For Lorcan O’Herlihy, FAIA, founding principal of Los Angeles–based Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, buildings are not isolated objects. “Architecture is a social act,” he says. “When we design a building, we’re concerned about how it impacts the sidewalk and the street, and how it impacts the social and civic world.” His term for this approach: “Amplified urbanism.”

That philosophy—an especially forward-thinking one in sprawling LA—helped Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects earn the top spot in the design category of this year’s Architect 50. “Coherent and unique projects with tremendous range,” said the design judges about the firm’s portfolio. “The work possesses an impressive catalog of variation and invention concerning approaches to architectural identity.”

UCSB San Joaquin Student Housing
Bruce Damonte UCSB San Joaquin Student Housing
Paul Vu Mariposa1038

Consider the firm’s design for MLK1101, a mixed-use housing complex for formerly homeless veterans located near LA’s Exposition Park. The four-story, L-shaped building sits on a busy thoroughfare between a McDonald’s and a bland low-rise apartment structure. Developed by the local nonprofit Clifford Beers Housing, MLK1101 includes ground-floor retail space and a central staircase that leads to an elevated courtyard for residents. There’s a security gate at the top of the stairs, not on the sidewalk, a subtle design move that helps blur the line between the public and private realms. “The design strategies open the building toward the street and foster a sense of community within the neighborhood,” O’Herlihy says.

Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects [LOHA] MLK1101

The firm brought a similar sensitivity to public space with its design of Mariposa1038, a market-rate apartment building in LA’s Koreatown. It’s a five-story box, but with a twist: the sides are all pushed inward to create concave façades. On the street-facing side, the result is a welcoming semi-public outdoor space between the sidewalk and the building.

The firm, which was founded in 1994 and is now 25 employees large, is also working on several projects in Detroit, including a renovation and expansion of the MBAD African Bead Museum and a mixed-use project called Big Box DD, which will be constructed in the Eastern Market neighborhood using modified shipping containers. It includes flexible space for retail, food vendors, and co-working spaces.

Big Box DD
Lorcan O'Herlihy [LOHA] Big Box DD
African Bead Museum
Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects [LOHA] African Bead Museum

Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, principal of Brooks + Scarpa (number two in this year’s list of top design firms) and a longtime friend of O’Herlihy’s (they’ve collaborated on three projects), praises the architect for taking a “fairly mundane program like housing” and coming up with a fresh slant. “Every project is different,” Scarpa says. “He’s always searching, always looking for new ideas. And he has the tenacity to get stuff done. When everyone says, ‘No you can’t,’ Lorcan says, ‘Yes I can, and here’s how.’ And he does it with grace and style and beauty.”

The Top 50 Firms in Design

Rank Organization Score
1 Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects 100.0
2 Brooks+Scarpa 97.7
3 LTL Architects 92.8
4 Rice+Lipka 91.7
5 Marlon Blackwell Architects 90.8
6 Anmahian Winton Architects 89.3
7 HGA 88.3
8 Archimania 88.2
9 Trahan Architects 88.0
10 nArchitects 84.4
11 NADAAA 83.7
12 CannonDesign 82.7
13 Studio Gang 80.0
14 El Dorado 79.6
15 WRNS Studio 78.8
16 Skidmore, Owings & Merrill 77.6
16 ZGF 77.6
18 Behnisch Architekten 75.6
19 Desai Chia Architecture 75.4
20 Eskew+Dumez+Ripple 75.3
20 Works Progress Architecture 75.3
22 Touloukian Touloukian 74.5
23 Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill 73.7
24 Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture 73.4
25 Lake|Flato 73.1
26 Hacker 72.5
27 Ikon.5 Architects 72.1
28 SRG Partnership 71.8
29 Perkins+Will 70.7
30 Architecture Research Office 70.2
31 HKS 70.0
31 5G Studio Collaborative 70.0
33 TEN Arquitectos 69.6
34 LMN Architects 69.2
35 Tighe Architecture 69.1
36 Studio Ma 69.0
37 Solomon Cordwell Buenz 68.8
38 SmithGroup 68.5
38 BNIM 68.5
40 CBT Architects 68.3
40 Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects 68.3
42 Leddy Maytum Stacy 68.2
43 GO Logic 67.6
43 Hufft Projects 67.6
45 Payette 67.3
46 Overland Partners 66.9
47 FXCollaborative 66.7
47 CO Architects 66.7
49 Snow Kreilich 66.6
50 Ayers Saint Gross 66.0

Design Judges

Ron Eshel

Michael Maltzan, FAIA, is the design principal of Michael Maltzan Architecture in Los Angeles. He is a recipient of the 2012 American Academy of Arts and Letters Architecture Award, and the 2016 AIA Los Angeles Gold Medal honoree.

Sioux Nesi

Claire Weisz, FAIA, is a founding principal of WXY in New York. She has received the Architectural League of New York’s Young Architects Award and its Emerging Voices Award with her firm. WXY won the 2016 AIA New York State Firm of the Year Award.

Chris Strong

Paul Andersen, AIA, is the director of Independent Architecture in Denver. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has been a guest curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and the Biennial of the Americas.