Strong Center Madison CT

An Architect’s Determination and Devotion is Often a Project’s Make or Break Factor

Remember the “3-Legged Stool” paradigm, Architect-Client-Builder? It’s the classic model for three independent entities, contractually joined together to make buildings. This is still the expectation in most construction, but like everything else in architecture, it’s not always that simple.


Every project that does not reinforce the status quo is subject to doubt. When something is needed or proposed that doesn’t play it safe, architects and designers are tasked with creating the answer. Some great solutions are so fraught with risk and problems that they only happen when an architect leads the way.


Architects and designers by nature and training tend to not only accept risk, but see beyond it. When projects are led by architects, it’s often the architect’s personality and willingness to push forward a good idea (sometimes for years) that can overcome impediments that prevent buildings from being realized. Community resistance, cost and funding, even the client’s fear can end hope. But when the architect takes the lead, fear is limited because the architect assumes a lead role in project advocacy.


When a project is championed by the designer, their role goes beyond that of the classic genius architect. While Frank Lloyd Wright saw the Guggenheim Museum green-lighted for construction after 700 sketches, six separate sets of working drawings and fifteen years, it reflected his dogged fulfillment of an architectural idea. The Guggenheim scenario was still a patron and an architect working to make it happen, a classic combination of project roles. But other architects have taken it upon themselves to become a project’s developer, bypassing the client.


The San Diego-based Jonathan Segal Architecture & Development has been awarded six national AIA Honor Awards for their housing work. But their great design skills are more than equaled by their fully realized role as a developer. Similarly, Bruce Becker and his Connecticut-based firm Becker + Becker has created large projects as both designer and entrepreneur, using various creative sources of funding, including pension funds, often to renovate historic buildings.


But these architects are essentially doing great work with funding by others. It is the dream of many in this gig new economy that one-off ideas can snowball into actual projects. Their model is New York City’s High Line.


In the late 1990’s, after a section of elevated railroad track was slated for demolition, neighborhood activists Joshua David and Robert Hammond started a campaign to save the High Line by organizing an ideas competition that raised awareness and helped save the abandoned railway. After years of dogged advocacy that effort became a $200 million park, designed by landscape architect James Corner (Field Operations) and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro


But there are others doing this kind of work, without the fanfare. Gregg, Wies & Gardner Architects, out of New Haven, invested 20 years pushing their design for a community boathouse through a seemingly unending maze of changing city administrations, federal and state funding sources, and the entropy of being trapped as a non-essential part of a huge federal project that had no screaming constituency.


The backstory: the US Department of Transportation needed to build a new set of bridges to remake the connection between I-95 and I-91, at the New Haven Harbor. That initiative put the Adee Boathouse, built for Yale in 1911 by the architects Peabody and Stearns, squarely on the “removed” list to accommodate the bridge work.


The Canal Dock Community Boathouse in New Haven opened last month. The architects, Gregg, Wies & Gardner, worked for 20 years to realize this project.


Following a failed attempt to move the building, Gregg, Wies & Gardner (led by Rick Wies and Sam Gardner) looked at countless sites and endured endless funding machinations, before finally, this year, completing the Canal Dock Park Community Boathouse. I don’t know how much the architects were paid, or how they worked through the decades of changing requirements and funding, but one simple truth is evident: without them, this project would not have happened.


Eleven years ago I knew that without my contribution new athletic fields, bleachers, lighting, and, more importantly, new field houses and a connecting plaza would not happen in Madison, CT., my home town for more than 30 years. The idea was first proposed by Larry Ciotti; a small group of us rallied the town, and today it’s called the Strong Center, honoring the original field’s donor, but it was a long struggle. 


After the crash of the Great Recession, which eliminated a $1 million gift, my role became essential, because our $3.2 million project had to have an architectural vision to facilitate funding. Six years ensued with me as the pro bono architect and advocate, working through design, approvals, grant applications, a referendum, and fundraising. Five phases of construction followed over as many years. 


Five hundred people gave more than $1.2 million. At our lobbying, the town allocated its long-budgeted line item of $900,000 for renovating the field; another $200,000 came from a previously donated fund for the lighting of the field. After four grant applications and three bids, the state ponied up $500,000 for our field houses. Additionally there was a scoreboard, plaza, mechanical hookups, flagpoles and on and on. That extensive scope left the project $400,000 short.


So where did the last chunk of cash come from? We begged. An excavator donated $100,000 of work; electricians, other excavators, concrete and lighting suppliers, a press box fabrication company, collectively donated over $100,000 of services and materials; a structural engineer chipped in his fee; and I donated my architecture fee that would normally be about 5% of the project cost, easily $150,000. We finished up, finally, this week.


Was it worth the $100,000 in hard costs that I contributed? Of course.


But another project that failed after a 14 year effort is more ambiguous. Five years before she contacted me, Amy Kuhner had an idea, channeled from a British model, for a comfort care facility, serving children with limited life expectancies. It became known as “Sunshine House.” I was happy to push forward with her, pro bono, on an exquisitely complicated design. Our work obtained four separate committee permits (she had money for site engineering, and some for her time). With those permits in hand, a great client of mine fronted the cost of the site, and we were off.


A model for the author’s design for Sunshine House, a center serving children with limited life expectancies and their parents.


But with design done, site acquired and approvals in hand, fundraising languished, despite my pushing. As it turned out, most of the money she had was a federal grant, and it was designated for site development, and not to be used for her support. Unfortunately she effectively used it that way, so the FBI stopped it—and the project. My client lost several hundred thousand dollars when he had to short sell that site at the bottom of the market. And I looked at a $100,000 contribution of my employees’ direct cost and was left with a question: did I mistake a good idea for my own ego projection? 


I do not know. What I designed did give hope to those families that had none. Those families’ lives are spent laboring to sustain hope in the unending drain and depression of caring for a compromised child. The idea of relief via a place of constant care—medical for the child, respite for the parents—was, potentially, a godsend. But it did not happen.


Inspired by what turned out to be a deeply flawed effort, I tried to become that agent of hope. But the result voided everything I had done. And ended the possibility of respite, there, for the families I came to know. My central purpose for the last 40 years, my core imperative, is to build well, and that didn’t happen here.


By any measure what my office did for Sunshine House crystalised the best hopes of people in dire straights. I became their advocate. So did those who saw the need for a community center in New Haven, a park on the High Line in New York, in-fill housing in San Diego. None of these projects would have happened without their designers at the center of the effort.


Of course that mode of effort always involves money. But it is about more—much more—than dollars. In all these scenarios, architects overcame an initial lack of money with a dedication of time and determination. We do it every day. Great ideas create devotion, and devotion allows for great patience. The costs are steep, but the rewards are worth it.


Featured image: The Strong Center, Madison, CT.



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