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60 Years—10 Lessons: Jack MacAllister at MDC 2013

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John E. “Jack” MacAllister, FAIA, the 2013 recipient of the AIA California Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award, is a rigorous and elegant designer, an incomparable practice manager, a pioneer in digital technologies, and a mentor to many. The following is a transcript of his presentation at the 2013 Monterey Design Conference as well as the video for your viewing pleasure.

60 Years — 10 Lessons from AIA California Council on Vimeo.


Jack MacAllister:
I’m the tall one in the picture here. Sixty years ago, I entered the University of Pennsylvania, where I learned to think like an architect. I then went to work for Lou Kahn, who taught me how to be an architect. And this is 55 years ago in Lou’s office. The little guy is Lou.

This is going to be a David Letterman format, because you’re all familiar with it.


[laughter and applause]

This is deadly serious. I was successful for a while going to clients and saying, “I want to sell you a cheap insurance policy for a very small fee. I’m going to validate that you have a scope and budget that’s in place. We’re going to hire a conceptual estimator, a cost consultant, to verify that you can do the project.” When they bought it, it was damn good insurance, and the project usually proceeded. If they didn’t, we usually got in trouble.

It is better to lose a project that isn’t possible to do. Unfortunately, clients are guilty of wishful thinking, and also lying. I had an experience (I won’t say at which university) where they advertised a project as being a $38 million project. It was a very complicated research building. We said, “There’s no way they could do it for $38 million.” I came upon a document, which I wasn’t supposed to have, which said the budget was $50 million. And I went to the campus architect, and he apologized. He said, “Yeah, it’s 50. We’re sorry we did that. We just thought we’d get a better deal.”

I won a project for the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, which was an international competition, and it was advertised as a $100 million construction budget, which was paid for by tobacco money. Before I started the project, I asked to see their project budget. They said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, there are costs beyond construction. Do you have those covered?” And they said, “Well, no, the $100 million is for building it.” So, I gave them a one-page list of things they might consider as expenses, like legal expenses, inspection and testing and so forth. And, sure enough, they were $20 million short. So, we had to start over, reprogram the building, and we got paid for doing that . . . and started with a better relationship with the client, because they saw us as being realistic and helping them. Just never, ever start unless you validate the budget and work together.


Another lesson is to distinguish between want and need. Clients are very good at describing what they want. They’re not very good at describing what they need. It always makes me think, if you went to a doctor and said, “I want an appendectomy,” and he said, “No, what you need is knee surgery,” I don’t think he’d give in and give you an appendectomy, but architects do it all the time. I have friends who I respect as designers. I’ll see a new building of theirs, and it’s like, “George, why the hell did you do that building? It’s terrible for you.” “Well, that’s what the client wanted.” That’s no excuse. I don’t care what the client wants. If you don’t give them what they need, you’re not an architect, in my opinion.

I’ll give you an example of how one should behave. You may remember a British architect named Peter Blake who once was hired by a small resort town on the South Coast of England to design an amusement pier, because their tourist trade was going down over the years, to where businesses were going out of business, and nobody was visiting their town. They felt the solution was to build an amusement pier, like some other places. Peter said, “Well, before I start, I’m going to go down and spend a long weekend down there and get to know it.” So, he did. He came back, and they said, “Well, when can you get started on the pier?” And he said, “You don’t need a pier. All you need to do is clean your beaches. They’re filthy. That’s why people don’t go there anymore.” So, he talked himself out of the job—and they did clean the beaches, and the people came back, by the way.


During the five years that I worked with Mark Cameron, I interviewed a lot of firms, trying to help them improve their practices, and some of these were the best firms in the United States. I learned as much as they learned from me. I always did vertical interviews, starting with the leadership, but also going all the way down through the firm to lower level employees and interns, to understand what the culture of the firm was and whether it was widely understood. In working with the partners, I always asked them if the culture was understood by everyone, and if everybody was committed to it. And, of course, they always said, “Absolutely. We communicate strongly. We do it frequently, and everybody gets it.”

