Does size matter when it comes to design offices and quality? - Architectural Record

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Once upon a time, Le Corbusier sat in his single-room office alone, pencil in hand, solemnly pondering an architectural problem, "face to face with himself, the wrestling of Jacob and the Angel within the human soul," as he explained in volume eight of Oeuvres Completes. About one project he wrote, "This took a long time to develop, the design worked upon and caressed in days of perfect calm." His famous dictum was "creation is a patient search." Each new edition of the Oeuvres Completes was eagerly anticipated, and although it would come out only every few years with a limited number of projects, every one was marked by an extraordinary level of originality and power: the Villa Savoie, La Tourette, Ronchamp, Maisons Jaoul, the High Court and Assembly at Chandigarh, the Carpenter Center.

Never did more than 15 people work at his office at 35 rue de Sevres, in Paris. Similarly, Louis Kahn never had more than twenty architects at his office in Philadelphia. Of the forty desks at each of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin studios (East and West), only twenty were ever occupied. At the most, James Stirling's staff was around twenty-five. And, of course, Carlo Scarpa worked with maybe six people in his own home office in Vicenza, Italy.

But that was then, and this is now, a time when the world is awash with money, new clients are everywhere, and architects are called upon to build in every corner of the globe as fast as possible, today if not yesterday. With Blackberries, cell phones, wireless computers, and faxes, one is expected to create and produce buildings at an unprecedented scale and rate. And this at a time, at least in the media, when architecture's stock has risen to historic highs. Back when Le Corbusier was working in India and Louis Kahn in Bangladesh (then Pakistan), these locales were considered remote and exotically quaint. Today, construction has exploded in China, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, and Dubai.

So what is wrong with this picture? In the 1970s and early '80s, when there was little work, every Michael Graves yellow trace sketch was the talk of the town. Now there is not only a cornucopia of projects, but a lot of architects' wildest fantasies are actually being built in places like Shanghai and Dubai. Isn't this what every architect wants - larger projects, bigger offices, and fatter budgets? Yes, but… A large office is not only a blessing, but also a curse. There is the inevitable loss of control - "many a slip betwixt cup and lip" - as directions from the design partner to subordinates, and then through construction drawings to the contractor, are lost or mistranslated. And, as we know, it is almost impossible to construct even the simplest things correctly. In an office, everyone has a personality, attitude, and ego, especially in a field rife with prima donnas. You must be really "hot" to get a job at Zaha's! Architecture often winds up being more about managing people than design. As Bill Pedersen of Kohn Pedersen Fox told me after I proudly informed him I had hired my first employee, "Now the trouble begins."

So how is it possible for architects who have arrived at the pinnacle of their profession and are known for the intensity of their design and their obsession to detail to expand successfully to a size that rivals the large corporate firms? Can one have an atelier of 200 people working at the same level of originality and care as one of twenty? There is a clear and present danger that too much work will dilute the production of even the best firms. History is strewn with the wreckage of bloated offices' late work, such as any of Ed Barnes's or Ulrich Franzen's faceless towers. And can anyone forgive Walter Gropius his horrendous Pan Am Building?

Both Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid now have offices with more than 200 people. Not only do they have numerous projects of gigantic scale, but the distance between projects requires the architects to spend a great deal of time on planes. Is it possible to maintain the quality of design at this size and with projects flung across the world? Is there a danger of repeating oneself when clients demand a "Gehry" or "Zaha" for their city or museum? Does it matter?

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Glenn Murcutt, who works alone and refuses to take projects outside of Australia, as he believes one can only build where one completely understands the site. This extreme position - the architect as a kind of local tribal shaman - does not make enormous sense with the realities of global communications (actually since the invention of the telephone), but it does raise the issue of how to build appropriately in different locations, climates, and cultures. This has been a problem of Modernism since Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock's 1932 MoMA exhibition declared there was one International Style suitable for all locations. This long-discredited notion, oddly enough, is being raised again through the multiple commissions of boutique architects asked to repeat their "signature" projects regardless of the site. Do Richard Meier's glass towers on the Hudson in New York make sense near Miami in even more minimal garb?

Both Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe walked the fine line between innovation and repetition, but did so within the context of solving a problem in an architectural typology. One of the answers to housing for Le Corbusier was the slab of the Marseilles block, where duplex apartments were stacked within a structural frame, the whole building was raised off the ground on pilotis, and a terrace occupied the roof. He repeated versions of this scheme in Berlin and Briey-le-Foret, and proposed them in all of his urban plans. Were they all as well done as Marseilles? Perhaps not, but they were to be seen together as a laboratory of investigation, refining an answer to a clearly stated problem. The same goes for Mies, in his series of corporate office buildings: Seagram in New York City, IBM and the Federal Center in Chicago, and Westmount Square in Montreal. Mies developed a language that for him was an expression of the zeitgeist; the spirit of the age, and therefore needed no excuse for "originality." Refinement was the goal; each was as subtly different as one Greek temple was from another. For myself, Seagram trumps them all, but that was not the point.

