The innovative Los Angeles-based team collaborates from a live-work space
Their resume reads like an architect's fairy tale: two aspiring architects, Dwayne Oyler and Jenny Wu, met at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, graduated, and moved to New York to hone their craft working with prestigious architects and firms—he for Toshiko Mori and Lebbeus Woods, she for Architecture Research Office and Gluckman Mayner Architects. They decided to start their own firm, Oyler Wu Collaborative, get married, and go West. Like most fairy tales, Oyler and Wu had to journey through unknown territory (moving across the country and starting an office with no clients in hand) and experience conflict to get to their current state of a busy practice in Los Angeles with myriad projects completed and on the boards, local and overseas.
"We were both so into the work. We'd fall in love with it and get wrapped up in it," says Oyler about the mental struggles the couple went through before coming to an agreement about how their practice would be run. Though the two had grown used to criticism at school, they didn't know how to take it from each other. "We realized that it's not about me or Dwayne," says Wu. "We left the 'that's your thing, this is more my thing' behind."
Six years later, consensus has been reached. With projects on the boards as diverse as an 8,000-square-foot meditation/classroom building in Downey, California, to a 15-story residential tower in Taipei, Taiwan, the office of three (size fluctuates, but three is a constant) is gaining recognition and clients. It's the firm's office, literally, that serves as a calling card. In the iconic American Cement Building, in downtown L.A., Oyler and Wu renovated a 1,400-square-foot live/work loft for a materials cost of $2,500, designing an office separated from the couple's living space by a partition with built-in storage units and translucent fabric doors. The workmanship and versatility of the space shows how the firm can perform transformative architecture with a small budget and common materials.
While both Oyler and Wu reject the notion of a particular style repeating itself in their work, they do admit to a consistent approach to design. "We insist on looking at the big picture, and the intimate details," says Oyler. Material experimentation, digital renderings that explore layers and texture, and physical models help lead them to the right forms for the job at hand. "We both worked for firms that really taught us how to appreciate detail," says Wu.
Oyler says they were influenced by the masters they worked for in many ways, including how to run a small practice. "As different as Toshiko and Lebbeus Woods were, they both trusted the people around them. We strive for that, and run our firm like a studio." Because both partners are design faculty members at SCI-Arc, many of their collaborators are students. "It's great having access to that pool of talent," says Oyler. "We struggle to run an office that is driven by experimentation, and we find that the students we bring in are open to that." Oyler says the practice is feeling some growing pains. He likens the current state of the firm to a "wild animal." Sounds appropriate for this stage of a thickening plot.