Monday, December 7, 2015

Sometimes the most important work is the one not taken

Many years ago when I had just started my firm, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Eugene Kohn of KPF. I recall vividly his advice that, when growing a firm, the most important decision is what jobs not to take. At the time I found it somewhat puzzling since it was hard enough to get an architecture firm established, so being picky was the last thing on my mind.

Yet, Kohn was right. Especially as a young start-up, what your first projects are will define your firm for years to come. Being more on the other end of this continuum with my firm that is going to be 25 years old in 2017, I am often thinking back of this moment and the 80 rowhouse rehabs in Sandtown that ArchPlan took on as one of the first jobs and how many more projects of the same type followed. I have never regretted to have taken on that work even though it set a path that included  many not so posh and lucrative projects instead of which most architects cherish for the opportunity to have the resources for splendid and creative solutions.

But I have learned that I don't want to deal with clients that have foremost money in mind and who don't care much about the quality of their projects as long as the cash-flow is right. In spite of, or because of all its troubles, Baltimore attracts a constant flow of out of town investors and developers who are used to expensive cities like NYC and DC who see Baltimore's plenty cheap empty buildings and see dancing dollar signs. 
They usually hire architects only because they have to have a licensed professional who stamps their drawings. They otherwise have little respect for notions that go beyond cost. Those clients who don't understand that this isn't a zero sum game (if the project costs more they will earn less) but that, with a good team, they can push the envelope and create a market to aspire to, possibly one Baltimore hasn't seen before. 

The desirable approach is not "cash and burn" but steady value creation. Toby Bozzutto, Thibault Manekin and my own clients Nancy Hoof, Jim Campbell and Ernst Valery and many others are such clients who create ambitious quality projects that lift the city to new levels and that leave them prosperous at the same time ("Do good and doing well", developer Bill Struever calls this.) 

All this was on my mind when I declined the invitation to write a proposal after an initial tour of a downtown building slated for a conversion of class B office to housing.

References to New York come, indeed, to mind
But to hear a potential client speak about the desire to create plain vanilla apartments?For most architects, and for me in particular, no design task is “plain vanilla”, every task is special. A client who admonishes “not to get romantic about a job that was about money”? I do develop an emotional element relative to my work. I would describe it as passion. Only with passion can one excel in what one selected to do as a profession. 
The developer also said that “we are not out to change the world”. But changing the world, too, is an element of my understanding what it means to be an architect.

A statement that I had to battle with in particular was in the connce to London, Berlin and New York where the client in the context of lack of daylight and views  referred to London, Berliin and Paris where "he had seen worse."

I recall London when I worked there in 1975 and the many burnt out rowhouses in disinvested neighborhoods, the “derelict sites” were just what Baltimore still has in many places. So whatever investment is made here, it has to serve the investor but it also has to make Baltimore better in what it is good at. 

One thing it is very good at is historic buildings, it has more of those registered than any other US city. Worse conditions elsewhere cannot be the standard. This is not to say that there couldn’t be creative, cool and good solutions for the lack of light and views in this particular building, but they would not entail cookie-cutter, plain-vanilla small apartments but something that takes advantage of the specific qualities this place has. Finally there were statements about mixing incomes in one building that wouldn’t work in the sense that cheaper units couldn’t sit below more expensive duplexes and you where rents reflect the light and view conditons. To me the strict income stratification that is all too common in our developments is a problem, not a rule to follow.

And then there was the ever popular idea of not using a complete set of consultants. It has come up many times in my 40 years of experience; it has never worked, not in a commercial setting and not in a city where you can’t do anything without a permit, inspections and licensed professionals, for design and for construction. These more complicated projects work best if each discipline gets the respect it needs to contribute their expertise; no one party knows it all, even if we architects tend to believe that we are the ones who do.

So, in spite of many admonitions to be more positive, I decided to stay away from the project,
Even giving the reasons why, blunt but also a bit self righteous probably, just how those Germans can be sometimes.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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