Interview with Christopher Ratcliff, Professional Architect

by Cathy Sivak
Interview with Christopher Ratcliff, Professional Architect

May 30, 2006

Christopher 'Kit' Ratcliff carries on a three-generation family tradition in the practice of architecture and is president and CEO of Emeryville, Calif.-based Ratcliff, the firm his grandfather founded in 1906. "Architecture is an expression of civilization, of our aspirations in what we think is good and bad, of our relationships with working with each other and to the earth," he says.

He graduated cum laude with a bachelor's in architecture from the University of California-Berkeley in 1968 and worked for several firms prior to joining the family business in 1974. A LEED®-certified professional, Mr. Ratcliff is a licensed architect in both California and Oregon. He has directed numerous projects for academic, institutional and civic clients, focusing on the design of groups of buildings in campus-like settings (see list of select projects).

A member of the American Institute of Architects and the National Council of Architectural Boards as well as offering his skills to local organizations such as the Berkeley Parks and Recreation Commission and the Berkeley Private Industry Council, Mr. Ratcliff has also severed as a featured speaker at numerous ecology, business, healthcare and university official conferences.

A short list of honors and awards achieved by Mr. Ratcliff includes:

  • Private Commercial Honor Award, Concrete Masonry Association of California & Nevada, Prospect Sierra School, El Cerrito, CA - 2004
  • Napa County Landmarks Award of Merit, Blue Oak School, Napa, CA - 2003
  • Concrete Masonry Design Merit Award, Molecular Biology Research Facility II, University of California, San Diego - 1994
  • AIA California Council Design Award of Merit, Foothill Student Housing Complex, University of California, Berkeley - 1993

"I believe that you don't do things because you are going to get an award, it's because it meets your standards," Mr. Ratcliff notes about his success in the field. "To be a good architect, you need to be informed about so much to engage people on all dimensions: our physical, intellectual and spiritual needs. The idea is to see the relationships. I'm a human being first, and I practice architecture."

Mr. Ratcliff & His Career

What sparked your interest in the field of architecture?

I've always had a strong physical outlet in building, as a kid, I was constantly building things. I got into college, and was taking board brush classes. I thought I'd try engineering, so I did engineering for two weeks, and came quickly to realization that it was very much a field where you apply the known skills sets the known world. I thought, "That's great, but I want to live in a place where I invent the unknown." So I went into architecture, and it was just great fun.

I was a little unusual as an architecture student, I didn't tend to cram on my assignments at the end; I'd start working on them immediately because it felt good, it felt fun. I was a 'B' average student all through high school, but all of the sudden, I was graduating summa cum laude through architecture.

What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I've traveled quite a bit, and have always been inspired by architectural history... for instance, a gothic church in Luca with arched walls; it was all about light and space and color and the arches created a screen, down each side of crossing another level. It was just magical. I am constantly blown away by architecture all over the place.

It grounds me that Homo sapiens have spread all over the world, and you go can practically anywhere and find things that inspire you. We went to China for three weeks last summer, and it was fabulous – rules of form and color and massing and scale. To be a good architect, you need to be informed about so much to engage people on all dimensions: our physical, intellectual and spiritual needs. The idea is to see the relationships. I'm a human being first, and I practice architecture.

What led you to work for several other firms prior to joining the Ratcliff family firm?

A bunch of us from college went together to practice in Europe. I went to London with my family, and it was a wonderful experience. With the birth of second child on way, we decided to come back to the States. I started working in San Francisco at a firm that has since gone defunct, then through few practices here and there and finally 1974, I realized if I was going to work for my father, I should go there and work for him. I joined the practice, with an agreement with his partner that I wouldn't work directly with my dad.

Today our practice has a whole bunch of partners, and with about 75 people in the office it's not exactly a family practice any more. Looking at transitions successions, I'm 62 now, and I've got a new COO coming up. The firm has a younger generation coming up that's very strong, so I'm very happy with that. I'm still very much the leader of it, and the strongest in terms vision and ideals. I want to see that erupt in the firm, the kind of passion for thinking differently and aesthetically and comprehensively, rather than practicing as traditional architects.

How does the design of groups of buildings in campus-like settings differ from other architecture specialties?

Everything does have a context; one needs to feel the fabric of a campus when designing, there's an expectation of coherence. There's something wonderful about being in an environment that is coherent and flows together. When you're on a campus project, it's how to work with the old without just emulation, to take an idiom forward.

What projects rank among your favorites?

