Byron Kuth and Liz Ranieri reflect on some of their most notable collaborations
As interviewed by Meghan Hall
Kuth Ranieri Architects was founded in the early 1990s, by Byron Kuth and Liz Ranieri, fellows of the American Institute of Architects. The architecture firm has been recognized several times; the firm won the AIA East Bay Merit Award in 2017 and the AIA Redwood Empire Award for Small Projects and Installations in 2018. Over the last five years, Kuth and Ranieri have secured commissions for a number of public sector projects that have changed their practice and portfolio. We caught up with them in their North Beach office.
Q: Your firm has changed a lot in the last five years. Why is that?
Liz Ranieri: The short version is that we arrived in San Francisco in 1989. We were hired together to teach at the California College of the Arts. Like most young firms, we received residential commissions from family and friends. We were also interested in how we could integrate art into our practice and designed an installation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and small sculptures that the museum later acquired. Based on this early work, we were approached by Princeton Architectural Press to prepare a monograph funded by the Graham Foundation. This gave us an opportunity to reflect on our first decades. Both Byron and I decided we wanted to design larger buildings that focused more on public interaction. Over the years, we entered many design competitions, and while they were good for expanding and refining our thinking, they didn’t result in commissions.
Byron Kuth: To expand the practice, we realized that we needed to collaborate with other kinds of design professionals. As a small local business, we qualified for San Francisco’s Local Business Enterprise certification to bring together larger and smaller firms for city projects. We were lucky to be teamed with Gensler for the new Terminal One project at San Francisco International Airport. We like to say we went from designing houses to designing airports.
Ranieri: We also like to say that our design approach works for spaces at all different scales.
Q: How did this lead to other collaborations?
Kuth: For the airport’s forthcoming expansions, we worked with Gensler on the design of a workspace for the entire joint venture teams for Terminal One and Boarding Area B. This space, designed for 200-plus professionals, is known fondly as the Big Room and is home to architects, engineers, managers and general contractors. What was perfect was that we were designing a space for one of the largest architectural collaborations in San Francisco’s built history. At the same time, we were seeking out other collaborations to work on a wide array of building types.
Ranieri: We joined forces with our good friend Peter Pfau for the renovation of the popular Randall Museum, which we recently completed. A friend introduced us to a well-established firm in Berkeley, ELS Architecture & Design, to collaborate on the renovation of the mid-century Balboa Pool. Our experience on the Big Room and the early stages of Terminal One gave Gensler the confidence to ask us to collaborate on the public lobbies as well as retail spaces at the new Chase Center arena for the Golden State Warriors. Then, landscape architect Tom Leader approached us to collaborate on a new public park in China that would reuse a roller coaster as an aviary.
Q: Why did these very different kinds of practices ask you to collaborate?
Ranieri: Part of the reason is our relationships with other designers and our experience on noteworthy designs. Tom Leader approached us because he remembered that one of our competition entries for the city of San Francisco had involved an aviary! Peter Pfau had a lot of experience working with nonprofits, and he knew we would come in with fresh ideas for the Randall. For the Balboa Pool project, when ELS needed a firm based in San Francisco for their team, it helped that the city knew we’d worked hard on the Randall. In the case of Gensler, I think they just took a risk!
Q: How did your education and experiences teaching influence the work you’re currently doing?
Ranieri: Our design approach is rooted in our experience at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In fact, we are organizing a conference for RISD alumni entitled “A Decade of Distinction: 1976-1986.” Rodolfo Machado was our mentor, and we had the good fortune of studying under a group of remarkable young faculty. We became thinkers about design, and what we’ve evolved over time, in our years of practicing, is a deep interest in people’s personal experiences through architecture.
Kuth: We are not interested so much in architecture as a formal object, but as an open-ended set of experiences:he person moving through a built environment assembles meaning over time, accumulating different experiences to understand the whole. For each project, we aim to set the stage for people’s relationships to that specific space and program.
Q: Do you talk about these goals with your potential clients?
Kuth: In an interview, the client or representative is rarely looking for your architectural philosophy. They want to know your thoughts on how the building can be built to a budget and on schedule. Then they want to know how you communicate. Are you empathetic? Do you listen? They are interested in how you think about design, and are not too concerned about your teachers and their pedagogy. That’s a different conversation that we are happy to have if anybody asks!
Q: What are you working on now?
Ranieri: We like working at different scales. We are working on residential projects in the Santa Rosa and Sonoma fire areas. We are just starting on renovations to the International Terminal at the San Francisco International Airport with SOM + Tsao Design, and we are doing a pediatric clinic at the University of California, San Francisco’s School of Dentistry.
Q: What kind of work do you see yourselves doing in the future?
Ranieri: Our projects are successful when we are designing something very specific to the client’s needs and vision. That’s why we can work successfully at multiple scales, whether it’s a single-family home or an airport. For Golden State Warriors Arena, the owners encouraged the design team to create a series of spaces that respond to the city around it. Years of working on the finer grain of San Francisco neighborhoods helped us to shape a project that will become a vibrant hub for its surrounding communities.
Kuth: San Francisco International Airport didn’t want the new Terminal One to feel like a generic terminal that could be anywhere, they wanted it to feel like San Francisco to people as soon as they got off the plane.
Ranieri: We don’t do generic architecture. In the broadest sense, we are a relationship-based design practice. Listening and seeing is at the core of our process. That’s why our projects don’t all have a similar look. Even though there are consistencies and a steady commitment to craft, we don’t bring in a predetermined approach. For us, each site is new. Each client is new. Even when they are repeat clients!