acsa post-mortem: gregg pasquarelli to the rescue?

After a strong start, the rest of the ACSA week was a mixed bag.  Francois Roche gave the first keynote, and while his talk was wildly entertaining–hermaphrodite polar bears, grasshopper-based shelters for racist penguins, you get the drift–there was a palpable sense among the audience that we were being punk’d.  Many of the sessions followed suit, with really broad speculation about new “constellations” of ecology and digital worlds, and precious little of this actually coming home to roost.  By the time a colleague and I got through a paper on the “problematizing of scarcity,” we were ready to bail.  (His comment:  there are plenty of folks in Haiti willing to “problematize” that issue for us.  Agreed).

So the final keynote, by Gregg Pasquarelli, was a giant breath of fresh air.  SHoP has felt a fair amount of backlash this year as they’ve had their hands in several major projects in New York City–the introductory pointed out that they’ve done as much as any one firm to transform the waterfront as any single firm, ever.  But as Pasquarelli noted, their explosive success has come because they’ve been the single firm willing to re-think the way the profession operates on a massive scale, and they’ve hit a sweet spot that lies somewhere between construction management, development, and design that’s obviously made them far more valuable to their metropolitan clients than other firms are able to be.

Barclays Center is a good example of this–given seven weeks for design and development and a fixed layout and structure for the major arena, they figured out a cladding and circulatory structure that took a literal copy of Indianapolis’ Canseco Fieldhouse and knitted it into downtown Brooklyn.  The ridiculous construction schedule that ensued was only possible with their ability to create their own shop drawings and assembly ‘instructions,’ a constant theme in their work that avoids the time-consuming process of traditional construction drawings and shop drawing approvals.  If you listen to the AIA and their lawyers, of course, this is exactly what architects shouldn’t be doing, since the liability there is extraordinary.  But SHoP has grown into this process from small scale pavilions up through mid-rise buildings, so the leap here was just one of scale.  Pasquarelli made this explicit–what makes SHoP valuable is their willingness to take on risk, which in his definition is something quantifiable.  ‘Unknowns,’ on the other hand, are something even they want to avoid, since they’re by definition unquantifiable.

This attitude makes them renegades from a professional standpoint, but it also makes their model genuinely interesting, as they’ve aggressively tried to take back aspects of the ‘master builder’ model that made architecture such a comprehensive (and lucrative) profession a hundred years ago.  Part of the formula here is a supreme confidence, both in the methods and in the partners, but that faith has been pretty well rewarded.  SHoP has been controlling the fabrication process for a few years now, and more recently they’ve expanded into development, as well.  Single-sourcing increases liability, for sure, but it’s also created projects that are super-well integrated, apparently affordable, and (I would guess) pretty lucrative.

This was a spectacular choice for a final keynote.  It put a lot of talk about ‘constellations’ on the back burner and, at the last minute, was a solid reminder that ultimately our profession does stuff in the world.  You can critique the aesthetics, you can hand-wring about getting into bed with big finance, but ultimately something like Barclays is a tremendous success story about how our profession is most valuable when it involves applied cleverness.  There’s a problem on the one hand–in this case a project running up against a tax deadline and a scheme that needed drastic downscaling–and a set of resources on the other–a digital process that has become as good at organization and administration as it has at visualization–and a group of designers in the middle that did a pretty masterful job of matching one to the other.

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