In the spirit of the Olympics, I present a tale of nationalism, competition and the triumph of an underdog. This story’s protagonist, however, is not a ragtag hockey team or a group of Jamaican bobsledders. My story centers on the Philadelphia design firm Kieran Timberlake that recently beat out three of the world’s most prominent architects in a juried competition for the new U.S. embassy in London. The other finalists included Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (of Louvre Pyramid fame), Morphosis Architects and Richard Meirer & Partners — all of which regularly make the shortlist for international competitions.
The $500-million embassy, to be situated on an industrial site a mile downriver from the Houses of Parliament, will be the greenest embassy the United States has ever built. The design calls for a secure and environmentally efficient glass cube set atop a colonnade in a landscape with a pond and pathways open to the public. The firm partnered with Philadelphia landscape architects Olin to design the park surrounding the building.
I was excited to hear the news not because it could signal a change in the way Philadelphia architecture is perceived by the outside world, but, more importantly, because it might change the way Philadelphians think about the quality of local firms. And perhaps this could reverse the pattern of outsourcing design work to larger, trendier cities.
This outsourcing trend isn’t specific to Philadelphia. Many Midwestern metropolises like Minneapolis and Cincinnati have been collecting “starchitect”-designed buildings for years. And in our neck of the woods, the biggest projects usually go to New York-based firms.
The dominating Comcast Center went to one such New York architect, Robert Stern (who is also dean of the Yale School of Design). Frank Gehry, who hails from California, designed the addition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art that is currently underway. And perhaps the most publicized building in recent memory, the Barnes Foundation, will be constructed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien — a husband and wife team also out of New York.
The temptation to choose high-profile architects is understandable. I always get pangs of excitement when I hear a “starchitect” is in town for some project or another — usually because it means a guest lecture on campus. And there is something to be said for giving the commission to the best firm regardless of where they come from.
But we have to combat the assumption that Philly has to outsource its design. Perhaps Kieran Timberlake’s foray on to the international design stage with the London Embassy will give Philadelphia developers the confidence to send big budget contracts to local firms, or to at least consider them. Because, despite the decrease in star power, there is real value in investing in local architects.
In choosing local architects, developers help to cultivate Philadelphia’s unique character — an idea that seems to have died off following the age when the Fisher Fine Arts Library and the Quad were constructed. Local architects know and presumably love the area. Their work would be responsive to local conditions in a way that outsiders who visit the area once or twice could never achieve. Giving work to local design firms also encourages design students to stay in the area. And, of course, there are the logistical benefits of hiring locally; there is less messy coordination between satellite offices which can cause delays and communication issues. Lastly, local architects invariably end up teaching at Philadelphia universities and their experience will invariably make its way into the education system.
Whether Kieran Timberlake’s triumph in London will make an impact on the Philadelphia architecture scene is still unknown. But I hope it does, and am positive their firm will be in for a busy summer. This is one unemployed architecture student that will be sending a resume their way.
Ashley Takacs is a College senior from Buffalo, N.Y. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Ash Wednesday appears on alternate Wednesdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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