Gregg Pasquarelli, founding principal of the New York-based SHoP Architects, debuted this year’s Bulthaup public lectures at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design last week with a rabble-rousing talk about his firm’s practice. That a lecture by a charismatic, distinguished professional with a slew of competition wins, awards and critically-acclaimed projects in his portfolio could animate a crowd of aspiring architects is perhaps not surprising. That that lecture was focused in great part on rethinking the business model of architecture, however, makes the rabble-rousing much more interesting.
Pasquarelli’s talk was structured around an account of projects spanning the 15-year history of SHoP – including their Dunescape PS1 installation, Porter House condominiums, and current massive public space project on the East River Waterfront – and offered no lack of the juicy design details and insider reflections that are the normal feed of architecture students at a public lecture. What made Pasquarelli’s talk remarkable, however, was its embedded criticism of he called “the single worst architectural drawing of all time,” the American Institute of Architects’ diagram of the traditional construction procurement method.
This model is the bland subject matter of notoriously ill-attended architecture school “professional practice” courses. For SHoP, it symbolizes the invasion of architecture practice by lawyers, and the resulting bifurcation of the profession into “guardians of culture,” who hold to their ideals, and “servicers of clients,” who do business. SHoP has undertaken to traverse this divide, entering into joint venture arrangements in which the architect’s face blurs with that of the client and the contractor. And, far from being the feared “slippery slope to hell,” Pasquarelli pronounced, once an architect has shown willingness to buy a stake in the ugly world of finance and development, that ugly world is more inclined to trust the architect’s judgment and best intentions. The result, he said, is design freedom and a regaining of territory for a profession with its roots in the practice of master builders. In so doing, he struck a loud note of optimism in the most unexpected of places, which likely explains the unusually energetic applause that followed.