Today, it's different for architects such as Gehry, whose late work has been compared to sculpture and who has been called the Michelangelo of his age. Such comparisons imply that he alone is the final arbiter of each curve and arc. His late work recalls James Stirling's calling Ronchamp "a masterpiece of a unique and most personal order." As opposed to Mies's right-angled vocabulary of construction, which created a school of followers, Gehry's work even now is untouchable in its hermetic formulas, however open and approachable it is for the public.

After the enormous success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Gehry produced Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, and the Guggenheim New York, all variations on a theme. What if, after Ronchamp, churches all wanted similar solutions? Of course, Le Corbusier himself extended the vocabulary of Ronchamp in his church at Firminy, France, and at Chandigarh. Since Bilbao, has Gehry been mining a similarly rich vein of form?

The problem is that when architecture is presented as fine art and sculpture, then each project is considered unique, and not as an answer to the problem of how to make a blockbuster form to embody the aspiration of a place such as Bilbao. This ultimately works against the desire to explore the same themes within a typology, as the variations invariably question and vitiate the uniqueness of the initial object. Uniqueness is an essential part of the aura of the object, as expressed in Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin notes that film, which he considers to have less aura than the authentic object, "responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the 'personality' outside the studio. The cult of the movie star [...] preserves not the unique aura of the person, but the 'spell of the personality; the phony spell of a commodity." The same thing seems to be happening with brand-name architects today. As demand has risen for this group and repetition in their work has increased, the "starchitect" phenomenon has accompanied the "shrunken aura" of the subsequent architectural projects.

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect every new project by Gehry to be a masterpiece; even he admits that. But what can he pull off at the 8.7-million-square-foot Atlantic Yards mega-project in dear old Brooklyn, New York, which at the moment looks more like Co-op City with a bad case of the shingles?

At another level, the problem stems from the incorrect application of the "artist" model to the architect by the media. Even Le Corbusier carefully maintained a distinction between his painting, sculpture, and architecture. Rather than Jackson Pollock or Rembrandt, two solo artists, it is Peter Paul Rubens and his atelier that are a more accurate model for architecture. Rubens had a large workshop with many assistants. He started his paintings with an oil sketch, which was often enlarged and worked on by assistants under his supervision, and then he applied finishing "highlights" to the canvas. More recently, Andy Warhol's Factory was legendary as the place where he created his work, never alone at any time of the day or night.

Warhol is germane to the concept of repetition versus originality, as is Giorgio de Chirico, who literally copied his own early canvases late in his career. Warhol admired this direction and even copied de Chirico's copies! Perhaps it's time to admit it's okay to copy; in fact, it's a good idea! Even Le Corbusier proposed copying the Villa Savoie for a development in Argentina, noting, "This same house, I should set it down in a corner of the beautiful Argentine countryside: We shall have 20 houses rising from the high grass of an orchard where cows continue to graze." Plus ca change!

Gehry should be grateful that at the tender age of 78, he is still pumping out excellent work - without a doubt the effect of architectural Viagra. Perhaps he has indeed discovered the magic trick of maintaining a high level of design within a large office, as he told me recently. (So why aren't the SOMs of the world doing the same?)

Regarding Zaha, as far as I can see, the jury is still out. As opposed to Gehry, who emerged after years of building fairly undistinguished commercial structures, she spent a long time hand painting visions of flight and lightness and has not built much. What has been built is very different from her initial drawings. In Germany, at Vitra, her concrete fire station is choked with rebars; at Wolfsburg and BMW, there was a realization that a new direction was necessary, and we see Deco-like continuous concrete curves, a fluid Brutalism - or is that brutal fluidism? Two hundred people working for her? Seems out of control, but we must wait and see what she builds next.

Richard Meier, with sixty-five employees in New York and twenty-five in Los Angeles, never had a problem repeating himself and never presented each project as distinctly unique. From the beginning, the success of his early houses established a vocabulary of Corbusian-derived formal strategies and a restrained white palette that he rarely veered from. This single-minded commitment to a specific "style" with rules and limitations was teachable to people in the office, allowing it to grow. So strict was his early formal system that when I worked as an intern there years ago, it was the news of the day when he used a curve in the Schomburg Pavilion! Very slowly, his all-white vocabulary broadened to include gray. And now he has actually used dark wood in a house in Malibu.

So what is one to do? Since architectural immortality may be fairly limited in the near future, with global warming and the apocalypse happening sooner rather than later, why not carpe diem (seize the day) and take on another hundred staffers? Or should Gehry and Hadid follow Nancy Reagan's dictum and just say no to the lure and addiction of more work and bigger offices?


April 5, 2007

Alexander Gorlin