Jenny French’s home office
As the world shifts to a work-from-home (WFH) survival strategy, architects and architectural academics have been forced to learn a variety of new tools and methods to keep moving forward in the face of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. While many in our community are already fluent in this approach to work, due to opportunities brought to us with the internet, in a field that often requires travel and on-site work, many are struggling with not just the technology, but also the lack of personal connection with our friends and colleagues.
In this new series of features, Archinect is sharing some stories from members of our community about their own transitions, with personal experiences and images of what their new work environment looks like.
In this second installment, we’re profiling French 2D, a Boston-based practice founded by sisters Jenny and Anda French.
What has been your experience conducting work from home?
Jenny French (JF): In the midst of work that thrives on collectives and physical proximity, the shift to social distancing has in many ways highlighted the importance of our connections to each other and to the spaces that foster and allow for these connections.
Anda French (AF): Our work aims to produce a kind of vulnerability through sharing everyday experiences in order to get at larger ideas and to build community. In a weird way the current moment is highlighting this need to share one’s own humanity and vulnerability to help one another. Trying to figure out how to move these connections to a mediated-physical presence model is our shifting design focus in this transition.
In thinking about collectives formed through a mediated physical presence we are returning to some of our earlier projects, which tapped into a-temporal, asynchronous, and imaginary presence to build community. These projects included a non-linear story that unfolded around location-based text messages, recording and playback devices embedded in physical installations, and tables that could fold time and space to hold non-simultaneous exchanges.
What was the transition like, from working together, in your office, to working separately at your homes?
JF: The transition to our new normal has been swift, and in retrospect was highlighted by the sharp contrast of the week just prior to, and the week following, our shifts to working from home. We are lucky that, for us, this change is not logistically earth-shattering, but asks us to continue to think and work collectively, even as we sit in separate houses.
The first week of March, the last week of ‘normal’, found us at full speed completing an installation and traveling to Princeton for a conference on the late Anne Tyng. Amid sewing endless yards of textiles that we had designed for an inhabitable wall piece at the Harvard GSD, we listened to news updates and began casually stocking our kitchens. In the studio that I teach at the GSD our conversations focused on our upcoming review. By Wednesday our installation was nearly complete thanks to the amazing exhibitions team at the GSD, and we were planning coffee klatch events to host within it for the remainder of the school year.
AF: At dinner that Thursday night with Princeton students we discussed their rapidly changing plans for studio trips and spring break, still not yet realizing that the adjustment to these seemingly major disruptions would soon be overshadowed by the shift of the week to come. On Sunday we decided with heavy hearts to postpone the mid-March Women in Architecture dinner installation and event in LA that we were planning with THIS X THAT.
JF: Postponing the dinner was particularly tough, but it reflected our rapidly changing idea of social proximity, as the design of the dinner’s tablescape was meant to disarm and connect its participants by way of a creaturely wearable tablecloth.
By the following Tuesday, Harvard announced a move to online learning, leaving just a few more in person meetings. These last days of in-person class brought a nostalgia similar to graduation week but filled with in-person Zoom tests and helping students borrow school furniture to set up their home studios.
Has managing ongoing client work been difficult?
AF: This shift has occurred at a critical moment for our most collective project, a 30-unit cohousing complex self-developed by its future owner-occupants. In the past week we were challenged to move a large in-person participatory design workshop to an online format. Using Jam Boards to build consensus and field questions, and a shared old school Google Sheet, we spent nearly 9 hours on a Saturday helping the community work through some very sticky final decisions as construction begins. Charlie Baker, the Governor of Massachusetts, has designated residential construction as vital and allowed this construction project to continue. Our own fears about OSHA standards and keeping construction workers safe are top of mind right now for us.
How has this changed affected your creative process?
JF: A good example of how we are trying to find ways to work together that mimic the kind of collective creative process we have in person was our recent in-studio radio show for Michelle Chang’s newly created GSD Radio. Finding an hour between client calls and pre-K Zoom art class, we decided that we would make a major push on a project redesign, while also live-watching Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth starring David Bowie, a working method that we often use when we are together. Anda was in charge of the rhino Zoom screen share, while I Mystery-Science-Theater-style narrated the movie in the background, and we both discussed a corner problem.
AF: We use Dropbox as our server, which already remotely syncs our files, and have a physical backup at our office, so thankfully there is no difference in our file sharing protocol. With the exception of material samples for current projects that Anda brought home with her, we have not transported any other physical artifacts from our office to our homes, leaving our 3D printer and model making materials to sadly collect dust. Of course, my workhorse laptop completely died just days before the call to stay at home. Thankfully the folks at the Cambridge, MA Microcenter came to the rescue with a new computer in one of my last brick-and-mortar exchanges.
JF: Another digital switch has been the moving of in-person lectures to virtual formats. Our in-person lecture for CalPoly Metro on April 9th will instead be held as a Zoom lecture , and we are joining a line up of virtual lectures for the month of April organized by the Harvard GSD (links at bottom). There will undoubtedly be a changed energy from not giving a live lecture and we have been thinking and reflecting about how to make sure that our strange balance of jokes and seriousness can translate to a Zoom lecture.
Has finding a balance between your work and personal lives been challenging?
JF: Our office is less than a mile from where we each live, and our houses just blocks from each other, so we are now resorting to walking past and talking from doorways or having an ‘office meeting’ 10 feet apart while we buy groceries at the local Whole Foods.
AF: I have a four-year old son in pre-k. His school has been canceled since 3/16 and from that time we have also asked our after-school babysitter to stay home, though we are still paying her. In short, my husband and I now have a 36 hour day to fit into 24. Our dog is winning, however.
JF: I have a 7-month old puppy who is currently living his best life. He makes frequent Zoom appearances.
AF: For both of us, the inevitable intermingling of family and work was already fairly seamless (we are, of course, sisters), but was not as externalized to our clients. While it is really hard to juggle the actual work, there is a bright spot as the partitioning of home and work is inevitably broken down. It turns out our clients and colleagues have really enjoyed kids and dogs jumping into the Zoom window. If nothing else, let’s not lose this fondness for each other’s humanity when this is all over.