Earlier this year, Los Angeles educator and architect Peter Zellner, founding principal of ZELLNERPLUS, was named principal and studio design lead for AECOM’s Los Angeles architecture practice. To many the move was surprising, considering Zellner’s longstanding relationship with SCI-Arc and his reputation for edgy design. But for Zellner it represents a chance to work at a larger scale and to take advantage of new resources, among other things. AN West editor Sam Lubell sat down with Zellner to discuss his new position and the profound changes in the corporate architecture practice in general.
Sam Lubell: You seem to be an unexpected choice at AECOM.
Peter Zellner: It’s reflective of a desire to bring in a strong voice for design in the Los Angeles area. But I think it’s also mirrored by other recent hires such as Allison Williams in San Francisco (director of design for the firm’s U.S. West region) and Ross Wimer (senior vice president for AECOM in the Americas). I’m part of a larger sweep. You’d also find it in other regions like Europe and Asia.
Historically there’s been a need to divorce the design piece from the production piece; a division between boutique firms and larger, service-based firms. For instance, you often have boutique designers producing high quality design and that work being supported by an executive architect. The goal would be to get away from that approach. Our goal is to not just deliver excellent building and engineering services but to also attach that to architecture and design in an integrated and meaningful way.
I believe in parallel there is an ambition now in the development community to align comprehensive construction and management services with great design. There’s a real interest in getting architecture up front. Not just as something to decorate the box, but leading the project by being integrated with other drivers, like sustainability, high performance and high quality building engineering, ecology, and landscape. One of AECOM’s strengths is the diversity of services we offer in those areas.
You’ve mentioned that you were drawn by AECOM’s many resources.
I think it’s kind of mind-blowing. In the work that I’ve been engaged in so far I’ve experienced a very different approach from the ways that most architects deliver projects. Typically you bring in consultants in the later stages of developing a design, or you have a sketch that might be schematic and you have consultants responding to your ideas in a vague way. At AECOM you can have in-depth conversations very early, whether it’s around cost modeling or building engineering or development financing or construction. It’s a very different way of working and it’s something that absolutely attracted me to the firm. It’s the next model of how things are going to be delivered through total integration.
For projects of a certain scale it can be incredibly valuable. There are efficiencies that come out of being able to share tools and data. Efficiency and quality are part of the same equation. If it’s integrated it touches everything and you’re getting optimization around everything that you’re working on, whether it’s a building or an interior or a landscape or infrastructure.
How has it changed your approach?
I think it changes how an architect can think about a project. I’m able to understand my work within a spectrum of disciplines that touch the environment and as a result I can be more intelligent about a project’s design impact. I have more information earlier and different points of view and different skill sets to access so I can continue to ask better questions.
It’s a way of refining the process of inquiry. You’re not guessing, so it gets you closer and faster to a different and better solution. For instance, I was just with our San Diego group and I found out that we have an urban archaeology group, a botany group, and an ornithology group. In a recent instance some of our team members working on the LAX light ribbon wanted to know whether birds would actually roost in a portion of the project. We were able to get an accurate answer from our experts. I don’t know that there’s any company that has this range of expertise.
Are you worried about moving to a corporate environment?
I’ve worked in large organizations and I’ve taught in large universities. The transition from a boutique to a larger firm isn’t a surprise. There are benefits to both sides of the equation, and you can hybridize the cultures. That would be one of my ambitions. I like the idea of bringing the best qualities of a small design practice to a large firm while getting rid of the worst qualities of both: like a lack of resources or applicable knowledge on the small side or reduced nimbleness on the big side.
Do you want to improve the level of design?
Yes. One part of that is driven by the type of work you do as well as finding the right opportunities in order to reinforce and build up a meaningful design culture. The standard for any project should be always produce something of intelligence and quality. From talking with many senior members at AECOM I know my hire is about enhancing this ambition.
What strengths do you bring?
I’ve been very fortunate that the few things I’ve managed to get built have received a fair amount of attention and have been well publicized. I bring a certain sensibility and profile and reputation as a designer and as an academic. But on the other hand, because I’ve spent the last few years jumping between academic, professional, corporate, and boutique cultures I think the other aspect of my hire is that I have flexibility and interest around linking up different cultures.
I also have a wide set of interests that scale from cities down to furniture and I’ve had opportunities to be a connector of communities. I’m interested in very broad urban things and I’m very interested in specific design problems. At AECOM I’m being exposed to a lot of things I didn’t know much about, like land use economics or how equity works in a very large project. I think I bring a general enthusiasm for any topic around architecture and a willingness to engage individuals across a broad spectrum in terms of looking at what a building can be. It’s not just aesthetics and it’s not just about a building being a finance vehicle. Maybe that’s what makes me a little special, because I’m a pretty broad thinker and I am not opposed to trying to understand a problem from multiple angles.
Will the knee jerk reaction against corporate architecture change?
Maybe the definition needs to change. Once upon a time Mies van der Rohe was a corporate architect. We tend to forget that. He did a lot of work for corporate America. We need to look at what we think avant garde architecture is and what corporate architecture is. We’re now in a very strange moment in our culture where we have agreed to these really overvalued definitions that say this type of architect does art and this type of architect does commerce and we can’t mix the two.
Why is there so much bad corporate work?
How we look at the problem of being cost effective is wrong. Something gets designed and when it runs contrary to construction economics the design gets value engineered. Getting around issues like cost and sustainability and structural performance or local politics early enough should allow architecture to rise to the occasion, not to become a thing that is sadly overlooked and is a poor byproduct of the usual processes.
What about ego? It would seem that it has to be subsumed in a corporate firm.
One of the mythologies of the avant garde is that the great artist does everything alone and with unique tools and skills. Today everyone uses the same tools and everyone works in specialized teams. From that perspective there’s no difference between the corporation and the avant garde. They run in parallel. Maybe only aesthetics vary. There’s a lot that the avant garde can learn from the other side of the equation, for instance how to get things done effectively and vice versa. There’s a false dichotomy in our culture between the people who come up with ideas and the people who deliver things. In a hybridized condition one could imagine a sort of corporate avant garde.
Now you have a generation of designers who can come up with great shapes but have no idea how to deliver them. They just get to hang things in galleries. There’s an unfortunate unwillingness on some parts of the academic avant garde to engage the world. I’m interested in being engaged in the world. I’m not interested in sitting in the academy complaining about why I can’t get work.
What’s been the reaction at SCI-Arc?
Many have seen it as a weird move. Some have seen it as gutsy. But a lot my friends there are looking at the world and asking what will it take to be more involved? I don’t see my generation’s mission to turn everything over. We’re in a different time and I don’t think things work like that anymore. We’re at the end of a time that was about a very reactionary repositioning of architecture in opposition to certain established cultural, economic, and political forms of production. The fact that our group at AECOM was just involved in a multi-stage competition against teams like Morphosis shows that to some degree we’re all in the same place. We’re all part of a larger system. The question remains how to be effective within it.