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03.18.2009
Recession Tales: Rob Rogers
Time to Share

In this second in a series of conversations with architects about their experiences during recessions past, AN sat down with Rob Rogers, principal of Rogers Marvel Architects, to talk about entering architecture as a professional in the early ‘80s, just as the economy went into one of its periodic nosedives, then starting his own practice right as the next one hit.

The Architect’s Newspaper: You took your degree from Rice School of Architecture in 1981, which included a year in Pei Cobb Freed’s office. What was it like when you were back on the job market in 1983?

Rob Rogers: Prospects were grim. I traveled around the country for four months, interviewing and just seeing the country. I had already had a year’s experience at Pei’s office, so they invited me back. I was lucky, because the early ‘80s were a very tough time for a lot of people. Houston was really down, and everyone was trying to go somewhere else to find jobs. It was a small class at Rice and everyone had to leave whether they wanted to or not. A lot of us went to New York, and some to California; the rest went kind of scattershot.

You were at Pei’s office for about six years and then went out on your own during another downturn. What was that like?

They were definitely weird times. I rented a desk at John Carl Warnecke’s office in ‘89. That office had essentially dissolved. And as it had downsized, they sublet space and I sublet a desk from someone who was subletting two desks. He was only using one and I took over the other one.

It got you someone to answer the phone; it got you access to some copiers, a coffee machine, and a conference room so you could function and not be operating out of your house.

The space was a classic, huge loft on Broadway. There must have been 40 to 50 desks and there were probably 15 to 20 entities, everything from people alone like me to people with four or five desks in a group. Bob Heintges was there, starting his curtain wall consulting business. There were some others: Michael Zenreich, David Mullman, and Patty Seidman.

It was a super-rich place and a great way to start up on your own. When you come out of a big office, you don’t know anything about running a small practice. You’ve maybe done big, amazing things, but expediters? How to fill out landmark forms? You need help. Here, you could share people—”Hey, help me on these drawings,”or, “How do I put this bridge wall together?”—and somebody would know the answer. There was a really great collegial attitude about the sharing of knowledge and resources. And it was cheap: about $180 a month. Also, it wasn’t some squirrel hole somewhere, it was a beautiful space, loaded with daylight.

Things were still tight when you started up a partnership with Jonathan Marvel. Did it feel risky?

I met Jonathan, who was renting a desk from a guy whose office he was designing, and we had a beer Christmas of ‘91 to talk about practicing together. Then I took over the second desk and we got started.

Everything was dead, and that forced us to do lots of everything: competitions, apartment renovations, small little institutional jobs, office renos for the friends of friends who knew people with a company that needed work. But we started to grow. Jonathan had won a competition for El Museo del Barrio for a little renovation, and that was publicly funded, so that gave us our first access to the public agency world and we began to pursue that, too.

Then Bob Heintges grew to four people and he took a master lease in the Bendheim Building on Hudson. Mullman & Seidman were expanding, too. So we sort of refigured the system into a three-firm deal and moved all together. We were there for almost three years and we all kept growing until we didn’t fit, and then Rogers Marvel Architects moved across the street to our present location.

Sometimes I don’t know how aware we were of the recession at all, because we were starting out and everything was fighting and scrambling to get work anywhere, any way. If you were completely paying attention to the economic situation, you probably wouldn’t risk it. But we didn’t have time to pay that kind of attention.

Would you ever consider renting desks now?

We’ve had a lot of staff leave to start their own practices. If someone needed a desk or two, we’d entertain the idea,sure.In this second in a series of conversations with architects about their experiences during recessions past,