How Neal Borsuk Became Los Angeles' go to medical architect
Location: Toolsy Headquarters
Date: Friday, 3/6/2020
Title: How Neal Borsuk Became Los Angeles' go-to Architect
I am a native Angelino and I’m 62 years old. I think I’m 62. I have to do the math every time. Yes, I just turned 62. I am an architect by profession and as my identity. I have my Masters in Architecture from SCI-Arc, which is a damn good design school in downtown Los Angeles. I’ve been an architect for about 25 years and my niche is mostly medical interiors. Architecture is kind of a metaphor for who I am in a lot of ways. It fits for what I do and who I am. I like solving puzzles and problems.
I realized pretty early on that architecture is a service business, and if you’re not built for doing service it’s going to be frustrating. For me that worked. It’s exactly my personality.
I guess what ties it all together for me is the notion of artistic creativity very early on in my life. When I was in kindergarten, I was making great cats out of clay and took a comb and made the fur on them. Sports weren’t really my thing. It was always art. In fact, I had a fabulous teacher in fourth grade, Miss Turner, who was teaching an art lesson. I was painting a sea cove. I guess it was something I’d seen in a book, and I was really into this painting. I was taking watercolor and mixing it with just a little bit of water and getting almost this sort of glossy paste out of it. Watercolor tends to be kind of translucent, but I was getting a really dense color out of it.
Finally, the teacher said, “Okay class, it’s time to put all your materials away… Neal, come with me.” She took me to the back of the classroom and she said, “Sweetie, you keep working on this.” So, I worked on it for the rest of the day, and I think I worked on it for the next day too. She told me to just keep working on it. It was really something. That was an incredible gift she gave me.
I was always kind of known as the artistic one in school. I was a nerdy kid into inventions. I went to Paul Revere for Junior High and Palisades High School.
Through high school I was involved in student government. I liked the student government because it gave me the ability to do whatever I wanted. It gave me the power to stay out of class if I wanted because I could just say I had student council work to do. It gave me a lot of freedom, but I never abused it and people trusted me.
I wouldn’t say I was popular, but I was always the one that was hated the least. No one really had anything against me. I got along with others, and I was able to go from community to community.
I went to UCLA for college. I was rejected from Stanford and Pomona. At first I was a pre-med major. That was my other side. Science and math came easily to me. Eventually, I saw these other kids that were willing to have no life at all. Their study habits were much better than mine. I had a little social and artistic side I wanted to explore. UCLA is divided into north campus and south campus. North campus is the art side and south campus is the science. I was running back and forth taking art classes whenever I could.
I just couldn’t do all the hours of chemistry. I wasn’t willing to be that singular in my focus. So I switched to the pseudo science of psychology where all the tests were multiple choice. I really enjoyed psychology as a major, though. I had an eye on institutional psychology. I wanted to be involved in business and I wanted to be able to make money.
I come from an entrepreneurial family. My father who is now 92 years old had a chain of carpet stores. He was one of the carpet titans in Los Angeles. It was called Banner Carpets, which at one point had 22 retail stores. My father’s a scrappy New Yorker and he’s a total capitalist. He’s a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. We get along great now, but he and I would butt heads a lot back then. During my sophomore year of college I started working at one of the family stores to make some extra money doing carpet sales.
One day my dad took me out to dinner, put a file in front of me and said, “Son, here’s how much money we make. You can make a lot of money. You can have a piece of this.” I was a charming kid and a good salesman, but working in retail wasn’t my dream situation. My dad and older brother were both in the business, and I didn’t want to go out and fail at something else only to come back with my tail between my legs. So, when I graduated, I went into the family business as a salesman and I worked my way up through that.
In retail, you’re sitting around waiting for customers to walk through the door. You approach customers on a rotating system with the other salesmen and there’s that pressure to close deals and make sales. It’s just the most basic form of salesmanship. You’ve got to educate people, interview them and solve their problems. They come in, they need carpet and you have to sell them. That was a really great experience. Learning how to interview a person, learning how to show a person that you have their best interests in mind, and learning how to disarm them. It was good training for me.
At 26, I got married and after about 2 years we were having problems. I had been driving out to Anaheim every day, working extremely hard, doing sales, managing a store and I just wasn’t getting along with my wife. I would come home after sitting in traffic for 60 minutes, and I’d be like a zombie. I didn’t want to talk, I just wanted to sit down. She also wasn’t getting along with my parents. A tough thing when you’re in a family business.