One of the more fun projects and a pretty exciting building was the Terminal II Expansion, Metropolitan Oakland International Airport.

You are a member of the American Institute of Architects and National Council of Architectural Boards as well as several local organizations. How is such membership important to your career?

My father set an example. It seemed he was on every board and commission and council. I've been somewhat active, not nearly as much as I could have been. I'm active in a national AIA group formed in 1999 that meets twice a year. We have great discussions, all about the future of design architecture process. There are issues of sustainability. We're interested in leveraging better solutions at a huge scale, at levels where architecture is addressing challenges before something like Hurricane Katrina happens. To advance the proposition, we're about to hold a conference.

You have been honored with several awards for your architectural design work. What does such recognition mean to you on a personal and professional level?

I'd like to think that awards are really based on merit, and given out sparingly. For the firm, receiving firm of the year is an honor for everyone at the firm, not just me and my father and grandfather. I believe that you don't do things because you are going to get an award, it's because it meets your standards. The social recognition is important if it's something others can learn from.

Describe a typical day (or week) of work for you. What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities?

A managing consultant, who has since died, came in one day and said, "How are things going?" I told him I thought I was holding things together, and he said, "That's a big deal." That's a loose description of what I do. Bing attuned to where I need to go to influence things, to raise the average of our effectiveness; design, input, relationships between people. If things are going fine, I take my hands off and get into places where things are not working or need help. I spend a fair amount of time on people getting along together, we have an idea that people need to interact. I tend to be consensus oriented, and spend a lot of time checking in with clients. I see my job as to provide a vision for the office. Leaders need to create followers who follow because they want to. It's the pull method rather than the push method.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your architecture education at the University of California at Berkeley.

I had two years of general education, and went into architecture. We were still in the old original building and temporary buildings; it was a watershed moment when they went away and it became the college of design. The school is known for methodology, trying to look at architecture as more than creating a nice piece of sculpture. We've got a fantastic arsenal of technology to design with and to create models before something is there. Yet something that I think the Berkeley education brought more profound: Why are you doing what you are doing? What are the outcomes? We had an interesting array of teachers, who were on the fringe of conceiving the methodologies for problems solving, including Chris Alexander, a brilliant guy who saw architecture as implementing patterns. He made enormous contribution by having people stop and think about the deeper themes and means.

How can prospective architecture students assess their aptitude?

I'm still learning, every minute. We learn by doing. There are so many dimensions to this field, which makes it hard to assess. You can wash out for different reasons. Every once in a while we run into some one with spacial dyslexia, which can make things challenging because you build the building in your head then use other tools in order to express the concept. You carry an enormous amount of information in your head, and if you have trouble with that, then that's going to be tough. But there are lots of roles in architecture that don't require excellence in concepts, like specifications, creating a book or being a project manager.

Having a feeling for materials is another place where people get in trouble; I've worked a lot with my hands, but it can be hard for get a feel for uses of new technologies like glass reinforced panels for shaping forms.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an architecture school?

There are certain schools that have reputations for being oriented for being practically oriented vs. those that are less prepared immediately to work, but who have more of a foundation and are ready to learn. If students want to get a job immediately and use their skills, look into practical schools; if they are more interested in concept and theory, there are schools for that. Where you go to school has a bearing on the people you meet and the connections. As soon as you start working, that becomes your pedigree. It's important to get your grounding and to get you oriented in the profession.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what are some of the most respected and prestigious architecture schools, departments or programs?

Harvard School of Design has a certain cache. But your work and who you know is what ultimately gets you forward.

What should architecture school graduates expect in the area of continuing education and/or licensing requirements?

My advice is to get licensed as soon as possible. There are so many years that you have to work before you can get licensed, and the longer you are out of school, the more you may forget. The kids getting out of school are probably more prepared today than in years past, and will likely know what they will be tested on. They should see what the test consists of, and stay tuned up on that material. You can call yourself an architect once you are licensed, and you can stamp off on your drawings, which is an important. If you have a senior leadership role, you should be signing your documents.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education in architecture?

I try and tell all kinds of people around here that when you graduate from college, that's the end of 15 or 20 years of structured, educational pursuit – society has taken care of the structure, the organization and the resources. There's something about being released out of college, with no one structuring an ongoing educational pursuit. Schools need to say you are walking away from the structure... here's some guidelines to set up a learning structure for the rest of your life and take on your own learning. People let their work or family life overwhelm the idea that they have reason to keep their development moving forward. I'm not just talking about learning software programs; I'm talking about the development of a larger perspective on where you are going in your life and how you are contributing.

