Interview: Victor Saroki, FAIA
October 1, 2006
Since founding his own firm in 1983, Victor Saroki, FAIA, has seen rapid growth in the architectural profession. Over the past two-plus decades, Victor Saroki & Associates Architects, PC, has evolved from a small residentially focused firm in the Detroit, MI, area to a diversified, multi-disciplinary architectural practice. During the 1980s, the firm gained regional acclaim for its award-winning residential and commercial work, and it now counts several prestigious companies and organizations among its clients. Victor Saroki and Associates has done work for ABC Harley-Davidson, the Birmingham Theater, The Posner Gallery and a variety of high-end residential, historic renovation, entertainment, commercial, retail and mixed-use projects.
Saroki has received several personal honors for his work over the years. He was named to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) College of Fellows in 2000, and he also received the Distinguished Architecture Alumni Award from the Lawrence Technological University of Southfield, MI. Saroki has also been an invited critic at the Schools of Architecture at the Lawrence Technological University, University of Michigan and University of Detroit-Mercy. He has also served on several AIA Awards Juries and Chapter Boards. Recently, Contemporary Stone & Tile Design spoke with the architect about his work with natural stone and tile.
CSTD: What first drew you personally to architecture and design?
Saroki: My first experience was when my father was designing his house. I was a junior in high school and I went to some of the meetings with the architect. Through the discussion of design and needs and looking at the site and sketches, I saw how it was developed and organized. You realize how going from paper to reality happens. And as I started to think I was interested in that, I read about it more and became aware of my environment and the city I lived in, which was Detroit. I took some art classes and began drawing and made the decision to try architecture school.
CSTD: What were some of your early design influences?
Saroki: I would say my earliest influences came when I was in architecture school. We were learning about architects such as William Kessler and Gunnar Birkerts, and we saw some of the corporate buildings and churches they did. Postmodernism was coming into play, but we were still basically in modernism. The Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, MI, was also a big influence for me. I remember walking the campus, and the way it is planned, with buildings set beautifully into the landscape. The influence of art is very pronounced there. We saw how architecture was built into that environment, and the two came as one together.
CSTD: How often do you implement stone or ceramic in your designs? Do budgets ever preclude the stone?
Saroki: We use stone and tile all of the time. I can't imagine a project that we've done that doesn't incorporate both. I think that with budget, it's a matter of the extent of the stone use. But we will still use it as much as we can, because of its substance, permanence and durability.
For our firm, the use of stone and tile is as basic as using 2 x 4s or windows. They have an appropriateness in every building, whatever the application is. I don't think there is a building type where you would say that you shouldn't use stone.
CSTD: You've done work for a broad range of clients - hotels, restaurants, retail, commercial, residential. How does your use of stone vary according to project type?
Saroki: As an architect, I think stone has an application in every type of project, although the type and extent of stone use may vary. In a residential application, it may be more rough and casual, with a material such as fieldstone on the outside. But maybe some areas would be more formal, such as the countertops.
In commercial buildings, there may be more cut stone and rectilinear pieces and some large pieces that are erected by cranes and hung on the structure as opposed to laid by hand. Even on a restaurant, we will always use stone - for the walls and flooring, and particularly for the countertops. All of the projects we do incorporate stone to some extent.
CSTD: Do different types of clients want different amounts of influence on your design - for example a hotel developer versus an individual homeowner?
Saroki: We are an architecture firm in Birmingham, MI, and we are known for our design work, so our clients often want our design influence and ability. People aren't simply coming for a set of documents. So even if it is a home interior, people are looking to us for our ability. But if, for example, a client comes to me and wants a shingle-style house with large moldings and double windows, it would be inappropriate for me to suggest a modern glass house with a flat roof. I am taking the owner's ambition, and I will ask him what brought him to that, and sometimes as we go through the discussions, I will look at the neighborhood and talk about what would stylistically seem right for the environment.
There are some architects that have a very distinctive style, and they continue to practice that style. An example would be Richard Meier. You are hiring one of the best architects in the world, and you will get a Richard Meier building. That's fine, and people expect to get that. A firm like ours probably tends not to have as distinctive as style, but people can pick out our buildings. They can see the way a building is massed, or the stones that we used.
There's not a right or a wrong way to do it. Architects can have their own signature style, but we also respect the owner's agenda. If they want an English Arts and Crafts style residence, we do it. It may have its own twist or a departure from a literal interpretation, but we do know our history, and we try not to mix different styles.
Of course, developers are driven by the budget as well as the project, whereas for a home, the owner's ambition and drive to do something personal can rise above economics; it isn't only about money. But we enjoy working for both. We understand the factors that go into the decisions of developers, and we understand the factors that go into the decisions of homeowners. We wear the hats of our clients, and we understand their agenda and what they want to accomplish. Even if I am just doing the garage, I still want to do the best garage I can possibly do.
CSTD: Do you find that your clients know a lot about the stone and tile products out there, or do you spend time educating them on these materials?
