Aesthetics and Values: Michael Pyatok

“There’s a political role to design, and that is the message it sends to the people living there and the generations afterward who live around it. If it’s done well, it’s like saying all those folks who collaborated to make the place—the community, the lenders, the developer, the insurance company, the architect—had a high degree of respect for the people getting housing.”

Michael Pyatok, 2002

The Oakland, California-based architect Michael Pyatok comes from two worlds. The first was a single-parent, rent-controlled apartment in mid-20th-century Brooklyn. The second was a train ride away, as an undergraduate at the nearby Pratt Institute.  From there, he went on to earn a Master’s degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

Despite the opportunities to design solely for large corporations or wealthy clients that Harvard would have given him, Pyatok has endeavored to design housing for those of limited financial means, housing that engenders “a high degree of respect” for its inhabitants.

The quote at the beginning of this post demonstrates something that I have mentioned before and feel very deeply – that the built environment sends messages and teaches certain silent lessons to its users.

When the built environment can be summed up as, in E.F. Schumacher’s words, “ugly, shabby or mean,” what message other than a lack of respect does that send to the inhabitants from those who Pyatok refer to as “all those folks who collaborated to make the place”?

Pyatok founded his namesake firm in Oakland in 1984. As of the early 2000s, Pyatok has shifted workflow, but not emphasis, slightly by taking on more institutional and market-rate projects. He has worked on lofts in San Francisco and middle-income projects like the downtown Oakland condominium project called Landmark Place, the Oakland City Hall Plaza master plan, as well as student housing for many California colleges and universities.

In 2002, Cheryl Weber wrote in Residential Architect Magazine that institutional commissions “pay 12 percent of construction costs, compared with the 6 percent to 8 percent paid by nonprofits—often too small a fee to cover community process and construction administration. “

“The new work has enabled Pyatok to offer paid vacation, holiday, and sick leave for the first time in the firm’s 17-year history.”

Pyatok added that “(m)oving away from that is a concern to me and something we’ll be monitoring as we go along, to make sure we don’t lose sight of the primary purpose of the office, which is to help the households most in need.”

Pyatok is not letting perfect be the enemy of the good. The firm’s employees have their own needs and well-being to contend with. By providing benefits that other firms routinely offer, designing with a purpose becomes less of a sacrifice and allows Pyatok to recruit talented designers who may not be able to do work there otherwise.

It also demonstrates an attitude that doesn’t strictly distinguish affordable housing from market-rate or institutional projects. The firm’s intelligence and skills that have kept costs down and quality of life up in the realm of affordable housing has helped them to appeal to colleges and universities looking to do the same for student housing.

The emphasis on quality design likewise has helped the firm when it comes to market-rate housing as well. Now a firm founded on the determination to build high-quality affordable housing is in demand among clients without those restrictions that non-profits and affordable housing developments must contend with.

The standard narrative in development is that affordable housing, market-rate housing and institutional clients all demand completely different approaches. But with Pyatok, there’s a synergy gained through lessons learned working on these different types of projects that benefits each one.

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