Thursday, April 3, 2008

The End of Isms: An Evening with Gregg Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects

Brick redefined: To meet an historic district requirement for brick-only facades, SHoP created a computer algorithm that helped develop this undulating brick system for a building in the NoLITa neighborhood of Manhattan. All images (except for the airplane model) are from the SHoP Architects website.

Last night at the Maryland Institute College of Art, New York-based architect Gregg Pasquarelli lectured about the state of architecture and the philosophy behind the firm he co-founded, SHoP Architects. Created in 1996 with his wife, another couple, and one of the couple's twin brothers, SHoP has earned a reputation for unique and thoughtful design coupled with innovative technological advancements. Today, SHoP has an office of more than 70 employees and is managing projects around the globe.

The Dunescape Project created in 2000 through the Young Architects Program at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center transformed the courtyard of the Long Island Museum into a kind of urban beach. The architects used computer programs to develop this form, which is constructed out of cedar.

Inside Dunescape: This view shows the intricacy of the interlocking cedar pieces.

Fundamental to the SHoP philosophy on architecture, is a belief that a firm can embrace both the conceptual side of design as well as the pragmatic, structural side. Why, Pasquarelli challenges, do we believe there to be a distinction between thought architects and build architects? Why not embrace both? "We want to return the architect to master builder while embracing new technology and forms," he says. SHoP advances that idea within their firm, which is set up in the spirit of a studio and includes a roster of employees hailing from a wide range of fields.

SHoP also wants to rid the industry of damaging and limiting "isms." Allowing yourself to be knighted by one of the many isms in architecture—Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, etc. etc—creates unnecessary boundaries and these can lead to the worst ism of them all, according to Pasquarelli: Specialism. "We're the last great generalist profession," he says. "The worst thing we could become is specialists."

To that end, Pasquarelli encourages a rewriting of the traditional client-architect-construction manager relationship. The firm began, early on, to take on variant aspects of their projects and to look to other industries for best practices. They analyzed the way in which cars and airplanes are assembled and began to think of construction as a kit of parts.

In the building below, SHoP designed the structure on the computer and used the computer program to cut and number the variant pieces. They created simplified construction diagrams so that on site, the builders could easily fit the pieces together. 417 parts arrived at the site and every piece, including the metal, the wood, etc, was pre-milled and drilled and marked with specific instructions. At one point, the architects heard a saw and came running out of the trailer: a construction worker had picked up the wrong piece, it didn't fit, and he was getting ready to saw it. They caught the error in time and within four weeks, the building was compete. All of the pieces fit. By rethinking the materials, assembly, and fabrication, they are able to bring projects like this in within budget. "We can use design as a profit center, not a cost center," Pasquarelli says.

From here, SHoP began to take equity stakes in their projects. Pasquarelli believes this is fundamental to the advancement of the architecture profession and that it is the only way to break the cycle of mediocrity that marginalizes design. "In America, if you don't take risk, you are not going to get reward," he says. (There was an excellent diagram including a photo of a butterfly and a monkey's ass to illustrate this point. I wish I could replicate that for you here...)

For the Porter House project, pictured below, SHoP helped purchase this warehouse in the Meat Packing District and create this para-building design to maximize square footage. Again, the facade was fabricated off site and when assembled, it came to within 1/32 of an inch.

By cantilevering the addition and expanding in to the air rights over the neighboring warehouse, they were able to gain valuable floor space.

The building's curtain wall was fabricated from an intricate system of interlocking zinc and windows. It incorporated the latest technology with good old fashioned common sense: Because the architects wanted the facade to have some depth and structure, they wound up with deep ledges outside each window. They called the Museum of Natural History and asked for the angle of repose for pigeons and then tipped the ledges enough to discourage birds. "There's not a drop of pigeon poop there today," Pasquarelli says.

The plans for the zinc curtain wall.

Further Reading:

There's an article in Architect magazine about SHoP's plans for the East River Waterfront. Metropolis magazine also profiled the firm. There is a list of books and articles about the firm on their website as well.