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 http://www.rollinghuts.com/
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?