Thursday, December 11, 2014

100. Diller Scofidio + Renfro and The Star-Architect Staffers Club

This is a loose working outline for the business model of the star-architect office:

  1. Create spectacular head turning projects and publicize them like crazy to get attention and attract clients, but most importantly to attract talented apprentices/interns to work for free.
  2. When the resumes start pouring in, negotiate for free labor: make offers along these lines:
    • “Help us on this competition and if we win, we will hire you” or...
    • “Work for us for free and we will help you get a job at another star-architect firm where we have good contacts”
  3. As you will experience high turnover rate on your interns, maintain a small group of partners or loyal employees as the core of the company and use intern help to become the major production drivers.
  4. Produce more head turning pieces of architecture to attract more attention, and more interns.
  5. With more interns at your disposal, use this resource to increase the volume of competitions that you can enter.
  6. At this rate you are almost certain to start winning some of those competitions and your company's star will begin to rise
  7. With better name recognition and more experience, you can make better quality competition entries and attract even better talent (preferably from other star-architect offices). This is the tipping point where the table turns. At a certain point you will only look at resumes from people who have worked at other star-architect offices. And if you are really good, you can set the bar even higher.
Here we can see an example of an incredibly high bar: Diller Scofidio + Renfro will not consider your resume unless you have worked on at least 4 museums, or equivalent. This effectively means that if you have not worked for another star-architect then do not apply. Why? There are virtually no non-starchitecture firms in the world today that can offer an employee the opportunity to work on the design of a major museum or cultural projects, let alone 4.

Even more... Lets say you have worked for another star-architect firm and you only did residential work, according to this template you need not apply.

So who should apply then?

Most of the employees of the star-architects in this film are eligible to apply to Diller Scofidio+Renfero and likewise DS+R employees are also eligible to work at any of these offices.
So what we effectively have here is a kind of a Schengen Zone within the architecture world: a group of elite starchitecture firms that functions almost like a single firm with an interoffice employee exchange.  While most other star-architect offices are less explicit than DS+R about their prejudices and discriminations, they mostly operate with a fairly similar set of qualification criteria.  I like to think of it as the establishment of a Star-Architect Staffers Club©.  By screening resumes in the way that DS+R does, they forge an effective way to identify members of this club and create a kind of inter-office-network with other starchitecture firms, while simultaneously creating a protective buffer against applicants from non-starchitecture firms.
The chart below shows a survey of 16 employees selected randomly from the firm. The primary question of the survey was: Where did you last work before being hired at DS+R?

As you can see almost every last one of them worked at a starchitecture firm or an up-and-coming one.

So what are the implications of a Star-Architect Staffers Club?
Luca Silenzi wrote a very interesting article Know your [archi-]meme (published in the March 2012 issue of  Domus) where he describes some of the implications and consequences that results when you have an inbred culture within the architecture world. (Incidentally he references note #73 of this blog Work for Rem in his arguments.) He argues that "Global architecture, is becoming more and more similar to itself." Among other reasons for this, he cites "global network" and "same background" in describing the staffers of these firms. He details how the staff of OMA are directly or indirectly inoculated with encyclopedic amounts of information; approaches, working methods, etc. simply by working in that environment. These ideas or memes move with these staffers when they move on from the parent firm ( in this case OMA) and are replicated elsewhere around the globe.
I would also add that it spreads a certain culture with its own set of values, procedures and norms that are accepted globally within these firms. This is not dissimilar to the codes of conduct and corporate culture you may find across both Wall street and the London stock exchange-  the main visual difference here is that the formal corporate garb of the suit and tie are replaced by black or hipster clothing. The values are similar;

-to become a lean well oiled machine for making the most money in the case of wall street and
-to become a lean well oiled machine for winning the most competitions in the case of DS+R and others.

It is interesting to look at the values professed by the founding partners as late as 2009 in contrast to the values they have absorbed up till now. The statements below are taken from an interview that they did with Charlie Rose that year (the full video and partial transcript can be found in note # 59 of this blog Take a Lesson from Diller+Scofidio+Renfero:

Scofidio: Before Elizabeth and I started working together, I had been at another practice, and I had been really sour with the way the profession of architecture was approaching jobs, work and getting commissions. It had nothing to do with issues of architecture. It had to with: I have to produce an income, I have to get work, I have to stay alive.

Diller: We were always a research studio. We were always interested in research whether the outcome was in the form of an installation, in the form of a book, or ultimately in the from of a building. They were just iterations of different forms of the same ideas.

By hiring only people who can demonstrate that they have designed museums and cultural buildings says more about what DS+R has become than any of the two statements above. For one thing it says:

"we are an organization that is about getting museums and cultural building commissions"
"We are a machine for doing that and there is no place for you here if you can not be a gear in this engine".
I hate to point out the obvious, but isn't that exactly what Scofidio claimed to have been soured by in the statement above?

