On Not Choosing Sides

On Not Choosing Sides

For a profession that prides itself on its open mindedness and collaboration, we’re obsessed with dividing ourselves into factions. One particularly egregious example:  corporate versus boutique practices. More than ever it seems you’re either perceived as creative or that you’re working as a corporate drone.

By some accounts this dichotomy has some truth to it, as larger firms, burdened with high profit expectations and bottom line-oriented clients, take on more bread and butter work and burden their younger employees with monotonous details. And as young firms continue to get shut out of major work, they instead busy themselves with residences, competitions, and art installations.

But despite the practical realities, fostering such divisions is a counterproductive way of thinking, and of practicing. It’s the kind of mentality that will keep the profession marginalized from the mainstream.

If the profession is to thrive, and if our urban landscape is to improve, more firms need to find ways to take advantage of the creativity of a small firm and the resources of a big one. They don’t need to choose a side. Happily there is some movement in the right direction, as larger firms edge toward creativity and innovation and small ones learn to adapt the models of the big boys.

Larger companies are following in the footsteps of a precious few firms like SOM and Foster + Partners that have long embraced innovation (although even they still sometimes produce B-quality work) at a large scale, corporate level.

Last month we interviewed Peter Zellner, an adventurous architect known for small residences and art galleries, who recently took a job as studio design lead for the LA office of AECOM, the largest A/E firm in the world, and a place not known as avant-garde. The move, coupled with similar hires elsewhere, shows the company’s desire to step out of its comfort zone and focus harder on design and innovation.

Earlier this month we learned that LA firm P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S has joined forces with Gensler (a corporate firm taking major steps to create design excellence in its rapidly growing office) to design SoLA Village, a $1 billion residential, hotel, and retail complex just south of the 10 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles.

Yazdani Studio of CannonDesign has for the past decade or so harnessed the power of Cannon but stuck with only ambitious work. It makes for some tension within the firm, but it has also created some stunning large-scale projects.

In New York, Gregg Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects has talked about how merging design excellence and corporate scale is essentially his firm’s business model. And it’s paid off, resulting in major commissions of rare quality. Other firms like Steven Holl Architects, Snøhetta, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro are growing and teaming up with larger firms to make their visions reality.

And across Los Angeles small to medium sized firms like John Friedman Alice Kimm, Brooks+Scarpa, and Steven Ehrlich Architects are winning larger commissions by bolstering their staffs and their technologies, embracing delivery methods like design/build, partnering with larger architecture and construction firms, and making important connections in the corporate and government sectors.

I plan to continue exploring this sea change in the coming months, observing the merger of design culture, innovation, and corporate environments. There are so many models in other businesses that we can learn from. You may have heard of a little startup known for merging design with practicality called Apple?

In order to stay relevant, and to harness its potential, the profession needs to stop moving apart and start coming together. Perhaps there will be a time when we don’t need to distinguish between a so-called design firm and a so-called corporate one.