Photo by Bill Sitzmann for Omaha Magazine
Recently, ArchHive had the opportunity to meet with Brian and Andrea Kelly to discuss their aggregate of work known as AToM. In this interview we discuss the idea behind AToM, how Brian and Andrea prefer to pursue work, and the structure of their practice. Check out atomdesignstudio.com to learn more about Brian and Andrea and their collection of work.
ARC: Could you introduce yourselves and briefly describe what your roles are both here at UNL and at AToM?
BK: Brian Kelly, I'm an associate professor here at UNL I think in my 7th year, 6th-
AK: -8th year
BK: -8th year teaching here. So my primary responsibilities are obviously teaching and research. Within AToM, which is a loose organization, more of an umbrella the way we see it, I'm an independent architect and she's (Andrea) an independent architect. AToM is a very ephemeral thing, it's not brick and mortar, it's not an organized thing.
AK: It's a collection. That's kind of what we've referred to it as.
BK: Yeah, it's a place where I can put work from teaching, I can put work from professional projects, and the same thing for Andrea. We think of it more like a gallery where we can put work on there and update things about what we're working on, collaborations- it's more of a collection or an umbrella. My role in that is just that I'm part of it. I'm an architect, but we're part of that organization. I don't really want to call it an organization... We are part of that aggregate.
AK: And did you say what AToM stands for?
BK: I guess that helps as well. AToM stands for Architecture, Teaching, Objects and Media. We've defined it that way because those are the different places we've found that I've been working in and she's (Andrea) been working in that encapsulates a lot of the different types of output that we've seen ourselves producing over the years. It helps-if nothing else because it's a collection- to organize it somewhat. Even those boundaries are very difficult because on the website there are places where we'll categorize something as both media and object, as an example. Maybe it's a gallery installation, it might have object based properties because it's three dimensional, maybe it explores materials, etcetera- but it's also media because it is viewed as an artifact in the gallery.
AK: Another examples is we have a project that is graphic based so it appears under "media" but it's part of an architecture project so again that's where it crosses boundaries. I'll back up and say I'm Andrea Kelly, I'm also an architect and lecturer at the University of Nebraska. This is my first year teaching and I've been practicing for eighteen years and have a variety of experience in several different states. Like Brian said, what we do and how we work is- it's with paths crossing. For instance, I've worked in several offices while Brian was teaching full-time at other universities, however when we moved back to Nebraska we worked at an office together. Some of the projects on the website are ones I did, some of them are ones he did. Some of the work that we've done since we left Randy Brown Architects are things we both contributed to in different ways. Brian is more of the primary designer, I'm more of the technical person and do construction administration so our roles are very different and we are able to collaborate.
BK: Yeah, but all of the projects are never a co-contract. Either I'm contracted or she's contracted.
ARC: So do those roles ever switch?
BK: So I've never said this in front of Andrea, I don't think. So hopefully she sees some benefit and that I have an asset to something as well, but I would say if I could speak to her assets, she went to a school that is extremely solid in producing very competent architects. She went to Oklahoma State, they come out of there and they are solid at putting together buildings and solid at representation and just all the base skills you think you'd need. Andrea, I'm sure she has spoken about this in class, the thing I really appreciate about Andrea's skills is while she may not be in the digital environment modeling, I know that if I'm working on a project and show it to her she has a really keen eye for knowing when something proportionally or compositionally is off. She's trained well visually, she understands composition. I think she understand some proportion better than I do. I don't know if that really answers the question, but a lot of times I'll take the design role on a project but it kind of depends on who it was contracted with as well.
AK: I would say it's more of a blurring. I wouldn't say we ever switch roles but we kind of merge in the middle somewhere because I will consult with him (Brian) through design because that is his strength but I will consult him or give feedback on construction detailing and so forth. Then during construction when that's my primary role he always gives feedback as design related issues come up. So I would say it is more of a blur in the middle more than a reverse because I don't think I would ever flip over into the primary design role because it's not my strength. Again I went to a good school and did well in school. Oklahoma State, when I was there and years prior, was always ranked pretty high in the colleges of architecture. While I came out with a more technical background it also had a very strong design sense. So like Brian said, it's not so much I fill that role but I'm well educated in that role. I don't feel like it is one of my strengths and I think he would say he doesn't feel that construction is one of his strengths. There's a lot of management in construction and the observation process.
