SHoP Architects, a young New York firm, has grand designs. The firm's seven partners say they won't be content to merely leave a mark on America's most important skyline; they also want to transform the business of creating buildings. "Sometimes we joke," says one partner, Vishaan Chakrabarti, "that the nearest precedent is McKim, Mead & White."
It's a nervy comparison for a New York architect to make, even in jest—a little like a pop group invoking Mozart—but SHoP has begun to back its ambitions with big commissions. Over the past few years, the firm has become the city's go-to designer for complex, civically important projects. In November, when the owner of a controversial Manhattan waterfront scheme unveiled plans for a 50-story hotel and marina, SHoP was his architect. When Michael Bloomberg, the city's previous mayor, announced a $1.1 billion mixed-income housing development, SHoP partners were at his side. There's also an ultra-luxury midtown condo tower, 100 feet taller than the Empire State Building; a dockyard redevelopment around an old Brooklyn sugar factory; and even an outlet mall in blue-collar Staten Island, to be adjoined by the world's tallest Ferris wheel.
SHoP aspires to rethink the very notion of how architecture should be practiced, experimenting with everything from how architects get paid to how the firm participates in the treacherous worlds of politics and construction. SHoP's partners talk of breaking free of the tired convention that divides firms into two categories: the hip little ones, which devise adventurous buildings that exist only on paper, and the corporate behemoths, which design soulless glass skyscrapers that actually get built. "They have managed to cross the line from 'boutique' to 'big' really quickly," says Lance Brown, a professor at the City University of New York and president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. SHoP wants it both ways, making the case that innovative design can add tangible value to real estate. And somehow, at least so far, SHoP has managed to please both architecture critics and real estate developers—perhaps its most impressive trick of all.
"There's this idea that if you make money, you're a sellout," says Coren Sharples, another SHoP partner. "We didn't really understand that."
Last fall, Sharples took me to see the firm's latest building as it took shape, horizontally, across the floor of a cavernous factory. The building, New York's first modularly constructed high-rise, was going to be erected next to Brooklyn's new sports arena, the Barclays Center, as the first residential component of a megadevelopment called Atlantic Yards. A welder teetered on a stepladder, working inside a steel-framed cube, while across the floor men in hard hats assembled the copper tubing running through bathroom "pods." Module by module, the workers would be finishing every component—walls, floors, light fixtures, kitchen appliances—to precise specifications. "We're able to have very high quality control here in this factory setting," Sharples said. "There really is craft happening here."
At peak capacity, the factory will produce one story's worth of modules a week, allowing for quick assembly at the Atlantic Yards site, about a mile away. To developer Forest City Ratner, the most beautiful thing about the building is its bottom line. "The reality of it is, the way we've been building buildings is not terribly efficient," says MaryAnne Gilmartin, the company's president. She figures the modular experiment could potentially shave 10% to 20% off her costs, by lowering labor expenses and saving precious time.
SHoP's partners pride themselves on their pragmatic approach regarding the nuts-and-bolts detail work that makes tangible budgetary impact. (They used to be called "avant-cheap.") "When we were in school, I was certainly very disillusioned when I had professors who were talking about theory as more important than building," says Sharples, who cofounded the firm in 1996 with fellow graduates from Columbia University's architecture program: her husband, Bill Sharples; his twin brother, Chris; and another married couple, Kimberly Holden and Gregg Pasquarelli. (Hence, the initials S, H, and P.)
From SHoP's earliest days, the young architects showed a willingness to get their hands dirty—sometimes literally. When their first major commission, a waterfront park in Greenport, Long Island, hit an unexpected snag due to the discovery of arsenic pollution, the partners had to become licensed soil-remediation specialists. But they got it built.
Although SHoP won initial notice for flashier projects like an art installation called Dunescape at New York's MoMA PS1, the founding partners say the Greenport experience shaped the firm's ethos. They operated for a time out of a shared house in nearby Sag Harbor, forging a tight collaborative unit. Two newer partners—Chakrabarti, a former New York planning official, and Jonathan Mallie, who heads a spin-off, SHoP Construction—were brought on to broaden the firm's collective expertise. "This idea of an architect as a solo genius," Chakrabarti says, "is an extraordinarily antiquated concept."
A second concept that SHoP would like to do away with is that the architect is a mere hired draftsman. Typically, a designer's renderings bear about as much resemblance to a finished building as a screenplay does to a multiplex movie. But SHoP tries to exert control throughout the development process. "Why not get involved in the politics behind the making of space?" Pasquarelli says. "Why not understand the financial instruments that make buildings happen? And yet our profession kept telling us that was dirty."
