A while back I contacted George and asked if he’d agree to an interview. It was A long shot since I didn’t know him or anyone who did but it was worth a shot. I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed And even more surprised at how gracious he was to me. From the interview to laying out his page with the great design work he’s done it has been a delight to deal with him.
When did you first think about what you wanted to do as an adult? What kind of kid were you? Where did you grow up? What or Who were your influences?
I was a happy kid who grew up in the Bronx, New York. My parents supported me to explore the arts because we all loved to sing and dance. I learned to play the drums at school, and when I was ten-years-old, my parents drove me to Manhattan to perform in a network television show called Star Time Kids. From then until I graduated from Pratt Institute School of Architecture, I saw myself headed for a career in music.
“While technology is a necessary driver of innovation, technology alone is not sufficient to generate ideas of value.”
My earliest memories of architecture are the old Penn Station, the Empire State Building, the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, and an astonishing view of Frank Lloyd Wright’s partially constructed Guggenheim Museum, on a misty evening, from the back seat of my father’s Pontiac.
I had a summer job for a neighbor who made spectacular architectural scale models of buildings like Huntington Hartford’s Paradise Island. My boss and I shared a love of jazz music, so I began to explore architecture to the soundtrack of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus. My most difficult and frightening childhood experience was when I almost lost my right arm to a malignancy at 17-years old, except for a successful, experimental stem cell transplant surgery. After a painful recovery, I remember feeling enormously grateful for cutting-edge innovation, and I kept in touch with the surgeon for decades afterwards, and always sent reprints of my project publications. While attending college, I performed as a percussionist with ensembles, and luminaries like Etta James and the Johnny Morris Quartet featuring Toots Thielmans. A few times a week, as soon as classes let out, I would change into my tuxedo and dash off with a roll of drawings and a pair of drumsticks under my arm. My family and the musicians were always supportive, but the other architecture students must have thought I was nuts. Etta James was the first modern artist to influence me. The first time I accompanied Ms. James during her stirring delivery of At Last!, I had brought along some timpani mallets to try out, and when the song ended, she turned and whispered, “Well that was cool,” which shocked me so much that I almost passed out. Ms. James was a bold and elegant artist who introduced me to the idea of carrying forward the legacy of an artform into a newly enriched idiom.
Tell us how your background played a part in your choice to be an architect? And did your stint as a jazz drummer factor into that decision?
After graduating from high school, I worked as a professional musician for a few years while my “day jobs’’ kept steering me towards architecture. A high school course in mechanical drawing qualified me to work at the Lily-Tulip Cup Corporation as a draftsman in the industrial design division, and Bell Telephone Company’s Construction Drafting Department, and finally, a small architecture firm. My interest in architecture bloomed as my career as a musician was taking off, but the two roads diverged, as the great poet said.
Do you see a link between your musical rhythm and the rhythm of your architectural design?
Music and architecture share rhythm, texture, harmony, proportion, and dynamics. In music and architecture, rhythm — whether regular, alternating, flowing or progressive — is realized in social space. When an element repeats, the intervals between those repetitions create a sense of rhythm that can yield wildly different outcomes. For example, the Parthenon is an iconic master
work that adopts a regular rhythm, whereas the repetitive rhythm of the International Style movement has left us with many places that people have a hard time caring about. The history of architecture leaves a trace record of the relationship between the phenomenon of rhythm and human perception.
Has the evolution of technology in architectural design affected the client participation in the process? Particularly the ability now to do 3D walkthroughs and visualizations. Does that impair your creativity or enhance it?
Our clients are our design partners. Years ago we used large scale physical models and handdrawn renderings to represent design concepts and elements of form, mass, materials, and details, and today, we produce these materials with the assistance of the computer. While technology is a necessary driver of innovation in architecture today, technology alone is not sufficient to generate ideas of value. For me, architectural design always begins with sketching by hand. For many years, I taught a course at Yale University called Descriptive Geometry to architecture students, and I suppose this experience left me with a deep appreciation for the importance of the role of hand drawing to architectural design.
The details in wall panels, doors, chair backs and intersecting wall design, stairs, etc. Seems to be a common theme in your work. How did that evolve?
I do have a particular fondness for designing doors and windows, and I always tell young designers to think of windows or doors as special occasion.
“Our clients are our design partners.”
How do you determine what materials and/or color you’ll use in the design of a project? Is that governed more by the client or the natural surroundings of the project?
The importance of materiality to architecture, and the emotional power of color, can not be overemphasized. Inspiration for materials selections comes from the setting and those people who will live with and use the project. When I began to adapt abandoned factory buildings for reuse as residential dwellings back in the late 1970’s, the needs of the family, and the remnants of the building’s industrial past-life would converge as a powerful source of inspiration, and I began selecting materials like sheet steel, which had not yet been fully housebroken, for the interiors of these new loft-style apartments.
How has the business of architecture changed from when you first started out?
The business of architecture is an old story. According to American Institute of Architect’s data, U.S. architects design about $600 billion dollars worth of buildings annually, and earn about 4.8 percent of construction value, and for centuries, architect’s fees are either stipulated as lump sums or fixed fees, such as a percentage of construction cost. Perhaps the biggest change in the business of architecture is the use of digital tools to drive innovation, but there is always the potential risk of value going unrealized without inventive new business models, practice approaches, and the willingness to experiment with the definitions of architecture services. George Ranalli Architect is an interdisciplinary practice with architecture as its core competency, which empowers us to generate new compensation models, such as outcomes-based models, even though, generally, value is rarely reflected in architect’s fee schedules, which hurts the economics of architecture, the bottom line, and the role of architecture to society.
What advice do you give to young Architects/ Designers who want to pursue projects like you have?
Young architects and designers are curious about our interdisciplinary practice model. When young people ask about how our hybrid practice model evolved, we say that today’s problems are too complex for any one profession to solve, and we encourage them to use their own powers of creativity to reimagine not only project typologies but professional practice models.
How has your family been affected by your career?
My spouse of thirty-five years and both of our grown children are my heart and soul, and the great joy of my life, and everyone in our family has something to say about architecture.
What do or did you do to promote yourself?
When I started out as a young architect in the analogue dark ages before the dawn of the internet, the gifted architecture photographer George Cserna played a role in helping me to launch my career, with richly nuanced images that landed on the pages and covers
“For me, architectural design always begins with sketching.”
of media publications, worldwide, reaching thousands of people. The promotional strategy to share complex projects understandably with diverse audiences grew out of the quirky nature of early work that didn’t quite fit in with the mainstream architecture press. Telling the story of a project with sustainable upgrades and retrofits, exterior historic restoration, and striking bespoke modern interiors, including the first residential adaptive reuse of a historic landmark building in the U.S., is a time honored marketing strategy still in use today.
What exciting projects are you working on now?
After more than forty years, I have designed just about every project type, and right now we are working on large-scale projects such as the design for a residential school for foster children, and R&D for the ‘greening’ the existing skins of older residential, institutional, and commercial properties, to better align them with leading-edge policy changes to encourage drastic reductions in carbon emissions. At the midsize and small scale, we are designing projects for ‘aging-inplace’, the formerly homeless, and beautiful and durable, sustainable single-family homes with good thermal performance, energy efficiency, water efficiency, resource management, and minimal long-term impacts on our environment. Ongoing commissions for custom furniture from our portfolio keeps us tinkering with prototypes for the most comfortable, fanciest dining chair, and the most elegant grown-up bed with storage drawers underneath, and other delightful everyday objects.
“After more than forty years, I have designed just about every project type”.