Baran Studio Architecture in the SF Chronicle Style Section

The MacArthur Annex Shipping Container ‘Creative Community’ was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle Style Section this past Sunday. The focus is on the variety of individual creative businesses that occupy the project, with some discussion of the architectural intent. One of the most exciting aspects of this project is how it reflects an indirect connection to Oakland, not just to the network of shipping containers (which also connect to a much wider, global context), but also how it relates to the culture of small, independent, creative businesses. The project is a great example of layered connections and adaptations, both by design and as the organic architectural evolution.

Check out the article here.


Posted in Uncategorized

Architecture as Product

The first time I heard architecture referred to as “product” I was thrown back. We were meeting with our client, the developer of Station House (construction photo above). Various architectural design options we produced were referred to by our client as “products”. My natural impulse toward this classification was revulsion: How could our thoughtful, carefully crafted designs be demeaned by such a marketing term?

The classic Monty Python skit where the Architect presents a rather gruesome apartment building

Of course this position, to imagine a speculative housing development as something other than product, was somewhat naive. Architects are frequently substituting the economic reality of their projects with conceptual metaphors, drawings, formal studies, obsessions with parametrically designed building skins, etc. Speaking for myself, I have frequently passed over economics as simply the nitty-gritty, the uninteresting realities of getting stuff built. Whether or not the architect recognizes the nature of her design as product internally, the outward expression of architecture as product is seldom embraced.

Consider the above site drawing for the Station House project. We came up with concepts for the various buildings on the site, and sought to differentiate the architecture based upon metaphors such as Move, The Frame, The Engine, Stitch, etc. Each of these concepts encompassed both a visual language and a performance that we desired for the building. Along Wood Street, for example, we sought to make the building “stitch” into the surrounding neighborhood with raised porches and projections and proportions which more closely resembled the existing residential fabric.

These metaphors are useful for generating architectural form, but the reality of how our developer client saw the project was far different. I imagine the developer focused much more on the above site plan, which shows the units and the green spaces more matter-of-factly, and augmented this view with a spread sheet or pro forma. Our set of concepts had a purpose, but the underlying order of the project was not based on an architectural concept or a metaphorical “engine” It was based on an actual engine, an economic engine, which churns out housing – or products. Does that not make the architecture somewhat irrelevant?

What happens when the architect begins to see the built environment through the developers eyes and align her practice around producing products? This mode of practice stands in contrast to a service-based practice, where the architect responds to client needs and designs a building as one tailors a suit, fit to the exact need and size of the patron.

Nick and Diane giving a presentation to UC Berkeley graduate students

I recently posed this question at a real estate, design, and development seminar at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. I presented Baran Studio’s work on mini lot and infill housing in Oakland within the framework of this idea that the architecture we make is about taking a generalized product such as a 3 -bedroom, 2 1/2 bathroom single family home, and adapting that product to different sites around the city. We looked at our earlier single unit developments and scaled up to look at our medium density housing infill projects.

Louise Street, 6 new units in West Oakland

One project we spent some time looking at is the Louise Street mini-lot development, six units set to come on the market this spring. The product adapts to the varying site conditions of front, middle, and back, as well as north vs. south exposure, open space, and privacy.

We moved on to a larger product, Gallot Lofts, which is under construction in the Jingletown neighborhood of Oakland. In this case, the standard double-loaded corridor is split to create a courtyard between the units. The product faces Chapman Avenue with large viewing and ventilation openings, and then turns a more reserved face toward the courtyard.

Gallot Lofts, a new 41-unit project under construction in Oakland

Gallot Lofts courtyard

Let there be no mistake: we are still architects providing a design service, and the traditional role of architect in relation to client and contractor is not changed. However, we do work with the builder closely, and the builder and developer are more of a single entity though they are separate companies. Developer, contractor, and architect are all working to produce the best product, one which will create a community that thrives and contributes to its surroundings. The product also has to make money for the developer and their investors, or else there wouldn’t be this sort of density happening to begin with.

The next step is to start proposing products which differ from the 3-bedroom, 2 1/2 bathroom model. Markets will get saturated, and a successful product-based practice must continue to evolve and adapt to the changing market. Moving beyond housing, we have recently finished an innovative retail and office building near MacArthur Bart in Oakland called the MacArthur Annex. The container itself stands out as a “product” but the unique thing here is not so much the container as it is the size of the space: approximately 7 feet by 20 feet. These boxes contain any number of uses, from a florist to a graphic design studio to a record shop.

Mac Arthur Annex – office and retail space constrained to a container’s dimensions

A product-based architecture pracitce is about putting a unique product out on the market, then seeing what bites. The more risk the architect is willing to take, the greater our ability is to innovate. We do not design in a vacuum, but rather the opposite. Thinking of buildings as products forces us to listen to everything out there, looking critically at what is being offered for people to buy, where people are able to live, what projects are better at building community, and how the value of what we design is actually experienced. Product makers must be excellent listeners.

Special thanks to Chris Calott for inviting us to give the talk at UC Berkeley.

Posted in Academic, Construction, Design, Observations, Uncategorized

Matt Baran at USC Architecture Generation Next Pecha Kucha

I gave a very short presentation at USC a few weeks ago. For those of you that are not familiar with the Pecha Kucha format, it is intended to be a very focused method for getting an idea across. 20 slides for 20 seconds each to be precise. My presentation was even shorter – 15 slides for 20 seconds each, which gave me about 5 minutes to deliver the idea. More information about Pecha Kucha can be found here.

