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How SHoP Became NYC's Go-To Megaproject Architects

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Entering SHoP's new office in the Woolworth Building. All photos by Will Femia.

Toward the back of SHoP Architects' new office in the Woolworth Building, behind a gallery with models of the firm's projects, a lounge area lined with images and press clippings, and a bar with iced coffee and beer on tap, is a blank slice of wall where SHoP's partners plan to hang a piece of weathering steel from the Barclays Center facade. The arena is SHoP's highest-profile completed work to date, but the firm is fast developing a reputation for its involvement with neighborhood-changing megaprojects. Earlier this month, New York's City Council unanimously approved the redevelopment of Brooklyn's Domino Sugar Factory, designed by SHoP. At Atlantic Yards, the SHoP-designed Tower B2, set to be the world's tallest modular building, is rising. SHoP was one of two firms tapped for Essex Crossing, a megaproject that will fill the largest swath of undeveloped Manhattan land south of 96th Street. And then there are substantial single-building commissions like 111 West 57th Street, a 1,350-foot superscraper along a new-development-heavy corridor, and 626 First Avenue, a pair of curvy copper buildings bringing 800 apartments to a long-empty 9.2-acre mud pit. More commissions require, of course, a larger staff, and SHoP has expanded to 190 employees, 90 of them hired over the last year. The firm has plans to add swing space on the 10th floor of the Woolworth building in January 2015.

Growing, forward-looking architecture firm moves into iconic New York City skyscraper: the symbolism is obvious. But as with most things SHoP, the decision works on multiple levels—the partners are able to list at least four, trading off sentences as they sit together around a conference table. They've had a decade to ponder the bigger meaning of the Woolworth Building from SHoP's previous perch across the street. "Part of the core of this office is really how to work with materials, and how to manifest buildings and architecture that is of our time using...traditional materials," says Chris Sharples, and the "scaled intimacy" of material found in the architecture of the Woolworth Building is an example the SHoP team hopes to emulate. "We talk about sustainability—not so much in terms of how buildings metabolize energy, but more about the idea [that] if you make something beautiful that people take care of, it's gonna last forever. This building is full of new tech companies."

[SHoP's design for the Domino megaproject in Brooklyn. Courtesy SHoP Architects and James Corner Field Operations.]

"At its hundredth birthday"—last year—"the building started to completely reinvent itself," interjects Gregg Pasquarelli, another partner.

"That to us is the most sustainable thing you can have," Chris continues.

When SHoP first moved downtown, it was "appealing to us to be part of the revitalization of this area and then we really grew to love it," says partner Kimberly Holden. The firm has six current residential projects underway between Church and Broadway and Worth and White streets alone, and SHoP partner Coren Sharples sits on Community Board 1. Entrenched in the neighborhood, the SHoP partners are more easily able to envision the area's future needs—for example, more schools to keep pace with residential growth.

SHoP's deep involvement in the neighborhood also allows the partners to present it as "a kind of microcosm of urban planning that we're promoting globally," says partner Bill Sharples. "It's great to be able to go and present to a client that I live here, I walk my kids to school here, I shop here, and I work here, all within a square mile." It's "just a really powerful story."

[Clips line the lobby of the SHoP office.]

'The Last Great Generalist Profession'

When the original principals—Christopher Sharples and William Sharples, who are twins, Coren Sharples, who is married to William, and Kimberly Holden and Greg Pasquarelli, who are married to each other—formed SHoP (the name is a combination of their last initials), the guiding idea was one of what architecture should and shouldn't be, rather than a grand urban planning vision or even a shared aesthetic. "We wanted to…not fall into that trap of the 'paper architect' versus the 'service architect,'" Pasquarelli says. "We really cared about theory and history and culture and beauty but we also really cared about politics and finance and technology and how those could come together. We thought that was what architects did best—that we understood a lot of different things." The partners' views were partly informed by their own varied backgrounds, which range from art history (Holden) to business (Coren Sharples) to political science and fine arts (Chris Sharples) to investment banking (Pasquarelli). Architecture is "the last great generalist profession," as Pasquarelli calls it, one that let the partners continue hiring architects with similarly wide-ranging interests—current staffers have studied physics, philosophy, and other disciplines.

