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Little Firm, Big World (in 3 Parts)

Little Firm, Big Building

Part I: The Project

If you didn’t already know, the Downtown and Embarcadero of San Francisco have been—and will continue—to go through some major changes. Namely, a wide spread project called The Transbay Project to improve infrastructure, provide transportation and create housing. It will include 10 new buildings and Fougeron Architecture, along with SOM, will be designing Transbay 9.

The blocks for these new buildings are owned by by the OCII (Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure) which held team competitions for the projects, featuring teams of developers and architectures. After Transbay 9 was announced, I got a lot of questions about working with such a powerhouse in architecture.

Part II: The History

First, it’s imperative to understand the landscape of the world of architecture (pun intended). Within the architecture world, women and minorities are severely underrepresented still. White male privilege reigns supreme and when you take a look at major firms or architectural organizations, boards are often times comprised of one very overrepresented demographic. (Organizations like Women’s Initiative, have made moves towards leveling out skews in the workplace and correcting societal biases.

Having worked in architecture since 1980, having owned my own firm since 1987, and having served on multiple boards taught me that as many changes as I make in my own business and as many personal victories I may have, change must also be an institutionalized decision. In 1998, San Francisco created a series of charters aimed to overcome societal biases for minorities, women and small business owners. In an effort for city growth but also to help prevent existing discrimination they enacted the MBE/WBE/LBE charter (Minority Business Enterprise, Women Business Enterprise, Local Business Enterprise).

These charters allows women and minority owned businesses (as well as small businesses, or all of the above) opportunities to pursue contracts they previously couldn’t, by setting aside micro programs only for small businesses, offering incentives for larger companies to work with smaller companies or taking advantage of an increase availability in subcontracts. Essentially, the city of San Francisco offers opportunity where it would not have previously been. The OCII owns all the land for the Transbay projects and therefore follows the city charter regarding LBE/MBE/WBE participation.

Part III: Little Firm Meet Big Firm

The opportunity to work with a large firm like SOM on the Transbay project was also thanks in part to the Transbay buildings sites being a large, linked project tackled by multiple firms rather than simply one firm taking all ten buildings. The move by the city of San Francisco was imperative for architecture and small businesses to thrive in an all encompassing way. But thanks to the MBE/LBE/WBE charter, another change has emerged.

In architecture, you are almost always up someone else. The existence of your art–your work is contingent on “winning.” It means that everything can be reduced to the haves and have nots. By my getting a job, it means someone else did not. This creates a competitive atmosphere that has its benefices: you are always striving to be better, smarter and cheaper, and cons: you are distrustful, reserved, and collaborations are infrequent.

As Fougeron Architecture works with SOM to build Transbay 9, I am finding that when collaboration is made to be intrinsic to a project, you can find a true example of the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. Because what makes a smaller firm more desirable is balanced with what a larger firm can offer. A larger firm offers you resources in scale: arrays of experiences, materials, people. While a smaller firm can provide greater attention to detail, client interactions and more time spent with the principal architect rather than staff.

What I have found in the Transbay 9 project is that the dialogue is no longer about competition but cooperation. And because any senior architects on the project are equals, you also find a refreshing honesty. Buildings, especially city buildings, can be made better and smarter. And that value is immeasurable.

Resorting

Under a mountain of unending fog and chilled by the news reports of record breaking snowfall on the East coast, I took a vacation to The Big Island (or Kona), Hawaii last week.  I stayed at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort, a resort hotel built by SOM in the 1960s. Did you think I was going to talk about those Mai Tais I enjoyed? This is an architecture blog, after all!

The Mauna Kea is very much tied to its decade without looking dated. There is no outside or inside in the common hotel areas, simply roofs without walls or walls without roofs. Every space is expansive–with incredibly high ceilings, concrete as far as the eye can see.

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  And the use of color is delightful–the bright tiles (which are blue on some floors and red on others), the amazing Hawaiian art is what punctuates a mostly sparse space.

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A back stairwell

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Rooms flanking either side

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A view from the 5th floor to the 8th

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Another lovely stairwell

In fact, the whole structure is rather modest for a resort. Rooms aren’t spread out across various buildings, you won’t find the various restaurants or bars in different zip codes. There is one main building an an addition of new rooms (built in the 1980s). You could easily walk from one end of the hotel to the other in ten minutes.

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Kona is an expansive island which actually makes exploring it difficult. It can easily take four hours to drive from one end to the other. But I embraced this mentality and did my best to discover the immediate surrounding areas. It was to my benefit, in fact, as I got to check out (and compare) other  hotels in the area.

When I was told some of the best food on the Island could be found at the Four Seasons resort, about a 15 minute drive away, I knew I had to visit .

In contrast with the Mauna Kea, The Four Seasons is enormous. No, it is gigantic. You enter one building to register and then your room could be so far away, you’ll need a golf cart to get there.

Hualalai Golf Aerial

When we arrived for dinner,  we got lost walking to the restaurant twice! It was a ten minute walk through poorly lit alleys. Despite its airs, the whole resort is rather vernacular. It seems disassociated from its surroundings, resembling any other resort you might find somewhere else tropical. It screams Pirates of the Caribbean but without any of the fun.

Not a single material there is native to Kona.

Not a single material there is native to Kona.

It is (despite a lengthy Wikipedia article that disagrees) a sort of copy and paste job. And you can see it because the architects chose to build something that “represented” Hawaii than something that belonged in Hawaii.

It is worth noting two things about The Four Seasons. Firstly, we had slow-cooked boar there and it was delicious and second is that, and I do feel this is important, very few people who were born or raised in Hawaii worked at the resort. Very unlike the Mauna Kea, where you found lifelong Hawaiians not only in staff, but as customers at the spa and salon too!

Of course, the beautiful beachfront access doesn’t hurt my adoration for the Mauna Kea but in all, it is a spectacular modern hotel for one reason alone: respect. The SOM team not only worked on respecting the space, but the environment itself. You get a sense that the hotel is nestled into the Island, having found an appropriate (and small!) space for itself. Its modesty suits its modernity. Instead of making a guest forget they are in Hawaii, they feel more a part of the Island.

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