I never expected to look back at the 1990’s and think it was a kinder, gentler era.
Behind the Postmodern Facade
Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America
Magali Sarfatti Larson, 1993
How architecture has changed and how the systems for its production have changed along with it is an important topic but the book itself is somewhat dated. This post will attempt to update it but first, a bit of background.
Many people imagine the making of buildings to take place in a situation where a group of architects is happy working away for a figurehead personality who is the creative force. This is partially correct.
In the case of Le Corbusier however, we’re not even aware of there ever having been an office and a largeish team of people getting all those buildings drawn, detailed, site-managed and built. History is only concerned with authorship and not the process or mechanics of getting it done. On the other hand, with Le Corbusier, we can reasonably suspect he was the author of projects attributed to him.
Frank Lloyd Wright
With Frank Lloyd Wright, the contributions of employees such as Marion Griffin have been systematically underrated or misaccredited. It wasn’t he who did those lovely drawings he took on his extended trip to Europe.
Of the Taliesin alumni, John Lautner is the one who most made a name for himself. As mentioned in What happens when architects die?, Wright’s office continued on for a while after the posthumous completions were exhausted.
The Architects’ Collaborative
In Dessau, Walter Gropius detached the teaching of architecture from its documentation and construction quite literally as well. The much-photographed design students and their various antics in the workshop and studio buildings were architecturally separated from the income-generating students learning drafting and construction skills in the standard classrooms of the technical school.
In America, Gropius extended this innovation into the professional sphere by detaching the promotion of architectural ideas from their generation, allowing figurehead personalities to sell themselves and their brand without having to be involved with the tiresome processes of building creation, documentation and construction. [This seems to have been a consistent and lifelong theme of his.] The Architects’ Collaborative (1945-1995) consisted of seven architects led and guided by Walter Gropius as figurehead personality. It’s impossible to name any member who was not Walter Gropius.
Originally, each of the eight partners [!?] would hold weekly meetings on a Thursday to discuss their projects and be open to design input and ideas. However, as the firm grew larger there were many more people on a team and it was more difficult to consolidate into one group. Therefore, many other “groups” of architects within the firm were formed and carried out the same original objective.
The status quo
This system of nested hierarchices is what we have today with offices divided into teams with a team leader and those who execute their instructions.
A design idea is still likely to come from a Head of Architecture outside the team, but more likely to have met the clients and had a hand in winning the commission in the first place. When a job is landed, the Head of Architecture assesses each team’s skills and stage of completion of their project, and chooses to either reallocate staff or projects or, if the project is a major one, to cannibalize teams and configure a new one having the appropriate skills and size.
At Frank Gehry’s office, designers are encouraged to design in the style of Frank Gehry and those designs are then run by him for approval. Sometimes he even changes them completely [!], it is said. This is no different from any commercial practice with a house style.
Of course it’s frustrating for workers to be taken off one job and assigned to another so, in order to motivate those who became architects because they wanted to design, they’re tossed occasional design bones in the form of an internal competitions for some new project. They work on this in their own time and so reveal to their boss the degree to which they have bought into the myth of the ambitious yet overworked and underpaid creative.
The system initiated by Gropius has left us a situation where it’s no longer obvious where architectural ideas are coming from. This has its advantages. If a practice wants to win work from high-profile competitions, one design brain simply isn’t enough.
Has there ever been a time in the history of architecture when there are so many competitions? This is where the theme of the book at the head of this post becomes relevant. An environment rich in competitions produces a system of architectural production exquisitely evolved (with all the pros and cons that that implies) to produce architectural firms that feed off them. Competition-driven practices like to call themselves research-driven practices. They also like to tell us they are research-driven practices as this makes it seems a noble endeavour to have much activity yet nothing to show for it. Clients, for their part, like competitions not only because they increase their options and allow for a ‘prescreening’, but also because the promotional efforts of several practices contributes to the media circus that anyway surrounds high-profile competitions. [c.f. Celebrity Shootout] It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Back in the 1990s, practices that could afford to, formed ‘elite’ teams for the purpose of winning competitions, but when the ideal form of practice becomes the kind that produces the kind of architecture that wins competitions, every project starts to be treated as a competition and all staff start to get tossed design bones on a regular basis in order to keep them keen. This leaves figurehead personalities free to concentrate on curating those ideas and marketing them, and the workers happy to generate concepts and live the dream. A large number of interns guarantees low overheads, a freshness that grizzled and experienced staff don’t have and, importantly, wild ideas that, if ever realized, make us wonder anew at the mystery of architecture by making us redefine yet again what it is a building can be. Over and over again. It’s a new kind of hell, basically.
