If some architects build a practice around formal or programmatic experiments, and others on an ongoing exploration of materials, it might be fair to suggest that SHoP Architects has built an architecture practice around the very idea of practice. From its breakout project for P.S.1’s 2000 Warm-Up installation to its current work at Atlantic Yards, SHoP intentionally challenges long-held conventions within the architecture community about the domain of expertise of architects and about the process of how buildings are made. Founded in 1996 by partners Kimberly Holden, Gregg Pasquarelli, Christopher Sharples, Coren Sharples, and William Sharples, SHoP won the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Architecture in 2009 and was listed the following year as one of the most innovative companies in the United States by Fast Company Magazine. In this interview, Gregg Pasquarelli talks with Gregory Wessner, the League’s Digital Programs and Exhibitions Director, about the history of the firm, why rethinking practice is so important, and what’s next for architecture.
Let’s start with a little history: how did the firm start, how did you and your partners get into architecture?
The core of the firm began when Bill Sharples and I were partners in a housing studio in 1992 at Columbia; that was the first time any of us worked together. We had an exceptionally difficult semester because we made the mistake of reading Deleuze that year and at the end of a painful fifteen weeks, we said to each other, you know, you’re a great guy but the one thing that we should never do is practice architecture together. [Laughs] And we just remained friends.
But 60% of the partners at SHoP have the same birthday–which is of course a slightly easier accomplishment when there are twins involved–so we would all get together every year after school ended on “the birthday.” After a few years we were just talking about the profession and what we wanted, and what we thought was wrong with practice and how we wanted to change it. The five of us all had other careers before we went into architecture, so I think that we came to it with maybe a slightly different perspective. We hadn’t been brought up through the ranks of architectural education, so we all had a certain skepticism about the way that architects were practicing. The Sharpleses had their own design studio and Kim and I were wrapping up working on some projects for other architects and we sort of just started working together. There was no moment when we said, “Hey, let’s start a firm!” We just started doing competitions and chasing stuff. It was very organic in the way that it started. One day we looked around and we had forty or fifty employees and we thought that maybe we should have a partnership agreement in place. And that was when we finally wrote one.
Among the things that people tend to talk about when they talk about SHoP is the unique model of practice that you set up. And it’s certainly something that you and your partners have put out there as distinguishing SHoP from other firms. Talk to me a little about the way the practice operates and how it evolved.
I think that it comes from the way that we very much act like a family. We sit around and have meals together and talk about stuff and come to consensus decisions. It’s very Quaker. The Sharpleses are Quakers, and Kim and I were married as Quakers and it’s very much the way we make decisions. I can’t think of a contentious decision ever made by the partners. We just talk it through until everyone’s on the same page and then we say OK, let’s try that solution.
And how long do those conversations last?
Anywhere between 30 seconds and an hour. It’s just not a big issue. As I said, it’s very much like family. My partners are brothers and sisters to me, in the best possible way. I think that the business model–the evolving business model–sort of came out of our, I don’t want to say dissatisfaction, but out of our incredulousness about how architecture really worked. I think a lot of our dissatisfaction was with what we called the battle of “-isms,” and with the idea ten or twenty years ago that you had to make a choice between being a paper architect or a practicing architect. You either did brilliant schemes and only thought about culture and art, or you could actually put a building together, detail it, plan a city, or know something about construction. But there were very few firms in the world that did both well. I think that was really what the model of our practice came out of: we wanted to be this “both/and” firm. I think as we did that we also started to see the kinds of territories of practice that had been given away by the architectural profession over the past fifty years. Our business model was, hey, we think architects are kind of smart. We think we have a lot of smart people in this office. Why don’t we just use that intelligence to think of other ways to practice–that it’s not just about creating images of buildings. That it’s about lots of other stuff and it might be possible to solve other problems. If some of those are fun, if some of those are inspiring, if some of those make money, if some of those lose money–it doesn’t really matter because we’re just expanding practice and that’s kind of what it’s really all about for us. We started to see the more involved or the deeper we went into it, the further away we got from the sort of skin-deep surface of either the rendering or the elevation and got into–as we like to say–the thickness of the building. Thickness, to us, is everything from technology to politics to finance to design to theory. All of it together, that is a building’s thickness. That’s what got us interested in building business models that helped us grab other territories. Whether or not it works was beside the point, but we were committed to giving it a shot. And we think it really helps our clients. They really seem to get excited by these discussions.
