Figure takes a humble and collaborative stance in the global architecture scene

San Francisco studio Figure champions the concept of collaboration and humbleness in the architecture world through quiet observation, listening and debate

Blue Oak House by Figure
(Image credit: James Leng)

At the heart of San Francisco studio Figure, sits the concept of collaboration. Co-founders James Leng and Jennifer Ly explain: ‘We have been as large as five people, and as small as just the two of us. However, over half of the projects we do are design collaborations with other architects and designers, so it feels like our team is big even though our organisation is quite small.’ 

Leng and Ly, who came together to established Figure in 2018, both teach as well as practice, and take a particularly humble and flexible approach to their profession: ‘Perhaps for the moment we’re more aware of the events that have redefined the world around us - COVID, BLM, The Climate Crisis - they forced us and our peers to confront the limitations of the architectural medium, and as a consequence, also reevaluate the value of architecture,’ they say. 

portrait of Figure founders

(Image credit: Natasha Sadikin)

Figure on 'quietly observing, listening and debating'

‘For us, this has meant operating without a manifesto, and letting the contingencies of each project unfold into the appropriate intervention. We might have a tendency to be careful or even timid - we try to build lightly and practice softly. Our family backgrounds as US immigrants from Asia also means that we understand making the most of limited resources. We realise that architecture is not equally accessible to all, so therefore we strive towards good design with an economy of means.’

Veil Craft physical model

(Image credit: Figure)

Quietly observing, listening and debating are important means to gather information and produce work for the team. It led them to become finalists in the competition for the Los Angeles Memorial for the Chinese Massacre of 1871. ‘Our proposal was one of an ongoing series of collaborations with Studio J.Jih, and was our collective first time working on something so culturally personal,’ the pair says. ‘We discussed our individual heritages and drew inspiration from not only memorial precedents in the Western world, but also Chinese ritualistic practices and landscape forms.’ 

Veil Craft installation

(Image credit: James Leng)

Leng and Ly also recently received their first commission for a community centre in a small coastal town in Northern California that was burned down earlier this year. The duo sees this as a milestone for their small practice, which was hit by the pandemic, being less than two years old when COVID hit. ‘It feels like the culmination of previous smaller projects - working with nonprofits, fire rebuilds, engaging in the public process, and finding creative ways to source and work with material economically. For a young firm, it is so difficult to get ground-up work and convince public stakeholders that we can do the job. So this commission was definitely a milestone for us and we’re really looking forward to developing the design in the coming months.’  

rendering of installation by Figure

(Image credit: Molt Studio) 

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).