Then I’d get down to the lower half and I’d ask them, and they would say, “We don’t have a goddamn clue what the culture is.” There was always a disconnect. Partly, that’s because they had never participated in defining what the goals of the firm were, so they had no ownership of it. To be told what it was wasn’t the same as living it and being a part of it. It’s important that people—a wide range of people in the firm—participate not just in creating a culture and set of values, but also in reviewing them periodically and updating them.


Conventional wisdom opposes the introduction of contrary belief and new information. It limits creativity and progress. And conventional wisdom is, unfortunately, what we get from most of our consultants. Unless you press them and you make them understand that you want to innovate and you want to be on the cutting edge of what you do, they’ll give you conventional wisdom and then feel that they’ve done their job. My earliest example of conventional wisdom was when we started Salk. All laboratories were built with walls between each and every lab, and we were told that that is necessary to prevent cross-contamination between experiments. It wasn’t until years later that I found that had nothing to do with it at all. It was territoriality. It was the scientists protecting how many benches they had and making sure in perpetuity that the next scientist over wouldn’t take over one of their benches. And so, from then on, I never put walls between labs again, and they’re open and much more flexible, and people got used to it and preferred them, and Salk is done that way.

The same thing is true of the idea of natural ventilation in laboratories and hospitals—that you could not have operable windows for a variety of reasons, including germs and so forth, disease control. There are two examples that disprove that. One is the New Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, which has had operable windows for almost a decade now, with never a problem. The whole hospital is day lit, naturally ventilated. It’s an atmosphere, an environment in a hospital you never see in the United States because of the kind of restrictions we have.

And the other example is the Sanger Institute at the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus outside of Cambridge, England, where they’ve had operable windows in that lab for about ten years now, and never had a problem. All they had to do was move the fume hoods from the labs into the core, and from then on there was not a problem with having operable windows. I’ve interviewed the scientists there. They said they would never go back to sealed buildings because, on nice days, being able to open the windows means so much to them.



I am an example of this. I’m very much in favor of it. We limit what young architects can do, and more and more make them computer jockeys, and that’s a tremendous loss, because they’re an important resource that we don’t use well. When you think of it, grey-haired Nobel scientists we see receiving their awards mostly did that work in their late 20s and their early 30s. It’s when everyone has more energy and ambition, the highest level it will be in their life, and they have fewer non-professional responsibilities, such as children and other interests.

So, it’s a terrific time to do it, to give advice and to give access to a person like I had in Lou Kahn’s office, David Wisdom—who was a very well named Quaker—who knew everything about architecture. When we were given an assignment to design something or detail something like a window or doorframe, we’d go to Dave, and he’d say, “Well, here’s the problem. You write a program for it.” He’d say, “In the 18th Century, this is how they solved the problem. This is what the various pieces did, and now go do that in stainless steel.” You’d do research and so forth. You’d come back to him with your first ideas. He’d give you a criticism of it, but he’d never show you how to do it. Every time I’ve given massive responsibility to an architect who most people would say was not yet ready for it, they performed beyond my expectations. And it makes them grow very quickly.

I often say that the hours we worked in Kahn’s office were absurd. We told newcomers that you got overtime at 81 hours, which you did. It’s just a wonderful way to kick start your life and your career, to be loaded with responsibility, as long as you have people around you you can go to, who can guide you.


Another lesson I learned is that we misuse the most experienced people on staff. Years ago, I stole from SOM a wonderful technical architect named Brad Zylstra, who I thought was the best I’d ever known. Instead of putting him on specific projects at Anshen and Allen, I asked him to be a butterfly and float from desk to desk, and just sit down with young people and say, “What are you working on? Can I make a suggestion? Can I help you?” It made an enormous change in the overall quality of technical architecture in the office. It was a much better use of him than sticking him in a job where he could not have that wider influence.



Very often, clients say they want a state-of-the-art facility. Well, state-of-the-art is what we know now. It’s not what’s tomorrow. If you want to design buildings for institutions that will last far into the future, you must go beyond state-of-the-art. We, as architects, owe our clients much more than state-of-the-art. I like to think of what Wayne Gretzky said: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” That’s what we as architects should be doing, as well, even though we may not be Wayne Gretzkys.


A favorite beef of mine is the lack of support for women in architecture. Fifty percent of architectural students in the United States, and in the UK, and Europe as well, are women. Thirteen percent of firm partners and principles are women. That’s a disgrace. It’s a waste of a very powerful resource, because women are damn good as architects. They’re temperamentally, in many cases, much more fitted to architecture than men.

