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The New, True Spirit

Singular glories are a thing of the past, writes Andrew Yang. Architecture firms—big and small, young and established, independent and corporate—are collaborating to create new design models, in project and in practice.

This past summer, Sir Richard Rogers arrived in New York, where his firm, Richard Rogers Partnership, had just been awarded a contract to redesign New York’s East River Waterfront from Battery Park to the Lower East Side—a commission landed with SHoP Architects. “We’re not really about conquering,” he told The Architect’s Newspaper at the time. “We’re more about collaboration.” Rogers, whose first major project was a collaboration with Renzo Piano to create the Centre Georges Pompidou, is echoing a level of openness that has helped his 30-year-old practice integrate its resources with the young upstart SHoP, an office that is less than ten years old and heavily influenced by new technologies.

As the competition for plum projects becomes more cut-throat, firms are increasingly taking less of a divide and conquer attitude, and opting for an approach that is more open to exchange and sharing—everything from office space to design fees. Since the competition to design Ground Zero resulted in über-teams like Steven Holl, Richard Meier, and Peter Eisenman; United Architects (UN Studio, Foreign Office Architects, Greg Lynn), and THINK (Frederic Schwartz, Rafael Viñoly, Shigeru Ban), SHoP and Rogers is only one of many high-profile design teams that have emerged to take on large, complex public projects. When competing for large-scale urban redevelopment undertakings such as the High Line, the East River Waterfront, speculative projects for New York’s Olympic bid, and others, pooling talent has become de rigueur, if not en vogue.

The idea that architecture is shaped by one all-powerful creative genius—such as the mighty hand of Corb—is slowly starting to dissipate as built realities become more complicated. While contributions to large projects have always necessitated a variety of different players— structural engineers, architects of record, lighting specialists, interior designers, graphic design consultants, landscape architects, et cetera—never before has the role of design lead been so open to interpretation by designers themselves.

Landscape designer Diana Balmori and architect Joel Sanders’ collaborative design of the equestrian center for NYC2012 (top). Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Olafur Eliasson, Piet Oudolf, and Buro Happold’s winning entry in the High Line competition (left).

The practice of stacking a team to include the expertise or profile required by a particular RFQ or RFP is nothing new. It’s also common for firms with international work to bring on local partners to help realize projects in contexts with which they are unfamiliar. After winning the competition to design the new headquarters for The New York Times, Renzo Piano tapped Fox & Fowle Architects for its experience building skyscrapers in New York City (Fox & Fowle is behind many of the tall buildings in Times Square, including the Condé Nast Building, not far from The New York Times site). When the two firms started working together, “the project really started over again,” explained Bruce Fowle. As the firm began to integrate Piano’s design with the restraints of New York’s Byzantine building codes, the design altered drastically. Along with other details, a dramatic cantilever in the base was eliminated in favor of a more realistic structure. Previously, many collaborative arrangements have seen one firm leading the others, and the others working in the service of the lead firm. The nature of collaborations might be shifting, however, with firms seeking collaborations not out of necessity but out of desire to enrich their own design processes and, ultimately, the final product.

Zaha Hadid Architects with Balmori Associates, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and Studio MDA’s finalist design for the High Line competition (left).

When the firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer disbanded last summer after 37 years of practice, partner Hugh Hardy named his new venture H3 Hardy Collaboration. “We’re not making an exclusive practice of just working with other architects. We think of collaboration as a big idea,” said Hardy, who is working with Frank Gehry on a new theater for the Brooklyn Academy of Music cultural district, as well as entering into a competition with Enrique Norten for a new theater at Ground Zero. “The collaboration involved with each project—even when it’s your own firm project—involves everybody—clients, consultants—everybody.”

The close circles of the architecture profession often dictate the many reciprocal relationships that now crowd the competition scene. While Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos have built their practice, UN Studio, on a model of collaborations between various specialists for years, the United Architects team is one of the most visible and memorable collaborative efforts within recent years. The relationships among its members—which include New York–based designers Reiser+Umemoto and Kevin Kennon and Mikon von Gastel of the motion-graphics studio Imaginary Forces—had been in place for many years when they all decided to participate in the WTC competition together. “In our case, we were teaching and became friends, and slowly began to influence each other’s work,” explained van Berkel. Some members of the group had met at a conference years ago that was organized by Jeffrey Kipnis at Ohio State University. “There were heavy brainstorms of the quality of each other’s work,” said van Berkel. The relationships were beginning to form. “Nobody knew it at that time, but we called ourselves ‘The Ohio Group.’ We were invisible at the time.”

Meanwhile, SHoP’s partnership with Rogers’ firm resulted from a simple cold call. According to Chris Sharples, one of the five partners of SHoP, the firm had wanted to go after the East River project, but did not have enough significant civic projects under its belt. SHoP had always wanted to work with Rogers. So they called London, and the rest is becoming history.