We ended up going to a psychologist to sit down for counseling and to work out our differences. I was there to discuss her problem, and at one point the crosshairs came right back at me. It was that moment when I realized that I was the one with the problem. I was really unhappy with what I was doing. Sitting around waiting for customers and working with a domineering father was rough. I was open enough to realize that maybe I’m the problem. Maybe I’m the one that isn’t happy. So, I spent some time thinking about doing something else.
I made a list of all things I liked to do. What activities did I want to be doing for 9 hours of my day? It was sort of this equation trying to figure out what all this equaled. It became so obvious that it was architecture. I wanted to be creative. I wanted to solve problems. I wanted to be drawing. As a kid, that was always a career I had considered.
So I applied to the master’s program at SCI-Arc. Michael Rotondi and Thom Mayne were two of the the main guys at the school during that time, and they’ve both gone on to become famous architects since then. Michael Rotondi was the graduate program director and Thom Mayne (who later became a Pritzker Prize winner) was a professor.
I went in for an interview and Michael saw me pull up in this little red Alfa Romeo GTV6. He looks at me and says, “So, this is your car. Do you know what you're getting yourself into? Are you out of your mind?” He had read my application and my resume, so he knew a little bit about me. Then he said, “You’re in a family business. You’re making money. Architects don’t make money. Do you really want to do this?” We went back and forth until the interview was over. Then I was just so persistent. I camped out at his door and I called him every day until finally his secretary picked up and said, “Hi Neal. Listen, Michael said that you can stop calling. He’s going to let you in.” So, I went back to school.
Architecture school is 3-4 years of tough grad school. You’re there day and night. It’s really grueling and wonderful and scary. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It’s sort of like learning a language. It’s sort of ephemeral. There’s a moment when you think you understand it, and when you return to that spot you really didn’t know anything. It was like that for so long. That’s the interesting thing about learning something new and nuanced. You need to be okay with not knowing stuff, and be okay with growing into the knowing. Knowledge flows through experience and through making it your own. Sometimes you just need to make the space for knowing to land.
I made it through architecture school and got my first job from my thesis advisor. It’s funny, I wasn’t his top student. My thesis was not the best, but my thesis advisor knew I'd be a damn good employee. I guess that’s sort of what I exuded. A mellowness and a willingness to work hard.
It’s interesting because when I interview architects applying for jobs, they come in with their portfolio and they want to show me what great designers they are. I don’t necessarily need them to design. I usually need them to be good employees. I need them to be good problem solvers and good team members. There’s all these other things that you need an architecture employee to be able to do. Someone’s got to figure out the building code. Someone’s got to get the drawings done. Someone’s got to handle office work. I’m more enamored by those skills than high end designers.
So I started working for my thesis advisor, Tom Buresh. He’s the architecture school director at UC Berkley now. He and his partner, Danelle Guthrie were former Frank Gehry and Frank Israel designers and they were starting their own thing. We worked in sort of a garage setup and it was fabulous. That’s where I cut my teeth doing residential work.
It was kind of a slow time in architecture. Somehow during slow times architects manage to keep themselves busy by making beautiful things, even if it's a tiny project. Sometimes that beautiful thing is just a drawing. That’s what we would do. We were doing little additions to houses, but we were producing these gorgeous design drawings and that was interesting to me.
At a certain point I had to make a decision about whether I was going to move on and learn the bigger, corporate world of architecture. As you get into bigger buildings and more complicated projects, there’s a whole other education.
I was always entrepreneurial, although I was a good employee. I knew my days as an employee were numbered. Ultimately, I felt like I was too independent to be an employee. I didn’t want to be working under someone’s thumb forever. I needed to have my own thing.
Once you graduate from architecture school you have to do 4 years of internship before you get your license. After those four years with Tom and Danelle, I took my exams and in my early/mid 30’s I was ready to start an office.
All I needed was a kitchen job to start and I found one. I think it was a friend of my parents. From there I started doing more little projects here and there and it was good. I was trained before AutoCAD was a thing. I was a pencil drawer, and the year after I graduated from architecture school, they started teaching AutoCAD. I had enough work to hire my first employee just to get drawings done in AutoCAD. I had to because that was how you were going to communicate with your structural engineers and other consultants. It became the industry standard. To this day I’m not a CAD draftsman, I work in pen and pencil. I design with a big gooey pen on trace paper, then I do a hard line beautiful drawing at 8th inch scale, and then I turn that over to my people to take it from there.
