James Timberlake (left) and Stephan Kieran
Colin Lenton James Timberlake (left) and Stephan Kieran

Like many lifelong friends, Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake bonded over shared ideologies in college. They both attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and then worked for the iconic architecture firm Venturi Scott Brown and Associates. They began moonlighting together, and the pair soon developed a shared fervor for pushing their small freelance jobs beyond what they were hired to create.

Four Questions with Stephan Kieran and James Timberlake

Which architects have influenced your firm the most?
SK: Kahn, Scarpa, Eero Saarinen, Le Corbusier, van der Rohe, Wright, Sullivan, Furness, Labrouste, Bernini, Peruzzi, Romano, Michelangelo, Bramante, Mimar Sinan, Alberti. Why? Some unify technology and materials with form in astounding ways. Others can turn a corner like no one else or develop a detail that will make you weep with joy. Yet others will connect you to worlds that you did not know could exist.
JT: Steve and I both worked for Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and John Rauch (Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown). Each independently and together were influential mentors. However, our work is decidedly and intentionally different due to time, other influences, and experiences. Le Corbusier’s work certainly continues to inform general planning, sustainability and form, and has since school; Louis Kahn, a Philadelphian, had sway over the teaching which we received at the University of Pennsylvania, and we’ve always admired his work, choice of materiality, and deep investment in program; Mies van der Rohe for his minimalism, and attention to critical detail; and Eero Saarinen, due to the work that came from that Cranbrook office – signature work that was deeply influenced by site, program, and a unique sensibility for timelessly singular buildings, a deep influence on early training while in Detroit.

What is your favorite book (architecture-related or other)?
SK: Ten Books on Architecture, Leon Battista Alberti. He writes beautifully and profoundly about the whole of architecture and its capacity to mirror the universe.
JT: Vers une Architecture by Le Corbusier and Complexity and Contradiction by Robert Venturi. Both are theoretical tomes that charge the batteries – both have been read at least six times by me. Future Shock by Alvin Toffler is about seeing and anticipating the future and striving for it rather than shying away from it. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, who works to make every bit of time worthwhile for everyone around him.

What would you be if you weren't an architect?
SK: An economist.
JT: Up until few years ago, I used to say centerfielder for the Detroit Tigers as baseball, a game but a parallel in life, certainly was an aspiration as a young boy. Now, if I would say if I wasn’t an architect I would hope to be going to Mars – something aspirational, something out there.

What is your favorite vacation spot?
SK: The Loblolly House. Why? Go and find out for yourself.
JT: Anywhere in the world. It never ceases to amaze, surprise, and inform. The less traveled the more interesting.

In the summer of 1984, Kieran and Timberlake launched their own firm and became KieranTimberlake. Even as a fledgling practice, the architects pioneered the concept of supporting research and experimental design, while also completing numerous award-winning projects including commercial buildings, single-family custom homes, and housing solutions for developing countries.

The Philadelphia-based duo says their different skills and personalities challenge yet complement each other. “We round out each other’s views,” Kieran says. “We also share a lot of passion for architecture and basic instincts about how to go about it.”

Their shared passion primarily revolves around trying to improve construction systems, create new materials, and solve environmental issues. Cellophane House—designed and built for an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2008—shows off these goals. The four-story prefab dwelling featured the pair’s futuristic SmartWrap product, a lightweight building skin that provides protection, renewable energy, artificial lighting, and climate control. Residential projects like Cellophane House have allowed the pair to take risks, Kieran explains. “It’s why we like to do houses.”

The partners start from scratch every time they design a house and firmly believe that each dwelling should represent individual characteristics of the owners and the setting. “The alchemy of putting houses together with site, client, context, and environment creates serendipitous moments that end up with beauty,” Timberlake says.

All of their work—real and theorized—strives for maximum sustainability. “First, we look at what the natural world and site give us to minimize use of operational energy,” Kieran says. “Then, we look at how to close the remaining gap between passive systems and desired comfort in the most energy-effective way possible.”

After more than 30 years together, the pair approaches each project like it’s their first. “We created the kind of practice that operates in both the future and present,” Kieran says, “which is how we want to carry on.”