Career Information & Advice

On a basic level, what skills are required to be an architect?

There are two broad areas, task and relationships. When people say 'be an architect,' they think of the creative part of design, which is certainly key. Most people have a fantasy of being a designer; some mature into that and some go into other parts of the field. You can be a generalist or a specialist. At the same time, a huge piece of this is how you relate to people. Some people are extremely talented at doing parts of the work, but may not have the people skills. How you collaborate with people and inspire people to follow you has a humongous influence on how well you do.

I would try and travel and see as much diverse architecture as possible. There is an enormous reservoir of materials and form and ideas about creating space indoor and outdoor, details, major concepts of building details. It's a wonderful thing to have inside you. It can really assist you in the creative process.

Drawing is still an important skill, and with the computers, people have gotten away from it. Freehand drawing is so important; it can become an import part of a discussion. When I'm talking to someone, I'm constantly drawing stuff. You don't have to be a fine artist, but should be able to express yourself by quickly drawing something.

Other skills you need are having an understanding what materials can and can't do. You want to work inside of the sphere of the material, so you are not forcing it do something it's not intended for, which can be painful. Texture and color understanding is very helpful. When we create environments, we have to be attentive to all scales. When you sit inside a room, it should feel appropriate; everything in the room is contributing to the effect, and attention to detail down to the doorknob to a wainscot to the edge of the carpet by the door. Awareness from a large scale to a minute scale is critical to being successful; it's hard to find an architect that can handle large scale down to small scale things.

What are some of the top challenges facing the architecture field over the next decade?

One of the biggest challenges coming up is globalization. We're finding one of the fruits of the dotcom bust is that the silicon highway is around the world. If you read books like "The World is Flat," you quickly get it. You can chop up various work components and send them across the world. We'll be contending with the relationships between the physical and the virtual worlds. But physical proximity is still going to count for something, especially with clients.

Another huge change is global change. There are very disruptive environmental changes underway that are going to stress existing infrastructures and probably invalidate them to some extent. We have to work to avoid polluting the biosphere. Architects need to join a kind of green guard to be people that can help this transformation. We're all in so into helping society to grapple with adaptive challenges that we're not going to know what the fixes are.

What are some common myths about your profession?

  • One is that you have to know a lot of math. That keeps coming up, and isn't really true.
  • There are myths that tend to be true; that architects tend to care about architecture as an expression of themselves rather than of their clients. But there are plenty of people dedicated to helping way beyond addressing their own needs
  • There's a myth that you can design to budget. But basically, once the scope of the project is set, the bulk of the cost has been established. If you try to adjust the cost too much, now you're talking about the quality of things. The origin of the architect was in a sense the master builder and one of the legacies it that we think architects are responsible for cost.

How are professional collaborations important in the field of architecture?

This is where working with people becomes so important. It's not unusual for us to have 10 to15 consultants on a project. In that sense, the architect is still the master builder, working with structural, mechanical, pluming, hardware, art, civil, people that provide various testing, environmental, hazardous materials. Depending on the nature of the job, you can have more or less of these guys working with you. The design conversation is early in the design, so there are no surprises. For instance, the exhibit consultant needs to work with the security consultant.

How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will be in five years?

Over my professional years, sometimes there are too many architects, sometimes there are too few! What I don't know is if shifts in the global arena might put a change in how we create new architects. I don't see the need for architects going away.

It's a business that fluctuates, it's very sensitive to the economy and the commercial side can be a roller coaster. The rise and fall of your futures can get tiresome. This work is project work, which means it comes in lumps; it's not a continuous flow like a doctor's office or in a manufacturing plant. That's what's exciting about it. There's a relentless kind of pattern of getting more work than you can do, and then looking for new work while you're busy doing that work. That's kind of a relentless burden, if you're not busy, you can't really relax. Each new lump that comes in is exciting, and it keeps you very vital.

Any tips for landing a job?

With all the technological advancements, the job market still works by people being interviewed and you still put your portfolio together. It's largely who shows up to do the interview, and the employers who are looking for a fit with culture, quality of work and skills with people. We don't have very sophisticated ways of measuring that. I've been in seminars where people have tried to educate us into more refined methods of making these assessments. But in reality, what you are doing is facing someone who says, 'I think you will work.' In the interview, when you are presenting a project you worked on, it's critical to be able to articulate exactly what you did on the project. If you show a picture of a building, be able to say what part you worked on.

