What Role Will ‘Signature’ Play in Our Design Legacy?

March 22, 2005
Design Matrix
Is style more important than good fundamental design?  Should architects emulate today’s giants of “signature” designs, or should we emphasize utility by producing solid structures that, while attractive, are also sustainable and perform well? And finally, is it fair to promise our clients dazzling but perhaps unaffordable signature designs just to win projects? Because architecture is such a crucible of art and business, of aesthetics and utility, I maintain that the answers to those questions lie somewhere between our need to survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace and our desire to create a legacy. Of course, the two goals are not mutually exclusive, because the architect’s legacy in any era – from Imhotep to Leonardo and on to Wright and I.M. Pei – is achieved only by transcending art to embrace difficult concepts of engineering and technology played out against a backdrop of politics and harsh fiscal realities.  I frequently had cause to reflect on those issues over the last three years as the Principal leading the China market for HOK Sport + Venue + Event. Our entry in the high-profile international design competition for the National Stadium of the 2008 Beijing Olympics ignited an in-house debate over the appropriate role of signature architecture. The debate intensified after we, along with 11 other firms, lost the commission to Herzog & de Meuron, a Swiss signature firm whose design was selected because of a grand aesthetic innovation: Their theme was a “bird’s nest,” which served as a metaphor for China as a symbolic home to its own 1.3 billion citizens, as well as to millions of Chinese elsewhere around the world.  The structural expression of the bird’s nest was to be accomplished with massive, continuously bending steel members intercepting one another in an irregular pattern to support both the roof and walls.  Although rich with political meaning and cultural metaphor, the design has little or nothing to do with sports technology or with the spirit of athletic competition. But Herzog & de Meuron clearly sensed that the Chinese government was eager to brand the centerpiece of that nation’s very first Olympics with an indelible cultural statement.  HOK SVE did not lose out completely. To ensure that the structure will meet world-class sports standards and the International Olympic Committee’s requirements,  the owners of the stadium hired HOK SVE as their architects on sports planning and technology, overseeing Herzog & de Meuron’s design development. Thus, one of the world’s hottest signature firms and the world’s leading sports specialist are now working together to take on China’s most prestigious project in this era.  I freely admit that losing the design competition and having to settle for HOK SVE’s current role was a disappointment.  Moreover, Herzog & de Meuron continue to face tough design cutbacks due to cost overruns resulting from the complicated engineering and technology issues of their grand design. Should we have employed a different strategy?  HOK SVE has developed and owned many of today’s most innovative and financially successful stadiums and arenas. But, rather than going it alone in such a high-risk competition, perhaps we should have formed a design partnership with an internationally renowned signature architect to help boost our competitive profile. Strategy aside, signature architects are not much different than their counterparts in arts and fashion, where designers’ names are closely identified with one-of-a-kind creations that evince some identifiable trademark style. Corporate architectural firms market their designs as part of a larger service role and work collaboratively under a project manager. Signature architects, on the other hand, use a design-driven process in which the chief designer leads the project and makes final decisions based more heavily on aesthetic values than on functionality.  Whereas specialization is common within the corporate world to save time and use manpower more efficiently, signature architects typically employ the studio system, encouraging full involvement of the designers from concept to detailing.  Having worked as a lead designer in both types of firms, I incline slightly toward the studio concept. It offers more versatile professional training and the opportunity to learn a unique design process, as well as the prestige of working with world-renowned architects. On the other hand, the more democratic, team-oriented process of the corporate firms, along with more personal freedom and shared credits, can sometimes be more rewarding.  As the practice of architecture gravitates toward a more collaborative practice in America, I wonder if we are losing ground to international competitors by sacrificing personal vision and individual control. Design leadership arises from the personal gesture that transcends stylistic trends and mere engineering to create true aesthetic legacies.  What edge do today’s masters – the likes of Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and I. M. Pei – have over the rest of us? It is easy to attribute their success to good marketing or shrewd politics. But those tools only go so far. In the end, what sets them apart is their superior understanding of what constitutes timeless design and their courage to lead their profession.What matters in the end is that we produce great designs that shape our environments, change our perceptions, and improve our lives.  Yet legacy, too, is important. Our  designs will not only be judged by our contemporaries, but by posterity, for whom landmark structures like the Chinese National Stadium will help define the era in which we lived.Thomas C Young’s 22-year career has included six years as Senior Designer with I.M. Pei & Partners and three years as Principal in charge of Asia-Pacifc operations for HOK SVE.

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