Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Top 5 American Architects working right now (according to me)

Ever since Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim and then up and died, people have been waiting for the next great American Architect. As I have written in the past, the average person is really not familiar with Architecture, let alone any one Architect in particular. Some people may be familiar with names like Gehry or Meier, but this is only because newspapers and magazines have publicized their work (albeit to mixed fanfare).

Recently, someone asked me who I thought were the best American Architects practicing today and I thought that this might be a good topic for a discussion. So before people start getting angry that their favorite Architect is not on my list, let me qualify the criteria that I think makes a great Architect in today's world. I don't know if all these would apply a hundred years ago, but here goes:

1. Great Architects satisfy their clients. They do this by solving complex problems involving functional needs, budget, schedule, available materials and environmental challenges. It doesn't matter if a building looks great if it doesn't serve its intended use, comes in over budget and leaks. Great looking buildings are nice as sculpture, but most people wouldn't want to pay millions of dollars for a sculpture.

2. Great Architects know how to build their designs. I believe that great Architects should carry on the tradition of the Master Builder or someone who knows how to get the work done. Most contractors I have met do not hold Architects in high regard, largely because most Architects are lost on a job site. A great Architect must not only know construction but be able to develop new means and methods when required. Architects like Frank Gehry and Richard Meier have built some impressive structures, but the details for their buildings are more often figured out by computers and design Architects than themselves.

3. Great Architects are both current and timeless. A building may look good when it's finished, but only time will tell if it will be around in 50 years. How many buildings from the 80's still look relevant? A great Architect can draw on the timeless tools of proportion, rhythm, scale, and physics to produces works that will be useful and desirable for years to come.

4. Great Architects must get their hands dirty. Some notable Architects are successful because of their pedigree and connections. They get the work, but they don't do the work. This is evident when you attend a lecture by that Architect. They can talk about the overall concepts and ideas, but they are lost when asked to discuss specific details. Great Architects stay involved with their projects and care more about the quality of the work than the size of their firm.

That being said, here's my top 5 contenders for great American Architects practicing today. These are in no particular order.

1- James Cutler - Cutler is one of the most successful architects working in the Pacific Northwest because he is an impeccable detailer and creates many beautiful structures from humble materials. Although he did alot of design for Bill Gates' compound in Washington, he is most known for elegant residences that elevate everyday living to a real art form.

2. Tom Kundig - A self proclaimed 'gizmologist' this Architect could easily work in the engineering department of any Hollywood studio. From giant doors designed to be opened by an eight year old, to moving facades that close up your house, this Architect approaches function from a very technical level and blurs the boundries between Architecture and Engineering. If you want to see something really special, check out a project he did for

3. Stephen Kieran - One half of Kieran Timberlake, and the only East Coast member of my list. His work in the area of prefabrication as well as his portfolio of Social and Educational design is breathtaking. If you are ever in New Haven, Connecticutt you have to check out his work at Yale, specifically the sculpture gallery (above) and the dormitory that was erected in under a week through an advanced prefabrication process.

4. Jonathan Segal - Some days, I wish I had never heard of or met Jonathan Segal. If this were true, I may never have quit my corporate job to pursue development as an Architect. His work in San Diego is changing the profession of Architecture by empowering Architects to build on their own without clients. He lives by the Golden Rule (He who has the gold makes the rules) and has transformed the fabric of downtown San Diego with thoughtful and efficient buildings that have become highly coveted living spaces. With his own team of Architect/Contractors, he builds every project himself to ensure a high attention to detail and proper execution. He has also started a separate company (and a Master's program) whose sole mission is to educate Architects and all those interested on how to positively affect your surroundings through Design based development. We need more of that.