At one point I had this employee who was really sharp. We were having lunch and he told me, “You know, Neal, you’ve got to make a decision. You’ve gotta decide whether you’re an omnivore or whether you’re a carnivore. Are you going to just eat a little bit of everything? Or are you going to specialize?” He basically said that you’re worth the most when you’re specialized. It really hadn’t occurred to me at that point because I just wanted any work that came my way.
Then I got a call one day from the richest friend I ever had, Ed Hudson. He’s a real estate guy that owns medical towers around Los Angeles. He called me and said, “Neal, do you know how to do medical architecture?” At that point I’d done maybe one dental office or something like that. I told him I’ve done a little bit, and he said, “I want you to meet my team.”
So I went to his office, which was on Wilshire in Brentwood and he introduced me to his team. They were a bunch of cowboys. Doing a lot of deals. He was taking empty C minus buildings, remodeling them, and filling them with new medical tenants. His idea was to get me trained so that I could essentially be part of his marketing wing. It was really brilliant because when a doctor is signing a lease, it doesn’t really happen until they project themselves in the space and see that they can work there. Having a layout is a critical path to signing these leases. And I became part of the deal.
He kind of trained me on this idea, and what I brought was my carpet sales hat. How do you interview a customer? How do you show someone how much you know by asking them a question? When it’s a well crafted question it doesn’t show what you don’t know, it shows what you do know. It’s about asking people the right question to solve their problem and at the same time build trust. It worked out really well, and medical interiors became my thing.
I have the personality that works well with doctors. I’ve always gotten along with other professionals. I was never really the alpha type, so I got along really well with alphas because I’m not threatening and I’m a damn good problem solver. Once I understand how the flow of an office needs to be, my brain can come up with 6 iterations and the best one always shows itself.
Through Ed Hudson, I would meet tenants like UCLA that were going to lease from him. I started building relationships with tenants and doctors that liked my work. That’s when UCLA grabbed me and I started working with them. And, that’s how it grew. I started learning how to design surgery centers and radiology facilities, I got more and more specialized, and it turned into a nice healthy business.
I’ve done many. I don’t know the number. I’m just one of their architects. UCLA Real Estate is project manager based, so project managers are allowed to hire whomever they prefer to work with. I’m the favorite of some of those project managers. There’s some that don’t like my style because I’m kind of laid back. And that’s okay. Architect’s tend to be a lot more controlling than me. A lot more ego driven. At this point in my career I know what I’m doing. I’m pretty good at it. But I don’t need to prove it to anyone; the quality of my work speaks for itself.
Architecture construction can potentially be divisive. You’ve got the client and you’ve got the contractor and sometimes it’s just really two-sided. I think people are used to a bit more of an adversarial set up, but I’m not comfortable that way. I’d much prefer to work as a team. Much more efficient and less drama.
It’s service. I take my work home with me. I really care about it. Forget about the money. It really isn’t about the money. It’s about doing a good job. My work is my identity, so I have to do a good job. Otherwise I’m a failure. My profession and my identity are melded together. I really am what I do.
It’s interesting as you’re developing professionally and going from the realm of not knowing to knowing. Once you’ve had enough experience with different situations you know all the lessons. You have the knowledge base to be able to avoid problems. It takes a while in any profession to get good at that.
The amount and problems and sleepless nights I have in my business now compared to even just a few years ago is so different. I probably care more about it now, but I’m so much more relaxed about it, and a lot better at it. I’ve just had enough experience dealing with all the potential pitfalls. Where people tend to get into problems is when they paint themselves into corners. I’m always working proactively in determining where I need to go. You sort of have to visualize where you want to end up, and leave yourself enough room to be able to play it on the balls of your feet. That’s kind of how it is with life. You don’t necessarily know exactly how to get there, but you’ve got to be able to move in that direction.
To put it simply, I like doing the things that make me happy. A little bit of this and a little bit of that. One thing I realized is if there are a lot of things that make you happy, you’re a freer person. You’re not controlled by just one thing. That’s one of the things I like about architecture. Whether I’m designing a logo, the inside of a building, the outside of the building, or the profile of a base moulding. There’s always something I’m solving or being engaged with.
My specific practice of architecture is so connected to who I am. I don’t mean that I have to be working all the time, but it fills me in a very basic way. I get to take care of people by creatively solving problems. Whether it’s my kids, whether it’s people I love, or even people I don’t love, I tend to take care of people. I realized that a long time ago: The definition of freedom is having a multitude of things that complete you and make you excited.
You go through these different stages in your life and at a certain point you’ve got to figure out who you are. And, you have to not just figure it out, but you have to KNOW who you are. To do that you have to stop being at odds with who may be.
