Moved an old file box the other day that had been sitting on a book shelf in the basement, and before banishing it to the attic, took a few minutes to paw through the stuff inside. Was a ten year old collection of things that I’d brought home from the office the day I left “the Big Firm” for a new situation, where I eventually worked for a year with a friend, in his small office.
I had a good laugh when I pulled one old memo out. It was now ten years old, and a reminder of one of the lessons I learned early on in corporate architecture: Viz; “Don’t expect a thank you…”
I’d been working on what was at the time probably the single largest piece of developable waterfront real estate on the east coast, the Pritzker Parcel, or Fan Pier, in Boston. Then, it was a jumbled collection of parking lots and a virtual jersey-barrier wasteland. But it was a gem, frankly. The planning had been going on for a year or so when I joined the team, and is still going on today, ten years later.
The parcel was sizable, with a potential at the time for about four or five MILLION square feet of development. There were a number of schemes which divided the parcel into city blocks, and as a centerpiece there was left one parcel, on the waterfront, which was to be given virtually for free to the developer who proposed the highest and best use for the public benefit. A deadline was established, and interested entities had something like a week to put together a response to the request for a proposal.
Got a call in early May, 1999, from a developer who was related to the overall project. They were working with the ICA, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, to develop a proposal to relocate the museum from their funky but nearly defunct (then-)present location on Boylston Street to the parcel on the waterfront. In a few days, not much time, they would need to turn in a proposal, describing their intended use for the parcel, including (they hoped) some rough conceptual sketches for the project. And so, their call reached me at my desk, one of a couple teams members working on the larger project.
In essence… a short-term proposal response like this begins with “we don’t have a program, we don’t have any budget information, we don’t have any time.” Would it be possible for me to consider the site, keep in mind who the client would be (the Institute of Contemporary Art), and generate perhaps three or four preliminary sketches so that they could get a feel for what something might be like, sitting there on the edge of the waterfront, as signature bit of architecture? We’d then review the first ideas, edit, tweak, and then I’d do one or two final quick sketches for them to include in the proposal.
I did four rough (very rough) sketches that night, showing some rough idea of a glassy outward-looking structures, perhaps vaguely structured in a way that began to talk about the waterfront, ships, etc. The truth, though, is you can’t get very deep into it in only a couple hours.
These calls always come at the end of the day, and always request something in the morning. No meetings with the client, no program to go by, just something very conceptual. So, four quick sketches. I faxed them off.
A couple didn’t really do anything for me, but at least they started to address the idea of the building as an object set apart from the context. No great stretch. I faxed them off, with some handwritten caveats written directly on them. I’ve edited those notes, and instead the captions relate to my thoughts about these looking at them ten years later…
They were ok, but my favorite was a sketch which didn’t give away the whole show, because frankly the whole show was unknown. Let’s not stand back and present this thing as fully considered, let’s just do something for now that spoke of a big move. So I moved closer in, and suggested a glassy volume, opening onto the harbor. Maybe an outward-looking glass box, cantilevered out over the boardwalk to engage the public rather than hunker inwardly, in direct opposition to what museums are “expected” to do…. This was all almost literally napkin sketching, though. All treated the thing as “object”.
A return phone call in the morning, from the director of the ICA, Jill Medvedow. We discussed what worked, what didn’t, what struck her as in line with her thinking, etc. Frankly, the design couldn’t be very intellectual at this point. Architects don’t design museums in four hours… but we needed something quick, a placeholder.
I took some mental notes during the conversation, and drew up a couple of final concept sketches (not included here, presumed lost to the flat files) and I sent them off. As far as I know they were inserted into the proposal, buffered by things likely far more germane to the discussion like mission statements, ten-year plans, financials, etc.
I didn’t hear anything back. Not too strange, as these things take place in a flurry of activity, and my work was not likely to be THE deciding factor. Still, the thing to note is that the expectation was we would do it for the asking. It’s one of the unspoken things in the business of corporate architecture. You see, architects often do this kind of thing hoping that if the client gets the project,they’ll be asked back to the dance, or at least asked to provide a proposal for architectural services.
After a week or so of no news, the Boston Globe announced that the parcel had in fact been awarded to the Institute of Contemporary Art.
And a little later, that the ICA had awarded the contract to design their new building, on Boston’s premier waterfront parcel, to Diller & Scofidio, of New York. Who built a lovely outward-looking glass box, and cantilevered it out over the boardwalk to engage the public, rather than hunker inwardly like other museums are expected to do.
And so, lesson learned.
Bitter? No… I didn’t actually remember this until finding the stapled-together fax. And truth be told, they may have seen the final sketches (not these early studies) and not been very thrilled, deciding to leave them out of the package entirely. I don’t know. After doing the work, I never heard anything again, and didn’t give it much thought.
When I read the memo today, I had to laugh. You see, these kind of things happen more often than not in the corporate world, especially now when architects are clamoring for work, but even during a boom. The dirty little secret about architecture is that architects love their work so much, they say they’d almost do it for free. The sad truth is, they often do.