The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers

Whether a high-profile memorial or small museum addition, institutions have become increasingly cautious when it comes time to identify the right architect for the job. Stepping in to guide and shape the process is an expanding corps of elite advisors. Jonathan Lerner profiles today’s top consultants and finds out what an architect needs to do to catch their eye—and get the job.

Choosing the design for a major commission is complicated under the best of circumstances: Emotions run high, costs can spiral, stakeholders proliferate, and that’s all before the public weighs in.

When the curving walkway and wind-chime tower of Paul Murdoch Architects’ plan for the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania was revealed in 2005 following a competition that attracted over 1,000 entries by both professionals and amateurs, it was rabidly denounced as an Islamic crescent and minaret. In his current proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., Frank Gehry’s 80-foot-high metal tapestries, with imagery best viewed from passing cars, are provoking similarly intense outrage. Negative public response—here focusing on the opacity of the process that zeroed in on Gehry, arguably the world’s most renowned architect, from an invitation-only list of just 44 contenders—is just one hazard a choice of design and designer can pose. No wonder those who commission architects often look for help to guide the selection process.

Increasingly, it is specialized consultants who help clients—and architects—navigate the selection process. These facilitators may be little known, and often keep themselves deliberately in the background, but they play a significant role in directing, and even shaping, many large commissions. What do these gatekeepers say about the choices that arise, the contributions they make, and what you have to do to be in the running?

Though many are trained architects, they tend to have pursued careers as academics, editors or writers instead and are among the usual suspects on prize and commission juries. Thus they gain familiarity with many practitioners. That’s certainly true of Reed Kroloff, former editor-in-chief of Architecture magazine, principal of Jones/ Kroloff Design Services and director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He sees his consultant role as helping “ensure that better architecture results,” and helping clients “learn about architects, planners, landscape architects, and designers that they might not know about.” His typical engagement with a client runs from program development to selection of the designer.

Karen Stein, whose primary experience is as a writer and editor, prefers to stay with a project longer. “It’s not just about anointing someone, although who designs the project is a central decision. It’s also about understanding what the client’s responsibilities are and how the process will unfold.” She defines herself as “an advocate that makes sure that dialogue is as constructive as possible.”

A central issue consultants advise on is the type of search. Kroloff said, “Some clients are working on projects that are very much in the public arena, some very much not. There are different strategies for each type. An open competition is more appropriate for large-scale public projects.” The openness can help elicit public buy-in, and raise a project’s profile, becoming a marketing tool for the institution and its new building, explained Kroloff. “But you can have a competition between two or three people for a private commission. We would never urge one methodology over another without first assessing with the client their goals and intentions.”

Stanley Collyer has a journalism background and has consulted on only a few selections, but has edited Competitions since 1990. He favors open competitions especially for potentially touchy projects like memorials. Those for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Flight 93 Memorial, he said, were “very well run and came out with a good result,” in contrast to the much-disdained selection process used for the Eisenhower Memorial. “Why wouldn’t you do everything like that?”

But not all agree. “I worry about the long range effects of the public being too involved in a matter that they’re not equipped to deal with,” countered Bill Lacy, former executive director of the Pritzker Prize, who founded a selection consultancy in 1988 after having overseen many competitions as director of the National Endowment for the Art’s architecture and environmental arts program. He argues that an invited competition with “a jury that’s put together thoughtfully” runs less risk of ending up with a problematic winning design. And he goes further: “I prefer by far the process of going to see the work” with a client who is knowledgeable about design and empowered to make a choice, holding no competition at all. Lacy has been doing just that with the CEO of pharmaceuticals giant Novartis for its campuses in Switzerland and New Jersey, tapping Gehry, Chipperfield, Ando, Koolhaas, and other architects, both famous and less so.

Whether open or invited, “having a design competition can enlighten the client, and present a series of options that might not otherwise have been considered,” Kroloff said. “We try and structure our competitions to help our client understand how the designers are thinking, not so much to find a specific solution for that project.”