But in 1996, when SHoP began, the idea of architects as generalists involved in all aspects of their projects, from initial drawings to construction practicalities, was uncommon. "The industry wasn't set up for that," says Chris Sharples—if anything, the world of development positioned architects, contractors, and site owners as opponents in the construction process. Figuring out how to navigate those divides and communicate their designs to clients, consultants, and builders was particularly important for a firm determined to work in New York, where architects' initial plans often fall victim to value engineering, or the scaling back of a design for cost reasons. SHoP's reputation for its use of technology began as a way to tackle that need: "We don't build buildings," Pasquarelli explains. "We make instruction sets for other people to build buildings." But "we knew we had to change what those instruction sets were" to have a hope of preserving the firm's designs.

[The towers that will fill in the First Avenue mud pit. Image courtesy of SHoP.]

The architects looked to the aircraft industry's use of digital tools, "and that really informed a different kind of thinking and making," says Chris Sharples. (His and Bill's offices are decorated with small toy aircraft, as is the firm's lobby.) SHoP began exploring both digital and physical project models—half of the firm's original office space was taken up by the model shop—a process that paid off in 2000, when the firm won the annual P.S. 1 Young Architects Program competition with a design called "Dunescape."

Today, developers and architecture critics attribute SHoP's success not just to its use of technology but to its "ability to work on all fronts," including production, financing, and deftness in dealing with community opposition, says New York Magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson, who first became aware of SHoP when the firm designed the Rector Street Bridge to reconnect Battery Park City and the World Financial Center to Lower Manhattan after September 11, 2001. The architects' mixed skillset came together over the course of multiple projects, beginning with a commission for a carousel house in Greenport, New York. The community wanted a Victorian structure to match Greenport's many Victorian homes; SHoP wanted to do something more modern. To bridge the gap, SHoP showed residents images of London's Victorian-era Crystal Palace, an iron and glass exhibition hall devoted to the technologies of the Industrial Revolution. "And they go, 'oh, now we understand why you want to use glass and you want to have these big doors open like this. And suddenly it wasn't a question of style anymore, it was a question of innovation and performance," says Chris Sharples. The carousel house, thanks to its modern doors, could remain in use year-round, bringing in revenue for additional community projects.

[Clockwise from top left, Dunescape, the carousel house in Greenport, Porter House, and the Camera Obscura in Greenport. Images courtesy SHoP.]

When Chris and Bill Sharples called their father to celebrate the commission, he said—as Bill relates it—"Seven years of education…and you get to do a merry-go-round." But, looking back, "it really was the beginning of everything." The partners worked with a Brooklyn Navy Yard fabricator to engineer and create the doors. They photographed every step in that process and made a flipbook for contractors to use as a guide. They made models that included neighborhood businesses, which convinced locals that SHoP understood the community.

The architects then proceeded to another project in Greenport, the Camera Obscura, for which SHoP modeled 2,200 different parts. The regulatory agencies involved in that project, says Coren Sharples, offered "almost a microcosm of what we deal with here in the city." Another building the principals identify as a company turning point, the Porter House, allowed the firm to experiment with financing its own projects. By 2007, SHoP had formalized its preference for being involved with the whole process by creating SHoP Construction, a separate firm headed by SHoP's sixth principal, Jonathan Mallie, to "facilitate the delivery of the design all the way through" until a project is built. Being on the development side, Mallie explains, "you are in a position to say, we can purchase zinc ourselves for the facade. We can work with a...contractor, we can work with a carpenter and put [a building] together in a different way."

[The Barclays Center. Photo by Will Femia.]

Though SHoP had been laying the foundations for years, it was the architects' commission for the Barclays Center that shifted them, in many observers' eyes, from "up-and-coming" to "well, hello." "I thought [Barclays] was a terrible idea" for SHoP, Davidson remembers. "My sense of the project was that it was doomed and New York had been jerked around, and they were really naive about working on that project." But ShoP, stepping in after Frank Gehry's initial design for the arena was dropped, worked within the constraints of the already-ordered steel, and the results impressed observers (though the arena still has plenty of detractors among design critics and community members). "It's one of the things that actually shows SHoP to be cleverer than most people," Davidson says. "They took a gamble, but the project would really have architectural integrity."

In 2012, the firm added a seventh partner, Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of Columbia University's Center for Urban Real Estate. Again, though Chakrabarti has been a friend of SHoP for years—coming in on the weekends to hang out with the employees and offer "desk crits," or critiques of their work—outside observers point to his formal addition to the firm as a driving force behind SHoP's recent wave of megaproject commissions, particularly Domino and Essex Crossing. "He's a leading urbanist and his ideas about cities and density and the future of cities is something that corresponded with our development philosophy," says David Lombino, director of special projects for Two Trees, the developer of the Domino project. Chakrabarti, whose 2013 book, A Country of Cities, is subtitled "A Manifesto for an Urban America," calls himself an "accelerant" for SHoP's prior urban planning work. "It's like taking an amazingly well-designed engine and putting a turbo-charger on it."