Occasional reports such as this by a former intern at OMA’s Hong Kong office do the media circuit. The story is always the same. Intense. Long hours. Pressure. Exilarating. Unforgettable. Burnout.
Bjarke Ingels describes his experience at OMA in these now standard terms and, despite claiming to have left because he disapproved of the relentless pressure to produce, seems to have replicated OMA system of battery farming ideas for buildings. He now describes himself as a curator of ideas.
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Many employees, especially those who have just graduated, accept such high-pressure work as normal until they realize they are 1) overworked, 2) underpaid, and 3) under-appreciated. It’s not just the minions. Senior staff also jump ship if they have observed the food chain long enough to understand how it works and have come to the conclusion “I can do that!” They’re not driven by the desire to create architecture but by the desire to have the benefits of having their own branding machine. [c.f. Monetising Architectural Fame] Ken Shuttleworth famously departed Foster + Partners in 2004 to set up MAKE. How many of F+P’s designers jumped with him was never made public but rumours at the time put it around 30%. Within weeks, MAKE’s debut press release was a multicoloured building conspicuously shaped not like a gherkin.
Equally sensationally, Joshua Prince Ramus, departed as head of OMA’s NY operation in 2000 to set up REX. The then website took pains to put some distance between them and OMA. Their current About page is not much different.
We design collaborations rather than dictate solutions. The media sells simple, catchy ideas; it reduces teams to individuals and their collaborative work to genius sketches. The proliferation of this false notion of “starchitecture” diminishes the real teamwork that drives celebrated architecture. REX believes architects should guide collaboration rather than impose solutions.
We replace the traditional notion of authorship: “I created this object,” with a new one: “We nurtured this process.”We embrace responsibility in order to implement vision.The implementation of good ideas demands as much, if not more, creativity than their conceptualization. Increasingly reluctant to assume liability, architects have retreated from the accountability (and productivity) of Master Builders to the safety (and impotence) of stylists. To execute vision and retain the insight that facilitates architectural invention, REX re-engages responsibility. Processes, including contractual relationships, project schedules, and procurement strategies, are the stuff with which we design.
Former OMA partner Ole Scheeren has trod the same path.
Of all the OMA spawn, ZHA is unique in leaving no confusion as to where authorship lies – although the definition of authorship is stretched somewhat when the original creative idea is not even called a concept.
It is called an irritant – in the hope of evoking notions of oysters and pearls and of something initiating a process to creates something of value. The big advantage of the irritant is that it allows its generator to technically claim the right to be recognised as author.
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If one is going to stop one’s best people drifting off to set up shop for themselves, it pays to keep them on a long leash. Shohei Shigematsu, current partner and head of OMA’s NY operation since 2008 is allowed to outline his plan to bring new dimensions to the NY OMA brand. Let’s see how that goes.
There’s no denying the number of people who have worked for OMA and thought “I can do that!”
OMA seems destined to never become the brand umbrella of architectural design in the same way that LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) is for luxury goods, or architecture behemoth AECOM is for the less glamorous side of the building business.
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I’ve come to admire Asnago & Vender all the more for buying into none of this. Instead, they left us a large and coherent legacy of useful buildings designed and built over five decades, mostly in the same city. I admire them for refusing to conceive of their buildings as vehicles for their self-promotion. They made themselves a reputation, not a brand. This distinction is no longer important. It’s not even that having a strong brand is now seen as better than having a good reputation. Having a strong brand is seen as an end in itself. Nothing else exists or matters.
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23 Oct. 2016: Thom Brisco kindly tweeted me this today, saying it gives “an insight on the Corb-gap from Polish-born Swedish architect Léonie Geisendorf who worked in his office in the 1930s.” It does indeed.