Architects behind the starchitects

Big designers get credit, but lower-profile firms often do bulk of the work

Sep.September 02, 2008 10:40 PM

By Gabrielle Birkner

Top billing may
go to Richard Meier, Renzo Piano or Jean Nouvel, but neither the
starchitects, nor their firms, are likely tasked with the majority of
the architectural work on most of the buildings they design.

With a growing number of New York developers seeking out brand-name
architects from abroad, some local firms with strong design traditions
are taking on more behind-the-scenes roles as so-called architects of
record — or executive architects, as they are sometimes called.

As such, the local firms may be responsible for corresponding with
city agencies about code compliance, coordinating pre-construction site
cleanup, communicating a project’s progress and delays to developers
and financial backers, and creating up to 90 percent of the
construction documents.

In other words, they handle the less sexy elements of the job.

For the vast majority of new buildings in America, a single
architecture firm performs both the creative and project management
functions. But when it comes to the highest-profile, megamillion-dollar
projects — and New York has more than its share of them — two
architects are often commissioned. One generates and makes adjustments
to the design concept; another executes that concept.

“Some firms do it grudgingly,” Peter Samton, a partner at the
full-service architecture firm Gruzen Samton, said of accepting work in
an executive, rather than design, capacity. “But this is a big city.
There are many projects and we can’t be too greedy.”

Gruzen Samton, a New York- and Virginia-based firm now in its
eighth decade, is serving as the architect of record on the
German-American architect Helmut Jahn’s 65-story, 580,000-square-foot
residential and hotel tower at 50 West Street; and doing the same for
the Los Angeles-based firm Morphosis on the nine-story,
175,000-square-foot academic building at Cooper Union. The Downtown
tower broke ground in June and is slated for completion next year.

The division of labor between design and executive architects is
not new, but the boundaries of the roles are no longer as clear-cut as
they once were, Samton said.

During the past 20 or so years, and particularly in the last few
years as the stock of high-profile architects has risen in New York
City, what were once two very separate jobs have become increasingly
collaborative. That is thanks in part to electronic communication and
computer-aided design, enabling more back-and-forth between the
architects.

“There are times you have to bite your lip, but usually I feel very
comfortable speaking my mind to the design architect,” Samton said.

This arrangement works best when the two commissioned architects —
with their unique skill sets and directives — make every effort to
integrate their ideas to present a united front to the client.

“If the design architect is so ego-driven that he gets put off by
ideas coming from other people, then it could be a problem,” Samton
said, noting that this has not been the case at 50 West Street or at
Cooper Union. “If you don’t engage in the silly little child’s play of
‘Whose toy is it?’ that’s when you get the best results.”

Architect Steven Kratchman said he has developed a synergistic
working relationship with design starchitect Annabelle Selldorf, with whom he collaborated, as the executive architect on a six-story,
65,000-square-foot addition to a mixed-use building built in 2002 at
415 West 13th Street.

The two architects are again working together — Selldorf as design
architect, and Kratchman as architect of record — on a 19-story,
57,000-square-foot luxury condo. Informally known as the “Sky Garage,”
the building, slated for occupancy in 2009, features parking on every
floor.

“We have great respect for Annabelle’s design ability,” Kratchman
said, explaining that his role as executive architect is to interpret
the designs so that they are “buildable, approvable and, ultimately,
concrete.”

Kratchman said working as an architect of record does not require
him to stymie the creative impulses he employs as a design architect.
“I find it very satisfying, creatively,” he said. “It isn’t dreaming
things up in the same way; it’s problem-solving.”

Other prominent examples of New York firms doing much of the heavy
lifting for starchitects include Davis Brody Bond Aedas for Renzo Piano
on Columbia University’s forthcoming Manhattanville expansion project,
and FXFowle for Piano on the New York Times Building last year. SLCE
Architects served as the architect of record for both Robert A.M. Stern
on 15 Central Park West and for Jean Nouvel on the 40 Mercer
Residences.

The firms may be hired on simultaneously. But frequently, the
client works with the executive architect on a master plan and
preliminary construction documents for months, or even years, before a
design architect is chosen “to put his or her particular stamp” on a
project, said Cliff Moser, who serves as an advisor to the American
Institute of Architects in the area of practice management.

In some cases, the client issues a contract to each firm; in
others, the two firms are covered under a single contract — often
administered by the architect of record, according to Moser.


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