I had an experience when I taught at USC. David Rinehart and I were hired by the dean to write a fifth-year program, because it was a four-plus-two school, and they wanted to go to five-plus-one. So, we wrote the fifth-year program and then stayed to teach, and I spent a few years as a thesis critic. One year, around 1979, I had a very talented young woman from Mexico as a thesis student of mine, who was just a terrifically poetic designer. About three weeks before her thesis was due—and the thesis was almost completely construction documents; it was a huge amount of documentation—she came to me and said, “I’m throwing out my scheme and I’m starting over.” I said, “You can’t do that. You’ve only got three weeks.” She said, “I don’t care. It’s a better scheme, and I can’t do anything but the better scheme.” So, she did, and she finished it, and it was the best thesis of the year. I learned a great deal about women from that experience. They can do more than we can in many cases.


One of the lessons I learned in working with many institutional clients is that, if you really want to work in an effective way, a meaningful way, you need to work above the project manager. You need to work directly with the person whose dream it is to do the project. And there always is a person who has the dream. Whether it’s the dean or the president of the university or the president of the corporation, there’s someone who’s putting everything on the line to do that project. If you’re not in direct contact with them, it makes it very difficult to work. And, too often, the project managers are charged with monitoring budget and schedule and nothing else. But also, they protect the leader from you, the architect, by denying access. So, I made a point always of doing whatever I could to make that connection, and I found that one of the things that’s necessary to make it and maintain it is you have to become an interesting person.

I’m not claiming that I’m an interesting person, but you can’t talk to those people over dinner about the latest wall section. They’re not interested in that. So, you need—this is advice to young architects—you really need to make your life rich, so that people want to be with you. And that’s doing as many things as you can, having as many experiences in travel and other interests, to make yourself interesting. And when you do, you’ll find that you have access to those people.

When we won the project for the cancer center in Tampa, Florida, Jack Ruckdeschel, who is a tough old football player, was the president and was at the interview. For some reason, he was impressed with me, and he said, “Jack, how many meetings will you come to?” And I said, “Jack, I’ll be at every meeting you’re at.” And he said, “Okay, it’s a deal.” So, I started going to board meetings. I would fly into Tampa the night before, and have dinner with Jack, and he’d say, “Well, what do you want me to accomplish at the board meeting tomorrow?” I’d give him a list of what he had to get done, and I’d go to the board meeting and watch. He’d come over afterwards, and say, “How’d I do?” We had a working relationship where I could see to it that the right things were being addressed, that the budget was being addressed, that everything that was necessary for it to be a successful project would happen, because Jack was going to make sure the board approved it. When we got the project, the Moffitt Cancer Center ranked number 87 out of 100 designated cancer centers in the United States. It’s now ranked number four. And it was mostly because of Jack, but also the building, and the way the building allowed them to practice medicine, which is a whole new way with teams of people seeing patients, rather than individuals.

Let me tell you a little bit about what I’ve done in my life to make it interesting. I’ve had two terrific marriages—very different, but both were good. I’ve got four great children, two stepchildren. That adds up to six, I think, and seven grandchildren. And, oh, that is very rich. I had a mid-life crisis at mid-life, which is natural, I guess. I took off three years, and I went yacht racing around the world, and I raced every ocean in the world with people like Edward Heath, the Prime Minister of England, with people like Ted Turner—anyway, with a lot of interesting people—and met literally hundreds of people who have become lifelong friends. And that experience was sometimes life threatening, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes just crazy, but in many countries, in many oceans. It enriched me tremendously. I have experiences now that I’ll never forget as long as I live. It also kept me off the psychiatrist’s couch. There’s nothing like sailing a boat in the middle of the ocean, with a spinnaker up at night, to calm you down.

Anyway, that’s one thing. I’ve also been a serious cook all my life, and I like to cook, because architecture is so slow in giving you satisfaction. And cooking is so fast. You get to eat it right after you do it. So that’s always meant a lot to me. I have a grandson named Alexander Dilling. He’s my daughter’s son, who next Monday will become the Executive Chef of the Connaught Hotel in London. It’s a two-star Michelin restaurant, and he’s 29 years old.

