While it seems like Fort is heir apparent, she maintains an extremely low profile and says she thrives on the dialogue between satellite offices. “It is an open discussion amongst young designers in a global network. Without the other people in the firm, ours wouldn't work,” she explains. “We do a lot of the front line production, focusing on schematic design—collaborating with Miami, Madrid, or New York. A good idea can come from anywhere in the world.”
For a competition in Seville, the studio e-mailed sketches and jpegs of hand-made models to Spain, and the overseas office responded with comments about the site and local building codes. “The new creative talent generates a stimulus in the whole firm,” says Fort-Brescia. As design principal, he welcomes these dynamic interchanges and sees them pushing Arquitectonica forward.
Credit: Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Robert A.M. Stern, partner, Robert A.M. Stern Architects.
Mention his “legacy” to Robert A.M. Stern, founder of the eponymous New York firm, and he sallies with a bit of dark humor. “Well, nobody around here retires,” he says. “We ask this question [of ourselves] all the time. We hope that someone will emerge to lead the firm.” There is little doubt that leadership is embedded in RAMSA's ranks; several of the partners have been there for more than 25 years. The firm has amazing loyalty—especially when many young architects tend to bounce from office to office before hanging their own shingle—but RAMSA, like Arquitectonica and many other big firms, is reluctant to publicly celebrate the next generation for fear of poaching. “We have good people, and we don't want every headhunter calling,” Stern notes.
Stern shares a common belief that there is a scarcity, almost to the point of crisis, of midcareer architects. Both an American Institute of Architects (AIA) poll from December 2006 and ZweigWhite's “2007 AEC Industry Outlook” report that firms are on the hunt for qualified employees: 60 percent to 80 percent of the offices responding cited this as a top priority. One explanation is that many architecture school graduates left the profession during the economic downturn in the 1990s.
AIA chief economist Kermit Baker has heard that story, but he can't back it up. “Three or four years ago, when construction was in a recession, you didn't hear people complaining about a lost generation,” says Baker. He attributes the short supply to the boom-and-bust cycle: Building is active, and demand is high.
Compensation is often the key to holding onto high-quality employees, but to cultivate staff, RAMSA combines that financial incentive with training and with design responsibility. Stern's position as dean of the Yale School of Architecture influences the 250-person office. In general there is an informal academic air, but more-formal education programs—ranging from the typical lunchtime product seminars to business etiquette courses—dot the calendar.
Credit: Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Melissa DelVecchio, senior associate, Robert A.M. Stern Architects.
“Bob takes responsibility in training young architects. It is almost like finishing school,” says senior associate Melissa DelVecchio. When she joined the firm in 1998, DelVecchio's skills were quickly recognized. She worked directly with Stern from day one—“three weeks of Bob boot camp,” she quips—and although she is loath to admit it, she was groomed into her design role. Fellow senior associate Jeffery Povero went straight from grad school to RAMSA in 1997. Povero jokes that he rose through the ranks because he could read Stern's mind—translating ideas to pen sketches.
The two architects are representative of a generation that has developed under Stern's tutelage and is now in the position to shape the influx of younger designers. “The hardest part isn't so much developing the team dynamic. The hardest part is giving up the parts that you really want to do,” explains Povero, inadvertently mirroring the very dilemma brand-name architects face: Just how do you transfer the reins without compromising design quality or a founder's vision?
The answer lies not in a sudden bait-and-switch at the end of a career, but in creating an office environment that rewards, supports, and promotes design interchange and fresh insight.
Brooklyn, N.Y.–based Mimi Zeiger is the author of New Museums: Contemporary Museum Architecture Around the World.