Interview with Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi

Part Infrastructure, Part Landscape, Part Architecture

Vladimir Belogolovsky
4. June 2024
U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India, under construction (All images are courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi)

Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi met in the late 1980s at the office of Mitchell Giurgola Architects in New York City. In 1989, after both had left the office and were teaching architecture  — he at the New York Institute of Technology and she at the University of Maryland — they entered a design competition for the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery and won. That project, eventually built in 1997, launched their now internationally acclaimed New York practice, Weiss/Manfredi. The couple’s other celebrated projects include the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center, Hunter's Point South Waterfront Park in Queens, New York, and the US Embassy that is being built in New Delhi, India.

Marion Weiss grew up in the family of an aeronautical engineer father and a geologist and geographer mother. While in high school, she trained as a long-distance runner on the campus of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, in California’s Bay Area. She found its architecture, inspired by Japanese pavilions layered in the landscape, so alluring that she researched the name of its architect, Ernest Kump, and arranged a meeting with him to discuss architecture as a potential career. Kump suggested that Marion apply to the University of Virginia (UVA), where he was teaching architecture and landscape architecture. He also believed that Thomas Jefferson’s design for the university connected architecture and landscape in ways he saw as foundational.

Michael Manfredi was born in Trieste, Italy, and grew up in Rome, where he lived until he was fifteen. In my conversation with the architects, Michael referred to Rome’s famed Spanish Steps as “a magical, hybrid invention, part infrastructure, part landscape, and part architecture.” He contemplated, “There is a seductive choreography in how one moves up and down the Spanish Steps.” This organizational idea permeates many of the architects’ projects — in Seattle, with a series of inclined topographies that lead people obliquely from the city to the water’s edge, and at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where visitors slide right through and around the building. 

Michael’s father, an Italian-American, worked at the American Embassy. His mother was from the Midwest and came to Europe as an army nurse at the end of World War II. They met at a military hospital in Munich and started their family in Italy. Architect Carlo Pelliccia, a family friend, encouraged Michael to draw and became a role model. When Michael’s family returned to the US, his father helped Carlo find a teaching job at UVA, where he happened to teach Marion figure drawing. 

Marion shared with me Carlo’s teaching methods for drawing from live nude models: “I was great at drawing faces and feet but was too embarrassed to draw anything in the middle. [Laughs] So, he told me, ‘Begin in the middle with the most interesting part, like the intersection of the arm and the breast; that’s sculpture and the heart of what you should be drawing.’ He said that if I don’t get to the head or the toes, that’s OK.” In her final year in the design studio, Carlo made a suggestion that seems to continue influencing how Marion and Michael still approach their architecture: “Design your buildings as you draw,” he said. “Start in the middle, and then you don’t need the edges.”

Military Women’s Memorial, Arlington, Virginia, 1997 (Photo: Jeff Goldberg)
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Marion, you studied at UVA and Yale, and Michael at the University of Notre Dame and Cornell. Who influenced you the most at school?

Marion Weiss (MW): Apart from Carlo Pelliccia at UVA, I would mention Jim Stirling, who was in the last teaching semester of his career when I was at Yale. He would see only a few students daily, so we all had to excel for him to come to our desks. His interest in connecting diagrammatic clarity with unexpected formal surprise was influential to me. Another instrumental professor was Andrea Leers of the Boston firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates. Responding to my inclination to develop multiple schemes, she asked, “What if you put all your efforts into one scheme and made it stronger and better?”

Michael Manfredi (MM): My undergraduate education at Notre Dame was so much more than architecture. We were required to take courses in philosophy, art history, theology, and calculus. It was about nurturing an ability to look at the world through an expansive lens. After graduation, I came across the work of Colin Rowe and read everything I could read by and about him. He was teaching at Cornell, so I went there for my master’s degree. The architecture program was very small and in a remote town, Ithaca. Thus, it was easy to get to know professors well. I would often go to Rowe’s house when Jim Stirling, his former student, was visiting, since Stirling was designing the new performing arts center at Cornell. I also attended [Oswald] Mathias Ungers's reviews. I learned that architecture is more than buildings — it is about engaging the larger political, historical, geographical, and cultural context.

Opening day of Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle, Washington, 2007 (Photo: Benjamin Benschneider)
VB: Before opening your practice in 1989, both of you worked for Romaldo “Aldo” Giurgola. What were some of his lessons for you?

MW: He was a humanist and very intuitive. Humanity, history, time, and place shaped the lens he brought to architecture. Michael worked there for six years, and I stayed for three. He loved working with people who could draw well by hand. So, we often worked on drawings in a kind of dialogue. He would say, “You know, I think we should move this over here. What do you think?” It would mean that we are moving it over here, but he would be kind enough to pretend that it was a group decision. [Laughs] His generosity became a powerful model for us. 

