Architect and planner Vishaan Chakrabarti has had some crazy ideas over the years. In the past he has worked to convert an old Post Office adjacent to Penn Station into the monumental Moynihan Station and helped shape a loopy scheme to transform the former Domino Sugar Factory on Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Waterfront. In 2013, he even spearheaded a proposal to extend Manhattan island to connect it with Governors Island and project a new plot of land into New York Harbor.
It’s fair to say that Chakrabarti thinks big. Today, Chakrabarti announced his latest big idea: his own architecture firm called the Partnership for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU).
“All architects have something in them says they want to start their own firm,” Chakrabarti told AN on Thursday. “I certainly thought about it in the past. I realized if I didn’t do this now I wouldn’t do it.” He hopes PAU can return relevance to a profession that the public has relegated to “navel gazing.” Rather than viewing buildings as shiny objects, PAU will look at how they interact with cities and across disciplines, accounting for the building user’s experience and that of passers by.
Chakrabarti has assembled a diverse and prestigious resume, working at top posts in the public and private sector. He started his career at SOM. Six years later he was named head at the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning under Dan Doctoroff where he worked on projects like the High Line. Later he joined development firm the Related Companies, where he was named Executive Vice President of Design and Planning.
The list goes on. Chakrabarti served as Director of the Columbia Center for Urban Real Estate in 2009 and is an Associate Professor of Professional Practice at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). In 2012, he joined up with the skyrocketing firm SHoP Architects in the midst of several mega-projects including a number of skyscrapers and Essex Crossing. He published his book, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for Urban America, in 2014, expounding a manifesto of urban living.
“For me, PAU is really an opportunity to synthesize all of that experience into one direction,” Chakrabarti said. “To bring to bear all I have learned—it’s a great chance to bring all that experience together.” He plans to draw on both his planning and architecture background to create a more holistic firm. “I think this is a healthy and important thing for the future of architecture, to understand the context in which we practice,” he said. “It’s about speaking multiple languages.”
In his work, teachings, and writing, Chakrabarti has been a staunch supporter of cities and the urban density that makes them tick. PAU, set to be based in New York City, will focus on those cities. “You’ll see a very strong focus on cosmopolitan architecture and strategic urbanism—how we’ll have an impact that’s very directly associated with cities,” he said.
“That division—architecture and planning—is what makes cities work,” he continued. “It used to be that the professions were joined at the hip. You could think of architecture as an outcome of innovative planning. That’s no longer the case.”
PAU will concentrate on architecture and strategic planning, including master planning, advocacy, and urban design. The firm’s first clients include Google’s Sidewalk Labs, a new project with Two Trees Management, and a new cultural building in Manhattan. Chakrabarti said he couldn’t disclose concrete details about those projects and noted that his firm would begin unveiling them in coming months.
Describing his work with Sidewalk Labs, Chakrabarti said his work will prioritize “the future of the city and technology and how technology can create innovation and make our lives better by elevating quality of life. It thinks about everything from changes to the automobile to changes in how we use services in the city.” PAU’s cultural commission “will talk about the future of how culture interacts with the city and integrates with the urban experience.” He added, “It’s not just another black box.”
PAU will initially focus on metropolitan areas in North America. “I’m very interested in the betterment of the American city,” he said. “Mayor’s around the country have really caught on to this—that design is a critical piece of attracting human capital and making cities better places.” Chakrabarti said the firm may eventually work internationally, but with strong caveats against working in nations that abuse labor or are not transparent and accountable.