So if there is this opposition in architecture–that you have to choose whether you practice architecture as an art or a business, choose whether it’s about ideas or economics–why did you and your partners decide to base your practice in the in-between, the “both/and” as you put it?
The five of us didn’t have a common aesthetic style and it wasn’t that the five of us came together and said, what we really want to build are airports, or what we really want to do are skyscrapers, or parks or master plans. It wasn’t that and it wasn’t, we love modernism, or we love cutting edge, fluid form. It wasn’t either of those. It was more along the lines of, this profession is kind of messed up. And we could see that as a negative and complain about it or we could try to build a practice out of trying to fix it. I think it was that, and a common work ethic and a trust that brought the firm together. It wasn’t solely based on style, design, philosophy, or theory. It was based on the idea that architecture is all of the above as well as the other dirty stuff, and we should embrace it. That thinking was just there from day one.
Have you experienced any push back or criticism about it?
Yes, and I know this sounds so trite, but we don’t really pay attention to it too much. I think there were times early on when we had won a few competitions, we were getting published and we were doing well and we started thinking that maybe we would joint venture on real estate development deals. And some of our colleagues said things to us like, oh my god, you’re getting in bed with the devil, that is the slippery slope to hell, blah blah blah.
Because you would partner with the developer? That in certain architectural circles it was seen as crossing a line that you weren’t supposed to cross?
Ten years ago it definitely was but I don’t think it is anymore. And I’d like to think that we had a small part in changing that perception, that you could actually do good work…I would make the argument, that you can do better work because you are no longer seen as a problem from the owner’s perspective, you’re seen as the solution. If you can do it well.
I guess some designers might argue that there is a risk that design suffers as a result, if art and commerce, so to speak, mix too closely. On a purely practical level, how do you not let the real world concerns of a project overwhelm the design process?
I think it’s the exact opposite: the design flourishes, because it’s not this battle back and forth of design versus money. You understand every constraint and you use your intelligence to solve the problem. The Owner/Architect roles flip from contradictory to complementary. You look at the problems and you say that this is a smart place to invest more money or this is a dumb place to invest money. If I could be strategic here and save something, I could use it over there and it’s going to have a better effect long term on the way the building works, looks, operates, sells–whatever it might be. So in fact I think that the more connection you have between design and development or fund raising, the more design freedom you actually have, and the better building you make for your client and for the city.
Let’s talk about technology. Technology has always played an important role in SHoP’s work–
And you’re going to ask why, right? It’s a very simple why. Because in the 1990s when we were starting the practice, we knew we wouldn’t get Frank Gehry budgets, so we had to figure out how to make incredible quality, capital-A architecture at reasonable budgets. And the only way to do it was through technology. It was also because we just believe in it. The aerospace industry and the automotive industry have always been more interesting to us in a lot of ways than the “architecture industry,” so that’s who we were looking towards for inspiration. Kelly Johnson at Skunk Works was always more interesting to us than Sullivan or Scharoun. We wanted to know what it would mean to have a 21st Century Skunk Works brought to the field of architecture.
What do you think is next in terms of architecture and technology? Most architects by this point have become pretty comfortable with design and fabrication technologies, so what do you think is next on the technological frontier for architects?
I think it’s going to be about embedding greater intelligence into parametric models, so that the buildings are learning from their contexts both before and after they are built. I believe we are still in this infant stage in terms of sustainability and what is next is to design buildings that are able to change and adapt to their environments. I mean, it’s good that at least people are talking about it, but we always just sort of roll our eyes at things like LEED points and the marketing of “Green”…it’s what we call “sustainable bling.” How many PVs can I hang on my glass building? It’s ridiculous, right? SHoP believes the most important sustainable thing that you can do is build a building that people love. Because then they take care of it and they don’t rip everything out every few years and they don’t constantly renovate it. The other thing that is extremely important is to build efficiently. Getting the size of a building down ten percent is twenty-five times more sustainable than putting every bit of sustainable bling all over it.
When I interviewed you in 2007 for the League’s New New York: Fast Forward exhibition, you were pretty adamant about architects needing to embrace the fact that architecture is a generalist profession, and it’s something that I’ve heard you talk about since. What do you mean by this and why is it so important?
