News
10.02.2012
About Face
When firms evolve, what's in a name?
Morris Adjmi and Aldo Andreoli.
Karin Kohlberg

Summer is the preferred molting season for architects, the time of year when they slip off of old identities and test out new ones. In July, the venerable Philadelphia firm of Venturi Scott Brown and Associates officially became VSBA, a company owned not by the authors of Learning from Las Vegas but by one of their protégés, VSBA principal Daniel McCoubrey. “Maintaining some identity with the prior firm was very important to us, so it’s an evolution not a revolution,” said McCoubrey.

About the same time New York–based Morris Adjmi Architects announced that his partnership with architect Aldo Andreoli, an affiliation that for the last two years has operated as an office (Adjmi + Andreoli) within Adjmi’s Manhattan office, was ready to be pushed out of the nest. In September, Adjmi + Andreoli will move into its own studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “I like the idea of not just having a solo career, but being able to collaborate a little bit, partner a bit,” said Adjmi.

 
Nancy Rogo Trainer and Daniel McCoubrey.
Courtesy VSBA
 

This summer’s shifts are gentle progressions compared to the unexpected mash-ups and radical re-namings of recent years. In June of 2011, Gwathmey Siegel, the renowned New York firm known for its design work, announced a merger with Gene Kaufman Architects, a firm best known for its copious commercial buildings in New York City. After Charles Gwathmey passed away in 2009, his long-time partner Bob Siegel was open to joining forces with another entity. Enter Gene Kaufman, who bought the firm outright and added his own name to the shingle, but also made a point of retaining Gwathmey’s. The result is GSKA, Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman Architects. “There are two important things with a name change—one is to show what’s new, and two is to show what’s the same. We wanted to show that a great deal of the firm is the same,” said Kaufman.

The firm formerly known as Polshek Partnership had a different approach. In June 2010, the New York office founded by James Polshek in 1963 became Ennead, the ancient Greek word for “nine,” reflecting that the firm was in fact being led by nine partners, not Polshek. (Today Ennead has eleven partners.) “The name change reflected the transition from the kind of maestro, sole-proprietor brand to the way the firm actually works,” said Ennead partner Todd Schliemann, who noted that the firm took several years to plan the renaming, keeping it a close secret up until the time of the announcement. “In the end, it’s all about the work we do,” said Schliemann. “It’s just a name. The people are the same, the work is the same and getting better.”

Communications strategist Jacqueline Pezzillo, who worked at Davis Brody Bond during a time when the firm morphed to Davis Brody Bond Aedas and back again, has studied the role a name plays in an architecture firm’s reputation. “The research shows that the large majority of firms felt that reputation was much more dependent on the portfolio of work versus the name,” said Pezzillo, who surveyed over 80 AIA firms on the subject. Many younger firms seem to have taken this assumption to heart, coming up with quirky names destined to raise the hackles of copyeditors, from 5468796 architecture to what!worx design collaborative.

Even if portfolio trumps all, the name of the office seems to have the most psychological impact for firm leadership working in the shadow of their predecessors. “Dan and I have been leading projects for over ten years, so the name on the door had become a bit of misnomer,” said Nancy Rogo Trainer, VSBA’s other principal. “The initials may have less meaning, but it’s incumbent upon us to represent the value ingrained in them and new ways of taking that forward.”

Molly Heintz