect, Breakhouse, Inc.
Producer: Arthur Comeau, Tide School.
Theme music: Ghettosocks

Episode Transcript

Vince:
Hello listeners. Thank you for checking in to design makes everything better. It’s been a little while since we’ve posted an episode. So thank you for those that have been excited about the next one. And it has taken less a little while to get this one put together. This one is a beast, as we’ve said a few times in the office, because we spoke with Bruce Kuwabara, who is a real important figure in the world of architecture and his contribution to design in Canada. He is above all though, a fantastic human being. I really enjoyed the conversation, his deeply human insights, his perspective on his work culture, the efforts that they make to creating the work that is of the highest level, uh, for an office of scale that they’re at right now is, is certainly a very challenging task that in some ways seems effortless with them.

We ended up talking about to start off was how do you think about the human ecosystem of an office for so many people, which is different from a little boutique?

Bruce:
Well, I think that a lot of the hard work is still there, but I think the awareness of how we work together and how our office, uh, is in a way a kind of community. Some people have said they liked working at KPMB because it really felt like a large extended family. And so that has some good connotations, although it’s very hard to actually say we literally are a family. I think we are all, many of us are lifelong friends. We’ve known each other for so many years that we can really understand, uh, individuals and we have tremendous, uh, appreciation and respect for them because we have some of the great minds and great designers in the field. I think one of the biggest shifts is much more about the composition of the firm as a whole. Like, wouldn’t it be amazing though, for a client to come to the realization that their, their staff, the people that work for the company are the greatest resource and highest expense of that company. And would therefore say, listen, I’ll pay you more. If you can guarantee that my staff are healthy.

Intro:
Welcome to design makes everything better. A podcast about design as a process for making decisions and succeeding today on episode eight, we share excerpts from FI’s conversation with Bruce Kuwabara, one of four founding members of KPMB architects.

Bruce:
But now that we are growing, we’re really taking this very, very seriously. And I’m, I, I think we’ve done a, a, a good job, but everything is about what do you do next and what are the actions? I think, I think people want to know, uh, not just our position in writing, but what, what actions are we taking that are really gonna make a, a difference in the profession and within KPMB what we found out is that we’ve attracted people to work with us because of the shift in our values, which have become, uh, disseminated. And it was not what we thought. We thought we were just resetting our core values. But what we’re finding is that people know that we’re a very good design firm, but they are attracted because of our, of our values related to people and culture. And I think they actually really do like our office new office space, which is fantastic. But, um, I think of the two, I think the values are, are, are really the draw. I think they’re people are, are, are reacting to that and saying, this is interesting that, uh, a leading architecture firm can be very public about its position and start to really be a, um, I dunno, a leader in other areas of societal change

Vince:
To be a leader means that you have to constantly push the boundaries that you are maybe not necessarily ready to at times, or you have to continue to expand. Nevertheless. So KPMB started a lab when they’ve said on their website and I quote through research projects, speculative design proposals, and lecture series. The lab works to integrate new ideas and skills into our professional practice for an office like break house, where we have interest in this sort of thing. And we continue to try to do that. The question is then how do you monetize that?

Bruce:
I mean, that’s a really good question too, because, uh, they’ve already done some studies of what it would take to make. Um, it was a large scale mixed use project, but make it, uh, components of it anyway, and the whole thing, you know, carbon neutral. And I mean, you must sense there’s been a shift in the last few years where not only are, uh, at a national level in terms of, uh, moving to a fossil free, uh, economy. Um, there has been a lot more push now. And so I think this is dovetailing with that really well, but, but yes, they are. They are and have done, um, a number of, uh, assignments that are, are billable assignments because they’re creating real value. Uh, at the end of the day in a large project, the commercial projects, the, the, the, you know, the fees for design are, are really a small, a very small part of it all.

And I think if designers can really demonstrate value in research and, and the demonstrations of it, they, uh, you know, will, will always, uh, uh, attract clients who, who will pay for it, uh, because they see value in it long term value. So that’s exactly what’s happening. Plus there’s a lot of, um, communications, which, you know, go public. There are interviews that have been done and there are published papers that are we’re, we’re, we’re seeing that it’s, it’s, it’s really picking up. And it’s what a lot of European architecture firms have. They like AMO, but also a lot of the firms in Denmark, for example, they have research, um, uh, wings of their, their, their practice, or even the Gary, the Gary technologies was a kind of, you could say that was a technology initiative. And, uh, so yeah, that that’s up and running and it it’s, it’s, it’s really good.

Vince:
The environment that designers work in is critical, whether or not you are collaborative, um, or not sometimes being shoulder to shoulder with a person that you’re working, uh, beside can create a cross pollination and creativity that’s important. And this really does come out clear in KPMB’s work. And he talks a little bit about that process and the process of design and drawing that is so critical to their output. And though challenged a lot with COVID where everybody’s working from home, it does allow, uh, Bruce to think reflectively on the value of the creative space that they’ve made for themselves.

