Todd Benett
Employed at Mithun

December 4, 2012 – 3:00 PM
60 Market Street, #300 San Francisco, CA 94104

Sharing A Cup Of Dragon Tea


My name is Todd. I was born in Northern California. I studied bioengineering in San Diego and I worked in biotech for seven years, designing scientific instruments in San Diego. I was a little bit dissatisfied with my job. I was in my late twenties and I decided to change my life. So I chose architecture. I was always into cities and buildings. I found myself dreaming about crazy buildings but I’ll admit that the way of thinking like an engineer is really helpful sometimes, because engineers are all about efficiency: making something work in the most efficient way. And there can be elegance in that as well. Some architects are more about making things pretty or personally expressive but I’m more into making something elegant, bringing beauty from efficiency. I spent 3 years in Philadelphia. I lived in a crappy garage. My girlfriend, a friend and I turned it into a house. We did it between school years and spent some time there after finishing it. Then I moved with my wife to Europe, to Copenhagen, Denmark for two years. I loved it. It was from 2008 to 2010. I did architecture there in Bjarke Ingels Group. I did some competitions and other things. At the time, the financial crisis was still on high so the office struggled a bit. When I started we were only sixty people and by the time I left we were over a hundred, so that was huge. We worked on this maritime museum to the north of Copenhagen. It’s an underground thing shaped like a boat. My wife and I had a baby in Denmark and we thought that was time to move back home. I had a connection with Mithun, a Seattle-based architecture firm, from a guy in Denmark. In 2008, Mithun opened an office in San Francisco. And here I am.



The building you wish you had designed?
I was dreaming about buildings when I changed my career. In our towers, you’re living up there, there’s no outdoor spaces at all, sometimes you have those stupid little balconies on a residential tower. I was dreaming about a hundred-story tall tower with outdoor space everywhere. It would be like a vertical suburb. People are trying to build such a thing, I’ve seen some attempts, but I mean even more extreme, like you can live up in a garden and the sky.

The project you designed that makes you proudest?
I think it’s this house in Philadelphia – that I told you about – with my girlfriend and another classmate  in the Master of Architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania. We came up with the idea to buy, design and rehab a house in Philadelphia for our summer experience rather than doing an internship. We lived there for a while and took showers in the garden for about six months.

Do you prefer talking or drawing?
Strangely I think I prefer talking. I’ve actually been asking myself the same thing. Architecture is about people. To me there’s meaning to architecture because we talk about it, you understand it more deeply sometimes when you hear the story.

The first time you felt like an architect?
It’s a funny story. You know in the United States, you go to school, then you have to spend three years working, then you have to take some exams, and then you become an architect. In Denmark you finish school and you’re instantly an architect. After we had built this house in Philadelphia, we had some leftover material so we put it on Craigslist to sell it. Somebody came to buy it, and he was an architect. When he came to the house , he asked who was our architect? And we answered: “We are.” Maybe we looked a bit young because he looked at us and he asked if we were licensed? And when we said that we weren’t, but that we had just designed and built this house, he added: “so you’re not architects.” At that moment I thought that I was an architect and I was worth more than this guy, even though he had taken the test!

Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption by Pierre Luigi Nervi - San Francisco

Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption by Pierre Luigi Nervi – San Francisco

The question that is bugging you?
Architects have a certain type of sensibility and intelligence that is important, and they should have a little more influence. Who’s making the real decisions when it comes to building a city? It’s not really the architects. We’re three layers down from power. I don’t know if I want more power, but it bugs me.

What infuriates you as far as architecture is concerned?
Wasting time drawing little screws and things like that. The house in Philadelphia, we bought this thing, we owned it. Every decision we made was all us, even for a nail in the wall. We didn’t have to do so many drawings, which is nice.


The most ridiculous building in San Francisco?
I love it, it’s one of my favourites, but it’s also probably one of the most ridiculous: the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption by Pierre Luigi Nervi.

Playlist SF The song you’re listening to over and over again?
I’m kind of embarrassed about this answer… I have a young son and somehow he likes the song from Cinderella. He likes “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”. So that’s the song.

Your message to young architects?
I’m a young architect!

Who is the architect that accompanies you?
My co-workers here, but actually so many architects guide me, it’s more a family of architects.

What you remember about your student years?
Way too much beer, a bit of anxiety, a lot of pressure you put on yourself to make your project very awesome. That’s maybe unfortunate. When I was deciding to change my career, I wanted to do something great, and I didn’t want those years in school to be bad. Architecture school sounded fun but it wasn’t just fun, it was a lot of stress too.