BK: I'm not a linear thinker so in that regard you have to have that sort of a mindset. To be more of linear thinker and more comprehensive and following up on stuff.
AK: I'd say our personalities more clearly define our roles because Brian is more of a random thinker, he's all over the place. I'm a very linear thinker- A to B... to C. And that suits construction administration quite well because working with contractors and owners, communication is huge. Because my personality is linear and kind of black and white, it works out that way. So we blur in the middle but I'd say we still very much in our roles.
BK: We know what we're strong at.
AK: It's also why we're able to work together and-
BK: - We're still on the first question…[Laughs]
AK: This very non traditional set up we have. And that goes back to legal structures and things with how a firm is organized legally and tax-wise- all of those things play into the decision of how you set up. So we've chosen to be two sole practitioners.
ARC: So your website says that AToM is about aggregation of people, perspectives, and work. You talked a little bit about the work aspect, could you explain a little bit more about how this concept is applied to people and perspectives?
BK: So it's somewhat of a conceptual statement but at the same time there's not one way it's done. There may be times where I'm writing something and I'm co-author on something. It also could be depending on the ways a studio is administered, because I put teaching work on the website as well. So the aggregation of people could be the fact that, you know I'm working in my "Collaborate Studio" right now which is a team based studio with design research as the focus. So it's about collecting those different things together. To me it's about the aggregation of work, people, and perspectives right? So the work is about the output that's being done, the people is about trying to talk about the personalities of people we've collaborated with- there's a whole list of people we've collaborated with on projects- and the perspectives is more about the thought. It kind of operates in that capacity. It's about work and it's about personalities and the ideas behind it. So I think when we conceived of this thing we were never really interested in it just being our perspective. That's why we want to collaborate with people. Depending on the project we try to bring students in, or other professionals into the project to try to not let it be bound just by our conception of something, but we try to let that feed into it at strategic points.
AK: I'll expand on that to say that to both of us when working with clients, we've learned through experience prior that the relationship is by far the most important part of the project. "People" is really big to us, in fact so important that as we're being introduced to the project if we don't feel that there's the right chemistry between me and a client or Brian and a client, then it's worth it for us to turn that down. We see the relationship as so important that we want to be friends when it's all done. Depending on the size or scale of the project that could be in a month or down the road; we still want to like each other at the end.
BK: I suspect you've dated people, where you're on the first date or something and you're like, "this just isn't going to work out..." [Laughs]
ARC: Right. [Laughs] So because AToM is this aggregate of ideas, how do you decide what work to take on or is there a certain specialty that AToM focuses on.
AK: I'll start. I would say that... we don't advertise at all.
BK: Because it's not really something to advertise.
AK: There's nothing to advertise. It's about relationships and word of mouth. I've done a project for so and so, and they tell their friend about it. More people have come to us and said, "hey we saw this," or, "we liked that." So we have no marketing budget. How we determine if we're going to take on something, is about the relationship. I'm speaking primarily because I'm new to the teaching thing, but if the project isn't a right fit or doesn't achieve personal goals that I have or that Brian has, then it's not worth investing time and energy in that. We have a family as well, which is hugely important to the both of us. If it's not achieving something and creating a relationship then it's probably not something I would take on. However, if it's something that I or we are interested in then that's a different story. Then you need to figure out how to work that in with all your other obligations.
BK: That pretty much says it. The only thing I would add is that teaching, for me, is the full time thing. So I don't have time to take on a ton of projects. There are some years where I haven't had a contract or built work just because either there wasn't a project I felt I needed to take on or that Andrea needed to take on. It has to be productive- I can submit it for awards, write, or get it published in some way because that helps university as well because of my mission in the research component of teaching.