What else have I done? I’ve done a lot of drinking. Never alone, though.

Lou Kahn used to visit Alvar Aalto at his lake house at the bottom of the lake, and Aalto is famous because he’d get very drunk after work. And then his secretary would call the equivalent of the Coast Guard that was halfway up the lake, and tell them, “Alvar’s on the way,” and they’d clear the lake for him. “He’s got the speedboat out, get everybody out of the way.” Well, Lou used to go visit him, and he had a fireplace and two easy chairs. Aalto would put a table between them with an ice-cold bottle of vodka, which the two of them would drink till they fell asleep. It was a great sport.

I was so close to Jonas Salk, because of our work together, that he remained a close friend of mine till the day he died, and I actually delivered the address at his memorial service after his death. I learned a great deal from Jonas, as I did from Lou. But I also made many friends. I had a cocktail party at my house in La Jolla once, and a friend of mine said, “I just met three Nobel scientists. How many are here?” And I said, “I don’t know; let me count. Oh, there are twelve.” Francis Crick was a very dear friend of mine. I was in Jim Watson’s wedding. All these are things that happen when you have a richer life and you know a lot of people and so forth. And they are things that mean everything to me.

I talked to Duke Oakley yesterday, who is not in good health. Duke is a person who really got CO Architects started, which was Anshen and Allen in Los Angeles, because of his faith in David Rinehart and me. And I think Duke just did a wonderful job at UCLA, and we all owe a debt to him, especially for helping us get started.

Let me tell one other story. I like stories. When we were working on Salk, we had an office on the site, where, in fact, all the drawings were done and much of the design. We decided that the courtyard would be travertine rather than Ricento stone from Mexico, which we couldn’t get because we had to buy a D12 caterpillar in order to get to it. We used Roman travertine. The supplier of the travertine came to me in my field office and said, “Jack, we have a terrible problem, and I want your help.” He said, “We had a huge shipment of marble turned down by an architect in Seattle. It didn’t match the samples.” And he said, “We’d like to have you go to Italy and approve the travertine in Carrara, rather than taking a chance that it would be turned down.” He said, “Is there a chance you could do that?” He said, “Of course, at our expense.” I said, “Well, I think I could arrange it.” I had never been to Europe at that point. And then he said, “Of course, you can take your wife, too.” And I said, “Well, let me make sure it’s not a conflict of interest.”

I cleared it with everyone, and they said yes, and we went. We were staying in a little hotel virtually on the beach. There was a small street separating it from the beach. My wife and I went down before dinner and had a drink in the bar. We were sitting in the bar, which had a window just adjacent to the bar. It looked out on this little street. At one point, I heard this car come up, and I said to my wife, “That’s a Ferrari, if it’s anything.” I looked out, and sure enough it was. A man came in who was about my age, which would have been oh, 28 or so, 27, and sat next to me. For the next hour, we talked about architecture and sailing and drinking and Italian food and had a terrific time. I bought him a drink, he bought me a drink, and then he got up and said, “By the way, my name is Juan Carlos.” And I said, “My name is Jack, nice to meet you.”

He left, and the bartender came over and said, “Do you know who that was?” I said, “No.” He said, “That’s Juan Carlos, the future King of Spain.” Years later, I was invited by my friend John Rumsey, who was with North Sails, to sail in the Regatta in the Balearic Islands on Juan Carlos’s boat. I flew over with John, and we got down to the yard where the boat was and got on the boat, and I was introduced to Juan Carlos, and he looked at me and said, “We’ve met before.” And we went sailing. He said, “By the way, call me Juan Carlos.” So, things do come around.

I’ve also raced to Mexico 26 times, and have many, many friends in Mexico up and down the coast, and we remain friends to this day, they visit me whenever they’re in town. And so, all that’s been very important to my development as a person. I recommend all those activities to everyone, or whatever other chances you have. But do something.


I guess this is a dead obvious one, but when we started Anshen and Allen Los Angeles, it certainly was not dead obvious when we rented the old See’s Candy Factory in Beverly Hills and moved in with ARUP and Peter Budd. We started traveling every day. We would meet at six in the morning and drive for twelve hours through Southern California, stopping at every college and university, every institution we could find, and introducing ourselves till we could get a client.

