Studio Visit

These New York Architects Put Nature Before Buildings

Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi discuss their all-encompassing projects, including a bold new building for the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island.

Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi discuss their all-encompassing projects, including a bold new building for the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island.

You launched your firm in 1991 and eventually got married. You clearly take partnership seriously. When did you begin collaborating?

Marion Weiss: We worked together at Mitchell/Giurgola, and we discovered then that we had some things in common. We’re both left-handed, and we both draw with charcoal, which is unusual.

Michael Manfredi: One thing led to another, and we entered a competition to design the Women in Military Service Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. The director of the memorial was a brigadier general named Wilma Vaught. She was about 5-foot-3, but if she walked into this room, we would all stand at attention. She was unbelievably charismatic. At one point, she told us, “If you have a firm, you have a commission.” She liked that we were young, that one of us was a woman, and that my mother had been a captain in the army. She was absolutely fearless, and it gave us courage. All of a sudden, it was, “Oh, my god, we need to hire people.”

Nothing like a deadline. What’s your process like?

Manfredi: I’ll start one drawing and Marion will start another. Then we’ll trade off. We’ll use drawing almost as a way of raising a baby. Pretty soon, it’s not Marion’s or mine. It’s the project that you care about.

Is the trade-off harmonious or are you constantly debating?

Manfredi: I think our relationship is complementary. Marion is much more verbally agile and articulate. I’m a little quieter, slower. I really love to strategize. Marion, I think, moves ahead out of sheer passion.

Weiss: It’s raising a baby. In the beginning of a project, we’re pretty generous with the ideas and with each other. When it hits that testy teenager stage …

Manfredi: It’s your baby now!

Weiss: … then you have the bigger debates about what needs to be edited out and what needs to be made stronger.

Your projects always reference topography and incorporate landscapes. How did nature come to play such a large role in your work?

Manfredi: Early on, I think we were both really frustrated with the role of architecture just being an object, a beautiful house. I worked for Richard Meier briefly. I understand beautiful houses. Partially for social reasons, and partially because it’s the beginning of thinking environmentally, designing open space became important to us. That sense of trying to make architecture more public has been embedded in our work since way back when.

Weiss: Romaldo Giurgola had a notion of saying, [adopts an Italian accent] “We must construct the site first before we think about the architecture.” It was a really moving thing to think about.

Is that challenging in projects like the U.S. embassy you’re working on in Delhi—slated to open in 2025—where you have a ton of security needs?

Weiss: You need to memorize those restrictions in a sense. Then you can actually forget about them on a certain level. That way, when people come through, all they experience is the setting.

Manfredi: We designed the campus as a garden, so as to soften the experience of visiting an embassy, which is always fraught with bureaucratic layers. For example, someone getting a visa, whether they’re being hired by a tech company or coming to the U.S. to drive a taxi, will come through a garden courtyard first. Right now, you enter through a narrow gatehouse. In some ways, we wanted to democratize the experience.

Many of your buildings have vantages that set up dramatic reveals and cinematic moments. Why is it important to create those experiences?

Manfredi: We’re very interested in how bodies move through space. There is something about the seduction that architecture can bring. Maybe it’s also that we live in such a saturated visual world that what we’re finding is that architecture has the capacity to connect us to the real world in a way that a proliferation of images can’t.

Weiss: We’re interested in a sense of itinerary and discovery, like wandering through a landscape. We’re really opposed to projects that you can wrap up with one money shot.

Next month, your Bridge at Cornell Tech opens. It’s part of the first phase of a $2 billion, 2-million-square-foot campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island. How does a sense of discovery come into play in that project?

Weiss: The Bridge has academic spaces and an incubator for technology companies. The idea is to connect the speed of the entrepreneur with the depth of academic research. It sort of takes all of Silicon Valley—1.5 million square miles or whatever it is—and tries to concentrate that whole narrative in 235,000 square feet.

Being the southernmost building, at least for this first phase of the campus, we had an opportunity to take what was really a fairly tough footprint and cut all the way through it with an atrium. So that place of collaboration and relaxation would also be the place where everybody—the people who are doing research and the people who are starting companies—can share this crazy gift of the views of the city.

Roosevelt Island has always been an out-of-the-way location, on the psychic edge of the city, even though it’s geographically central. Was it a challenging location?

Manfredi: It’s beautiful, but there’s never been a sense of ownership of this part of the island. We’re always looking for sites that have some kind of friction, and we gravitate toward places that are contaminated, orphaned—nobody quite owns them. We find those constraints liberating.

Weiss: We’re interested in systems. At the end of the day, there’s something satisfying about thinking of architecture being connected to landscapes, and cities, and infrastructures. A project starts to gel when it becomes very simple, but that simplicity can accept all kinds of complexities. It takes a lot of work for that clarity to feel effortless.

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