September 1, 2007
Our columnist’s favorite architects? His list of one begins here.
So who are your favorite architects? It’s a terrible question. To be asked by a new acquaintance what music one prefers or what media one consumes is equally onerous, but for very different reasons. When so much is so good, why winnow the field? It’s reductive (what’s your favorite color?). We are in a golden age of popular culture; to pick and choose would guarantee you to miss out. In architecture, scarcity, not plenty, is the challenge. I rarely have favorite architects. The reasons for this are as convoluted as Frank Gehry’s next efflorescence. But now I’m pleased to present a list—of one: SHoP Architects.
As I’ve written here and elsewhere until I’m blue on the page—adapting observations made 60 years ago by the historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock—the profession is fractured into two warring camps: starchitects and their fellow travelers, the media-savvy formalists who subject their clients to what Hitchcock named the “architecture of genius”; and service-minded practitioners, my euphemism for the corporate firms that, to use Hitchcock’s phrase, are efficient providers of an “architecture of bureaucracy.” Think, as a mnemonic, Libeskind vs. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Between these hostile extremes there is a vast, fertile, largely empty ground—one in which I might place, if I could find more of them, all those architects who are comfortable with ideas, but whose ideas do not lead them first to formal effect; architects who like fasteners the way a good chef likes salt; architects who get the attention of the press because they are doing something new, not those who deform their buildings to land a glossy spread; architects who understand that they practice in the context of big money and know how to exploit that fact to create salutary change in the profession and on the street.
Full disclosure: I was in architecture school one year behind four of the five partners of SHoP—the ones who later married each other: Gregg Pasquarelli and Kim Holden; Bill Sharples and Coren Sharples—and the remaining fifth, Chris Sharples, graduated from the same program four years earlier. We weren’t friends, but like many at Columbia at that time (I graduated in 1995), I would sometimes sneak up to Bill’s desk to ogle his latest model; and I couldn’t help but note that Gregg had ambition, a good eye, and a gift for social mechanics. I should also report that more recently he bought me a drink. And I drank it. And I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed his company, as have so many others who encounter—and I mean this in the intellectual and interpersonal, not the political or (God forbid) architectural senses—the Philip Johnson of our generation.
But my feeling about the firm—that they’re currently operating at the sweet spot of my longed-for “third way” in architecture—comes not from conflicted interests but a similar reaction to shared experiences. The grad program at Columbia in the mid-1990s, the high years of Bernard Tschumi’s deanship, was less a school of architecture than a breeding ground for young starchitects. Entitlement was in the air (follow our template, and stardom is yours). Form was privileged over content (the computers had just arrived). The realities of materials, new and old, were often overlooked in the design studio (transparent aluminum, anyone?). Knowledge of practice was suppressed (digital studios weren’t focused on the making of buildings for fear Columbia would be seen as a trade school). And the history of modern architecture was a palette from which one might grab, with appropriate reverence, a shape or two (not, as I prefer to see it—and I imagine the SHoPers would agree—a long cautionary tale of a great art gone south). I asked Chris Sharples recently what he learned from his studio critics. “If you win a competition, you get a teaching job,” he said to knowing laughter from his partners gathered in their big Manhattan office near city hall. “We all went to graduate school to come out and start building. We were trying to crack the code and get things done.”
Crack the code. In architecture that means understanding the relationship of money and materials, clients and climate, taste and time, culture, contractors, gravity—everything, in other words, that affects the construction and inhabitation of a building—then synthesizing it into a vital whole that can be built, and stand, and serve, and might even be (the word is used around the office without fear) beautiful. That is a clear kill-the-father reaction against the unbuildable, superficial, gallery-ready architecture that was being shoved down our throats 15 years ago. “We’re the last generalist profession. There’s a whole generation ahead of us that has been trying to make us specialists,” Pasquarelli said. “That’s the fatal flaw.”
