November 1, 2011
Two thriving design collectives—housed in a nondescript building
in Brooklyn—may provide a model for a new way of working.
In 2006, the three architects who founded Interboro Partners were walking around downtown Brooklyn in search of a new office when they happened upon the run-down, beige facade of 33 Flatbush Avenue. “There was a fantastic portrait of Elvis in the window, with a sign that said ‘Available,’ ” says Georgeen Theodore, one of the partners. “We knew we wanted to work there.” At the time, Interboro had been developing a new strategy for adaptive reuse—pushing the idea of making incremental changes to languishing buildings, using available materials. When they met Al Attara, the owner of 33 Flatbush Avenue, it turned out to be a meeting of minds: Attara had a building full of junk and the dream of starting a creative collective; Interboro became his first tenant.
Over the next five years, the building slowly earned a reputation for being
a place where “smart people just like to hang out,” in the words of Mitchell Joachim, whose urban design nonprofit, Terreform ONE, is on the seventh floor. Joachim, a senior TED fellow, is one of four TED fellows who rent work space on that floor. Other tenants of the sixth and seventh floors include award-winning architects, artists, urban planners, biologists, designers, engineers, a physicist, and a geographer—an impressive collection of talented people by any standard. But these individuals don’t just rent space beside each other, they operate as two successful design cooperatives—with the idea that the synergy between accomplished people is bound to produce extraordinary results and establish a new way of running interdisciplinary design practices.
The difference is palpable as soon as you step out of the elevator (which is plastered with signs for architecture lectures and biotechnology workshops being held in the building) and onto the seventh floor. In one wing, facing Flatbush Avenue, clusters of wooden desks and tables of all shapes and sizes are scattered over an open floor that is filled with prototypes and parts. Shelves and storage spaces occasionally rise from this chaos to serve as makeshift partitions. Terreform ONE and its for-profit sibling, Planetary ONE, occupy the far end of this crowded wing. Joachim and the other partners, Maria Aiolova and Nurhan Gokturk, have varied interests—in biology, urban farming, clean technology, and urban industries—which intersect in models like the one hanging on the wall behind them: Urbaneering Brooklyn 2110, an ecological reimagining of the borough that won them the Victor J. Papanek Social Design Award this year. Last December, another partner, Oliver Medvedik, cofounded Genspace along with the biologist Ellen Jorgensen and six other bio enthusiasts; their DIY biology lab takes up most of the other wing. Earlier this year, one could find the design engineer Bill Washabaugh on the same floor, where he teamed up with Andy Cavatorta, a concept-design artist out of MIT Media Lab, and James Patten, an interaction designer and 2011 TED fellow, to create giant robotic pendulum harps for the pop artist Björk.
“We all have different skill sets,” Washabaugh says. “A project might start with one person, and a team builds up around it.” The fact that the floor’s tenants each have innumerable areas of expertise increases exponentially the number of possible collaborations. “There are other places like this,” Joachim says, “but this one is kind of unique. There is both horizontal and vertical integration in the building.” Peter Yeadon and Martina Decker, a design duo on the sixth floor, are working with Genspace and other scientists to design bacteria that can detect arsenic levels in water. And everyone works next to each other on the prototyping and model-making equipment in the basement.
The sheer number of collaborative projects running simultaneously at 33 Flatbush Avenue makes it very hard to believe that it was once filled with junk. When Attara bought the former bank building 33 years ago, he had a vague idea of starting a creative commune in it. But the building was designated as part of an urban-renewal area and he wasn’t sure if the city would let it stand. When Attara learned that the designation had been lifted in 2006, Downtown Brooklyn was undergoing massive change, thanks to the development of a commercial center at Fulton Mall. “Al wanted to create a counterpoint to the crazy developer-driven building in the neighborhood, turning buildings into residential complexes so they could make more money,” Theodore says. “He wanted to create a legacy.”
Thanks to a striking white beard, Attara has been described as both Moses (the intense visionary) and Santa Claus (the jolly patron). Theodore prefers the latter: “He really was like Father Christmas, in that he gave us so much creative freedom.” Together, Attara and Interboro laid the foundation for the collective at 33 Flatbush Avenue. “When we first moved in, we knew a lot of the architecture jobs went to the big guys,” says Tobias Armborst, another partner at Interboro. “We wanted to find a way to compete with them. If we could have all different firms in the space, we could exchange skills, and work together on projects.”
At the time, the building was filled with Attara’s collection of furniture. He had wanted to build a restaurant in the early 1980s and acquired the interiors of diners, cafés, and cafeterias—and had amassed fittings from some 150 eateries. From this incredible pool, Interboro found all the pieces they needed to furnish the cavernous sixth floor: conference tables, desks, chairs, complete sets of kitchen equipment. In contrast to the chaotic space that would later take form on the seventh floor, Interboro’s floor is orderly and modular, with rows of tables, a neat little library, and brightly lit conference areas.
Independent architects and urban designers began to rent tables on the sixth floor for $400 a month; a film-maker, two book scouts, and a geographer eventually joined them. Michael Haggerty, an urban planner and a visiting professor at Pratt Institute, arrived last June. “I was tired of working by myself. I wanted community,” he says. “It’s great to work around people in related but different fields. There’s something to be learned from the way a documentary filmmaker talks about creating a narrative.” But it isn’t just about scintillating conversation. “Architects are notorious when it comes to meeting deadlines, so very often people pitch in and help you out,” adds the architect and urban designer Lee Altman. “Even if you are independent, it feels like you are part of a larger team.”