Regardless of how collaborations are formed, many architects are finding the experience rewarding. Since winning the job earlier this year, both SHoP and Rogers have learned to integrate their operations, despite the dramatic difference in each office’s size. “We’ve gained a tremendous amount of knowledge working with their team,” said Sharples. “There’s a lot in their partner structure that we’d like to integrate into our office in the future”—for example, weekly directors’ meetings (at Rogers, partners are titled directors) to review each other’s projects.

The Arnhem Central Station by UN Studio and engineer Cecil Balmond

However, not all collaborative relationships are as rewarding and collegial as they may seem. There have been several reports that, within both the Holl/Meier/Eisenman and United Architects teams, one architect’s vision eventually came to dominate that of the others. The issue of credit, too, is (as it’s always been) a potential minefield, with participants—and perhaps more problematically, the media—eager to point out individual contributions. There’s also the threat of one party running off with the commission, or controlling it to the extent that it can dump other collaborators—something that architect Michael Sorkin unfortunately experienced when he teamed up with landscape architect Margie Ruddick for the Queens Plaza project earlier this year.

Landscape architect Diana Balmori, a finalist for the High Line competition, a team consisting of Zaha Hadid, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, and Studio MDA, warned that working relationships need to be carefully considered, and that collaborations often don’t work the way they seem to. Speaking from her own experiences, she said, “Right now, the model is very different than it was in the past [for landscape architects]. Collaboration didn’t work—and doesn’t work,” she said, since most collaborations come in the wake of a scramble for RFPs that doesn’t allow the time for proper exchange. Teams are built for the sole purpose of assembling an image, and “that really doesn’t give you the time to put the different pieces together.”

The High Line project, which was eventually awarded to the formidable team of Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Olafur Eliasson, Piet Oudolf, and Buro Happold, was heavily sought after by teams that consisted of not only structural engineers and landscape architects but also graphic designers, artists, and consultants for elevators, lighting, and historic preservation. “The High Line was one of those rare cases, a very satisfying experience,” said Balmori. “As a team, we were able to put the pieces together and start integrating something with much greater vision. The problem is, we lost the competition before we got to that part.” In the end, she reflected, “the architecture remained totally by itself and we were never able to put it in the big image.”

The New York Times headquarters has been a collaborative effort by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Fox & Fowle Architects.

Image, however, might have everything to do with trend toward collaboration. Beyond the expectation of super-teams producing super-projects, a star-studded team is a marketer’s (and developer’s and politician’s) dream. Never mind the actual results. A project could be considered a blockbuster on the basis of its cast alone (think of Ocean’s Eleven).

A less skeptical reading of this trend, however, is the genuine interest that many architects express in expanding process and sharing ideas. The assembly of architects as a true union of peers is a heartening development in a field where a big ego is a survival tool and in a world that has not yet lost its taste for signature architecture. For some, eschewing the “star vehicles” of the past in favor of collaboration is the best expression of the balance of ideas that design should embody.

Since the High Line experience, Balmori has made a permanent commitment of sorts to working with architect Joel Sanders to pursue projects, an effort that has required reorganizing each office. Their first joint project was the design of an equestrian center for New York’s Olympic bid. The alliance between a landscape architect and an architect is hardly unusual but this sustained and equal collaboration is telling of how Balmori and Sanders approach their work. They see context—how a building fits into its surroundings—as a paramount concern and don’t regard one aspect of a project as any more or less important than another.

Collaborations must be carefully considered, however. “Because we’re not a style-based practice, we’re not trying to protect something or impose something on a project that doesn’t want it,” said Sharples. “If we were working with someone with a strong style, they would want to make sure that their style is in there.” They found a perfect match. According to Ivan Harbour, a director at Richard Rogers Partnership, “Our approach is very fluid—it’s not ‘We want this, this, and this.’”

This collaborative mode of practice may not be possible or even desirable for every project—”I don’t think you’ll be putting together five architects to design an Alessi teapot,” joked van Berkel, who is working with engineer Cecil Balmond on the Arnhem Central Station. However, there is an increased demand and conscientiousness on the part of the client, according to van Berkel. “Now we’ve noticed that clients are becoming more sophisticated. They have their own specialists, including marketing people,” said van Berkel. As long as they get a good product, he explained, “they don’t care about how many names they have to put on the press release.”

“This is really about creating ways to allow the profession to evolve,” said Sharples, who, along with his colleagues, set out as young architects to explore the feasibility of a decentralized five-way partnership. “We’re finding that [in larger projects], it requires a collective enterprise.” Given all the factors now at play in design—technology, sustainability, contextualism—the answer is rarely going to come from one place. “And that’s how architects have to sell themselves,” he said.