Over the past two days I was lucky enough to spend nearly five hours with Gregg Pasquarelli of SHoP. I don't want to call him a genius (since that's a term I use only to describe myself) but he's certainly a visionary within the field of architecture. I learned a semester's worth of knowledge in the short time spent with him, at a roundtable discussion, through a critique in studio, and finally during his lecture, which I will share here.
Thursday afternoon Gregg was kind enough to spend two hours at a roundtable discussion which was essentially a short preview of his lecture followed by question and answer which led to fruitful discussions on performance based architecture, preservation, academia vs. practice, along with many other issues. I'm sure the discussion could have lasted for hours on end but Gregg kicked us out and told us we were tired of hearing him talk. Here are some things that caught my attention during the discussion.
- The diversity of SHoP. None of the original partners undergraduate work is in architecture. Gregg actually went to business school and earned a degree in finance before studying architecture at Columbia. This diversity is seen in the current staff and allows the firm many methods of problem solving.
- SHoP's ideology stems from performance based design. To them it's not about the aesthetics, but don't let that fool you. Their performance based designs are aesthetically pleasing and far from ugly. It's nice to hear from an architect that its not all about the look and iconography of a building.
- Gregg thinks the next great step in architecture is bringing together fabrication and sustainability in a manner in which sustainability becomes form. He challenged us (soon to be graduates) with that task.
- In a comparison that I've never heard before he compared architecture to the NBA. "It's a little like the NBA." The point he was trying to make was that many people try but very few succeed. It was a challenge to break the cycle of mediocrity that dominates the field.
On Friday he stopped in my Historic Preservation studio to critique our first projects which were additions to the College of Architecture and Planning building. It was a project much like SHoP's Porter House where the context played a crucial role. He was happy with everything he saw, and filled with constructive criticism. A few lines that I really liked were, "I think you could be a little more badass" and his response when a student called her design conservative even though he used the term 'polite', "There are a lot of conservatives today who aren't very polite." It was just a rapid fire type of critique but so informative, fair, and laid back.
Of course the big deal was the public lecture he gave Friday night. Since I got a small preview at the roundtable discussion I was excited to hear all the details. The lecture was about SHoP: Who they are, what they do, and how they do it. I'm sure most of you know at least a little about SHoP, as I did myself, but it was stunning to hear from Gregg how they are really like no other firm. The guys and gals of SHoP didn't buy the paper architect vs. service architect argument. They thought not only could you be both, but you should be both. Furthermore they believed the -isms (brutalism, modernism, etc), as Gregg put it, were "bullshit" and an absurd way to practice architecture. So they created a new way of practice called "both/and".
In doing so they were able to move beyond style. Gregg said using styles is a "weakness", and I can't really argue that. So SHoP made it a point to do performance based design. They followed the lead set by the automobile and aerospace industries decades earlier. This transformed architecture from a noun to a verb. During the mid 1990s they purchased the technology (laser cutter, 3D printers, etc) amid a lot of doubt from former professors and colleagues to create performance based design that was economical. They soon realized that traditional plan, section, and elevation drawings would no longer be valid for their designs, so they set out to make new drawings.
Now with a new approach to architecture SHoP set out to return architects as master builders. The traditional setup of a client with an architect and general contractor, which leads to animosity between groups, would not longer cut it. So slowly but surely they changed the setup. It started with consultants whom they brought in before the design process. At this point Gregg presented P.S.1, which is the contemporary art center for MoMA, where they won the 2000 Young Architects Program and created an outdoor environment for the Warm Up series. SHoP created a beach. They achieved such a feat by creating the performance of a beach, not sand and water. "Dunescape" reflected how SHoP thinks about design. The structure, surface, and program are not to be treated individually but as elements meshing together. Gregg estimates the project generated nearly $1 million for the museum.
Next, SHoP set out to bring the general contractor duties back. This was achieved through the design of Mitchell Park and a particular folly. Using the ever increasing technology, SHoP fabricated the folly so that no piece was too big for 2 workers. The parts were shipped to the park cut and sized so that only assembly had to occur. So there was no need for a tape measure and if a saw or drill was heard, than the workers were doing something wrong. The folly had 1482 parts and went together without a hitch. Gregg described the building as a "kick ass piece of IKEA furniture", because of its simple means of assembly.
SHoP continued to change the way architecture got done. With Porter House they "traded" their design intelligence for an equity stake in the property. Gregg admitted that it was a huge risk, but with it came greater reward. Since SHoP now had an equity stake in the building they were seen as equals and allowed much more design freedom than would be allowed in the traditional setup. Porter House is truly a gem. In order to build the design as they wanted SHoP had an air rights transfer and then an air rights easement (which was uncommon at the time, but now very prevalent) to allow the maximum cantilever possible while still adhering to all the rules. Adding an addition to a historic warehouse SHoP really looked at the context and decided the addition would not be contextual at all, but rather entirely different from the historic building. SHoP was even successful in keeping pigeons off the building by angling all the setbacks at 34 degrees. Gregg was happy to report, "not one turd on the entire facade". Being an equity partner the developer knew SHoP was not building an edifice to themselves.
And with that SHoP had transformed the traditional power structure. They had returned former responsibilities back to the architect. Granted it was more risk, but again with risk comes the reward. Gregg called this "doubling down" and encouraged us to take back what we've given away. This new paradigm can be achieved through cross discipline which he wholeheartedly supports. He told us to be designers and thinkers not architects, preservationist, or planners.
Gregg ended with some sobering news. He predicts that 50% of all architects will be without a job within the next 12 months. I think that estimate is high, but the situation is bad. He said that in 20 works days between mid-September and mid-October that the world underwent more catastrophic events than in the previous 20 years. But it wasn't all bad. He painted the situation as an opportunity for new and better things led by the people he was talking to, soon to be graduates of architecture school.
Just to sum this up, Gregg is an awesome guy. He's a post baby boomer and there is a distinct difference between himself and the so called starchitects. Gregg obviously is leading the new wave of architects, and if the rest of his contemporaries are anything like him, than it will only be a matter of time before architecture is an entirely new beast. As he said during the roundtable discussion, architecture has to change. It can't be about "sustainable bling", but sustainability has to be the new form of architecture.