5. Ron Radziner - To say that Marmol Radziner is the most diversified Architectural Practice in the United States is probably an understatement. They are a Design Build firm that does both new work and Historic Restoration. They have more Construction Employees than Design staff. They have Architects running their own Millwork shop. They design everything from furniture to jewelry and they have their own prefab company. Pretty sweet. The design half of all that sugar is Ron Radziner. No disrespect to Leo Marmol, but these two guys do different things. Ron Radziner is the Design Architect. A master detailer and craftsman, his own home is the stuff that Architect's dreams are made of. When you can own a firm that spends five years faithfully restoring Richard Neutra's Kaufman House and then design schools for inner city kids, I think that's worth noting.
In conclusion, please do not be offended if you did not make the list. I didn't even put myself on my own list. All I can say is that there's always next year, right?

Monday, August 16, 2010

If not money, then how about respect? A Designer's Tale

In the past few years, many Architects and Designers have seen their paychecks shrink. When asked, most people would say that this is probably due to the general economy and the recession. Three years ago, I might have said the same thing. Now I don't think that this is true. I believe the real culprit, the thing that we must overcome as a society is something far more devastating: Ignorance. Recently, I had a couple of exchanges with Clients that led me to believe this is more true than ever. Read on.

About three years ago, I was introduced to this guy who wanted to open a high end restaurant. Let's call him James. James was a seasoned Operator, which means he knew how to run the place. But he needed the money. James was looking for an investor and he was trying to assemble a team that would help sell the investor. I was placed on that team based on my experience as a Hospitality Designer and Architect. In addition to myself, James also had a notable chef, a marketing team, and a graphics and branding team. For two and a half years, James made his pitch to a variety of investors. No one wanted to commit. Finally after almost three years, James found a guy who was excited about the project. By now, the rest of the team had evaporated for one reason or another. I got a call from James and he said that he wanted me to meet with his investor to see if this bird would fly. At the meeting, I showed the investor my portfolio, I spoke about my credentials and I told him the process that we would implement in order to make the restaurant a reality. After he heard me describe everything soup to nuts, he looked at me and said that everything sounded great. He asked me to submit a proposal and we would go from there. Two days later, I submitted a very aggressive proposal, with a very competitive fee. Because I had been tracking the project so long, I wanted to make sure that I could get it, so I cut my usual fee by 20% to ensure my appointment to the team. About a week later, I got a call from James and he told me that the investor was overwhelmed by my fee. He then asked if I could cut my fee by an additional 50%. I said that I couldn't. I was then informed that the investor knew an Architect who could do it for the low fee. I told James that they should go with that guy, no hard feelings.

Story number two begins with a pair of Clients who want to renovate the interior of their house. They purchased a builder's home and after three years have found out that the layout does not work at all. When I met this Client I told them that a house was a machine for living in. That Client told me that his machine was broken. I made two visits to this Client and spent over 10 hours talking to them and writing proposals. When they got my detailed proposal (which described what we would need to do, room by room) I could see that they were 'overwhelmed' by the Design fee. I then proceeded to explain to them that their house was not designed by an Architect but was instead built by a builder. It is common knowledge that most homes are built by Builders who are unassisted by Architects. Most people would rather spend their money on builder upgrades than Design sensibility. That's just how it is. Now I am standing in front of a client who has a budget upwards of $50,000 to repair his broken machine but will not give me the go ahead to spend a few thousand in Design fees.

These are both very true stories. What is also true is that I have a five year Architectural Degree, 15 years of practical experience, have passed 10 different professional examinations, and am legally liable for every project that I touch. Unfortunately, most people do not place a value on these things. The value that they assign to your services is only comparable to their lowest price option. If you are printing letterpress business cards for $400 and someone can get overnight laser printed cards for $15, most people will want to pay $15. Our retail economy has taught people this very well. Don't look at the quality, look at the price. Practically every big store speaks to price in their slogans. "Save Money, Live Better". "Get More, Spend Less." "More Saving, More Doing".

And whether your competition is a Builder or a peer who wants to low ball you, I am asking you please not to compromise your quality as a Design Professional. These kinds of compromises are why we find ourselves in the mess we are today. Eventually you will find those clients who appreciate the value of your services and you can just say no to those clients that want you to cut corners. That's what I ended up doing with the restaurant. I told James, "Thanks, but no thanks." If I'm not going to be compensated fairly, then I demand to be respected, if only by myself.