Women in Business: Lisa Iwamoto

by Ari Takata-Vasquez

Lisa Iwamoto is an award winning architect and a professor at UC Berkeley. Her firm, Iwamoto Scott, leverages digital fabrication and a computational approach to design to create uniquely beautiful spaces. Lisa was kind enough to sit down for an interview with me in her San Francisco office and talk about her path to becoming an architect, business-owner, and educator.

I loved interviewing Lisa. I went to UC Berkeley for my Masters in City Planning and always was blown away by the work Lisa’s studio would produce. It was amazing to be able to connect with her not just as a designer but as business-owner to business-owner. Our interview has been edited for clarity and content.

Tell me a little about yourself and describe the work you do.

The work we do is tied to my backgrounds as a structural engineering. I worked as an engineer, not a very good engineer, for a couple of years before I went to graduate school. And even though it wasn't conscious, just that I don't feel like we deliberately set about thinking about structure materials as the basis for a design, that is what we ended up doing. And now that I see it, it's like, “OK now I get that [engineering] did have an influence on the way we think about things, too”. But it’s not the only influence, it’s not like we want to be Frei Otto who makes forms that look like structural diagrams, which works and is amazing but, we also have spatial interest too, and I think that has to do with coming from the Bay Area and the landscape and the integration of the environmental.

What got you into the digital fabrication space?

Interest in materials. I've never been to Japan, but when people see our work, a lot of them comment on that it seems origami like or like Japanese folding techniques.  I don't think that's explicit or in any way a direct connection, but I do think it's an indirect connection. I've always been interested in crafts, and in making. I always loved school, where both Craig [Lisa’s partner, the ‘Scott’ in Iwamoto Scott] and I went before the pre-digital age— model making. I love just doing things by hand and I feel like digital fabrication allowed for doing things by hand to find its way into building. It allows for things to have more diversity, more set of unique parts, and for design to be less repetitive. And to have that quality of difference, which I also associate with hand making things.

How has teaching at Berkeley influenced your practice? 

I feel like that's huge. It keeps us connected with fresh ideas. Some people say to us, because now we're getting so busy, “do you think about pulling back from teaching  to focus more on your practice?” And I just feel like that will never happen because, for us, they feel so intertwined. And we try to bring ideas or things that we discover in practice (Like when we do an insulation in our office we do a lot of research around that) to try to reconnect back into the school. And so for me that feedback loop is just so important. You can see some of my former students right there. (as she gestures to a few young people working away on huge computer monitors).

What project are you the most proud of and why?

That's a hard question to answer. One of the things about having a small firm is we have direct involvement with every project, I’m really personally tied to all the projects. I do manage some projects very directly, and it's a pleasure be there and interface with clients like Pinterest directly. I do feel like just that day to day contact with the client does build more of that kind of connection to it. I'm really proud of some of the bigger projects that we're getting to work on now. That's just incredibly exciting for us.  

Tell me about starting your firm, what was the jumping off point?

We had worked for a long time as a practice but not a business. It's as if you made jewelry and never sold it. We approached architecture like that for a really long time. We did competitions and we did installation because we're so passionate about it, but didn't ask for any money or actually  get paid to do the building. Sometimes we hired people or people volunteered, and we donated our time. So I want to say it became a business years after we started.

And in fact it coincided in a way with getting tenure at Berkeley, and having a chance to pull out of the more research side of the business and get the bricks and mortar and have the building start to happen. But we're still really evolving in that way. You know our business is definitely growing and it's growing quickly now. So, after we kind of put our heads around, you know, it took several years to kind of get rolling but now we feel like every year, the scopes, the projects, our budget and everything and our staff picked-up a lot. But it's still happening. We just started a 401k and health care and things like that. But like those are big decisions that we had to make at the time but they felt like hey this is the time. We're moving our office right now over to another space which is its own little building, and so that's super exciting to me! I want to say that I feel like it's constantly evolving, not just year by year, but day by day.

What advice would you give to other young woman wanting to enter the architecture field? 

If I were to do it differently and be my better self, one of the things I would say is don't hesitate. We had hesitated a lot, I mean I always wanted it to be right and I just want to overthink it. We’ve had a very natural evolution of our firm, but also a slow evolution. Not wanting to reach out to somebody that never met before I go, “hey, we have a great idea”. I guess my advice would be --just go forth with confidence. Even if you don't have it, just fake it!

How do you maintain balance? 

You know, I don’t feel like I have a lot of balance other than necessary balance. I teach and I have the practice, so that’s an automatic balance that one has to strike. I think it is it is nice because it gets me out of office and it gets you into a different headspace. In terms of hearing other people or my employees talk about work/life balance, I’ve always wondered about that— like, “oh isn't your work your life though”.

One of my friends told me (I was laughing because we were part of the competition or something), “Isn’t it funny when work is more fun, than fun?” I mean I thought it was such a good thing. I'm like, “yeah, it is pretty funny to me.” So I want to say I have a great fun. We got a dog —fluffy.



You can find out more about Iwamoto Scott here