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Beyond legalisms

November 2007

By Robert Ivy, FAIA

Attribution keeps Architectural Record on its toes. Claims of responsibility and neglect remain fraught with conflict for our editors and the firms that we write about—the primary reason for unhappy e-mails to this publication. “Who” did “what”? As collaboration among teams has grown, with major trends pointing toward integrated design and project delivery, the number of actual team members has mushroomed, and keeping up with the parties responsible for the work on any given project now demands a database. With the slightest mislabeling or omission, we get the calls.

Photo © André Souroujon

 

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It should be simpler. Gone are the days when you could list the principal players on one hand: The architect, the structural engineers, the mechanical/electrical engineer, and a landscape architect to round out the team. Period.

No longer. As Suzanne Stephens pointed out last year in her article “Crowding the Marquee” [Architectural Record, June 2006, page 98], the permutations of legal attribution begin with parsing out the essential roles of the architects themselves. Today, we have design architects, architects of record, executive architects, joint ventures, and so on and so on. Superstars fly in from London or Amsterdam to work their design magic, then evanesce, leaving the local firm to work out the details and deal with construction. Today, more players are demanding more credit. Without proper recognition, the relationships can breed bitter feelings.

While structural engineers have achieved their own kind of fame (from the late Fazlur Khan to today’s Les Robertson or Guy Nordenson), today the more esoteric environmental engineers, such as Mathias Schuler or Atelier Ten, contribute to the conceptual framework of the entire project. Today, we don’t have to design buildings in an architectural void and then invite the engineers in: We design new kinds of interior spaces, or new types of exterior walls, based on the engineers’ initial framework.

In a world in which architecture and structure often integrate with and engage the land in three-dimensional, topological solutions, the conceptual language of landscape architects such as Diana Balmori or Michael Van Valkenburgh or Peter Walker, which breaks beyond the grid, can inform the total architectural design. Any engineer or landscape architect can make significant contributions to the idea of a building or a project, but they rarely get full credit. We know, because we hear their complaints.

Given the growing complexity of buildings, and the ambition of designers, the role of skillful craftspeople and manufacturers lapses into design work on its own merits. At our own Innovation Conference in New York in October, we heard from a roster of collaborators who are changing the way we think about architecture, such as Bill Zahner, whose metal fabrication firm, the A. Zahner Company, makes the forms envisioned in talented architects’ offices come to life. What tolerances can metal reach in bending? Without his firm’s thorough grasp of detail and material, the bravura projects in metal regularly featured in these pages might not reasonably see the light of day. Similarly, the work of James Carpenter, whose studio captures or refracts light in an architectural way, expands and enriches spaces with light. Consider the facade consultant Front, Inc.’s groundbreaking work. They make possible the see-through buildings that Mies van der Rohe dreamed of almost a century ago, now manifest in the dematerialized, sparkling work of firms like SANAA. Literally from dream to reality in a generation, but only with expert help.

Too often, the responsible parties effectively grab the spotlight when they fail to give proper credit by acknowledging “who” did “what,” whether intentionally or by mistake. Too often the smaller architectural firm or even the larger executive architect in the collaboration gets shoved to the corner of the Web page. Or is not invited to the grand opening, or recognized from the dais. How unpalatable and uncivilized for the more powerful, or more famous, or more media-hungry group to leave the little firm out of the limelight, yet it happens every day. As for the talented engineers, manufacturers, and specialists who help to make our best work possible, they get lip service in public forums, but are sometimes omitted from the list of contributors. Ask RECORD.

As a profession, we architects are capable of better. Anointed as team leaders, often in possession of the sole legal contract with our clients, we hold the keys to the correction. Currently, the rules and guidelines governing attribution are out of date and do not reflect contemporary reality. We need clear provisions for ethically acknowledging the entire team, a service that the national AIA can help steer us toward. In the interim, during these exciting days of innovation, when men and women are discovering new ways of turning our shared intellectual efforts into real materials, systems, and ultimately, architecture, we need to redouble our efforts. The watchword for all architects—in trust for all involved—should go beyond legalisms to what is fair.

If you wish to write to our editor-in-chief you can email him rivy@mcgraw-hill.com.

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