by AIA New York
AIA New York is excited to welcome Matthew Bremer, AIA, Founder and Principal, Architecture in Formation, as the organization’s 2023 President. Bremer’s presidential theme is Our City, Ourselves, a title appropriated from the 1970 feminist book Our Bodies, Ourselves, as both a call to action and a love letter to our city. Bremer asks us to look carefully at what makes New York its authentic self, identify what still needs to change, and forge a future that unites our highest aspirations with our unique skills as architects. “As your incoming AIA New York President for 2023, I challenge each of us, public or private, corporate or individual, to reassess our core values and recommit to working to reclaim New York as a dynamic, resilient, and equitable place for us all and as a shining example to the world,” stated Bremer in his presidential letter.
Architecture in Formation has a reputation for spirited and rigorous projects ranging from bespoke residences to innovative affordable housing, commercial, institutional, and community development. A native Texan, Bremer studied architecture and art history as an undergraduate at Rice University and received his Master of Architecture from Yale University where, in addition to architectural design, he studied art, art history, cultural theory, and criticism. He has taught and been guest juror at architecture schools around the country, and in 2009 was recognized by the AIA with the national Young Architects Award. The firm’s work has won multiple local and national awards and been published widely. As founder and principal, Bremer is engaged in each project from start to finish, getting to know each client, each site, each budget, and each set of unique problems early on to refine their needs and aspirations, and to find hidden opportunities and latent strategies.
Bremer splits his time between New York City, a 200-year-old converted church in the Catskills, and a tiny cottage in Springs, East Hampton, which he shares with his partner Shaun and their two Salukis Noah and Moses.
Q: How/why did you decide to pursue architecture?
I was obsessed as a young boy not necessarily by buildings themselves, but by how the spaces inside and around buildings shaped how our lives where led. I remember creating miniature cities in my sandbox or anywhere really, not so much with the typical “boy” obsession with heavy duty trucks, machines, big buildings, etc., but with how daily life could totally change if a road went this way or that way, if the house faced the mountain or the valley, if two houses were close together and maybe those that lived there shared their lives in some way because of that.
Also, my mother was the principal of my elementary school. She had brought the open classroom concept to our small rural Texas school district. I was obsessed with how classrooms got arranged and how that would affect who our friends might be, how we could interact with each other: were we in rows with the teacher facing us in a controlling manner, were we in pods, was their variety or total equality and sameness? I would create models in my mother’s shoe boxes and rearrange buildings and their interiors incessantly. And my room got rearranged every couple of weeks. When we travelled and I had to rearrange the hotel room my parents were like “too much.” But I still do that sometimes. We just had to rearrange a hotel room we were staying in over Christmas!
Q: What are some of your favorite recent projects that you’ve worked on?
Our two most favorite projects are likely those that are most seemingly diverse in terms of type, site, and budget, but in the end share a committed investigative approach. One is a private retreat on a mountaintop in the Caribbean with 360 degree views of ocean, sea, port town below, volcano, and adjacent islands. The other is a community center sponsored by NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC) in a NYCHA public housing development in the far reaches of Staten Island where residents have little access to public transportation to the city beyond, and therefore the need for positive community building and shared placemaking is most desperately needed. In the end, both projects come out of a desire to create something unexpectedly transformative and for those who use and experience these places. Both have their own budget and site limitations, and both are built to be as sustainable and resilient as circumstances permitted us to endeavor.
Also, we’re having a fantastic time working on a series of small projects in the small upstate town of Ellenville, NY, where we’ve developed an incredibly close-knit group of friends over the pandemic. We’re doing a little fresh market/café, renovating an abandoned roadside motel into a boutique destination, and adaptively reusing an historic bank building into a Catskill resort museum. It’s exciting to be a part of a small town’s economic rebirth.
Q: What do you see as an architect’s role—and responsibility—within our culture?
Quite simply, to leave the world a better place than it would have been without you. That means that you–The Architect–should require more of each project than the project brief or the client states. Today, that call is to tackle climate change, radical economic and social inequity, and housing and homelessness crises proactively; not just in the projects we’re awarded, but in how we leverage our expertise and deploy our passions so that lawmakers and funders understand that everything… EVERYTHING now depends on our enactment of change.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges, or opportunities, facing cities today?
Well, I think the challenges and opportunities facing cities really have to be looked at as part of a broader ecosystem in which they exist; their relationship to each other and to their rural counterparts that provide food and industrial production.
Challenges: Global population growth and corporate greed. When I was born there were just over 4 billions of us on the planet. Now we’re pushing 8 billion. And as corporations control everything from feeding us on a mass scale to feeding us images of what they think we will buy from them, we have to stake out our own resistance.
Opportunities: Cities function much like other complex organisms, mainly because they are created by organisms (us) and they serve our purposes. They expand, contract, get sick, and get well and flourish; they evolve. We’re starting to see a new chapter of evolution now, but it’s too early to see where it will or could go. I’m hopeful that our new hybrid live/work system can help repair our cities by radically rethinking a world with less Class A office space and more affordable housing, and urban systems—both horizontal and vertical—that bring our daily lives into 15-minute accessibility.
Q: What are your greatest sources of inspiration?
Travel—far and wide, near and slow. Getting out there and just seeing and doing in different places, which informs working and living in new ways. My partner Shaun and I are addicted to travel as much as we are taking on small projects ourselves at home. We’ve built or renovated 4 properties together now and are ready for more. During the pandemic when our studio was 100% remote we packed up the dogs, got in an SUV and literally looped the country. TWICE. I worked with my team daily just like everyone did, we got it all done, and were still able to step into different environments and new rituals which came back instantly to inform the projects we were doing.