Sunday, November 4, 2007

24. Marry an Architect

WHEN Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio joined a team of architects to design a master plan for a temporary exposition on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, the couple, husband and wife, soon discovered that they had a major disagreement with the others over a pavilion.

Ms. Diller and Mr. Scofidio wanted to build right on the water; the rest of the group thought it was too risky. In the end the couple splintered off from the team and developed a water-soluble structure — a swirl of fog, mist and water — that seemed to hover above the lake’s surface like a cloud. Their design carried the day.

“Ric’s and my typical alignment produces a power bloc,” Ms. Diller said.

While every married couple’s dynamic might be considered unique, Ms. Diller and Mr. Scofidio are representative of a broad trend of husband-and-wife collaboration that is changing the traditional definition of architecture partnerships.

The list of couples is growing, as architects break off from big firms to go into business with their spouses. Dan Wood and Amale Andraos. J. Meejin Yoon and Eric Höweler. Mimi Hoang and Eric Bunge. Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas. Laura Briggs and Jonathan Knowles.

Like partners in any other architecture firm, married couples design together, make business decisions together, meet with developers as a team and travel to building sites in tandem. Interviews with some couples suggest that it can be tricky. There are the perceptions of the outside world to contend with: the idea that men are muscular masters of tectonics, and women, glorified interior decorators. There are the strains of heavy travel and long days while working and living together, and the potential for design arguments to escalate into marital power struggles.

But on the whole, married architects suggested, the married relationship is a plus for the architecture, allowing for an unsparing candor that takes the work to a higher level.

“We rely on critiquing each other to death, a kind of Ping-Pong,” said Ms. Andraos, who founded Work Architecture with Mr. Wood in 2002. “When we agree, we know that it’s good. “

She cited a space they designed for an exhibition last summer on Pier 40 on the Hudson about public spaces for recreation. Ms. Andraos thought of creating a sloping platform divided into five separate spaces: the Cultured City, the Fun City, the Healthy City, the Connected City and the 24-Hour City. Mr. Wood came up with what they called “the wiggle”: an undulating wall under the platform to define the spaces.

For budget reasons, the entire platform was deleted, leaving the wiggle exposed. She proposed making the wiggle out of fabric and hanging it; he suggested cuts in the fabric to create entrances and views; and then she suggested striping the fabric, with alternating panels for video and text. “This is really how we work,” Ms. Andraos said. “It is a back and forth where ideas don’t exclude each other in an either-or, with a winning scheme and a losing one, but rather where ideas build on each other to the point where one of them surfaces as the big one — almost taking the lead — allowing for the others to be nested within it.”

Yet Ms. Andraos, who at 34 is six years younger than her husband, admits that it took time to develop the confidence to assert herself as his professional peer. They met in 1998, when Mr. Wood was working for the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas at his Rotterdam headquarters; Ms. Andraos took a job there a year later. “I was more self-conscious at the beginning and more insecure,” she said. Today the two are so inextricably linked in their thinking that associates at their firm refer to them as “Danamale.”

Although Billie Tsien is now a major name, she has dealt with some traditional skepticism. She met her husband, Tod Williams, in 1977, when, fresh out of architecture school, she applied for a job at his firm. He was 11 years older, just coming off a divorce and playing the field. They started dating six months after she joined the firm. Both worried that as a result she would never be taken seriously.

“Of course that was a huge obstacle,” Mr. Williams remarked.

“And I don’t know that it’s totally overcome,” Ms. Tsien said.

And there are the stereotypes about men’s work and women’s work. “There are things people have preconceptions about that we permit to be reinforced or that we fight,” Mr. Williams said. “A perfect example is interiors. Personally I think I’m as good at fabrics as she is.”

Ms. Tsien is drawn to the more elegant silks and wool fabrics; Mr. Williams said he likes “the long hairy rugs that might at first glance seem to be a matted animal.” When they travel in India, Ms. Tsien homes in on the saris while Mr. Williams prefers old multicolored remnants.

“Sometimes a client may be more comfortable with Billie or me,” he added. “But absolutely know: If you want it built, it has to be both of us.”

Ms. Yoon and Mr. Höweler adopted the strategy of jointly running two firms to allow Ms. Yoon to carve out a separate identity. While they share credit as Höweler & Yoon Architecture, she takes on separate commissions through the aptly titled MY Studio — creating, for example, “White Noise White Light,” an interactive installation for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens in which she inserted a luminous grid of flexible fiber-optic stalks into a public plaza at the base of the Acropolis.

“It is harder for a woman to get equal credit for her work in a husband-and-wife team,” Mr. Höweler said. “Oftentimes people just assume — particularly in academia — that the male partner runs the office while the female partner teaches.”

For the architect Denise Scott Brown, who wrote a stinging critique of sexism in the profession three decades ago, the recent advances of female architects are notable if negligible. She cited the rise of Zaha Hadid, who has reaped major commissions around the globe over the last 10 years, as an example of progress. Ms. Hadid is the only woman so far to take the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor (in 2004).