First you have to get over all the stuff your parents threw on you. That’s beginner stuff. Now I’m in my 60’s and I’m way beyond being trapped by neuroses. It’s our responsibility to get beyond our neurotic behaviors, the stuff that we do time and time again because it’s what we’re used to, but it doesn’t pay off. You want to get through that as soon as you can in your life so that you can see yourself more clearly and not repeat anything that doesn’t move you forward. We’re all guilty of that. Those behaviors provide a bad comfort zone. Take stock of yourself, make the changes that make you a grounded person.
Ed Hudson once asked me, “Neal, who do you think’s the best architect in Los Angeles?” I told him I thought it was Frank Gehry. He responded, “You know how I would decide who the best architect is? I would ask the clients.” That really drove the idea that I’m in the service business home for me. Because the people I need to perform for are the ones that are paying me.
Ultimately, I’m interested in taking care of my clients. I’m a facilitator in a lot of ways. I have to get the project designed and bid for the right price in the right amount of time. And, when it’s all said and done, I’d like to be friends with them and not mess up too much.
I don’t elevate the profession of architecture as something that’s so important. It’s more how I do it, the people I touch and the relationships that I create. I know that there’s a lot of people that I work with that love me to pieces and that makes me proud. Doing a good job makes me want to come back and keep doing it.
Don’t take things too personally. That’s the problem with defining yourself by your profession. It can be difficult to do that, but you’ve got to be able to keep things into perspective. I think the biggest challenge was developing a level of patience to let a problem resolve in its own appropriate time. We all want things to happen fast, but sometimes that’s just not the way it goes. So, it’s really about understanding that it’s a process with a critical path, but all of the steps are not necessarily in your control. You’ve got to be okay with that and manage expectations.
I’m doing really well on a lot of levels. I’m making good money, I have some nice juicy jobs and I’m respected. They say architecture is a late blooming profession, and I totally agree with that. When you’re young you’re not so sure of yourself and you feel like you have to lead with your ego. Younger people tend to do that because they’re projecting a persona. Then as you get more secure, you don’t have anything to prove.
We’re not a software heavy firm at all. We use AutoCad to draw two dimensional drawings. I use Adobe a lot to fuss with my little design drawings.
We don’t do much 3D rendering, but when we do we use SketchUp.
I’m looking into a pdf manipulation tool called Bluebeam. It allows you to edit plans quickly and seamlessly in PDF. A lot of the UCLA project managers use it. It’s a great collaborative tool.
We use QuickBooks for accounting. Dropbox and Google edit.
I would recommend going to design school. Whether it’s industrial design or interior design or architecture, these schools are all making use of all the cutting edge three dimensional rendering and drawing softwares
I wish that I had software that took me through the contract and documented phases of a project. Essentially, a project based software for architects that integrates with QuickBooks and tracks all my consultant contracts, so I can look at anytime and see what milestone is coming up and what money has been spent. We currently spend a lot of time weaving this together through various different files.
Books: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by Robert Venturi. It talks about the deeper meaning of architecture and the argument of not taking things at face value.
The World According to Garp by John Irving is a novel that I’ve read a couple of times since I was young. It's just a great story about the folly of life. My key takeaway was about coming to life with passion and empathy.
I’ve meditated over the years. I just finished taking a transcendental meditation course at the TM Foundation in Santa Monica. It’s an incredible technique for meditating. It’s a simple technique and you do it twice a day for 20 minutes. You get to that place where you’re not thinking and you’re totally present. It’s a total gift to yourself to do that. That moment of total clarity being present and not worrying or thinking about anything. Your brain wants to be thinking all the time. It’s the most wonderful feeling to just - not - think. It’s like taking a psychic shower.
For architecture I’d say visit SCI-Arc during thesis reviews and see what they’re doing there. I think it’s in September. It’s bloody incredible!
I’ve been going to the Venice Biennale. Every year it rotates between art of architecture. It’s like going to a convention of architecture or art and you just walk the pavilions. It’s an incredible experience for your eye and your brain. I’ve been doing it for the last 4 years and I love it.
I’m speaking as a 62 year old. I remember when I was 30, 40, and 50. Each place along that route you’re doing something different in your life. You’re either trying to acquire or build or grow. At this stage it’s a little bit more personal. I want to learn how to quiet my mind more. I enjoy my business so much now because I can kind of sit back a little bit more. I’m not praying for my projects to succeed anymore. I can live it.
Do something that’s meaningful to you. Do something that you can find excitement in every day. You have to take stock of what you’re good at, what you like and what you hate. Don’t lie to yourself.