Bruce:
Yeah. I, I think that people are talking about, you know, online learning and work from home, but in the creative fields like fashion design or architecture, I think there’s a tremendous need to be in an immersive learning and working environment where you can touch things and move things around and that you can simultaneously draw and model and, uh, converse one of the things I miss the most and, you know, with all due respect to the mirror, uh, online whiteboard, or I, I, I think that I miss, you know, walls that you can pin up drawings on and actually just sit and look at them, you know, just, you know, the problem with the digital is you’re, you’re often looking at one thing at a time or a whole bunch of things too quickly, but a lot of the best design thinking has to do with contemplation and really looking it’s like an artist would really look at their work.

Okay. So I think that’s missing right now that, you know, you’re working from home, you’re working on a screen. Well, we were looking at the building elevations for a project and, you know, we’re looking at them on a, a screen I’m, I’m basically looking at it on an iPad and I think that’s fine, but I really wanna see all the four elevations in a very traditional way, pinned up at a scale that I can actually see and, and go up and analyze and really look at. And I think, I think that buildings are being done. I think that, that, you know, whatever te tool that you use or technology will definitely influence the outcome. But I think it’s, like, McCluen said that Marshall McCluen said so many interesting things, but one of the things that always struck me was when he said that when one technology replaces another, the former becomes an art form and his example was penmanship.

And how, you know, my father and mother had great handwriting and today, most people can’t even read their own handwriting. They just can’t even read a message that they just scribble to themselves. And, and it has to do with, you know, we don’t communicate that way. We don’t practice that way, even though most kids still have a little bit of training in cursive handwriting, it’s a lost art. So when you get a handwritten note from someone, it has a huge impact because it’s an art form that’s coming your way. And McCluen said, look at it. Won’t entirely disappear because there’s also in parallel, a lot of people who are buying fountain pens and drawing instruments, because they’re trying to, it’s like the guy that you, you at the Nova Scotia association of architects who was talking about, we all just have to hand draw things.

But what McCluen said is that, you know, you have to do both and that both technologies will live side by side. And the people who will really benefit are the people who can do both and interact between the two. And I think that’s what I, I, I, he was right. Um, you know, architectural printing is so distinctive and when people see it, they find it to be quite remarkable. Uh, like if you’re writing a check or if you’re writing a, you know, a label on an envelope or something like that. And I think that, um, you know, when, when you write something by hand, um, it has a very different impact. And I, I often leave personal notes. It’s, it’s the art of the personal note. Um, I sent out Christmas cards for the first time in, in years and years and years, because I thought that would be my response in the pandemic. And I think, um, you know, I got a lot of people who thought that was really, you know, I haven’t done that for years. Do you send out cards and stuff like that? You send cards and stuff like that.

Vince:
So Bruce put a good challenge there for us. So, um, you know, this, this recording that you hear is coming after what we did, which was, um, I put together a nice little note with a little sketch and a USB plug that had, uh, the last edit of the recording to Bruce, to thank him for his time. And, uh, I will certainly get in the habit of doing a little bit more of the handwriting.

Bruce:
That’s what Braco should do. You should, you should, you should have a card. And, but it has to, you have to have a reason for sending it, but I think it has a huge impact. I saved them. I saved them. I got a lot of notes that people have sent and, and I saved them. And, and, uh, they’re not just in the cloud, they’re in a box and you can have both the cloud and a box. <laugh>

Vince:
You know, the, the great thing about Bruce or one of them is just how reflective he is, both, um, in his personal life and his career. And, um, just planning and thinking of the future. So he’s, he’s very much a, a big thinker and, um, it was very easy to move into a conversation of the work that he’s done and the legacy that he’s leaving behind, as well as what is coming up ahead.

Bruce:
And it raises things like, what do you think you haven’t accomplished? Or what do you think you want to accomplish that you haven’t done? And, uh, focused on, on the arc of a life and maybe your legacy and all of that. And, you know, and I’m, I’m very much interested in the culture of architecture and the next generation and how they learn what they learn, how they’re inspired, what they do, how they’re supported when I wasn’t doing anything. I mean, I was just a kid growing up, but I watched my father, uh, and the kind of, sort of leadership that he gave the community. And I, I respected that. So, yeah, I mean, I, I like seeing other people flourish and do really great things. It, it, it’s, it’s really, uh, it’s really exciting when you see somebody that you’ve known for a long time, you know, do something, you know, really great.

It, it it’s, to me, it’s, it’s a natural, and I’m very impressed by, you know, my, my parents never had the right to vote until, until after the second world war. So as a result, I vote in every election. I think that’s all you’ve got. And I tell other people, I urge people to vote because, you know, what else do you have that that’s, that’s one of the, the, the basic rights that you have, uh, as a citizen and a lot of people don’t vote. And I, I, I don’t understand it, but because they’ve always had the right to vote, they don’t vote. Whereas, you know, I come from a family that didn’t have the right to vote. So therefore I always vote. And I tell my children about this and that when they are a voting age, that, you know, the one thing that would disappoint me is if they did not vote, cuz that’s all we have.

