Meet David Baker, FAIA

David Baker was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan on December 20, 1949.  David Baker has received many awards over the course of his career. In 1996 he was selected as a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

He is the founder of David Baker + Partners, Architects, a San Francisco based firm known for “combining social concern with a signature design character.”

Mr. Baker was principal of Sol-Arc, a firm dedicated to energy efficient architecture from 1977 to 1982. He was a union carpenter before becoming an architect.  

David Baker is known primarily for designing affordable housing projects, hotels, and condominium lofts, often in converted old industrial buildings. The 34-employee firm was formed in 1982 and is based in San Francisco's Clocktower Building, a condominium conversion Baker designed in the former factory of the Schmidt Lithography Co., at one time the largest printing company on the West Coast.

Editor: What was your childhood like?
DB: Great, I spent summers sailing on a lake in Michigan, winters trapping scorpions in Arizona. 

Editor: Where did you go to school? 
DB: Phillips Exeter Academy, Thomas Jefferson College, University of Michigan, University of California at Berkeley 

Editor: What kind of student were you?
DB: I was always a good student. Except for when I almost failed out of high school calculus. It was because all my energy went into my architecture and art classes.  Also, when I went to college and dropped out in a messy and unplanned fashion. 

Editor: What were you like as a young man? 
DB: I was what the cool kids at Exeter called a “flyer”, which was really not a cool kid. And I was short! 

Editor: What made you want to be an architect? What are some great influences in your life?
DB: My dad, Bernard Baker, was this really eclectic, incredible guy. He dropped out of high school because he had to ride 10 miles through the snow on a horse to get there, so he was completely self-educated. He designed and built a rammed-earth solar house in Arizona in 1949, which I grew up in. He figured out at some point to work smarter, not harder, and from then on he didn’t work more than a couple days per week. But, he was interested in more things than most people I’ve known. He liked astronomy and sculpture and founded a nature preserve for Sand Hill cranes. When I was about eight years old, he gave me a set of books about famous architects, which I still have, and from that point on I've never wanted to be anything but an architect. 

Editor: Who did you work for after you graduated from college? 
DB: I was an energy consultant with ELS, but it was a partnership with my own firm, Sol-Arc, which developed from collaboration on an award-winning solar office building in a competition in 1974. 

Editor: What made you decide to go on your own? 
DB: I didn’t intend to, but I had a really great opportunity that was too good to pass up.  

Editor: What is your philosophy of practicing architecture?
DB: I think of it as a combination of working to solve specific issues within certain parameters with a chance to put things together in a way that they haven’t been put together before and push the envelope.

Editor: Who is your favorite architect? 
DB: Corbusier  

Editor: Who is your favorite artist? 
DB: Picasso   

Editor: Who is your favorite musician? 
DB: Yo-Yo Ma   

Editor: What is your favorite book?
DB: Collapse, by Jared Diamond   

Editor: Any teachers that influenced you? 
DB: Joe Esherick at Cal.  

Editor: Any books that helped/influenced you? 
DB: Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon 

Editor: Do you have any heroes/any role models?
DB: My dad.  

Editor: Was there anything in your life that you had to overcome?
DB: My life is more or less completely blessed.  

Editor: What does it take to be an architect?  
DB: Resilience.  

                          "I don’t think architectural designs are inspired, though there are moments of inspiration,

                     of epiphany, within the process. Architecture is not a fine art form. You just figure it out

                                                         and you strive for the practical and sublime."

Editor: What inspires an architectural design—what goes through your mind?
DB: I don’t think architectural designs are inspired, though there are moments of inspiration, of epiphany, within the process. Architecture is not a fine art form. You just figure it out and you strive for the practical and sublime.

Editor: Do you spend a lot of time at the studio (evenings, weekends)? Do you work alone?
DB: No, but I did when I was young and foolish. I rarely work alone: I think architecture is collaborative by nature. 

Editor: How does it make you feel to see your designs become reality?
DB: The chief benefit of being an architect is that you get to realize these big things that are semi
permanent—more permanent than dinner, less permanent than the sun.

Editor: Have you had any disappointments?
DB: None to speak of, though I’m constantly dissatisfied. 

Editor: Do you have a favorite among your designs?
DB: I tend to always like the most recent work—I get very excited about the issues that are current for me.

Editor: Do you take aesthetics into account? Function? What is more important to you in designing
a building?

DB: They’re all parameters that you take into consideration. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. You can consider function aesthetically, and you can consider aesthetics practically.

Editor: How did you manage the recession of the late 80s/early90s?
DB: We did affordable housing, and affordable housing did quite well during that recession.

Editor: Is there anything you wish you never did?
DB: No, I have no regrets.

Editor: What are your thoughts about the role of the architect in society?
DB: Architects have an incredible opportunity to think outside the property line and be proactive in  urban design, social justice, and global warming issues. 

Editor: Would you recommend becoming an architect to a young person?
DB: Yes. It’s sometimes exhausting, but never boring. 
Editor: In the matters of the community and the environment - do you think architects are as involved as they should be?
DB: No. There are a lot of activist architects, but we are in a unique position in the center of urban life. This gives us incredible access to effect solutions and move things forward. I think this should be an absolute priority for architects.
Editor: Would you do it all over again?
DB:  Of course.
Editor: What are your hobbies?
DB: Cycling, travel, painting, knitting, gardening.
Editor: What do you think our prevalent style of architecture is?
DB: Late-Modernism is ascendant right now. Style is interesting and necessary but not very
Editor: What’s the greatest challenge of our industry?
DB: Global warming.

Editor:  Thank you Mr. Baker, It's been a privilege.