“They went for 23 years before finding a woman who fit their criteria for great architecture,” Ms. Brown said. “I think their criteria include being a man.”

Although she has collaborated with her husband, Robert Venturi, since 1960 on projects like the Seattle Art Museum, Philadelphia Orchestra Hall and the influential book “Learning From Las Vegas” (1972), Ms. Brown had to stand by as he was singly awarded the Pritzker in 1991.

Mr. Venturi “made a full-blown attempt to say this is not fair,” she said. But he did not turn the prize down.

“When you are the wife as well as the partner, people typecast you,” Ms. Brown said. “You are the handmaiden. Your husband is the design genius, and you’re allowed to be the preservationist or the planner — something less — and the notion that creativity can reside in two minds is impossible.”

To some women, going into business with a husband may seem like a regressive way to win parity in a field that remains largely dismissive of their sex. But Ms. Diller takes a philosophical view: “There were so few of us and it somehow fortified us, established a more acceptable context for us to practice. If I had been on my own, it probably would have been tougher.”

That is not to say it was easy for Ms. Diller to begin her career by collaborating with her husband. In 1975 she studied under Mr. Scofidio; he was about 40, she was 21. They started dating about a year later, moved in together in 1979 and became professional partners in 1981.

She worried at first about carving out her own turf and proving herself on her own terms, so she made a point of asserting herself. “I was very tied to authorship,” she said. “I wanted my thing to be my thing. It’s the same issue that made me uncomfortable about sharing a bed and sharing a bank account.”

Although she soon grew self-assured, the outside world was less quickly convinced. When the couple traveled to Japan on a project, for example, clients routinely addressed and deferred to Mr. Scofidio.

“I would start to pull back,” he said, “in order to make it clear she was also important.”

Today Ms. Diller tends to be the one who speaks publicly on their many prominent projects, including the redevelopment of Lincoln Center, the High Line project on the West Side of Manhattan and the new Institute of Contemporary Art on Boston’s waterfront.

“Liz is the intellectual engine and mouthpiece for the partnership,” said Mr. Höweler, who used to work for the couple. “Ric takes a more quiet, background role but also provides the stability and more of the technical detailing and fabricating know-how.”

What people often don’t grasp, couples say, is that there is no rigid division of labor in these partnerships. Each may tackle different elements of a project, but the crucial conceptual work results from a constant exchange. The project keeps evolving until it is hard to tell where one picked up and the other left off.

Ms. Hoang and Mr. Bunge, partners innArchitects, keep two blackboards in the dining area of their Flatiron district apartment so they can jump up from the dinner table to draw. At the young firm Obra, Pablo Castro describes his alliance with Jennifer Lee as “a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week architectural commando unit.”

They often discuss design strategy deep into the night “until one of us passes out in the middle of a sentence,” he said. “The next morning, as soon as she opens an eye, Jennifer can pick up and complete the thought without missing a beat while I struggle trying to remember what it was we were talking about.”

This approach served them well in competing in the P.S. 1/MoMA Young Architects Program, where their courtyard canopy of curved plywood shells and polypropylene mesh won a design competition last year.

Their differing backgrounds — for Mr. Castro, Argentine; for Ms. Lee, Korean — play subtly into the dynamic. When the two designed a friend’s house on Long Island, he said, she approached the project as “a collision of cultural propensities: Asian respect for tradition and veneration of one’s elders — hers and our friends — clashing with Latin American mistrust of authority and propensity toward disorder — me.”

The wry result was a crescent-shaped house that curves in on itself, “defining a center that is nonetheless empty,” he said.

Compromise — or at the very least sensitivity to the other’s design sensibility— can be vital in the smallest of projects. While Ms. Tsien and Mr. Williams have worked together successfully for more than 20 years on major projects like the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan and an expansion of the Phoenix Art Museum, it was a 40-foot-square bathroom in their own apartment that nearly caused a conflagration.

Mr. Williams always designs spaces with two ways out; he focuses on movement and doesn’t like feeling trapped. Ms. Tsien thinks of space itself as art and looks for places of refuge. They enclosed the tub on two sides to accommodate her and left it open to the living room on another side to satisfy him. At his initiative the shower stall has two access points, and Ms. Tsien embedded a square of Irish moss marble in the wall that she calls her own “private garden.”

A marriage frees up architects for this sort of productive conflict, couples say, given that they can dispense with the niceties and say what they really think. At the same time, Ms. Diller said, “if design partners had significant irreconcilable differences, it would lead to a professional split.”

Over the last two years Mr. Scofidio and Ms. Diller’s coupled template has been tested by the arrival of a new partner, Charles Renfro. Diller & Scofidio has become Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, appending a third voice with equal clout to their tight husband-and-wife alliance. “It’s kind of a couple and a gay guy,” Ms. Diller said.

“What used to be a symmetry based on a personal relationship is now an asymmetry,” she mused. “It created a destabilizing condition that is actually good for the work.”

From The New York Times on April 22, 2007 By ROBIN POGREBIN, original title: "Couples Who Build More Than Relationships"

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