Between Brunelleschi and Alberti, the Individual and the Collaborative: A Critical Collective | The Plan
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Between Brunelleschi and Alberti, the Individual and the Collaborative: A Critical Collective

Tomas Rossant

The Plan Editorials are at their most revelatory when they explain both personal viewpoints and how specific design cultures thrive and innovate. The writings are compelling as they expose us to the range of architectural discourse, modes of design inquiry and the rich and varied processes by which design ideas take shape. Today there is a broad spectrum of design practice taxonomies, from firms defined by heroic individual genius, to loose confederations of interdisciplinary designers - and everything in between. This magazine presents these valuable perspectives, and here, I want to add to the dialogue and present a personal outlook and an uncommon practice ethos that is not commonly represented: a design collective, with multiple voices of design leadership, pursuing architectural excellence and intensely focused on using architecture’s power to improve human communities - a practice that unifies multiple individual design voices and a collaborative design culture into what might be called a Critical Collective. Ennead Architects leverages the creative reverberation between strong individual design leadership and a robust and imaginative design collective. Our focus is on building institutions: to create highly expressive buildings that deeply condition human activities, deliberately shape the outlook of institutional communities, and increase the social, intellectual and cultural exchange between institutions and the public realm.

At this cultural moment, a practice like ours, because of its structure, has developed great potency to respond to what contemporary culture demands. Now, it seems that once again, after eras of stylistic wars and a focus on aesthetic formalism, architecture is rightly tasked to bring more direct and progressive change to our environment and humanity. A productive architecture is necessary - beyond formalism and personal expression - to respond to the demands of contemporary society; to produce it, the voice of the individual must join with the voices of diverse communities of knowledge, of varied design research collaborators and of disciplines previously not connected with the making of architecture. These relationships are necessary to deliver broader architectural inquiry, rapid technical innovation, and ultimately, more humanistic environments with meaningful impact. Though individual leadership is essential to shape design investigations directed from deep personal conviction, we certainly should value design collaboration more broadly, acknowledge the productivity of rigorous design cultures and tap the inventiveness of collective creativity. Practices that are open to this mode of working - and especially practices that are organized to do so internally - are perhaps more properly situated to recouple design to making, return the architect to the primacy of building and properly make buildings that advance human progress.

Ennead Architects has had a lengthy gestation, having advanced its shape and form over a decades-long period before I joined the practice or was elevated as a leader. Though the practice was established on the model of the sole practitioner - a firm with a single voice - it transitioned to a polyglot design collective, led by a diverse group of thinkers. The founder had set us up for evolution; when he retired, we formed Ennead Architects. Ennead is structured to nurture our leadership’s individual modes of architectural investigation, develop a communal and robust design culture keenly focused on making and a practice expressly created to rapidly enrich each other’s perspectives, challenge each other to innovate, and foster a collective design consciousness forged from the critical thinking and design research of multiple voices. Ennead has nurtured an unusually productive and dynamic equilibrium between the individual and the collective, personal authorship and collaborative engagement, feeding both conceptual thinking and technical rigor.

As part of a collaborative of strong individuals with unique design voices, it is impossible to speak for my partners - each of whom is a boldly independent thinker with his or her own perspectives. However, I want to describe the design culture we have made together in which the creative forces of the individual and the collective are so profoundly intertwined, symbiotic and sustaining. 

 

Brunelleschi, Alberti and the Space in Between

Towards the end of my college education, my professor of architectural history tasked me with writing a paper to focus on the exact moment in fifteenth-century Florence when true influence passed from Brunelleschi to Alberti. My paper was built upon a simple organization of contrast and comparison. Of course I focused most of my attention on the stylistic comparisons of their architecture: a greater formal plasticity to Brunelleschi’s work, born of a mind firmly engaged in the totality of building, and Alberti’s delight in a more two-dimensional and façade-based architecture deeply rooted in conceptual thinking and writing about beauty, proportion, and composition. In passing, in a single paragraph, I touched upon what would later become very meaningful to me as I became an architect: Brunelleschi’s design process and the manner of his research were fundamentally and inextricably connected with the act of making in concert with others. He had technical discourse with tradesmen, held their contracts, sketched with stone masons, had complementary collaborators in di Cambio and Manetti, and understood that it was not enough to dream something up: the dream itself had to include the methods for its own realization. Brunelleschi was at the end of the unbroken original lineage of the architect - originated with Imhotep in the twenty-seventh century BC - for which design and making were indistinguishable. Now, only years later, it is clear to me that at that moment in Italy, Alberti fathered a new lineage of architect - heroic, elevated from the primacy of making, focused on conceptual thinking and concerned with architecture as a system unto itself and with the refinement of its own terms as the central purpose and pursuit of the individual genius of the architectural mind.

