A Humanist Approach to Built Environments Positions Woods Bagot for the Future
An ethos of empathetic design and a core belief in "People Architecture" has guided the global powerhouse for more than 150 years. Here, we check in with the New York studio to see where things are headed next.
“One focus that has remained consistent over the decades is our core belief in People Architecture,” says Vivian Lee, executive director of the Woods Bagot New York studio. “A celebration of diversity across cultures, propelled by a shared sense of empathy, where the values of end-users and the values of design are one and the same.” While the multinational firm’s origins stretch back to the mid-19th century, when it was founded in Adelaide, Australia, the New York studio is only 12 years old. In a conversation with Surface, Lee, along with Woods Bagot principal James Hickerson, CEO Nik Karalis, and Shane Burger, the global leader of technical innovation, discuss the studio’s philosophy and notable projects, design in the age of A.I., and the launch of their in-house experience consultancy.
Woods Bagot’s origin story traces back to the mid-1800’s. How has the firm’s philosophy changed over the years? What influence has global expansion and cultural factors played in the firm’s evolution?
One of the reasons Woods Bagot has been around since the days of hoop skirts and steamboats is our adaptability. As global changes accelerate, we need to not only keep up but to stay ahead. Now that the world is accelerating at 10x speed, we’re projecting beyond the current era of design to imagine what the world will be like in the next 15 years.
We predict more innovation and global impact than the last 150 years combined! As the business of architecture and social values shift, firms need to infuse the built environment with powerful occupant experiences in order to stay relevant. To that end, we launched ERA-Co, an experience consultancy start-up, within Woods Bagot. Consisting of integrated disciplines of urban systems and planning, workplace strategy, and brand experience, ERA is shaping a culture of empathetic design that goes beyond the creation of buildings and interiors. With a combination of both design innovation and evidence-based user strategy, our projects are deliberately regionally diverse.
One focus that has remained consistent over the decades is our core belief in People Architecture, a celebration of diversity across cultures, propelled by a shared sense of empathy, where the values of end-users and the values of design are one and the same.
Are there a few projects that stand out as legacy-shapers when considering the studio’s portfolio?
Although Woods Bagot was founded 151 years ago, the New York studio was founded twelve years ago so it is still too young and dynamic to have a legacy. If we had to pick a few projects today that we are particularly proud of, we’d put forward the Amberly in Brooklyn, our first US tower. With its warm terracotta façade, the building’s form, materiality, and open spaces were designed specifically for the neighborhoods it unites: the scale of Downtown Brooklyn, the creative ambiance of DUMBO, and the material character of brownstone Brooklyn. By adding retail and a public plaza, we’re building a lively public space.
Tribeca Rogue, a compact but brawny residential building in historic Tribeca, completed this year. Though it’s clearly contemporary, it’s also an interpretation of its 19th-century neighbors. The rhythm of the deeply recessed windows in their metal frames echoes the cast-iron façade of the nearby Cary Building, an Italian Renaissance Revival structure. The protruding panels are angled to provide shading inside the building and, on the outside, changing patterns of light and shadow.
We’re also conscious about building resilience and adaptability. For example, in our reuse work at 49 Chambers St., where we are preserving and prolonging the life of the legacy Immigrant Savings Bank. Built at the turn of the 20th-century, the former bank is architecturally significant: the facades, and the gloriously ornate banking hall, are landmarked. It was the first H-shaped building in the US. This floor plan introduced light and air, and also means that the original windows—and their new replacements—in the angles of the H were curved glass.
Gramercy Square, another example of breathing new life into old bones, is the conversion of the former Cabrini Medical Center into apartments. Combining renovations, demolition, and ground-up buildings, we transformed a patchwork of structures into four distinctive yet harmonious buildings, united by a lush interior courtyard.
How has the mission of architecture evolved since the studio was formed?
Our belief in a truly global studio culture connected seamlessly with technology and a common purpose allows us to survive and thrive across quantum social shifts. Like what is happening to the profession right now!
We opened the New York studio in 2008, during the last recession. That recession changed the profession dramatically. As demand shrunk, fees shrunk, and clients started to see design services as a commodity, where price was the main consideration. To separate themselves, firms embraced the benefits of research, data, and performance analysis as clients looked for efficiencies. Across time we began demonstrating the value of a local firm with local leadership and deep market knowledge to build significant projects in New York, including the epic story of the restaurant Manhatta. What more quintessential food experience can there be at level 60 in the city of towers?