Pasquarelli, who was an investment banker before switching careers, pushed during the real estate boom of the 2000s to form partnerships with developers. "I feel like architects should get no fee," he says, "but if their buildings are super successful, they should own a piece going forward." Traditionally, architects have avoided the risky real-estate business, but SHoP traded fees for equity in projects such as the Porter House, a condo building in Manhattan's hot Meatpacking District. When the 2008 crash came, SHoP was exposed. Three of its Manhattan development projects failed, and the firm lost millions in investment capital. Some employees, who had been given the opportunity to personally participate in the investments, were also hit hard. Simultaneously, the firm's commissioned work vanished, as six large projects were put on hold or canceled. There were brutal rounds of layoffs. The partners worked without salaries.
The firm was revived by a stroke of creative inspiration. In the darkest days of the recession, SHoP got a chance at a commission that would vault it to the front rank: the Barclays Center. "We needed that project," Holden says. "We were reeling." Forest City Ratner was desperate itself, forced to scale back its original plan for Atlantic Yards, a mixed-use complex by Frank Gehry, in the face of financing problems and lawsuits from neighborhood activists. The developer was left with a boxy stand-alone arena design, which pleased no one, so it came to SHoP. "Inside of a week," Forest City's Gilmartin says, "they produced an image that was provocative, compelling, and ultimately became very close to the design of the building." SHoP gave the building a distinctive "skin," an interlocking structure that jutted out over the front plaza, forming an open-roof canopy that the architects called an "oculus." The idea—which proved successful—was to create a public space in what was once one of New York's most forbidding traffic intersections. "The protests stopped the day it opened," Pasquarelli boasts.
That's not completely true: Some skeptics still haven't forgiven SHoP for hitching itself to the Barclays Center. "I can't look at it without seeing the politics," says Fran Leadon, coauthor of the AIA Guide to New York City. But the Barclays Center became SHoP's calling card, bringing it to the attention of New York's real estate industry.
"I felt the design took a lot of balls," says Michael Stern, managing partner of JDS Development Group. Stern hired SHoP to take on another difficult project: an East River site that had sat vacant for more than a decade due to bureaucratic delays and financial setbacks. When Stern acquired the parcel from a previous owner last year, he inherited a painstakingly negotiated set of zoning constraints that prevented his planned pair of condo buildings from sharing a base. So SHoP gave him copper-sheathed towers that bend toward one another and meet in a central "skybridge" that contains amenities such as a health club. With those buildings under construction, Stern has SHoP working on another project, a 1,350-foot residential skyscraper above a landmarked building on 57th Street.
The 57th Street development—one of several recent ones meant to cater to the billionaire condo buyer—is the kind of building that is unique to New York. But lately, SHoP has begun to branch out of its hometown, vying to design a new generation of embassies for the State Department, building an office center for technology companies in Botswana, and working on a futuristic planned city in Kenya. Chakrabarti recently published a book, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America, which proposes that places like Dallas and Denver construct "hyperdense" core areas served by convenient public transportation. That vision, of course, looks a lot like New York. "I think our work right now represents the new direction of urbanity in America," Chakrabarti tells me.
Even some of SHoP's admirers wonder whether, in its haste to capitalize on its spotlight moment, the firm could compromise the very qualities that gave rise to its success. "They are this incredible boutique firm that really focuses on quality, not quantity, and from my point of view it's a question of what will they become," Gilmartin says. "Their attractiveness was the fact that they weren't ubiquitous." When I talked to other architects about SHoP's latest work, many used the dreaded epithet corporate.
But SHoP wants to build. That means going where the money is, and big projects come with their own set of creative challenges. For instance, the new residential high-rise SHoP designed for Atlantic Yards probably won't end up on any postcards, but it will be the world's tallest modular building. To get it approved, the partners had to work intensely with the city's buildings department, assuring that the structure, which is held together by a system of rods and bolts, could withstand high winds, earthquakes, and other disasters. The safety tests involved setting quite a few modules on fire.
It was laborious work, but the potential payoff in terms of expertise is enormous. SHoP is getting in on the ground floor of modular high-rise design, and if it proves to be practical—by no means a foregone conclusion—the innovation could revolutionize high-rise development. Among other things, the lower costs could provide an economic route to creating more affordable housing, a pressing political issue. As a compromise, Forest City Ratner is pricing half of the units in the new Atlantic Yards building below market rate, with some allotted via a lottery to income-eligible households.
"Style is a form of branding," says Chris Sharples, who was deeply involved in the modular tests. "I use a quote from Kelly Johnson, who was the founder of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works division. He said, 'If it performs well, it's going to look beautiful.' "
A version of this article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.