One result of the increasingly globalized architecture profession is the rise of the architect of record as an influential player. As firms take on developments in far-flung locales, they have come to rely on collaboration with architects who can provide services that range from overseeing contract drawings to assisting with the design process from start to finish.
Though the practice is flourishing, a hallmark of an effective architect of record is discretion. As a result, such firms—and the work they do—often go intentionally unnoticed.
Adamson Associates, a 240-person, six-office firm based in Toronto, Canada, has emerged as a leading architect of record. Although the name may not ring a bell, many of the firm’s projects are the sorts of widely known developments that populate design magazines: Its current portfolio includes the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, with Frank Gehry; London’s mixed-used Canary Wharf development, with Richard Rogers; and one parcel of MGM’s massive CityCenter in Las Vegas that features a roster of top-tier designers: Norman Foster, Helmut Jahn, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Daniel Libeskind. As Adamson partner David Jansen, located in Toronto, puts it, “We are like an architectural zoo—we have one of everything.”
Adamson typically enters into partnerships at the outset of a project. (Oftentimes, the firm has already overseen the master planning stage before the client selects a designer.) “The objective is to build up a team where everyone has a strong arm, from concept to detail,” Jansen says. Since Adamson is frequently at the table from the beginning, it expects to work with the primary design team through to the end. “You always want both sets of players there for the whole project,” Jansen adds. “It should never be hands-off.” And working with an architect of record lets the primary firm operate more efficiently, enabling it to take on more, or larger, projects without swelling the size of its staff. “As a way to maintain their brands, many design firms don’t want to become 1,000-person firms,” Jansen notes. “Pairing with an architect of record offers them that flexibility.”
For Adamson, working with different designers has benefited the firm in ways not measured by the bottom line. “One result of having acted as the architect of record for top-tier projects is that we have become a repository for architectural knowledge,” Jansen says. “[With each] new building project, you end up resolving challenging conditions, so our team now has those solutions in place.”
For example, the billowing façade of Gehry’s IAC headquarters in Manhattan required extensive testing by Adamson to arrive at the maximum possible glass curvature. The novel diagrid structure of Foster’s Hearst Tower, also in New York, presented Adamson with a number of challenges, such as rigging the triangular surfaces with operable blinds and window washers.
With CityCenter, an $8 billion, 18-million-square-foot mixed-use development set to open later this year, Adamson, one of three architects of record (HKS and Leo A Daly are the other two), had a particularly difficult task. “The architect of record performs a balancing act,” says J.F. Finn III, the principal at Gensler, CityCenter’s executive architect, in charge of the project. “They don’t own the design, but they have to translate it into a constructible project. At CityCenter, there are multiple designs,”—Adamson’s parcel has two hotels, two condo towers, and a retail/entertainment space—“multiple entitites, and a whole set of standards … that Adamson had to incorporate.”
For firms taking on more-complicated commissions, teaming with an established architect of record works as a competitive advantage, bringing both technical heft and credibility to the design. “We can go through the learning curve a lot faster,” Jansen says. “If a client knows we have already delivered something similar, the proposal will be received more favorably. Sometimes, clients worry that they may be seduced by imagery, but that the design may be impossible to build,” Jansen continues. “We demystify buildings and make them deliverable.”
Ultimately, though, it comes down to realizing a design conceived by someone else. “I come from a design background, so I understand what the architect is after,” Jansen says. “But I also understand my role in the process, and that involves never undermining or taking attention away from the designer.”