An Innovator with Heart

Championing design’s social and scientific power, Millard Pratt of MTP Architects could be called the Thomas Edison of architecture

Millard T. Pratt was only six years old when he saw the building that would define his life’s trajectory. His father, a career US Air Force officer stationed in England, had taken the family sightseeing in London. “I noticed a building that was decidedly different than any building I’d ever seen in my young life,” Pratt remembers, years later. “So I asked him, ‘What is that?’”

Millard T. Pratt is the founder of MTP Architects in San Francisco.

“It’s architecture,” his father replied. “That’s the British Museum.” It got Pratt thinking about what a noble and ancient calling construction and design was, what a wonderful thing it must have been. And, after a brief detour into economics in college, Pratt was wooed back into architecture’s arms. He studied for his five-year degree at the University of Idaho before moving on to the University of California–Berkley for his master’s. “I held on to that dream from very early childhood,” he says.

After school, Pratt put in his time on the ground floor. He learned to appreciate the finer details, such as the ergonomics of a finger-pull on a filing cabinet. He learned to soak up the big-picture principles, too, such as high-rise design. And, he sought out mentors who taught him the lessons he would need to eventually open his own firm, MTP Architects, which turns 10 years old this year. Now at his prime in a career that has spanned more than 20 years, Pratt places a heavy emphasis on two things: sustainability and innovation.

Concerning sustainability, consider the fractured family whose members commissioned Pratt and his business partner, Fred Rieber, to take their claustrophobic, stuffy home and turn it into a residence free of the literal and metaphorical barriers between them. Pratt designed spaces that were defined by their uses, not walls, and he conceptualized a heating-and-cooling tower to bring fresh air inside. And, in much the same way the family members wanted to salvage their relationships—not lose them—they asked Pratt to save and reuse the materials of their old home.

For Dining by Design, an AIDS-awareness event, Pratt conceived a design placing dramatic Traxon LED lighting over tabletops that then seemed to glow. At the dinner, other architects fell in love with the creation.

“Early on in my career, I worked alongside another architect who insisted we save anything and everything we could,” Pratt says. “He wouldn’t take walls out just because he wanted to start from scratch. If you respect those who came before us and the work they did and you try to reuse and renew that work, it’s an ecological practice.”

Concerning innovation, consider the display MTP crafted for Brandy Ho, a Hunan bistro in San Francisco. Pratt designed the kiosk to attract attention from across a mall’s food court by pairing an epoxy composite with Traxon LED lighting to create a structural skin that could project video images from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Although these plans were eventually scrapped, the technology lived on when Pratt took the concept—this time implemented on a tabletop and chandelier—to Dining by Design, a dinner party hosted by Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA). “It was really a big hit,” Pratt says. “We had architects coming to us saying, ‘We wanted those lights. We called Traxon, but they said they’d promised them to you.’ It was a wonderful closing of the loop. It wasn’t a wasted effort.”

It’s that Edison-like willingness to try and try again that makes Pratt and his team so innovative—and it’s the inventor’s humility that allows them to give their clients exactly what they requested. “Think of a bespoke suit,” Pratt says. “We really do bespoke buildings and interiors for our clients. Our solutions are all about you. They’re wrapped around you. They’re not MTP Architects. You’re going to work in it, you’re going to live in it, and you’re going to play in this piece of architecture.” It’s all right there in the company’s motto: “Your life. Your space.” That boy back in London may not have known it then, but he would get what he wanted: to help others by building spectacular spaces.