The video of the presentation is below. There are 20 USC grads in all. I’m 2nd in the lineup, starting around the 6 minute mark. 



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Baran Studio Architecture in the San Francisco Chronicle

John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Architecture Critic, has written an article on the development happening in and around the Mountain View Cemetery. A number of parcels were recently sold off and are in various stages of construction. Piedmont Walk is one of them.

King had this to say about the project:

“For me, the unapologetic punch of Piedmont Walk is a knockout. The forms are simple but they’re delivered with conviction rather than repetition. And the closer you look the better it gets, with such touches as the outdoor staircases on the 21st century triple-deckers, with a black steel structure and perforated railings that together make industrial chic look almost suave.”:

You can check out the full article here.



Posted in News, Piedmont Ave

Baran Studio Architecture in San Francisco Magazine

Our MacArthur Annex shipping container project was recently featured in San Francisco Magazine.  It’s an interesting piece that is as much about the businesses that have moved into the containers as it is about the architecture.  Check out the complete article here.

Photo by Aubrie Pick

Posted in News

Creative and Commercial?

Mike Wallace interview is sampled in a Flight Facilities track I happen to be listening to this morning, and I decided to look It up and watch it in its entirety. It is a 20 minute talk with Rod Serling, and has some salient points about the creative process that I find relevant, even after the decades since Serling spoke with Wallace.

In the case of architecture, the potential influence of commercialism certainly generates questions. But this is not the only potential compromise architecture faces. it is certainly the case because architect are usually commissioned, but because our works are often massive undertakings that require large numbers of collaborators, we must always consider multiple points of view. Even when we find the opportunity to take more complete control of the process, as a developer or singular artist, the matter of self censorship also arises. And the question of what we hope to achieve, outside of pure self expression, becomes central. Critical thinking is an essential ingredient; conformity is rarely useful. The interview is also instructive in demonstrating the fleeting nature of controversy. I believe it demonstrates that ‘progress’ is only linear from the point of view of the moment, and the pressures exerted in any given state of our society’s existence, further complicating the potential of  ‘truth’ in art.

In the end, Serlings work (on the Twilight Zone) reveals itself to be exceptionally provocative without being overt. This for me is where great art lies. It allows an audience to think and draw their own conclusions, which will vary with each passing era. Such a position may engender timelessness, as opposed to anachronism.

Posted in Academic, Observations


Our 60th Street house is in the news today. Check out the write up on SF Gate here

Posted in Uncategorized

Baran Studio Architecture Designs in the Wall Street Journal

Our designs for Station House and Westhaus 10 were recently featured in the Wall Street Journal. The story is about Oakland and the rising cost of living through the lens of the city’s recent transformation. It also speaks to new assets as well as the old problems that continue to plague a number of areas that haven’t seen the benefits of the changes. You can check out the full article here.

Station House




Posted in Uncategorized

Baran Studio Architecture Google Project Map

Some time ago, we created a map of our projects throughout California, and I thought to finally post it. The pins are by project type and are placed into a Google Map, so you can vary the zoom range for more or less detail. Below is a snapshot, click here for the actual map


Posted in News, Projects

ULI Panel: Going Out on Your Own



I was honored to participate in the San Francisco ULI panel on starting your own business last week. It was an interesting to spend an evening with other entrepreneurs, and to hear about their challenges, successes, and failures. It gave me pause to look back on those earlier years and recall all that’s happened since then. Many of the questions were structural, and had more to do with dollar figures and the technicalities of starting a business. It being developer oriented, a lot of the discussion had to do with the specifics of starting a real estate business; how various assets performed and the like. One of the most provocative questions came at the end of the evening when someone asked “how much is enough?”

At that point I wondered, how much of what? While questions about profitability are essential to understanding how to form and run a business, I find the questions about ‘why’ more important, and much more interesting. If you don’t have a good reason to start up, I have to assume it won’t go well. I never really got into architecture to get rich, but I was drawn to it as an outlet for creativity. And while that’s not what I do all day, if I’m not doing it, I’m never far from it. I’ve also gotten some grief for talking about how architects have a ‘vocation rather than a chore’, a quote I borrowed from a recent book on creativity. But it rings true for me. Architecture is typically for love, not money.

It isn’t that I don’t think about money, just that I believe there is an underlying desire that comes first. Money is another constraint that I look at when trying to do good work. Both in how the studio itself performs, but also because budget is fundamental to every project. It provides another constraint, and constraints are the framework for architecture; they define your project, and how you work with them can separate a great project from a mediocre one. The studio was founded on it’s ability to do more with less, and that includes money.

So when I consider how much is enough, I turn my concerns to the ideology that is embedded in our DNA. Values like resilience, resourcefulness, improvisation, and collaboration are key. This is how we deal with project constraints, and it means that our efforts must continually evolve. I often think about how to explore our design output in new projects, and how to keep coming up with new ideas in the face of the consistency we are confronted by due to the pervasiveness of technology and social media. It is now very easy to communicate the image of an idea (less easy to communicate the idea itself). At the same time, I’ve never been interested in different for the sake of different. But that’s just one aspect of this practice. More generally speaking, lately I’ve been struggling with psychology, history, theory, culture, meaning, age and decay, infrastructure, materials, forms and spaces, politics, academics, and the future.

I hope that Baran Studio will continue to evolve and succeed in as many ways possible. And I hope our clients continue to succeed as well – many of them come to us for our ability to assist in this. And I also hope that the work continues to feed our passions, and give us purpose. You can never get enough of that. And I believe it’s why we started after all.


Posted in News, Observations