The first time I met the partners at SHoP Architects, in the early aughts, they were a small team of interrelated partners, through marriage and birth, working out of a small 2nd floor walkup on the East Side of Manhattan. (For architecture historians interested in such things: they occupied the legendary John Hejduk’s old studio.) They were ambitious, unafraid of the big bad world of real estate developers, and above all construction geeks. They loved the art and science of figuring out how to put buildings together. And they were ready to build, anxious to build, at whatever scales the world threw at them—the bigger the better, but the small was fine, too, if the tectonic challenge was sufficiently interesting.
A decade and a half later, they’re located in Lower Manhattan, in a sprawling office inside, fittingly, the Woolworth Building, New York City’s first skyscraper. SHoP has a number of high profile projects in the works, including the headquarters for Uber in San Francisco, the infamous sliver building at 111 West 57th Street, and the huge residential development at the Domino Sugar Refinery, in Queens. The firm is also a finalist for the Obama Presidential Library, one of the most coveted architectural commissions in years.
Despite their size and increasingly high profile, SHoP’s remains rooted in a hands-on approach—and it’s one of the reasons the firm continues to take on small and pro-bono projects. Recently I spoke to Kim Holden, one of the SHoP’s five founding principals and the unofficial keeper of the flame, about managing growth and the critical role pro-bono work plays in helping to maintain firm culture.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
KH: Kim Holden
I’ve watched your firm grow from five partners to almost two hundred. Even from the start you had a clear idea of who you were, what you wanted to stand for. How do you maintain that, as you go from five, to whatever you are now?
That’s been one of the biggest challenges, but we’ve found that the original idea of SHoP, the way we work, scales up very well. After the Barclays Center opened, we started to grow rapidly, and it was harder to maintain the culture. We’d get a new project and we’d hire new designers and architects, quickly, but the infrastructure of the office wasn’t growing fast enough. So we doubled down on support, everything from visualization and the fabrication lab team to HR, until we had the right balance.. And there were fewer people who remembered our founding ethos of rolling up your sleeves, getting your hands dirty in the model shop, pushing the envelope on new ways of utilizing technology. So we did a lot of work to reinforce that, too. This started as a family business, so what that embodies remains important to us.
What’s the hardest jump to make? It is going from 5 to 15, or 15 to 60? At a certain point, you get bigger than what’s possible to manage, personally. Where’s the inflection point?
I remember the day that we got to about 80 people, and I couldn’t remember everybody’s name. Initially, it really bummed me out. Because I loved knowing who everybody was, calling everybody by name, and knowing a little bit about them, both as a person and a staff member. Our growth was fast and furious, and we went up to as many as 220 one summer with a few dozen interns (paid of course). When we got up to about 130 and were continuing to grow, we realized that we had to become pro-active and figure out a way of creating a roadmap for how to move forward. We tried to be strategic about it.
It sounds like that’s something that you have to think about on an almost weekly basis.
We think about it on an hourly basis. The things that we did, we wanted them to be organic—more systematized, maybe, but coming from a “SHoPpy” place. We started something called First Thursday, where the whole office gets together and one project team presents the themes of their current project, and shares war stories, and usually whatever food and drink makes the most sense. We also established SHoP U, which was a way to make sure we were still learning from each other. It’s held four times a year. Staffers can propose a syllabus for a course, and other staffers can sign up and take the course. These meet during business hours two times a week for six weeks. We’ve had a variety of different classes: Technology courses. Robotics. A mixology class. A kind of land-sculpture course, à la Storm King. On their own, the staff started something called Peers & Beers, which is more of a science fair setting for sharing what’s going on by theme. “Tools” was one, “Resiliency” another. We’re trying to create a lot of opportunities for people to gather, discuss and debate, and to get to know each other better. Then they take that back to their work and teams, and I think it’s really helped.
Do you rotate the creative teams and mix people on a regular basis?
We do. That’s part of our DNA. The partners all had backgrounds in other disciplines, prior to going to architecture school. When we look for people to come on board, we always look for that special something, some kind of interesting talent or passion or skill or experience, that will inform their way of problem-solving. So we catalog as much of that as we can. We want to know who the stand up comedians are, who travelled in Bali. We want to know these things, so that when we’re putting teams together we draw from that information.
Let’s talk about the role of pro bono work at the firm. It’s a difficult balance to strike, as you grow larger and have to fit non-paying work into the schedule. How do you do that? And what role does it play?