Establishing a process that mirrors the core values of the institution is a growing trend. Stein is working with a foundation in Sao Paolo dedicated to showcasing Brazilian arts that needed a museum building. There, the process itself illustrates the client’s mission. They decided to “do the architectural search in a way similar to how the foundation runs itself,” she said. “I spent a lot of time interviewing younger Brazilian architects and then we had an invited competition, and chose a firm that’s not well known.” Andrade Morettin Arquitetos had won numerous ideas and design competitions, but their built portfolio was small, mainly residential with a few institutional projects. Stein’s process also defused a legitimate fear clients can have, that less experienced firms might prove unable to deliver. “That was the advantage of me going in advance to all the offices. You had some confidence that the participants in the competition had the ability to actually do the project,” Stein said.

Vetting candidate firms for the competence to fulfill the commissions is an essential part of the consultant’s job. Donald Stastny, author of the General Service Administration’s Design Excellence Program Guide, has managed major open competitions, including for the Flight 93 Memorial. “We put into the process that after the finalists were selected, if they didn’t have the capacity to complete the project, they would engage a team that did,” he said. Thus Paul Murdoch brought in experienced landscape architect Warren Byrd from Nelson Byrd Woltz for the memorial to develop the concept and give it a more coherent landscape presence. Stastny indicates that qualifications-based selection processes are more appropriate for “very complex projects. You have to have people who can take on that complexity.”

The cost to a client of hiring a consultant to run a competition or a search can vary enormously. “There’s no set rate,” said Collyer. “If they’re helping out with the program and the jury and more or less coordinating the competition you’d probably have to start with around $20,000. But for some of these GSA competitions I’m sure it runs into maybe $50,000 or $100,000. Those programs tend to get pretty detailed because they’re so budget conscious.”

Can younger and smaller firms get considered for invited competitions or qualifications-based searches? Several consultants suggest that, when restricting searches to boldface-name firms, clients may shortchange themselves; the work may be handed off to second-tier teams while the principals handle sexier projects.

David Resnicow, principal of Resnicow Schroeder, which consults mainly with arts institutions on strategic planning, is also noticing “greater concern on the part of institutions about hiring a starchitect. A lot of trustees feel that it means having added cost, and dealing with a prima donna. I do see interest in working with younger firms, and in urban context and planning” as opposed to heroic structures. This trend away from grandiosity may get a push forward by the recent University of Chicago report, Set in Stone, which found that many organizations had undertaken expensive, high-profile building projects only to find themselves unable to pay for and sustain them.

“We seek out emerging practices on a regular basis,” said Kroloff, “and bring those forward to clients” when the fit seems promising. He named several once relatively unknown firms he has included in searches, including SHoP and Architecture Research Office (ARO). “We won two projects that [Jones/ Kroloff] ran,” said ARO principal Stephen Cassell. “Neither ended up going forward,” but the resulting attention was a boost, “without question.”

Open, anonymous competitions give smaller firms a chance. But in preparing submissions Stastny urges entrants to consider “a jury walking into a room with 600 entries. You have to have something that’s engaging, that’s easy to get at. A juror may be looking, on his first run-through, only 30 seconds or a minute at each one. A jury will bring it down very quickly to those they understand.”

“Firms need to find a way to speak about their work that stays away from encoded architectural jargon. Understand your audience. Sell to their needs and interests and in their language,” said Resnicow. “I have found the websites of firms to be overloaded and some even difficult to read—literally read—and navigate.”

“Competitions take a lot of thought and work,” said Stein. “Younger firms who haven’t done it before might not have had the chance to see what works well. But sometimes just experiencing going through the process can be a great advantage.”

Architect Ira Keer, of Minneapolis design collaborative what!worx would concur. They won a design competition for infill housing, along with first crack at negotiating to develop it. It was an open competition, but personal connection played a role: Keer wasn’t aware of it until urged to enter by its managing consultant, a former classmate. Recession—and a tornado that blasted the neighborhood—derailed the project. Still, it brought “quite a bit of notoriety,” including an exhibition and numerous articles.

So being known, or known about, by the gatekeepers is crucial. Although he is constantly on the look out, Kroloff also urges younger firms to approach him cold. “Invite us for a site visit. Send a portfolio,” he suggested. ARO has a high profile now, and “a lot of times we don’t know who puts us on a list,” said Cassell. In the competition’s game, knowing the key players makes all the difference.