We started getting clients, and then we interviewed for the Molecular Biology Building at UCLA. We took to the interview a computer disk. I can’t remember what kind of disk that would have been in 1985, a floppy disk or what, but we held it up and we said, “All 900 of your drawings will be on this disk.” They looked at us like we were crazy, but at that time we were doing all of our work, 100 percent, on computers, 1985. I had started working on computers in architecture in 1967 in Cambridge, England, with Sandy Wilson. The three people who wrote GDS, which was the prime software, were all teachers at Cambridge, and two worked with me at Sandy’s office. So, I was an advocate from day one on doing work on computers.

Luckily, Anshen and Allen spent a hell of a lot of money buying this computer system, which was run on Sparks terminals, which cost about $45,000 each, and then the CPU was even more. We couldn’t afford enough for everybody, so we sat side-by-side with engineers, working on the building. Talk about integrated architecture! We would have design meetings, where at the end of the meeting you could not tell who the architects were and who the engineers were, because we were all contributing to the architecture of the building. It was the best learning experience I ever had in my life, and it’s gone on to my having many, many friends with ARUP, and using them many times over, with some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known, and with very little conventional wisdom thrown in, too.

The other mistake we make is having departmentalized teams, where we have a design team, a construction documents team, and so forth. In Lou’s office, the team was the same all the way through. The people who had the original idea and the inspiration were still there doing construction documents. It made us better designers, because we knew how to put buildings together. We weren’t just dealing in the abstract. We were dealing with things we understood, and we always made sure that someone who was on the site was someone that had worked on the project since early design. That’s a way of working that we should never lose. Having a construction documents department is just a dead loser, and shouldn’t be done.

I started having meetings with a hospital project we had in a very bad neighborhood in Los Angeles, a hospital run by a nun. We started having design meetings with everybody from the client side, all the engineers, the landscape architect, but also the building officials. We had people at those early meetings, where we were goal-setting, from OSHPD. They were so thrilled to be part of the project, that we never had a minute’s delay. We got the most prime treatment, because they respected us, because we respected them and made them part of the design team. I highly recommend that, when you have to deal with building officials, you bring them in on it and let them know what your goals are. Let them have an opportunity to tell you what their goals are, so that you can support them, as well, and you’ll see that the team dynamics just change tremendously, and the project will go so much better.


I think I’m ready for questions. Is it too early? Should I tell more stories? I have an endless number of stories. I guess I’m a good bullshitter, but they’re real. And well, it’s been a rich life, and I owe a lot of it to the AIA. I have answers if you have questions.

Questioner: Can you tell us some more stories about how you met your best clients?

Jack MacAllister: I think the easy answer to that is my best client was my last client. The best place to go marketing is with clients you’ve already had and pleased. If you do that, you’ll have work forever. Repeat clients are the ones you need to pay attention to. That would be my best client. How did I meet other clients? I met Jonas Salk because he called Lou Kahn and invited me in to be there when Jonas interviewed us. I’m trying to think. Mostly by competitive interview.

You know, when I started in Lou’s office, there wasn’t a word called marketing. We just waited for people to come in through the door, which luckily they did. It wasn’t until I worked for BTA that I learned that you had to go out and market, and to network. I learned a great deal from them because they were masters of it, and I became a marketer as well. So, I would go after work.

I’m trying to think of anybody I just met, and happened to turn them into a client. I don’t think so—wish I had, it would be a good ride. I met somebody sailing in Mexico, a man named Brignone, who was an industrialist from Milan who owned a resort on the coast of Mexico called Carayes, which is just south of Puerto Vallarta, the most beautiful place imaginable. And he hired me to design a marina for Carayes, which was never built, but that was a good way of meeting a client. Other than that, I can’t think of any.

Questioner: What do you think about social networking these days?

Jack MacAllister: I think it’s overdone. When I was at NBBJ, I used to witness people sitting next to each other, emailing the other person to see if they were free for lunch. I thought that was the beginning of the end. I don’t have time for it. I mean, I get 100 things a day that people want me to verify that they’re the best architect in the world or whatever, and I just don’t have time to say no. I think it’s just—it’s too much. One of them is enough. But there are good things, too. I mean, obviously, what’s happened in the Middle East—good things happened because they did have access to those networks, so I would certainly support it from that point of view.

