February 1, 2013
by Elsa Lam
Faade consultancy Front Inc designed the futuristic envelope for Neil Denari’s HL23, a residential building overlooking the elevated High Line park in Manhattan. Exploring new modes of practice, Front also worked through a sister company to supply the glazing portions, taking responsibility for all aspects of the system’s design and production. The firm was co-founded by Marc Simmons–who trained in architecture at the University of Waterloo–along with partners Bruce Nichol and Na Min Ra. Marc Simmons
Among many Canadian architectural firms, a sense of concern currently prevails. Across the provinces, the past several years have seen the rise of mega-firms with large organizational umbrellas, and the arrival of new procurement procedures for a broad range of public commissions. Small- to mid-sized firms, wary of merging into large entities or entering the P3 game, seem in particular to seek new models of practice.
The theme of finding an alternative path–whether through specialization, collaboration or multidisciplinarity–was the subject of a recent symposium organized by grad students at Ryerson University. Emerging from a seminar led by department chair Colin Ripley, the evening’s discussants included McGill professor Michael Jemtrud, the University of Calgary’s Branko Kolarevic, Montgomery Sisam principal Alice Liang, and New York-based Marc Simmons of Front Inc.
Early on in the discussion, Jemtrud declared that “architects need to know a lot”–a refrain that echoed throughout the evening. The contours of this broad knowledge varied considerably for each speaker.
Kolarevic, for instance, hoped that new forms of design-build practice could emerge as architects learn to directly manufacture buildings using new technology. Jemtrud, who has headed a cluster of technology-centered initiatives at McGill, pointed out the need for critical historical thinking and lab-based environments to ground and test emerging tools. For him, these tools include not only digital software, but also bureaucratic structures and policies that enable design.
Simmons emphasized the importance of understanding project financing and global economic structures. As a façade consultancy, his studio begins with an astute knowledge of budgetary constraints in order to produce innovative designs. Simmons is also no stranger to digital tools: Front’s staff includes a good number of computer geeks, fluent in programming languages that help generate complex patterns and pinpoint accurate geometries.
Liang stepped in to reassure the soon to be graduates that their liberal education and collaborative skills would open many doors, in architecture or otherwise. She spoke with satisfaction of her own success in influencing public policy, after many years practicing as a health-care architect. Politics, she hinted, would be a worthwhile path for more architects to pursue.
At the heart of all of these suggestions was the theme of passion. Whether carving out a specialized niche or cultivating a broader network of knowledge, a sense of conviction is key to pushing individual careers and larger practices forward. The huge teams behind most major architectural projects require strong leadership, a role that continues to be taken up by architects. The most successful architects continue to be those with both a strong head for design and a sharp nose for business. In this sense, the landscape of practice is perhaps no more or less difficult than it has ever been–only different, with its own particular challenges and opportunities.
Simmons ultimately sounded the most pessimistic–and optimistic–notes for the future of the profession. “Entropy is at work,” he pointed out. Buildings deteriorate, projects falter, relationships fall apart–all yielding openings for new working methods and new talent to enter the market.
Elsa Lam firstname.lastname@example.org