What is the average salary for your field?

If you are primarily interested in money, it's not a slam dunk. Most architects get by, but the economic considerations aren't huge.

How does the field of architecture contribute to society?

I think first of all at one of the highest levels, it's a reflection of how people feel about themselves, what they aspire to. You can tell a person by the company they keep, and the environment we keep tells the same thing. It's an expression of civilization, of our aspirations in what we think is good and bad, of our relationships with working with each other and to the earth. We have a huge responsibility for environmental stewardship in being appropriate in how the resources get spent to meet current and undefined, longer-term goals. That means not designing so that it precludes how we may want to do it in the future; adaptations are a deep responsibility. That means showing some restraint for expressions, leaving latitude for the future. We can't design the environment every time we get a whim. But the environments that we work on also have to work for people in the current tense; it's not all about the future.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about architecture in order to be successful in the field?

I think passion is the thing that drives excellence, and we certainly need excellence. There's no substitute for passion. Measuring passion is a key element in hiring; you need to have the fire to drive you on. There are moments when you are stuck, and passion and commitment are just crucial to hanging in there and having the tenacity to succeed. If you aren't passionate about architecture, you shouldn't get into it. You'll just be taking up a chair and, maybe worse, getting in the way.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the field of architecture that would be interesting or helpful to students? What didn't we ask that you think future architecture students should know about?

I'm still very excited about it. I'm having enormous fun, learning as much as I can. My big challenge in the later years of my career is determining how I can be influential at a major scale, to live up to the mandate to leverage deeper changes.

Representative Project Experience

  • Doe Library Annex Seismic & Programmatic Improvements, University of California, Berkeley
  • New Campus, Vista Community College, Peralta Community College District, Berkeley, CA
  • Valley Life Sciences Building Renovation and Addition, University of California, Berkeley, CA
  • New Science Complex, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
  • Music and Dance Building, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA
  • New Equine Athletic Performance Laboratory, University of California, Davis, CA
  • Molecular Biology Research Facility II, University of California, San Diego, CA
  • New Western Human Nutrition Research Center, USDA, University of California, Davis, CA
  • Recital Hall and Rehearsal Center, University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA
  • New Computer Technology Center, Laney College, Oakland, CA
  • School of Dentistry Lecture Halls and Classroom Renovations, University of the Pacific, San Francisco, CA
  • Pentland Hills Undergraduate Student Housing Expansion, University of California, Riverside, CA
  • Foothill Student Housing Complex, University of California, Berkeley, CA
  • New K-4 School, Blue Oak School, Napa, CA
  • Master Plan and K-1 Classroom Building, The Seven Hills School, Walnut Creek, CA
  • Master Plan and Multi-Purpose Room, Prospect-Sierra School, El Cerrito, CA
  • New Libraries & Art/Science/Music Building, Prospect-Sierra School, El Cerrito, CA
  • Master Plan, Sage Ridge School, Reno, NV
  • Master Plan, New Middle School and Gymnasium Center, Head Royce School, Oakland, CA
  • Conceptual Design and Master Plan, St. Perpetua Church, Lafayette, CA
  • Master Plan, First Congregational Church, Berkeley, CA
  • Seismic Rehabilitation and Addition, First Unitarian Church, Berkeley, CA
  • Master Plan, First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
  • Master Plan, Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church, Walnut Creek, CA
  • Master Plan and "M" Building Renovation, Research and Technical Offices, Chiron Corporation, Emeryville, CA
  • Terminal II Expansion, Metropolitan Oakland International Airport, Oakland, CA
  • Program, Remodel & Expansion, John Muir Medical Center, Walnut Creek, CA
  • NPC3 Upgrades, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc., San Rafael, S. San Francisco, San Francisco, and Santa Rosa, CA
  • Hospital Phase II Addition, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, Walnut Creek, CA
  • Hematology Laboratory, Ophthalmology Laboratory and Animal Care Facilities, University of California Medical Center, San Francisco, CA
  • New Medical Center, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc., Fresno, CA - Master Plan Medical Office Building / Pharmacy Mall
    Diagnostic Treatment Center and Inpatient Hospital
  • Replacement Hospital, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc., Martinez, CA - New Medical Office Building / Hospital Upgrade Operatory and ICU Radiology Suite, Medical Laboratory and Pharmacy Ophthalmology and Nuclear Medicine
  • Sonoma State Hospital, Sonoma, CA
  • Alameda Hospital Addition, Alameda, CA

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