In Part 2 of our interview with XCOOP co-founders Cristina Cassandra Murhpy and Andrea Bertassi we discuss challenges in starting a business, managing the office, and capitalizing on past experience. Visit xcoop.org to learn more about their informal business and the work they are involved in.
ARC: What were some of the biggest challenges in taking XCOOP from concept to reality? How did you overcome them?
AB: That’s a good question. We actually started off pretty radical and very idealistic in the way we thought. For example, with a financial crisis in the world we saw an opportunity to change things. It seems now that we were a bit too positive because at the end of the month we still need to eat. The biggest challenge is not really crisis, but to get to a solid method of selecting projects and getting projects. Sometimes we are able to select projects and other times we are not in the position of being selective; we need to take in work in order to keep the machine running. I think we are getting better and better. It’s been a process in dealing with certain things like indicating the amount of time for every single project without diving out of passion into things that are not really worth doing. For instance, we get really excited about pro bono projects, which are usually the most interesting, but then we don’t have enough time to dedicate to whatever is keeping the business running. We need to face the fact that XCOOP is also a business, and I think that’s the biggest challenge.
CCM: There are some offices that we are familiar with that, either in house or using institutions, focus on research. Just like those offices, we strongly believe in research before anything can be done in terms of design. Research can, of course, be long or short, depending on the budget. Usually for our firm, research is out of the question. It’s not even in the contracts. For some large companies the research incubator can be stretched one year- two years because the client is paying for that. A few of these companies use acclaimed architecture schools to assist with research. We came to the conclusion that we do like institutions; we like to change and to teach. We think that the young generation of students can offer so many ideas. We thought of shutting off the engine of XCOOP for a little bit and part-time teaching. For example, a project my studio is working on is pro bono, we’re not getting paid for it. The studio is not coming up with the one idea, but is definitely coming up with a lot of research.
ARC: Do either of you have a business background?
AB: I wish. [Laughs]
CCM: Andreas has a musical background and I have a physical background, in terms of exercise, but we don’t have much else. [Laughs]
AB: Besides playing clarinet and jumping off airplanes, we don’t have much background.
ARC: What steps did you take to learn how to manage and operate a XCOOP?
AB: I would say it’s just fun to run projects and learn by doing it. We really take the experience day by day, and sometimes we learn at the end of a project; maybe it was a real disaster from the point of management. Still, so far, so good. We are excited about what we do. We reject the idea of being a business that aims to generate as much money as we can.
CCM: I think working with the client and being very honest about our skillset and what we can deliver is key. We work with our clients, we learn from them, and certainly hope they can learn from us. Thanks to our backgrounds we got in touch with a bunch of PR people and project managers so we have this network of people that can support us. Then we keep our eyes open and see how other architectural business operate and we learn from what we see.
AB: We’ve been part of a survey a few years back. The chamber of commerce in the Netherlands were trying to make a profile of all the offices in the Netherlands. They were looking at categories like big firms, research, and others. We were across the board. We didn’t fit into any category, which we were quite proud of. It’s kind of difficult for us to also frame ourselves.
CCM: We were grouping the firms in the Netherlands. We fell out of each of the groups and they were really surprised we still had business. [Laughs]
ARC: What were some of your professional experiences prior to starting XCOOP and how have they influenced you in your practice?
AB: I’ll talk for myself but we share some of the same background. The experience in a professional environment was fundamental because it was probably the best school we went to besides architecture school. That’s where we really learned the work. What we also learned was the practice of being very critical towards ourselves, towards our work, and towards anything proposed. So when you have a client with a brief, it’s not that you take the brief as the backbone of your work. You first question it and try to deeply understand the reasons behind the brief. Then you can actually do what good architects are supposed to do by providing extra value instead of simply addressing the defined problem.
CCM: To be a bit more general, the reason I moved to the Netherlands was not only because of the office we were at. I really liked the way things were starting to move in the Netherlands. I wanted to be part of it. There was a wave of experimentations that were not really applied to architecture, but they were tried. That type of trial is fundamental to the way I think. The way the Dutch do their business is an example to me, which I adopted. It’s pragmatic, it’s hands-on with everything, but always with that sparkle of curiosity and research. There is never a dull moment. The Dutch, they do care for crazy concepts and deep research that is not superficial, but at the same time there is the understanding of how to make it and how much it costs. Those are the ingredients that make good architecture.
ARC: What’s the next step for not XCOOP?
CCM: We are in a moment of thinking. There is an opportunity for a semester in Arizona. There may be opportunities in Nebraska; it’s an open door, it’s on the table. Right now we are really trying to discuss the opportunities in the midwest and the southwest.
AB: What we started doing, this nomadic experience of moving every semester or two, is to really get to understand different cultures. Even living with different architectural typologies, not just going on holiday for two weeks, but really living in different typologies is an interesting thing to be able to operate better in architecture.
ARC: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with emerging professionals?
CCM: I had a student come up to me and ask, “Should I start travelling or work abroad now, or work in my city then start travelling?” It is very subjective of course, from the situation this person is in. My tip would be not to be afraid of doing it. Whatever decision you make, you cannot be afraid of making it. Take it on sincerely and head on. If you work for a big office in your neighborhood, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are building your experience. My advice would be that it doesn’t matter the decision you make, as long as you make it.
AB: I agree. Really, don’t be afraid of following your instinct and what you believe. Don’t settle for anything less than what is very satisfying, otherwise it is just a waste of time.