Secondly, if you are a research studio and you are interested in research whether the outcome is in the form of an installation, a book or ultimately in the from of a building, then why are people that are particularly skilled in the design of museums and cultural buildings better qualified for these diverse outcomes?

The best explanation here is that DS+R are in the latter stages (stage 7 ) in the star-architect business model that I described in the opening statement of this note. Gone are the days of crazy experiments, exploring the boundaries between art and architecture, high employee turnover, etc.  This has become a firm almost entirely dedicated to one highly specific commercial purpose: winning starchitecture competitions.

Now don't get me wrong, winning competitions is not a bad thing and being efficient at it by hiring people that are experienced and proficient at it is certainly a good idea. Who doesn't want to work with good experienced people?

My critique of this practice is the exclusivity, not in quality, but in the lack of diversity. Here is another statement they made in that same interview:

Diller: Sometimes we were thought of as just wanting to be on the periphery; a decision to want to lob grenades from the periphery at architecture critically...
when we had a chance to do this building, (the ICA Boston) for many people it was a kind of a wake up... for us it was a kind of validation.

Scofidio: Before that we did theater, performance, installations, and a lot of architects accused us of not being able to deal with compromise, not being able to deal with difficult issues of construction. They thought we were taking the easy way out. They kept saying "wait till you do a building... you will see".

Charlie Rose: And what did you find out when you did a building?

Scofidio: The problems are there in everything you do whether you do a drinking glass (which we have done for water), there are complex problems.

Do you see the perplexity and contradictions in their hiring practice?
It becomes even more pronounced in contrast to statements like the ones above. If the problems are the same from a drinking glass to something as complex as a museum why not hire a diversity of quality people. It would follow that your website would say something like:

 "we are interested in quality people from all disciplines; industrial designers, architects, costume designers, artists, etc"

Where is the compromise? Where is the middle ground between being a critical practice and being an established firm? Shouldn't your hiring and staff constitution reflect that?
To me the ominous voice of your critics saying "wait till you do a building... you will see" seems to be particularly prophetic. The validation here seems to be now a validation for the critics not the other way around.

Conrad Newel
Liberating Minds Since August 2007


Curtis Wayne said...

Conrad, the ICA - as a purported representation of DS+R having done a building - is bunkum. Perry Dean Rogers, a pretty decent Boston firm, worked out all the weird conditions and were the real architects. I know because I represented Bank of America as their quality inspector - top of the food chain, as it were, and I was on site every month, from the driving of the piles into the muck of the harbor's edge, to installation of the cash registers in the lobby the day before opening.
- Curtis B Wayne, AIA

Conrad Newel said...

During the Micheal Jordan era back in the 1990’s I used to hate him and the Chicago Bulls. They were too damn good. I was rooting for the New York Knicks all the way from over here. I loved Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Larry Johnson and even John Starks with all his stupid faults. They were passionate, they were the underdogs that believed in themselves, they believed in the unlikely and went one unfaithful finger roll away from taking the title.
Then one day there was some talk that someone in Knicks management would like to bring Jordan over to the Knicks. I was really upset by that. It was like, what’s the point of bringing in the man to come and win the title for you? If we were going to win, we should do it in our own way, on our own term and in our own style.
I bring this up because I see some parallels between the old DS&R and that Knicks team (at least in the way DS&R presented themselves back then): They were this interesting outsider firm that were kind of doing things that were critical of the establishment and the way architecture was being produced. As Diller in her own words says “Sometimes we were thought of as just wanting to be on the periphery; a decision to want to lob grenades from the periphery at architecture critically...”
Now when they got a shot at doing a major building instead of figuring out how to do it on their own terms or doing it their own way, they simply hired the same people that they were criticizing to do exactly the same thing they were critical of. As you said they hired Perry Dean Rogers to work out all the details on their first major commission (The ICA Boston) and as I have shown, they currently maintain a policy of hiring people only from well-established starchitecture firms.
In my view that’s the same as hiring Micheal Jordan, Scotty Pippen and Denis Rodman to throw on a Knicks jersey and win a championship for them using their trademark triangle offence.

goodbye to architecture said...

It seems to me Thomas Heatherwick bucks the 'rule' ... he designs installations and public sculptures aside from buildings and his studio hires people from various design disciplines. As of now.

Conrad Newel said...

Interesting point GTA!
It makes sense though that this would be the case.
Heatherwick is not regularly participating in large starchitect type competitions.
This is a highly specific industry like being a Silicon Valley patent lawyer, or an airplane gauge sensor manufacturer. They require acute knowledge of a specific industry and only a few people in the world can do it.

DS+R tried to be both experimental firm and starchitect completion specialist at the same time. I thought if anyone could do it they could. They certainly were very good at being experimental and cross disciplinary as Heatherwick is now. When they were just about to cross over into the starchitect competition industry there were questions about whether they could do it and they certainly seem up for the challenge. They talked the talk but ultimately could not walk the walk.

Obviously they just fell into the deep end and got engulfed by the whole thing.

Let’s take a look at Heatherwick in 10 years.