As I completed my architecture degree, my paper was a guiding force as I looked for a firm to join. I privileged Brunelleschi - making and collaboration - over all, and in 1994, I joined the only firm in New York City where I believed design and making were still bound at every level of discourse and activity, and where open design collaboration was the norm. There I met all of my current partners - many first as my teachers - builders of a unique and thriving practice typology that depended less on ego and more on a shared conviction about the potential of environments to shape collective communities. The practice then, the practice now, was organized around the concept of the complete architect - combining in the single brain an affinity for design, craft and management - allowing us to act as both design architect and architect of record for the majority of our projects, to properly make what we dream. The Vitruvian ideal of “firmness” mattered, at the firm I joined, as essential to delivering on the full aspiration of the work to inspire, engage and influence positive social outcomes. Slowly as I advanced through my education at the firm, I came to realize that my original understanding of the practice was naive, and importantly for my own development, the choice between Brunelleschi and Alberti was not necessary or black and white. The practice I joined, the practice I later contributed to founding, was always focused on existing between the two ideals of the architect as collaborative master builder and the necessary concept of the singular design visionary focused on the advancement of architectural concepts.

 

Ennead as a Critical Collective

Ennead’s founding in 2009 was decidedly intuitive and uncomplicated. The partners’ common ground was self-evident: our common trust and the philosophical underpinnings of the practice well-tested. As we pondered our mission and marketing outlook, it was clear that manifestos or provocative statements of purpose were unnecessary. What was noteworthy and could stand as a defining characteristic of our practice was how we work with one another on individual building projects.

In both our historic and our newly-named practice, collaboration is premiated in an unconventional way: design partners do not engage in project-based collaboration with each other but pursue their personal interests and independently influence the medium of our shared design collective through an open and transparent studio. Concepts are advanced in a constant loop of design discourse between individual partners and the collective, from the collective to the individual partners, back and forth, an iterative process that delivers highly inventive and resonant architectural concepts and technical progress. Much as pressure speeds chemical reactions, we have created a critical collective capable of briskly progressing novel architectural ideas and allowing for the swift transfer of design and technical knowledge between partners and the collective, across building typologies and modes of construction. 

Our practice is not organized into studios, and no one specializes in a specific building type. Working in tandem, a design partner and a management partner lead each project, supported by a deep maker culture of architects in our studio, and decidedly more effective at advancing architectural innovation as a group. 

Each project mixes and matches partners and staff, each team a one-off assemblage of personalities bringing experiences from previous projects to productively reverberate in a new team dynamic, always creating fresh perspectives on design issues. While design and management are linked, individual design partners and individual management partners are not wed to each other and recombine over and over again on a project basis, and this drives the transmission of design innovation. The management partners impart the design sensibilities of the design partners to each other, and the design partners transfer the experiences of the management partners to each other - and together shape a collective sensibility born of the cross-pollination of ideas and research. This is enriched at multiple levels, as the professional staff also engages in the critical exchange of ideas they have accumulated from other projects and from work with individual partners. 

Our work encompasses almost all building typologies. A partner may work on a sewage treatment plant and a prestigious art museum simultaneously, a hospital and housing, a university building and a U.S. embassy, a hotel and a bio-medical laboratory. The iterative collaborative process I have described allows us to relentlessly challenge conventional dogma associated with common building sectors and also transfer new technologies, material discoveries, construction methods and interdisciplinary research across building typologies. Radical advances in user experience technologies in our museum work can be transferred through the collective to our higher education projects to reinvent pedagogical modes of learning and teaching; advances we push for in the prefabrication of large components of high-tech medical environments can be rapidly repurposed to bring speed, lower costs and higher quality to our housing projects; connecting with advanced researchers and users of the specialized university buildings we design can spark new discourse that suggests collaborations with material, environmental and computer scientists. 

All of this fundamentally changes the impact of our designs. The outcomes are productive and transformative - an exemplar is our current project in collaboration with Stanford University researchers, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees and social scientists, to radically rethink the resettlement of refugees, conceiving refugee camps as purposefully-designed seeds to germinate permanent and thriving future cities. We have undertaken this project in our Ennead Lab, or ELab, created from the recognition that delivering design innovation through traditional commission structures is limited and that we needed to build a separate “exploratorium” for research and as an outlet for the expression of both individual partners and our collaborative design culture. The Critical Collective is never boring, always challenging and constantly exploratory.

