McNellis: Let Us Now Praise Famous Architects

And let us remind not-so-famous developers to seek business counsel elsewhere.

March 1, 2011

By John McNellis

The Registry is devoting this issue to design—to celebrating Northern California’s premier architects and designers, their creations and ideas. Your correspondent endorses these richly deserved acknowledgments; without a commitment to architectural innovation and excellence, without wide recognition of our best and brightest designers, our world might easily resemble the outskirts of Moscow, that endless, post-apocalyptic forest of gray, pitted concrete.

Also, let’s face it, architects are always the coolest guys in the room—everybody likes them. They know the latest vacation spot (usually some islet in the Indian Ocean). They’ve got the hippest glasses and the best quote from the New York Review of Books; they’re well-spoken. (City councils love them.) They’re urbane and witty, and they have that dash of the professorial that implies intellectual depth. And what other straight men dress so stylishly?

(The Registry recommends that design professionals read no further; the balance of this column is technical information intended for real estate owners, lenders and developers.)

All true, but—and here’s the tricky part writing for a magazine that absolutely dotes on design professionals—every last one of them, especially the architects, should come with a printed warning. Perhaps as simple as tobacco’s: “Warning: Architects Kill.” Or more elaborately: “Warning: A design professional is like a loaded .45—take lessons before employing.”

On the one hand, the marriage of a skilled developer and a top-flight architect may prove wondrous, often producing glorious offspring: A building, an entire project, swiftly designed that not only fits well with its surroundings but is embraced by its community and is profitable from the beginning.

On the other, a neophyte developer or amateur owner—especially one with ego—will likely as not get his project finished, but the chances of turning a profit any quicker than the Great Pyramids (4,500 years before becoming tourist attractions) are slim.

Why? Because, like other artists, an architect is ultimately in the business of pleasing her clients, and if a developer insists that a shopping center look like the Ponte Vecchio, the architect will design it thus, complete with a water feature that moats the center, guarding it from any would-be shoppers. Or if the developer made a first fortune in the nursery business and happens to be overly fond of landscaping, an architect will design and install a 10-foot, wrought-iron fence around his project, thereby protecting the petunias and everything else in the center from pesky visitors.

These two clownish—but true—examples (both from the Central Valley) illustrate the point—if you don’t know what you’re doing, your architect won’t save you. A recent example: a mixed-use development with quality condominiums over ground floor retail in the north county; this well-designed effort had a flaw so obviously fatal that both owner and architect should have seen it on the first site visit—it was virtually on top of a firehouse. Who would buy a home knowingly running a risk of 3:00 a.m. wake-up calls from careening fire trucks? Apparently, nobody. The condos didn’t sell, and the project went back to the lender.

Yet the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our star architects, but in ourselves. We cannot rely on architects to tell us that second-floor retail works as often as life is spontaneously created. Or that shops facing 90 degrees away from their anchor tenant’s front door are the commercial equivalent of purgatory, just maybe a bit more dead. And we must learn the hard way what happens when we jack up our buildable area by penciling in too many compact parking spots.

As plausible as the existence of a real Lassie, there may indeed be an architect out there who will go find help if you fall down a well, but counting on either wouldn’t be prudent.

Why bring this up today? Why color this great issue with a field report?

Why, because every year some cocky property owner comes to visit us and the conversation goes like this:

McPartners: “You might consider hiring an experienced developer—developing a successful shopping center only looks easier than tic-tac-toe.”

Property owner about to acquire experience just after he needs it: “Thanks, man, but we’ve got it covered. We have asked around, and we’re hiring the best architect, the number-one engineer, blah, blah, blah—we are ready to roll. Just wanted to see if you guys would pay too much for this fabulous development opportunity.”

OK, hotshot designers (we know you’re still reading): Do yourselves and your inexperienced client a big favor. When you finish spinning out your ideas for the world’s coolest design, advise her to seek professional development expertise. She can either hire it for a small fortune or lose a large one learning it on the job.

For more about John McNellis or McNellis Partners, please visit mcnellis.com.