SHoP was born in 1996, “the five of us sitting around the kitchen table in our old loft arguing amorously,” says Pasquarelli, who often acts as lead communicator for the egalitarian partnership. Four years later the firm had its breakout project: the second in the annual series of party-centric follies built in the forecourt of P.S.1, in Queens. It was notable then as a first instance of the blob aesthetic realized convincingly in practical construction—something Greg Lynn, a father of that style and a fixture at Columbia, had failed to do nearby in his Korean Presbyterian Church, completed the year before. But describing P.S.1, Pasquarelli delights in crunching the numbers: 6,000 more visitors than the first year’s folly (by Philip Johnson) on a $50,000 budget with a $10,000 fee; he estimates that the popular design, with its secret rooms for snogging at the infamous Warm Up raves, brought in an additional $500,000 to $1 million for the institution that summer.
That early experience of architecture as value-adding agent has led, in the years since, to sophisticated forms of financial involvement with clients that would make typical art-minded architects blanch. In many of its recent and current projects (and the office of 65 is doing more than $500 million in construction around the world), the firm has partnered with developers, essentially investing their fee. The result of sharing risk, Pasquarelli said, is creative freedom: “As soon as our skin was in the game, the developers stopped criticizing our designs.” Joining forces with a developer, SHoP recently secured a commitment for about $250 million in investment capital. In an extension of this money-where-your-mouth-is ethos, employees can choose to invest, in increments of $1,000, in any of the firm’s speculative projects.
There is no building without money—amazingly, it needs to be said—and for architects to ignore that aspect of their craft is to neuter themselves in the shaping of the public sphere. SHoP’s comfort with capital and its manipulation is at the center of its model approach to practice, and it rattles through the firm’s process to give meaning to its forms. For the 2003 Porter House apartments, SHoP brought an engineering solution to a developer (a way to extend a tricky cantilever) that made possible an offer for the site well above the next highest bidder. They got the property and built an appropriately iconic building, now a central figure in the spectacle of the reborn Meatpacking District. The exterior of a forthcoming residential building on Houston Street was detailed precisely to recoup the full as-of-right overhangs—usually intended for cornices—allowed by New York City code, with the result that the developer could add enough extra area on each floor, passing the cost down to the buyers, to cover the expense of the wavering brick panels that make the bonus space possible. The result: free sculptural effects (with cause) on what might have been another blank spec condo. “When we’re with academic architects, they see us as builders.” Pasquarelli said. “When we’re with the developers, they think we’re the academics who understand financial models.”
P.S.1 was also the first project in which the firm, realizing the limitations of plan/section/elevation in a digital world, adapted a new drawing type to ease construction of complex forms. This approach was perfected in the camera-obscura pavilion SHoP completed in 2005 for Mitchell Park, in Greenport, New York. Every piece of that structure, including the foundation formwork, was output directly to milling machines and assembled on-site using clean, clear diagrams that resemble instructions for building a plastic model. Where shop welding was needed, the firm provided templates that could be printed out 1:1. Pasquarelli described the process: “Fold, weld, bolt, screw: fuck you, it’s not that hard.” The contractors reportedly loved it—no measuring, no cutting. And when a model of the building was needed for a show at the Cooper-Hewitt last spring, the designers just went into the same files and dialed down the scale.
Knowledge of finance and expertise in the mass production of custom details, an organic engagement with the totality of each architectural problem, and no truck with beauty. These would seem ideal skills for the construction of major public projects, and SHoP now has many: the exterior and streetscapes of Manhattan’s Moynihan Station, the urban design of miles of East River waterfront, and a city for 73,000 in India, to name a few. SHoP is going to be making big news, and I’m happy to be able to say it will be well deserved. Financial-services, media, and technology firms seem to have taken notice of the firm’s novel, pragmatic, effective approach to practice. The profession is in trouble; it’s time to heal the big rift. Here’s to hoping architects will pay attention too.