That larger team can function because members share responsibility for all the mundane tasks that need to get done. The administrative chores that would be handled by a human resources department in a conventional firm are run by rotating groups, like the paper committee or the Web site committee. One tenant generally volunteers to be floor manager. The members of the sixth-floor cooperative even found a name for themselves. Shortly before Interboro moved into the building, a film crew shooting in the neighborhood attached a false sign to the facade that read “Metropolitan Exchange Bank.” The sign was never taken off. The sixth floor now operates under a rapper version of the name—MEx.
In the past year, MEx has faced a new problem. Thanks to an article about 33 Flatbush Avenue in the New York Times last January, there’s now a waiting list for people who want to rent tables on the sixth floor. “But we don’t really have a screening process,” Haggerty says. “Most people here stick around for a long time. Our goal is not to have every desk occupied. We like to have some flexibility, so if you’re working on a project, you can bring in the people you are collaborating with, and take up more, or less, space. So far, our growth has been organic. We trust one another to bring in people who will be a good fit.”
The more frenetic seventh floor doesn’t have a name yet—or at least, they haven’t agreed upon one. “Adam and Oliver have been our floor managers for the past three months,” Washabaugh says. “According to our bylaws, the manager changes every month, but those things have a way of sliding and being flexible.” What the seventh floor does have, however, is a screening process. Anyone who wants to rent a table must present his or her work and the philosophy behind it to the current tenants in a 20-minute session. “After that, we take a simple democratic vote on whether they should join the floor,” Washabaugh says.
The seventh floor is nearly full, with five or six people who rented tables in the last year. It’s more hands-on there, as evidenced not just by the profusion of prototypes, but also by the algae proliferating in a corner. The designers and scientists seem to find it difficult to contain their work on the one floor, so they’ve been colonizing other parts of the building. “Sharing the equipment in the basement is pretty flexible,” Washabaugh explains. “But the people on the seventh floor are the main users of the shop floor. We build things more than anyone else.”
For now, the roof is the experimental ground of Terreform ONE’s Aiolova, who is an expert on green infrastructure and conducts many of her experiments there. Weaving her way between patches of foliage, she points to a ready-to-roll-out green-roof scheme developed with students at Pratt, a phyto-remediation system, and a garden of weeds, “all of them native to this region.” None of this looks like much yet—the great views across Brooklyn’s rooftops are a little too distracting—but many at 33 Flatbush believe in the power of these fledgling experiments to transform urban life.
The roof is also one of the venues for a new, building-wide undertaking. Last summer, Aiolova spearheaded ONE Lab, an intensive three weeks of inquiry, themed around the intersection of design and science, attended by 35 researchers from various professional and geographic backgrounds. Participants attended workshops and lectures by several members of the cooperative, and by outside experts like the urban farming pioneer Dr. Dickson Despommier. One of the Lab’s experiments now takes up a big part of the roof—a living structure made of live trees that are grafted onto each other, instead of merely being lashed together, to achieve structural stability. When spring comes, the hope is that they will fuse into a wall that is one living organism.
Plans are now underway to convert ONE Lab, which has been run as a summer program for three years, into a new model for design education. “We want to break down the disciplinary walls in design schools,” Aiolova says, “to preserve the DIY position, and give students the possibility of free exploration.” Several of the designers, architects, and scientists in the building already teach at Pratt Institute, Columbia University, and New York University—education might well be the collaboration that draws in all the building’s tenants. But the growing success of ONE Lab also points to the increasing number of young people who are interested in DIY and collective modes of practice. Aiolova aims to nurture these emerging designers, who, like the members of 33 Flatbush Avenue, want to work outside the mainstream, incorporating scientific and technological advancements into their efforts.
The success of other Brooklyn-based collectives, like Etsy, which is gradually building an online DIY empire, and 3rd Ward, which is expanding its workshops-for-rent model to Philadelphia next year, seems to bode well for talented people who want to get together to make stuff. “Collaborative groups are becoming a sort of movement among young people,” says the designer Shashi Caan, who has been running an international design collective since 2002, albeit along different lines. The Shashi Caan Collective was set up as a response to Caan’s experiences as a design director and associate partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. For every project, intense, focused teams are put together, much like the crew of a film. Nine years on, there are still challenges—streamlining administrative processes, continuing to involve new people. “I think the younger architects will discover that you still need experience at all levels, and human nature being what it is, you still need a leader on a collaborative team,” Caan says. “This idea of cooperative practices is a big one, but for me, the jury is still out. Maybe as this generation matures, we’ll see more long-lasting models of working evolve.”
Indeed, the models and long-term goals at 33 Flatbush Avenue are still works in progress. At MEx, the initial idea of ganging up to take on the big guys has been somewhat tempered. “We don’t quite operate as one big firm,” Interboro’s Armborst says. “But we have been able to take on bigger projects because of the people we have access to here.” Up on the seventh floor—where figuring out ways to build a spaceship to Alpha Centauri would be the stuff of water-cooler conversations, if they had a water cooler—the dream is still alive. “Everyone is a little married to each other here, but it’s an open marriage. We come together on projects on a need basis,” Joachim explains. “There’s no reason we still can’t beat the success of guys like Pentagram, and do it with a better arrangement.”