Yes! It’s pretty much the basis of everything I’ve been talking about. It’s what, in our opinion makes a good architect, that you can balance all of these different ideas and influences and invent the world that no one can yet see. The thing that architects are good at is that we’re moderately good at an extremely broad range of skills. I don’t know where the idea came from, whether it’s the AIA or the NAAB, but this idea that we would try to make the profession into a specialist profession, where the only thing we’re doing is generating aesthetic form–this to me is cutting ourselves off at the knees. The generalist skill set is rare. And the people who can actually do it well tend to be very successful. I think that the more we try to make ourselves specialists, the more we’re doing a disservice to the practice and to the profession. When you’re out on the job site, the architect is the one that understands the broadest range of what’s going on. I just think that’s a really important thing for us to focus on and champion.
Let’s come at this in a different way. Skeptics might say that this is just another self-serving argument by architects to insist that they’re relevant. Why are architects relevant–why should architects, to use a phrase we hear constantly, have a “seat at the table?”
Because it’s the one art that the entire public is faced with every single second of their day. And I think that the world is only going to become more and more urbanized. Urban living is the only way to save the planet, and if you don’t do it well, it’s going to be a miserable experience. If you want to save the planet, you better make architecture a big part of it. The mega-cities are going to continue to grow. You’ve got to figure out how to do them well. Things like infrastructure, movement, the environment, mental and personal health–these are the monumental tasks. If architects don’t have a seat at the table, it’s going to be a squandered opportunity of global proportions.
It seems that since the economic downturn, and the slowdown in construction, many architects and critics are looking back on the past ten years or so and feeling pretty disillusioned with what happened, seeing it as a period of excess and spectacle. What’s your take?
I think of course there was [excess and spectacle] but that happens in any boom time. You look all through history and there’s exuberance, there’s testing, there are new ideas. A lot of it is fluff, some of it fails, but good things come out of that and that’s okay. I mean it’s okay to have some failures, it’s okay to have a few bad neighbor buildings. It’s okay to push the limits and see what happens. And then you retreat and you think about it and you use your judgment to consider how emerging technology will continue to shift the paradigm again and we’ll see what happens next time. That’s just life. I think it’s good.
The flip side to this question is that if the past ten years were about excess and spectacle, a lot of people now insist that architects need to be more socially responsible and engaged. I guess this is the pro bono question.
To me, both of these positions–both are extremist as far as I’m concerned. Pure spectacle for spectacle’s sake or purely formal moves, like making some crazy shape that takes twenty-five times the amount of steel to put up just because your hand made that little flourish at the end–they’re wasteful and stupid. But then saying that everything has to be about social responsibility and pro bono and about the good of mankind is the same bullshit on the other side. How about just having social responsibility in everything you do everyday? It’s not about sustainable bling, it’s about making smart buildings. It’s not about making a wild building just because you can, it’s about making buildings that inspire us. If there are smart buildings, and they’re efficient and they are well thought of and they’re beautiful and loved and they’re cared for, then they’re sustainable and socially responsible. You don’t need to hang all this “green” stuff on it. Just be socially responsible everyday in what you do and you don’t need to go out and do pro bono stuff to make yourself feel better for doing the stupid pavilion that cost a X million dollars and gets taken down in six weeks.
Both of the major American architecture magazines recently did cover stories essentially asking the same question, what next? There seems to be a sense that we don’t know where we are, we don’t know where architecture is going. What’s next for you, what are you excited about?
I think that the founding principles of SHoP–the founding principles and the founding principals–were about not getting into this cycle of stylistic consumption. We have always been in a battle against the “-isms.” I don’t see what’s next as a kind of, oh this is what the next stuff is going to look like. For us we are more interested in doing good work and trying to not get on that sine curve [of style and theory]. Be responsible, make smart buildings, do them well, and make them amazingly beautiful. Continue to raise the bar for yourself by trying different things. And try to see as technology evolves, what it offers to continue to make buildings that inspire us. That’s where the paradigm shifts are…every single stylistic element in architecture comes out of a technology change. What is possible to build? Then we all think about it, design with and around it, and write about it, or we write about it after the fact. But it comes out of technology. What materials can we use, how can we push them, what can we do with them, what do we need the buildings to do? Just keep looking for those little toeholds for the next move up the mountain. But I don’t see it as a big wave of what’s next. That’s how you sell magazines, not how you have a relevant practice.
This interview was conducted on January 12, 2011
Image courtesy of SHoP.