Sustainability and reducing carbon emissions were no longer afterthoughts or fringe specialties; they embodied the work of all our studios and other firms across the globe. Local building codes have mandated these outcomes, like Local Law 97 here in New York City. As well, LEED and WELL have become industry standards, which require varied expertise and sophistication.
Diversity and collaboration are at the heart of our approach, and we have found that the specialization of design team members generates exciting opportunities with a vast diversity of peers, not just in New York, but around the world.
Piggybacking off that question, the studio has also done a lot of aviation work. How do you see that changing as we move forward during COVID-19 and even afterwards?
The firm has done some hard thinking and imagining about how COVID will change airport terminals, some of which was recently published in Passenger Terminal Today by James Berry and Matthew Abbott, two of our transportation leaders. Most airports won’t be able to expand their overall footprint to accommodate social distancing. Instead, they are already adapting existing spaces and processes: biometric technology will replace passport scans, for instance. Climate permitting, terminals will expand outdoor spaces on both sides of security, allowing passengers to spread out and enjoy lush social spaces that speak to the local sense of place.
The construction of Harvey Milk Terminal One at San Francisco International Airport, for which the San Francisco studio led the interior design, has been continuing within the bounds of quarantine; earlier this summer nine more gates, and a marvelous play structure made of local redwood, welcomed their first guests. Our San Francisco colleagues are also designing a new, modular concourse at LAX that can be dismantled, moved, and reconstructed elsewhere.
It’s true that the pandemic has emptied the skies—of planes, but also of pollution. It’s my opinion that as soon as we have a vaccine, we will all go right back to feeding our travel addiction.
How have you managed to institute a company culture with so many offices around the world? Do they operate more independently or is there a lot of cross-office collaboration and comradery?
We are a matrix-based organization, which requires total acceptance that no individual is smarter than the group. We manage with consensus across streams of activity and deep regional presence. There is no hierarchy of decision making – instead, we have eclectic and diverse inclusiveness. Everyone has a voice in the organization with a dispersed ownership model. This drives a 110% cross-office collaboration and camaraderie!
That’s one of the most enriching aspects of being at Woods Bagot. We call ourselves a “global” studio, meaning we work collaboratively across time zones and borders, using the latest technology to share design intelligence and strengthen our knowledge base around the world. The transition to working from home was very seamless for us, given the processes and tech we had in place.
One of the benefits of working for Woods Bagot—pre-Covid of course!—is the opportunity to travel: it’s common for, say, a New York-based architect to up and move to Shanghai or Sydney for a while. It’s a multi-authorship approach to projects, which means our clients get the best thinking from a network of global experts.
We are local and global simultaneously. Every studio has its own personality and its own local client relationships, but we all share the mission and values of People Architecture.
How has the studio implemented technology over the years as it has become more and more advanced? Has it been difficult to balance things like human intuition and collaboration with tools like AI and machine learning?
In both choosing and developing our own tools, creative collaboration is the first principle. We’ve seen our greatest successes when we used technology to enhance collaboration and design intuition. One key area that we’re spending time on now is augmented design, which is helping us tightly bind design and analysis. Rather than doing a bit of design in one program, then stopping work to do a bit of analysis in another project, which was the old way, we’ve now merged design and analysis. The analysis is live, quick, and intuitive.
In the past, we often had to go to an engineer for solar or lighting studies. Of course, we still need engineers, but augmented design provides the architects with a quick understanding at the concept design stage. Technology can show us how the light will come in, how solar radiation will hit the façade, how people’s views within a room will influence their social behavior. Now, the designers can understand simultaneously not just what their design will look like, but also the way it will perform.
Another way our technology is helping collaboration is by allowing people on different sides of the world to work in the same model simultaneously. Whether they are physically located in the studio, or in a home office, the designers are all synced through the cloud.
What advice would you give an architecture student looking to break into the field in 2020?
Just as many firms are doing, graduate students should look for ways to convert challenges into opportunities. Architects are skilled at finding creative solutions to complex problems! Students need to stay nimble while always keeping in focus what they would like to accomplish, by setting short-term and long-term goals.
Students need to continue to strive for their visions. Sometimes one can find success in unlikely times and places, that could lead to greater outcomes.