Vince:
There’s been this story that I would hear a lot about when I was working at KPMB that, um, the sort of mystique of Bruce and the, <laugh> probably one of my favorite stories. And I unfortunately never got to play pool with him, but he actually paid his way through university by, uh, playing pool in the evenings when he probably should have been in the studio. But he was making some money.

Bruce:
No, no, it’s it’s it was there. I mean, yeah, it was a lot of, yeah. I, I, I think it’s a beautiful game snooker and I follow it.

Vince:
Yeah. There’s so much that goes into everybody as a, as a person, all the different things that make us who we are. Um, so I just had to ask Bruce what he does when he’s not working.

Bruce:
I haven’t entertained so much, but I went out on a limb pre pandemic and I, I cooked for 10 people on my own. I think they were flabbergasted because, uh, one of the guests was Elizabeth Baird who, uh, had her own, uh, television show and has written so many books on, on, you know, Canadian cooking. Her first book was called classic Canadian cooking. And so I decided I was gonna do Tenderloin and, you know, a classic and, uh, and, and, and cook for 10 people. And I think it kind of blew them away. I’m now it’s crazy. But yeah, it was really good though. It was so good. And, but they were, they were, they were a bit shocked. I remember George Barrett sat at the head of the table and then at the end, he, he was moved to say, you know, that he, he, the word he used was I’m very impressed. <laugh>, it’s all because they had such low expectations. <laugh>

Vince:
So Bruce is somebody who is supporting the next generation of creatives. It would be important to understand looking at his own life and how to support others. You know, what, what he would say to other creatives, just beginning to start their career.

Bruce:
I would say that just, you know, believe in yourself. I think that the most important thing that anyone ever gave me was, uh, a sense of, uh self-confidence and, and I attribute that to my parents, to my mother in particular, who, uh, somehow managed without a lot of resources because we didn’t have them, but she managed to, uh, engender, uh, a sense of, uh, self efficacy. Uh, you have to see yourself as an originating force and you have to decide what you wanna be a force for, and then you have to get onto your own project. And I, I see that, I see the values that are, that, that they’re beginning to express. It’s very interesting, you know, when you’re a child, you you’re just living. And then eventually you get, you, you get to a point where you start expressing your own values.

Vince:
We talked a lot about the employee base in the office, but what’s really important is the partnership, the KPMB part of the office and, uh, the founders and how they set up the perspective and the philosophy that is going to rally and get everybody excited about the future.

Bruce:
My partners are really, really strong and, you know, we’ve been partners for 34 years and they are super intelligent. And for some reason they are, they have a, a tremendous amount of energy, um, in, in the recent, uh, period. And I would say that their energy is really carried and led our firm through the pandemic. And a lot of things that, uh, have become central issues in the pandemic have been embraced by the founding partners, my founding partners. And I think it’s been quite remarkable as well as all the other people stepping up. I mean, I, I mean, it’s inspiring, uh, for me to see other people step, step up and forward, and everything is totally dependent on your health. I mean, my father back to my dad, again, I remember he asked me once he said, would you rather be something like healthy, wealthy, or influential?

Bruce:
And, and I said, I, I think I’d like to be influential. I’d like to help, um, sort of push outcomes. Uh, and he said, wrong answer. He said, it’s health. He said, without your health, you can’t be influential <laugh>. And, and, and he said, I know lots of people who have, have, have money, but, but they’re unhealthy. And so I, I, I listen to that and I, I, I hear that, you know, every, every day I think about, you know, the lessons that, that, you know, my parents were trying to pass on, and they’re, they’re very basic. They’re very, very basic lessons that, uh, so, so in terms of the future, I really want to do great things.

Vince:
You know, I, I have to reflect back on that conversation that we had and the challenges that we are facing on so many different levels in the world today, the optimism that Bruce holds is something that’s really great. It’s, it’s really something that feeds, um, I’m sure is entire office, but is certainly gave me a lot to, to think about, thank you, Bruce, for that great conversation. So this podcast, uh, is now brought to you by tide school. Uh, Tide School is our, uh, producer Arthur Comeau is taking the lead on that. Thanks a lot, everybody be sure to check in again soon.

Bruce:
Thank you so much, Vince. Great.


Thanks for listening to the design makes everything better podcast by break house, a Canadian strategic design firm. This was episode eight with Bruce Kuwabara a full transcript and show notes can be found at break house.ca/podcast/8. If you like the show, help us out subscribe, rate, and review us on your favorite podcast app and share us with your friends. Have feedback or ideas for the show. Drop us a line podcast@breakhouse.ca.

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