Saroki:I think the level of knowledge is fairly high. The clients that we attract are pretty sophisticated, and the developers are experienced and have knowledge of the products. Of course, we may be showing them a stone or tile we haven't seen before, and then we are explaining why we chose it and how it relates to the project. But most of our clients are well traveled; they go around the world. It used to be that the newest designs and products were in New York and Los Angeles, but with the Internet and travel and technology, availability has changed. It's become one world market, whether you're in Minnesota, Michigan, New York or Los Angeles.
CSTD: What have been some of your positive experiences working with stone or tile?
Saroki: The way we use stone and tile is a hand-made application, and so we want to align ourselves with good general contractors, and we want first class workmanship. The pleasant surprises are when we get a great stonemason who really hand selects the material and picks through the pieces. So when I go to a site and see the wall being laid, you see the level of craftsmanship as opposed to ordering stainless steel or glass panels, where there are no surprises. Most of the time, we work very carefully to make sure we're getting very qualified stonemasons.
CSTD: What have been some of your negative experiences working with these materials, or maybe some of the practical lessons you've learned about stone over the years?
Saroki: The negative is when we've had not-so-good contractors, and we've had to tear walls down, or they weren't flashed properly. I never felt like we used the wrong material or the wrong application, but maybe the installation wasn't what it could be. At the end of the day, as good a design as you can do on paper, the success will always come out with the right contractors executing it. You can't go back afterwards and point to the building and say, â€œOur drawings weren't detailed like that.â€
CSTD: Can you point to any projects that you are particularly proud of? Are there any projects that you look back on and wish you could have done differently?
Saroki: We like to be proud of all of our projects. But some of them we consider to be landmark projects. They are ones that will be important on the influence of the city, whether it is a large or small city or even a neighborhood. We want buildings that will look good 100 years from now and that will withstand the test of time. Hopefully, they will enhance the community, such as the Merrill Park Townhomes and the Birmingham Theater in Birmingham, MI, or the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester, MI. These are projects that a community will use. We know they can have influence on a lot of people, as opposed to a home on a secluded private site. We know the homeowners will enjoy it, but it's for a small audience.
As architects, the more people we can influence and raise the quality of the overall environment, that's what we like to do. We design buildings, but we really design communities. It may be one building at a time, and we may have buildings scattered throughout a community, but we hope they have influence on the neighborhood, while still respecting the environment they are in.
Some buildings work well as background buildings. Our own office building in Birmingham, MI, is a background building, yet people tell us how nicely it fits into the streetscape. We used Indiana limestone on the front, with brick and metal. Those are all premium materials, but the building itself is a background building, which is fine.
CSTD: When using stone for a project, how closely do you work with the stone contractors? Have you ever traveled to the stone quarries?
Saroki: I haven't personally, but the architects in my office have. I've sent archtects as far as Italy, and they went to where the Romans used to quarry stone. They've also been to places like Minnesota to look at the Mankato limestone and Vetter Stone.
CSTD: How do you go about selecting stone? Do you start with a color and go from there?
Saroki: I would say it is both color and texture. We think about texture and sizes and whether it will be used on the interior or the exterior. Then we move into color. I happen to like using a lot of the dolomitic limestone; I like the golden color, which is very rich. We also use a lot of Bluestone for all of our walks and patios. We've also used Bluestone laid up on walls in a very casual way.
CSTD: What would you say is the most significant project that you have worked on that includes stone?
Saroki: You don't have a favorite that stands out. We have projects that we've done that are landmarks, and we have done a lot of work in our own area. We have done 60 buildings in Birmingham, whether they are restaurants, theaters, homes, townhomes or lofts. We're learning every time, and we see what is successful and what we'll do differently in the future.
CSTD: What projects do you have in the works right now? Are they using stone?
Saroki: We are doing several mixed-use projects that involve commercial office and residential. We are doing some large ones in Royal Oak, MI, that are 10, 12 and 14 stories. We're also doing some in Birmingham that are four-story loft and retail spaces. In Rochester, MI, we are working on an ambitious proposal that is a series of residential buildings. And along the way, we're always doing some custom homes - single-family residences that are very high-end, $2.5 million and up. All are using stone in some way, even if it is just a belt line of stone in a shingle-style house with stone patios and terraces. We'll also be using stone on the inside - countertops, fireplaces, and some floors and foyers, powder rooms and master baths. It may be marble, or it may be something more casual.
CSTD: You've served as a critic and as a jury member for several AIA Design Awards competitions. What are some of the elements of an award-winning project?
Saroki: Certainly, we are looking for creativity; using materials in unexpected ways; creating very pleasant and appropriate spaces. Whenever we judge a competition, there is a mission statement that I read to understand the project's agenda, and I judge the success of the project based upon that.
Also, I don't like to look at a project and say, â€œThat's current.â€ I like projects that are timeless. It can still be a modern design, but one with longevity. I don't like one that's fashionable today and will be gone tomorrow. That's the difference between architecture and fashion. We enjoy doing all types of styles. We do modern work, but we also do traditional work and historic work. A good architect can do all of those styles - restoration as well as new modern buildings, whatever is appropriate to the community and the ambition of their clients.