But I still believe in face-to-face meetings. I don’t believe in video conferences, I don’t think it is ever as effective as being with someone. What happens before and after a meeting is equally important: the dinner before, the breakfast before, the drink afterwards are all part of the success of a relationship with a client, which you certainly don’t get in a video conference or by email. It’s still good to talk to people.

Questioner: In your career, do you think that the public’s perception of architects has changed?

Jack MacAllister: It’s funny, because doctors have always been the profession that people most admired in this country. In Europe, it’s architects. Whenever I check into a hotel in Italy, I automatically am called dottore. They just assume that you’re a doctor—not medical doctor, but PhD. There’s just a different respect for architects in Europe than there is here. I think it’s partly a class thing. People who can afford to hire architects are more aware of the value of architects. People who can’t are less aware, which is too bad.

Questioner: On the subject of sailing and racing, what are your thoughts on the state of the Americas Cup?

Jack MacAllister: Oh, the fate of it, or what happened?

Questioner: Just the radical change.

Jack MacAllister: Oh, I think it’s the most exciting thing that ever happened. I mean it’s a shift in technology that’s larger than any shift in 2000 years of sailing. It was a continuous progress, sailing was, in the beginning to the invention of the Marconi rig, to the use of spinnakers and then finally computers to design the hulls that were less resistant. And then suddenly, this huge burst that went from—I mean, the fastest I’ve ever gone in a sailboat was in a boat that may have been the fastest boat in the world at the time, which is a boat called Windward Passage, in the Transpac Race. We finished the race in the Molokai Channel—you were greeted by a Navy destroyer escort—and we were going down the channel at around 26 knots with the spinnaker up, surfing all the way down the channel. And the destroyer escort called over and said that they were overheating and had to let us go in on our own. And that was pretty amazing. The fastest I’ve gone in my own boat is 17 knots, but I did that for eight hours straight across the tip of Baha California. These boats are going up to 60 miles an hour. I mean it’s just a quantum leap in progress.

It’s interesting to me that it’s almost entirely Kiwi technology, and so few people—well, first of all, our Kiwis turned out to be better than their Kiwis. There was only one American in our boat that we called the American boat. What’s even more interesting is both boats were built in New Zealand, so did New Zealand lose? I don’t think so. But as far as the technology, it’s going to be a long time before you’re going to be taking your family around San Francisco Bay in a boat like that. But it’s unbelievably exciting what they did, at least for me. And it may make sailing a spectator sport. But you think of it, when they’re going 50 knots, or 50 miles an hour, not 50 knots, a head-on collision is equivalent to a 100-mile-an-hour car accident. On the water, that’s an unbelievable force, and so they do have to be careful. But I’m thrilled by it. I enjoy every race, plus the fact that being down eight to one and going on to win is unheard of, and in 2000 years, nobody’s ever done that—except the Gladiators, they did.

Questioner: Looking back now, what’s the most important thing you learned from Louis Kahn?

Jack MacAllister: From or about?

Male Voice: From.

Jack MacAllister: From. I think probably that it’s never good enough. You can always do better. Lou used to come back from a meeting where we’d worked for weeks and nights on a project, and he came back from the meeting, and said they didn’t like it, we had to start it over. We’d get depressed, and he’d say, “Hey, it’s a chance to do an even better building.” And he had that spirit through every project. Throughout the first scheme at Salk, the team that I was working with were ready to quit because we were so invested in it. And Lou just said, “No, no, we’ll do a much better building now because we know more.” I think that was the thing I learned. And also one other: there’s no end to design.

Design does not end with design development. Design doesn’t end until the client moves in, and not even then, because if you don’t go back and help the client use the building properly, then you’ve not completed your obligations as a designer. When we finished Salk, they started using it and it was like playing a Stradivarius with a sledge hammer, until I went out and said, “No, no, these are the things the building can do that you’re not letting it do,” and taught them how to use the building. So, design goes right on into post-occupancy, and it’s not something you stop. That’s counter to conventional wisdom, I know. Anything else? Want any recipes?

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