How Our Firm’s Collaborative Culture Thrives

Two designers on the traditions put in place by an architecture firm’s adventurous founders

Does the constant, often gratuitous chatter about the connection between architecture and “collaboration” make you scream? As far as we’re concerned, collaboration stopped being news decades ago. We’ve been doing it since the 1980s. We would not be in business today if we didn’t. We connect with our clients, consultants, communities, our profession and allied professions. Connections create the fabric of society.

So how do we do it?

Let’s look at one of our recent works, the Paul S. Russell Museum of Medical History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. The project was the vision of a unique client, Dr. Russell, who dreamed of creating a space where the term “medicine” would not immediately give chills to the general public—a space that would instead connect people to the science behind the practice. Inspired by his vision, we sought multiple ways to connect people to the building…and the building to our city.

The slim site for the project, with a footprint of only 6,000 square feet, was charged with urban potential. The museum would bridge between the large-scale hospital complex and Beacon Hill’s small-scale residential buildings, stitching Cambridge Street into a continuous welcoming wall for pedestrians.

To solve the design puzzle, we combined architecture, urban design, and landscaping. The transparent ground floor, housing the museum exhibition space, invites curiosity and encourages people to enter and engage, while the copper cladding, a nod to the color of Beacon Hill’s brick buildings, creates a surprise design element. Behind the cladding, a flexible space on the second floor is for public interaction—lectures, seminars, and social gatherings. A raised pergola reflects the height of residences across the street, providing stature as a new gateway to MGH. It frames the building’s roof garden, an oasis for reflection within busy urban fabric. Make a virtual visit…

MGH Museum of Medical History & Innovation

Video: © Anton Grassl / Esto

Today, the museum is a hotspot for a host of users. Its program includes regular seminars for doctors, visits by tourists and families of patients, occasional receptions, and even tours for architecture students. It is an attractive meeting place for many in the community. In short, it connects on all fronts.

This kind of synergistic thinking is just part of our DNA. Our firm was founded in the “big 80s,” during the decade of corporate excess, by two courageous women who took a chance with two fundamental goals: 1) to create bold and refined architecture for the public realm and 2) to create an enjoyable, COLLABORATIVE workplace inclusive of diverse opinions and talents who wanted to listen to others when it came to design…

Leers Weinzapfel “pi” design lunch

Photograph: Langer Y. Hsu

Within our own studio, a tradition that captures us connecting regularly are our design lunches. The presentations led by our young designers portray our curiosity in architectural influences, education, and community outreach worldwide. Within the past six months, we have discussed images and ideas from a vacation trip to Korea, a graduate thesis project in Bulgaria, and a college studio in India. The presentations flesh out our curiosity in cultural diversity washed down with some darn good homemade international cuisine. Not only does our team hail from the US, Asia, Europe and South America, bringing different perspectives, but we are devoted to creating connections among those cultures. We share, we compare, we link, and we create together…and eat some tasty food while doing so.

While we may not be able to summon Seamless to your door, we’d like you to consider this, our new blog about those who care about connections as a virtual design lunch invitation…with food for thought as our mutual sustenance. We want to open a discussion of subjects related to actually creating connections. Things like…How do you decide which are most important to a project and why? How do you really connect with end-users? How do we link old design tools with new ones? How do we connect past to present and architecture to context? How do we connect people to people? Why are mistakes a good thing? And why does all of this matter? Here, we’ll share our thoughts with by a “show and tell” of our findings. We hope to connect with you and engage in dialogues that fuel our curiosity and that of all of our readers…because today, collaboration is a no-brainer, right?

Next time, we’ll talk about the timber building we’re working on. That’s right…wood. We hope you are in on the conversation!

Tom Chung AIA, LEED BD+C, is a principal and design leader at Leers Weinzapfel Associates. In his more than 20 years with the firm, he has been the primary designer for a number of its most prominent award-winning projects, including the Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital. Tom received his BS in Architecture from the University of Virginia and MArch from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. As adjunct faculty, Tom has taught design studios at Northeastern University School of Architecture and currently teaches a graduate studio at Wentworth Institute of Technology. He is a frequent critic on design reviews and participant on awards juries. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Tom moved to the New York area at the age of eight and grew up an avid Yankees fan, which he remains to this day, much to the chagrin of his co-workers.

Zhanina Boyadzhieva, originally from Bulgaria, joined Leers Weinzapfel Associates in 2014 as an architectural designer. She is an avid traveler, tea drinker, and part-time educator. Zhanina received her MA from Harvard Graduate School of Design and BA from Mount Holyoke College. She has collaborated with CultureNOW and Women in Design and was recently invited to give a TEDx Talk in Bulgaria on her graduate thesis, “Collective Individuality: Reconstructing the Public Realm.” Click here to connect with Zhanina.

This blog series, written by the staff of Leers Weinzapfel Associates (Boston), explores the practice’s mission of “making connections” across all aspects of design. A ubiquitous concept today, collaboration on every front has been the essence of the firm’s DNA for more than three decades. Posts will give readers a behind-the-scenes look at the ways the firm’s work serves the public realm by connecting people to place; building to urban context, landscape, and infrastructure; and past to future. Unexpected writing pairs will connect to reflect on the practice’s goals, decisions, outcomes, and learnings across typologies and design challenges, with an emphasis on how connectivity serves the greater good.

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