It’s always been important to us. It started with the work we did in DeLisle, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. We built a community center there after the town was devastated by the storm. The team went down, saw what was needed, and figured out a design that could be built quickly with volunteer labor. We had some critical pieces, joints, fabricated in New York from digital files and we FedExed those down. The rest was stock lumber. It was an amazing experience.
Another project, funded through the Knight Foundation so not exactly pro bono, is Talk Box. WNYC, the local public radio station in New York, wanted us to help them figure out a way to create a vehicle for people to express their thoughts on community and race relations. The Eric Garner killing on Staten Island had just happened and they were trying to develop ways to reach what they referred to as “underserved audiences”—New Yorkers who don’t get involved with public radio call-ins. They had come up with the idea of an old-school phone booth, with the idea of deploying them in different parts of the city. We worked with them to refine the idea and we built the prototype in-house. Our tech people and their tech people got together and worked out this system, where from the studio, on demand, WNYC staff can upload an audio prompt to any location. Right now there’s a single prototype, but it’s been a big success for them and the idea is to grow it into a network. They’d put Talk Box where the news is happening and then upload a prompt to it to get people’s thoughts in real-time. The prototype was in Staten Island last year on the anniversary of Eric Garner’s death, and it was outside the Apollo Theater on Martin Luther King Day this year with a prompt to describe your thoughts on race in six words.
How do you guys choose pro bono work now? It obviously has to be worked on and juggled with other paying work.
A large part of it has to do with the interests of the partners and staff. If something comes our way that’s particularly compelling, we’ll talk about it. And we’ll ask: Can we be effective here? What can we provide that will help this organization in a real way? The project has to have an impact. So many people want to get involved, because they believe in it, and because it’s a nice departure from larger, longer-term projects. We’ve taught classes in New York City public schools on architecture and building and we participate in a Lower East Side education program called This is Our River. At the end of the semester, the kids come to the office and present their projects. We’re also working with a foundation called Uni-Project, which deployed temporary libraries in neighborhoods all over the city, where kids could gather and read. They came to us because they were interested in launching a project called Draw NYC, where they’d have deployable drawing benches, with art supplies. Little projects like that are happening, in addition to the large pro bono project: Kids of Kathmandu, the rebuilding of schools in Nepal.
Talk about that project.
We’re working on it as we speak. There are fifty sites. All of these sites had schools on them that were either severely damaged or completely destroyed by the earthquake last year. The first nine sites are under construction right now. Andrew Raible, co-founder of the foundation leading this effort, makes frequent trips over there. He just got back again last week, with an update on how it’s going on the sites. He’s basically moved into our office. They’re hoping to finish the first schools before monsoon season starts, in June and July, and then after that, they will break ground on the other ones. They’re starting on the schools closest to Kathmandu and then they’re moving outward.
Are these kit-of-parts buildings that can be easily constructed?
That was the key element and why this was a match made in heaven. The kit of parts approach is absolutely essential here, because the terrain is so extreme. But that approach, for us, goes all the way back to PS1 and Mitchell Park. These schools are also about using local materials in a clever way, respecting the culture, the site, and the local politics. The other thing that appealed to us was, Andrew said, “We don’t just want to replace these schools, we need a holistic approach. We need to create a system that includes ways to provide water, solar power, and internet access.” Kids of Kathmandu has other partners who are working on those things. And knowing that Andrew has these organizations on the ground, already in place, meant to us that this was a viable project worth spending our time on. These buildings are going to be used not just as schools, but as community centers, too. It will give people access to the internet, many of them for the first time.
How did SHoP get involved?
Through Philip Nobel, our editorial director. Andrew is a sixth-generation furniture maker, who’s mostly given that up to help save Nepal. One of his partners, Mahabir Pun from Nepal Wireless, is amazing. His mission in life is to bring internet to the remote villages. You need line-of-sight transmission, and because of the terrain he’s constantly climbing unclimbed peaks to mount his hardware. And, if there’s a village at the end of his thread, he incidentally wires up a half-dozen other villages on the way there. So, in bringing internet to the schools that we’re building, he’s also going to hook up countless other towns in Nepal.
Featured image: Andrew Raible, right, and SHoP design team member Mark Pothier, meeting with village leaders and residents at a groundbreaking ceremony in October 2015. All photos are courtesy of SHoP Architects.