Firm leadership: Christopher Marcinkoski, AIA, and Andrew Moddrell, AIA
Location: Philadelphia and Chicago
Year founded: 2013
Firm size: Nine full-time plus one to two occasional interns
Education: Marcinkoski: M.Arch from Yale, B.Arch from Penn State University; Moddrell: M.Arch from Yale, B.Arch from the University of Kansas
Experience: Marcinkoski: associate professor of landscape architecture and urban design at the University of Pennsylvania, James Corner Field Operations; Moddrell: assistant professorships at the University of Michigan and University of Illinois at Chicago, research associate at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Garofalo Architects, UrbanLab
What inspired the founding of the firm: We were two architects less interested in buildings than in urban design and public space. When we looked around, there were very few practices focused solely on working in this space, so we set out to build a practice to do that.
Firm mission: PORT’s mandate as a practice is to design strategies and spaces that serve to equitably and creatively enhance the public realms of the cities and landscapes in which we have the opportunity to work. For us, the public realm represents the closest thing we have to democratic space in the contemporary city: spaces where a populace is free to recreate, reflect, celebrate, protest, and otherwise participate in a city’s civic and social life.
Personality of the practice: We have attempted to develop an approach to our work that is simultaneously practical and radical—something we call Hyperbolic Pragmatism. This is a belief in the power of reimagining the most direct, often overlooked design solutions for the purposes of creating spaces that are unexpected, captivating, and extraordinary. In this way, we aspire to produce work that is both inevitable and exceptional.
One thing everyone should know about the studio: We refuse to operate from a single disciplinary perspective. By intentionally mixing design backgrounds on staff, we approach each project on its own terms—site, context, community, latent assets—rather than the terms a single particular disciplinary approach might suggest.
How did you decide to become architects? Marcinkoski: Both my grandfather and uncle were/are architects. The only other thing I remember wanting to be was an astronaut. I guess I only made it through the “A” chapter in the big book of jobs. Moddrell: I liked mechanical drawing and architectural drafting courses the most in high school, so I enrolled in architecture school at the University of Kansas without knowing much about it. The studio culture was an incredible balance of rigor and fun that hooked me from the start. I’ve tried to carry that forward throughout my career, in both teaching and practice.
First commission: In 2013, we won the commission for the Intergenerational Playground in Denver, Colo., via an international multistage competition. The project was canceled after completion of the design development phase. While it was not built, it was a profound learning experience related to what it takes to build a practice focused on work in the public realm.
Defining project and why: Our practice has been engaged around two principal project types. The first is developing strategies for the management and occupation of large and complicated territories—urban or otherwise—that our clients are motivated to enhance over time, but usually have no idea how or even where to begin. The second is executing transformational projects for the complex, neglected, and forgotten spaces of existing cities. The Knoxville Battlefield Loop and Urban Wilderness Gateway Park in Knoxville, Tenn., are defining examples of the former, and the Lakeview Low-Line in Chicago and Oval+ in Philadelphia are exemplars of the latter.
Another significant project and why: The 8th Street Gateway Park in Bentonville, Ark. We were awarded this commission through the Walton Family Foundation's Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program in late fall 2019. We have completed the project framework plan and started schematic design in January. The 110-acre project is truly a hybrid for us in that it combines both structured spaces of active recreation and large, passive landscapes.
As part of our work, we are designing both the park landscape—circulation, topography, planting—as well as the various pavilions, structures, and bridges that are included in the project. In addition, the project has included the development of custom public engagement tools to engage the community throughout the pandemic.
Mentors who influenced the firm: Marcinkoski: James Corner and Marilyn Taylor have been advocates of ours more or less since we left grad school—first as employers, then colleagues, and now peers—offering both advice and criticism along the way. PORT doesn’t look like PORT without those two. Moddrell: When we were launching the practice, numerous fellow travelers in Chicago were doing the same and we relied on each other as mentors.
Most successful collaboration: PORT itself. When we were in grad school early on, we were sort of “frenemies,” to borrow a phrase. At some point we decided it would be much more productive to collaborate than to compete. We have never lived in the same city since graduating, but we have developed a model of working that has allowed for great collaboration.
Biggest design challenge the firm has overcome: Learning how to use public outreach as a real design opportunity, and not just treating it as some sort of perfunctory obligation as many designers do. We treat community engagement as an opportunity to create events and experiences that lead to shared conversations and perspectives. In our experience, this always leads to better outcomes.
Ambitions for the firm in the coming five years: It is perhaps dangerous to articulate, but we do very much want to continue to grow, albeit modestly and deliberately. This refers to both the size of the practice, as well as the scale and scope of our work. We’re trying to build a reputation for engaging challenging sites in partnership with compelling communities, so hopefully more of these opportunities come our way.
Design tool of choice: Even though most of our projects are on very large sites that would typically be approached in plan, we make it a priority to develop all our work three-dimensionally so that we can understand both the spatial and systemic relationships at play and, most importantly, where they intersect. So, there is a lot of Rhino and Grasshopper-based work in the office, but this is definitely balanced with equal amounts of pen and trace (and iPad sketching).
Design aggravation: Greenwashing. While the intentions are usually good—usually—the unseriousness of how living material is treated in design renderings is astonishing.
Most urgent political question facing architects today: Climate change and the environment. The fact that this is even a political question is ridiculous—it is nothing short of existential. But nonetheless, design and planning broadly should be actively considering every aspect of practice through this particular lens.
Most urgent policy question: There are so many, but maybe one that doesn’t get much run in this publication is the continued underfunding of the public realm and civic facilities in cities. Too often these assets are seen as something nice to have but not essential. In reality, they need to be understood in terms of the systemic benefits they provide to public health, the environment, education, the economy, as well as the social and energy-related benefits. The fact that parks, play areas, libraries, community centers and the like are the first thing on the chopping block when municipal services need to be cut is a clear reflection of their undervaluing, despite the central infrastructural role they play in maintaining the health of our cities.