November 10, 2011
So, why Union Studio? Good question, to which Douglas and I, along with everyone else who have helped build this place, have a good answer.
As Union Studio, DPA, Inc. can grow more easily and effectively into what it was always meant to be, a different kind of architecture firm whose expertise lies in the union of all the varied aspects of community design and the architecture which fulfills it. I’ll speak about how a name change and new look could help that lofty goal in a minute, but first let’s talk about the goal itself…
A World Designed by Specialists:
You would think the goal of designing complete and sustainable places would be the goal of every architecture firm. And, fundamentally, I think it is for most architects. But for many understandable reasons, those of us who work in the business of designing, engineering and building have tended towards greater and greater specialization. Engineers handle street design. Market analysts determine what gets built. Landscape architects design landscapes. As for community design, the profession of planning to which this task theoretically falls has become specialized as well, often confining itself to the design of technical, legal, or administrative “systems” of a community, rather than the actual place that the community wants to be in three (and even 4) dimensions – and in living color. There are very few generalists who make as their mission the mastery of the whole process. As a consequence no one sees the whole thing. Like the blind men and the elephant, each only knows one aspect, which may give no clue as to the actual nature of the beast, nor a picture of its final form. A real place is far too complex a phenomenon to be created sequentially by a series of specialists, each in his own silo.
A Mid-Career Crisis:
I understand this problem now. But 10 years ago I was simply aware that too few of my colleagues seemed to be talking about how ugly, expensive, and wasteful most of our places were, whether they were new schools and campuses, medical facilities, or the suburbs as a whole. Why were our older places and buildings so loved, when most of the new places we built were despised? Or how was it, for instance, that the homes where most of us lived were designed, permitted, constructed and sold without the involvement of any design professional of any sort, let alone an architect, with the result that they seemed ungainly, inappropriate, and cheap? And there I was as a staff architect in a large, well-regarded architectural firm in Boston working on what most of my profession would regard as dream commissions – libraries, museums, churches, and custom homes. I was focused on a single part of a single building – which, itself, was just one little piece of the whole place. And I had this nagging feeling that I was wasting my time. Why, I came to ask myself, was I spending hours and angst finessing the proportions of the custom bronze railings for a prep school library, when right outside my window, a ticky-tacky world of Styrofoam strip retail was being built seemingly overnight to serve identical, repetitive house-farm subdivisions of oversized, vinyl-covered, faux-colonials? At the rate that was happening and the damage to farmland and historic centers it was causing, my bronze railing felt like Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned. I remember thinking, naively but sincerely, that I needed to start a firm that was involved in the whole process and designed the whole place, whether it be a new neighborhood, a town library or a university quad.
So, oblivious as to how hard this would be, in December of 2000, I opened the doors of Donald Powers Architects and set about teaching myself all the stuff that I really needed to know – stuff that my education and professional experience so far had not taught me. Very soon I discovered New Urbanism, a movement which presented an impressively complete (and appropriately complex) response to the problems I had intuitively understood. Since then, the ideas and individuals that make up New Urbanism have been central to our sense of mission and professional identity. The inspiration, collaboration, and shared mission offered by this remarkable, varied, and collegial movement of architects, urbanists, engineers, sociologists, developers and builders has for me personally, been a sort of rescue from professional isolation and given the firm a clear lens though which to focus our efforts.
So, here’s where we get back to the meaning of our new name and identity: Union Studio represents a physical space – our offices on Union Street. But it also represents the understanding that part of the solution to our degraded built world lies in cooperation and collaboration, a joining of forces, both amongst the various professions involved in building and preserving our places, but also between the individuals making up any one office. Certainly this has always been true of Donald Powers Architects, but the name has not expressed it. At the very least it has not expressed the contribution, collaboration, and transformation which has come as a result of my partnership with Douglas Kallfelz, one of the most talented and complete architects I have ever worked with. But more broadly, it has increasingly masked the fact that we are a growing collaboration of many talented and fully qualified architects, suggesting instead that the office is just one architect, with staff. We have never been that, nor wanted to be. Union, in this sense, expresses what we have always been, a community of very talented and committed professionals. And it affirms a commitment that it will become even more so and evolve to provide opportunity and growth for all its members. Likewise it expresses to our clients, existing and future that we are an organization with depth and resources, able to bring to their projects a breadth of expertise and talent that could never be present in a single architect.
And, finally, the new look: We believe we have expressed in our new logo and graphic identity our core belief in the classical tradition and its relevance and adaptability to the current age. We call it “fresh classicism,” and in the purity of the interweaving circles, joined with bright and optimistic colors and ordered within a perfect square, we (overly cerebral) architects see a re-affirmation of the foundational principles on which the history of western architecture is based. It’s not a style, it’s an attitude. One of respect for the past, of embrace of the future, of a favoring of the appropriate, restorative, and economical over the “original,” self indulgent, and trendy. Yup, it’s a lot of pressure to put on a logo. But if you look at it again with those words in mind, you may just agree.
In closing, welcome to Union Studio! We are incredibly excited to have arrived at this point and incredibly excited about where we’re headed.