Institutions, the Public Realm and the Optimization of Human Communities

We delight in formalism, chase beauty, strive to make spaces of awe-inspiring wonder, go crazy for the exploration of material and the pursuit of the highest performing technologies. We do all that. We cannot help ourselves. But all design-oriented firms are similar in this regard. Beyond these common pursuits is an aspiration that binds the culture of our critical collective to a loftier common purpose: to enable institutions to deliver on the full promise of their missions.

Ennead is committed to institution building, the connection of institutions to the public realm and the optimization of the performance of institutional communities. 

We are fortunate to work almost exclusively on not-for-profit institutional project typologies, whether governmental, scientific, academic, or cultural in nature. We believe that institutions provide the foundational underpinning of civil society and further that design matters if institutions are to impact human culture and well-being efficiently and productively. An Ennead building is purposely designed to create a permeable and transparent contact area between institutions and the public realm - essentially allowing for productive social and intellectual engagement and exchange between the institution and a wider society. Our environments attempt to maximize the potential of human capital, to allow both those who work within an institution and those who engage it to reach the highest levels of productivity, humanistic experience and optimism. Often, based on our cross-typological experience, we expand our clients’ horizons, defining new goals to significantly impact institutional culture and alter collective behaviors through new and engaging environments. By pursuing deeply analytical research into program and mission, technology and context, we design buildings to be institutional change agents. And here, the interplay between individual design leadership and a collaborative design culture - where we are exposed to multiple explorations into architecture’s power to shape the outlook and focus of communities - is perhaps most valuable, as we influence and teach each other to invent new types of programmatic spaces designed to shift institutional behavior and impact culture. 

Our process is focused on delivering outcomes: more informal interaction between bio-medical researchers to facilitate the sharing of data, softening the boundaries between traditional university departments to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, changing the very nature of how a library disseminates information. As we do this, we find that through the interplay of individual and collective criticism and investigation and the invention of new hybrid program spaces, we impact the nature of conventional building typologies, evolving them to contextualize new purpose and ultimately act as agents that change how institutions work and broadly impact human endeavors. 

 

 

The Churn of Reinvention

Currently eleven partners lead Ennead, supported by a design collective of 175 people. The design research is intensifying, the pace of innovation quickening, and the influence of the collective on the individual voice of our design leadership and vice-versa, more pronounced than ever. The practice is a design laboratory, with each partner bringing a new direction to our research. These individual threads of inquiry push and pull the firm and the collective in different directions. The practice thrives on the constant churn of reinvention. Yet, ultimately, like the mathematical concept of a vector, these forces are reconciled into a singular and communal direction - a design culture with a common ethos.

Each day, as I look at what is pinned on the walls in our studio, at the sketches left on the desks of my design partners, and when I hear the chatter of our staff debating design ideas, my faith in the collective to deliver more impact on the social aspects of culture is renewed. I, personally, am eager to welcome more social scientists as my collaborators, investigate the potential of digital technology to impact the experience of spaces and augment the ability to transform cultures, get ever closer to new modes of production and project delivery, and consider a generic academic building typology that can universally accommodate all modes of research. What will my partners choose to investigate? The edge of sustainability and resiliency? New high-performance envelope technologies? Previously unimaginable forms? I do not know. But I know we will exchange ideas rapidly, have trials and failures, arguments and moments of consensus - and all the while drive our architecture, through the medium of our design collective, to become more profoundly productive with a mission to advance the cultures of the institutions for which we work. I bring what I believe in. They do the same. And collectively we consider alternative viewpoints and allow ourselves to be open-minded in the consideration of the words, actions and design investigations of others.

 

Outlook

I have never been more optimistic about the role of architecture to impact and improve our environment and society, never more confident that the stature of the architect is ascendant as a critical thinker and aggregator of broad interdisciplinary research, never more certain that this will be the most potent design century ever. Innovative, collaborative practices are proliferating, and as I travel the U.S., I see critical collective practices in Seattle, New Orleans, Kansas City, Philadelphia and San Antonio - to name just a few. In new modes of practice where ego is eschewed and the boundaries of traditional design practices irrelevant, I see great hope. In the design schools refocused on maker culture and cultivating collaborative modes of teaching, learning and designing, I find inspiration and look for our future collaborators. And in our firm, I see that individual leadership is essential to move a critical design culture forward but on a base of collaboration. Individual vision is necessary, but it may be most productive when it is altered and nuanced by dialogue within a collective culture.

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