MM: When I was hired, I even helped draw some of the competition drawings for the Canberra Parliament project. What I liked about that project is that it couldn't be described purely as a building or landscape. It was an earth form that encompassed both. To continue Marion’s point, we both realized that we could communicate through drawing. Aldo would pick up a pencil, and a suggestive sketch would emerge with a few strokes, which would continue as a dialogue. And that’s how we still work. Marion may start a sketch, and I might critique it, add my own lines and notations, and the iterative process will start up. Sketching became our language. 

Weiss/Manfredi sketch of Olympic Sculpture Park
VB: When you describe your work, you use such words and phrases as provocations, frictions, unfolding, hybridity and simultaneity, inhabitable typography, choreography and seduction, drifting symmetries, beyond project boundaries, amplifying landscape identity, reciprocal horizons, delaying conclusions, and the fantasy of the future. What would you say your work is about, and what kind of architecture do you try to achieve?

MW: For us, it is never about one thing. We are continually looking outside the property lines and programmatic briefs of each project to imagine broader possibilities. We believe in beginning with simultaneous strands of research and design explorations, delaying conclusions as long as possible to enable more synthetic clarity to emerge. We are interested in productive tensions between architecture, nature, infrastructure, and urban life and are deeply interested in the public dimensions possible for each project. Today, few projects and sites are tabula rasa, and for us, constraints provoke the necessity of revealing new natures of a place and the necessity of radical transformation. 

MM: We look for a kind of reciprocity between architecture, landscape, and ecology, and we gravitate toward hybrid and open-ended projects. These projects are architecture, landscape, and infrastructure. Our park in Seattle has been described as one of the best examples of landscape urbanism. We gravitate toward projects with productive ambiguities that raise interesting questions. 

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center, Brooklyn, New York, 2012 (Photo: Albert Vecerka)
VB: You have said, “Practice is a form of research.” Could you talk about your design process and how you typically start and work on projects?

MW: We always seem to be at the beginning with each project. Every time we start, we feel like absolute beginners. We want to learn at the rate of a child. We begin with research and want to understand the site’s geological, cultural, physical, political, and formal history; its relationship to climate, geography, art, infrastructure, and so on. We want to learn everything at once to identify intersections that become resonant and super interesting together. As we do that, we build a series of models. It so happens that the problems we are often asked to solve are the least interesting, so we look for ways to stretch the possibilities; we delay conclusions for as long as possible and something new begins to emerge.

MM: We are not afraid of making bad designs when we start. Through an iterative and messy process, we generate enough visual material — study models, quick animations, and sketches — to have productive critiques. And soon, ideas begin to have lives of their own, and a design emerges. In the process, we try to address as many questions as possible. Sometimes, mistakes such as charcoal smudges or accidentally drawn lines open up new possibilities. We like drawing with charcoal because of imprecision. We also build very crude study models, often made of incidental materials. Last night, we made one from sliced potatoes, coffee filters, and toothpicks! [Laughs] 

Weiss/Manfredi sketch of roof of Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center
VB: It has been said about your Olympic Sculpture Park that you conceived a landscape as a structural idea rather than a scenic invention. You even called one of your conceptual sketches of the park “Infrastructure X-ray.” There is so much complexity in there.

MW: That sketch was so much fun to work on. There are layers and layers of information, such as iconic views, infrastructure that goes through the site, the challenge of reaching the water’s edge, and so on. The question was how to reveal all that energy, not hide it. We refused to build a lid over the existing railroad tracks and highway, as was done in Millennium Park in Chicago, so the tension and energy of the original site would not be lost. 

VB: It is not clear where your buildings begin and end. Is that what they have in common? What do you pay the most attention to?

MW: All our buildings are based on picking up threads that grow from within and outside of each site. Their common identity is that they can never be seen as static objects. They are objects in motion. It is hard to say where the building ends and the site begins. We are motivated by the things that reach very broadly into their adjacent territories. The thread that continues to motivate us is the creation of truly public places. We are also increasingly concerned about the resources we use when we design our buildings.

MM: In our Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center, the sidewalk of the street turns into a plaza and slides under a portal, then through the building, and transitions into a very long linear garden. So when you enter, you gradually lose your connection to the city; the building becomes a threshold, and you soon find yourself immersed in the garden. And when you leave through the building, you take the garden with you into the city. We see architecture as a very impure art form, but it is an art form, nonetheless. So, the opportunity for architects is to take on all the conflicting challenges that are part of contemporary life and leverage them into something original that allows us to see the world anew. 

Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi

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