In 2006, when Dan Spiegel and Megumi Aihara were dating, the fellow Harvard GSD students won a traveling fellowship that allowed them to explore Paris together. For the research paper required by the grant, the couple analyzed the conversion of a 19th-century viaduct into the Coulée verte René- Dumont elevated park. “It was an opportunity to put together some ideas about how things change over a long period, sometimes unexpectedly,” Spiegel says of his and Aihara’s first collaboration. As cofounders of San Francisco–based studio Spiegel Aihara Workshop (SAW), the 38-year-olds create environments that support and even welcome diverse outcomes over time.
After Spiegel and Aihara graduated from the GSD with degrees, respectively, in architecture and landscape architecture, Spiegel began devising a Menlo Park, California, residence for his parents while Aihara worked full-time for other firms, pitching in on the 4,500-square-foot house on nights and weekends. Completed in 2013, the dwelling comprises narrow, daylight-filled vertical and horizontal elements, which reference northern California’s historic farm towers and pervasive ranch houses. The volumes include a flat ground level and independent upper-floor living suite, so Mom and Dad may comfortably occupy only a portion of the interior or open up the entire house for entertaining kids and grandkids; further down the road, the design will allow them to age in place with the help of a caretaker inhabiting the tower apartment.
The partners married that same year, and Aihara joined SAW full-time in 2014, when the studio was tapped to design a 650-square-foot expansion of a Depression-era house tucked into a Golden Gate Heights hillside. Since then, SAW’s growing team—the office now numbers eight—has incorporated unscripted experiences into its definition of design excellence in earnest. For mattress company Casper’s 15,000-square-foot West Coast laboratory, completed in 2017, SAW allocated rooms for functions like foam testing and package prototyping, but enclosed them in low prefabricated partitions with wide thresholds to encourage creative exchange among colleagues. A venue currently on the boards for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s annual powwow is not so much a rigid design but a set of instructions for making pavilions of local rammed earth and straw in several sizes; community members choose the number of volumes to construct according to the needs of that year’s meeting, and the overall grouping will expand as successive powwows boast greater attendance, so younger workers may practice indigenous construction techniques.
Even designers who embrace unpredictability encounter surprises: when the Golden Gate Heights project was nearing completion in 2016, SAW’s client became pregnant with twins; Casper doubled in size between its first outreach to SAW and design phases, and it is preparing to more than double again. In turn, Spiegel and Aihara invest their own resources in so-called post-concept models—as-built maquettes that identify spots where an unexpected perspective may help the designers discover fresh avenues of approach. One could draw a line from pregnancy to the expandable powwow scheme or Casper’s interior partitions to a prefabricated- house project currently getting under way in Hawaii. Taken together, these lessons form a wider-ranging exercise in self-reflection that Aihara describes as “learning to accept the future, and to envision it less specifically.”
Spiegel Aihara Workshop
DESIGN STAFF: 8
PRINCIPALS: Megumi Aihara, Dan Spiegel
EDUCATION: Aihara: Harvard Graduate School of Design, M.LA, 2007; Brown University, A.B. Visual Arts, 2002. Spiegel: Harvard Graduate School of Design, M.Arch., 2008; Stanford University, B.A. Public Policy, 2003
WORK HISTORY: Aihara: Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, 2011–14; Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, 2005–11. Spiegel: Peter Rose + Partners, 2008–11; Architecture Research Office, 2003–04
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: Casper Labs, San Francisco, 2017; A-to-Z House, San Francisco, 2016; Low/Rise House, Menlo Park, California, 2013
KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Casper Labs Phase II (with ARO), San Francisco; Kauhikoa Farm Residence, Haiku, Hawaii; Mobile Barber Shop (with Mobile Office Architects), various locations; Same House, San Francisco