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Architects of Record Can't Get No Respect
Editorial> Playing a supporting role can be lucrative, but do firms get typecast as architectural also-rans?
EHDD is the principal designer of the new Exploratorium in San Francisco, though it has signed on as architect of record for several high-profile projects.
Courtesy ZUM

In the entertainment industry, actors are often critiqued for their choice of roles. Are they risking becoming typecast, or are they playing against type? Are they too indie? Too commercial? And are they making wise choices for their long-term careers?

The projects architects pursue also signal their ambitions. One type of project that stirs up particular controversy within firms is whether to go after the role of executive architect/architect of record. That is, to play the supporting role to a design firm. The projects can be glamorous and lucrative, but the role can come with the stigma of being “the guys that carry the bags,” as one architect recently described it to me.

One of the Bay Area’s well-respected firms, EHDD, recently signed on as the architect of record on not just one, but both of the big upcoming art museum projects in the area—SFMOMA and the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. (The design architects are, respectively, Snøhetta and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.) It’s pretty easy to see what EHDD brings to the table. Established in 1946 by Joseph Esherick, a founding father of Northern California modernism, the firm has a design reputation of its own based on many thoughtful public buildings, including the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. It is currently designing a super-sustainable new home along the waterfront for one of San Francisco’s most beloved institutions, the Exploratorium. Although it has no specific expertise in art museums, EHDD certainly has experience with cultural institutions of that scale—and with large, complex additions.

But does it set the firm up for designing a signature art museum? In my casual conversations with the firm’s principals, that expectation was part of the motivation for taking on these jobs. Past history would indicate the contrary. It’s hard to think of even a single case where a firm has gone from the strength of a supporting role on one project to becoming the breakout star on the next. Instead, the firm risks being pigeonholed as the supporting cast, with the design architect getting all the glory. (Who remembers who the architects of record were on the de Young Museum or the California Academy of Sciences? Respectively, they were Fong & Chan and Stantec.) EHDD has already established a design reputation, so one could argue that it has nothing to lose from taking on the supporting role, though how much it has to gain remains questionable. For a lesser-known firm, it would be an even trickier call.

With the two projects, EHDD will undoubtedly learn more about the design of art museums. And they’ll be paid well for it. But the issue is whether anyone will give them credit for it, or whether they—and others like them—will be labeled as an “also-ran” by future commissioners of such projects. After all, unlike the entertainment industry, there is no award for Best Supporting Architect.

Lydia Lee