The Family Business Model

SHoP appealed to Barclays Center developer Forest City Ratner Companies because "you really get the best of all worlds," says MaryAnne Gilmartin, FCRC's CEO and president. "You're talking about a highly collaborative process, not just with the clients and the architects, but with the architects themselves. You get the sense that there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes" before the project formally begins.

Chakrabarti, who chose to join the firm in an official capacity after years of casual involvement because of the "sense of home" he felt there, says the partners "finish each other's sentences" when it comes to design. They tease each other like family, too: "It's like the third day in a row you guys have worn the same thing," Pasquarelli says of Chris and Bill Sharples' matching black outfits. And partly because the company began as a family firm, Holden says, "we take care of our own." The firm has never had an unpaid intern or unpaid employee, and the office pays the entirety of each full-time employee's health insurance.

The same collaborative mentality exists when it comes to the actual process of design. "We sort of see it as a transdisciplinary constellation of different talents and backgrounds, and depending on what the problem is, we can sort of reorganize or create kind of a field rush of those people and they can use those [backgrounds] to work on a problem," Holden explains. The new office is set up with project bunks where staff members can gather. More broadly, says Bill Sharples, "an intern can have access to a partner, can be in a design meeting daily and actually present an idea, and if the team feels that's the right idea, that's the idea that we're gonna move forward with." Interns and staffers participate in lunch-and-learns, and clients join conversations in the office party zone, too. "They get to talk to these people right out of school and ask…what they think about design, what they think of the city, and it's an amazing experience for both the client and the intern, while they're playing pool or ping-pong," Pasquarelli says.

"We tell the intern to lose," jokes Chris Sharples. Everyone laughs.

'Keeping SHoP SHoP'

What does it mean for a city to have so many of its megaprojects designed by one firm? Maybe nothing: while Gilmartin says she hopes SHoP "can scale the work and manage the growth" so as not to "take away the magic of SHoP," Lombino argues that New York City has too much ongoing development for any one firm to take over an outsized share. It is an issue SHoP thinks about, Chakrabarti says, and the firm has turned down work in New York so as not to become ubiquitous. The firm has also begun branching out in terms of project types, taking on cultural and institutional work, and geographically, adding international commissions to its roster.

Even as it expands, the firm seems conscious of remaining "on message." It recently hired Philip Nobel, an architecture critic who wrote the introduction to SHoP's 2012 monograph, Out of Practice, as editorial director. Nobel's job will be to work with everyone at the firm to "keep SHoP SHoP." SHoP's ability to talk about the work the firm does is an underrated but crucial aspect of its rise, Davidson says. "That skill gets dismissed as a kind of hucksterish ability. But I actually think that it's really part of everything else. It's the way they can persuade the developers to back the creation of a whole new modular construction industry in Brooklyn. It's the way they get Landmarks to approve the tower" on 57th Street. "Because they have an understanding of how clearly they need to articulate ideas, it forces the ideas to be clearer to begin with."

The firm balances two sometimes oppositional beliefs. First, that "the greater the scope of our involvement, the more things that we're willing to get our hands dirty with, that actually mitigates the risk," in Coren Sharples's words. Second, in Chakrabarti's, that "if architects want to do big urban work, they have to understand that there are a lot of stakeholders," and sometimes input from those stakeholders will require design modifications (as happened at Domino). Other firms take on aspects of SHoP's approach—architect-developers deal with financing, and firms like Kohn Pedersen Fox tackle vast urban planning projects that require political savvy. But SHoP seems to manage the balance between control and compromise to a degree other firms haven't, perhaps because its approach is more philosophical than aesthetic. "I think that we don't even think about the form or the object at first," says Pasquarelli. "It's really, what are the issues? What are the problems? What are we trying to solve? What are the prototypes? How do the prototypes work and not work? What do people love and not love about that building type or that neighborhood or that context? What is the effect that the client wants?" SHoP itself emerged and grew from similarly broad, open-ended questions: how can one group of architects change their profession? How can they can solve a construction problem, revitalize a neighborhood, build in a sustainable way, or give a superscraper a human sense of scale? "And once we have all of that information, the form begins to emerge."
· SHoP Architects coverage [Curbed NY]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]

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