2010 PFIG Recipient Sam Pepper
School of Architecture
2011 Graduation Year
Internship: Smith-Miller + Hawkins Architects LLP
Notes on the first week
The heat, crowds and smell of New York City in July is a shock to the senses. Today it is expected to reach 90F in the shade. Despite the weather limiting my ability to arrive at work looking fresh, this city is the center for new American architecture. Above the streets of Canal Street where you can buy a Rolex for fifty bucks is the small office of Smith-Miller and Hawkinson Architects – my base for the next eight weeks.
Smith-Miller and Hawkinson is a highly regarded firm lead by two pioneers in the field, Henry Smith-Miller and Laurie Hawkinson who teach at Parson’s and Columbia respectively. While I have only interacted with Henry so far, the stubborn, against the grain nature of their designs appears to be reflected in his personality. They have resisted being typecast with a particular style or focus, and Henry is very non-specific when we talk about the priorities and goals of the company. Regardless of what he says, civic projects have become one of their specialties – designing sustainable, contemporary buildings in areas which lack architectural merit. Henry candidly talks about the vital nature of aesthetic and why so many architects struggle to design successful buildings. “People need optimism”, he says.
Architects appear to be in the optimism building industry. However, after a few days in this office I’ve discovered that many hours need to be spent at the computer or on the phone for the company to survive. As with most architecture firms SMH+ took a hit last year with the economic crash and are only now starting to find projects again. Through conversations with other employees, I’ve learnt that most of them also teach for part of the year at one of the local universities. The connection this company has with education is a strong one. The wealth of new ideas coming from students informs the design process here.
Their appreciation for interns is therefore unsurprising. My days at work have varied, and while there has been no real design work to complete so far, a few employees have been working on new publicity material. Editing images and literature the company is publishing has been the core of my work here but I am told that more challenging work will be available soon.
Outside of the office I have begun an analysis of how the city is experienced by foot in relation to the ground and the sky. Before this internship started I spent a month in Northern Italy studying how the human scale is the most profound measurement in architecture through analytical drawings and sketches. New York provides me with another challenge and while I have only just started, I plan to document and analyze the connection between the highest and lowest points of the city simply by pressing pencil on paper.
The range of work that Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects achieve in any given year is outstanding. I may be working with the eight most productive people in New York. While one architect designs the interior for a loft in Greenwich Village, another is starting work on a courthouse in Maryland. The profit from projects like these allows the company to also be involved in less glamorous projects - refurbishing parks in Harlem and Queens.
Henry Smith-Miller is adamant that his firm is not part of the ‘green’ architecture trend even though many of his latest buildings are rated highly by the government agency, LEED. He prefers to consider the best architecture as being the formal representation of common sense. While some companies test out new technologies, he studies architectural precedents that demonstrate, for example, how to maintain a constant temperature in a building all year round - without the need for air-conditioning.
Designing buildings is arguably the least taxing part of being an architect. More challenging is the working relationship between the owner, contractor and architect who all tend to have different goals. We want to construct the best building possible, but the contractor is often only interested in the profit margin. Having an understanding of aesthetics and knowledge of structure and construction is clearly important but so are management skills. On a daily basis, we will interact with other professionals in various fields, discussing, arguing and clarifying crucial details. The ferocious character of New York City is perhaps reflected in the relationships between different members of the construction industry.
My role has been in a constant state of flux - there is no symbol for ‘typical’ in an architect’s language. At one moment, we will be on a site visit and other days may be spent totally in the office. While the amount of paperwork I endure is typical of an intern, a local loft conversion provided me with the opportunity to learn more, and broaden my function in the office. The small scale of the project allows me to easily gain an understanding of the entire process. Meetings with the client, the creation of physical models and discussions over construction techniques have illustrated how a good designs become a great ones, sometimes with only a minor alteration.
The next few weeks are likely to be just as varied, and I am looking forward to spending more time with the firm’s principle, Henry Smith-Miller.
Architecture is unforgiving, perhaps even brutal. Far removed from the glamorous image is the reality of long hours, minimal profit and constant confrontation with other members of the construction industry. Without a doubt, this has been one of the most transformative summers of my life.
To extract more knowledge from my eight week internship, I invited every individual member of the office to lunch and a frank conversation.
Christian, a senior architect, took me to a quintessential pizza parlor packed with a typically lively crowd. I asked short, direct questions. Christian didn't censor his words. Our illogical passion for architecture would have been clear to any onlooker. His current frustration is how contradictory the sustainable "movement" is. While the government advocates for it, they have yet to create any incentive. Designing a green building is still expensive for the architect, engineer and contractor. LEED, the agency created to encourage and promote the construction of high quality buildings in the United States, is not managed by architects, engineers or developers. As a result, they rate the success of a building based purely on technicalities unrelated to common sense.
This topic of conversation was continued the next day with Sean at a local burger joint who I had been collaborating with alongside the global engineering firm, Arup. We were compiling a document to submit to LEED with the goal of attaining the Silver Status for a recently completed land port of entry in upstate New York. Some of the categories we had to fulfill were, objectively, absurd. Sean argued, mournfully, that the existence of LEED will not alter the American construction industry significantly. Instead, we should look towards the European model. In Denmark, the role of the architect is smaller and more precise, and sustainable construction practices are more advanced and government subsidized. Contractors work with the architects, instead of against them. Perhaps it is New York which makes the construction industry so tough. High prices, strict regulations and the presence of the world's most prestigious architects results in a very tense working environment. Sean agreed, and shocked me by suggesting that architects outside of the city are financially more rewarded for their efforts.
Ruchika, a recent graduate from Columbia University, was intent on giving me a culinary education so we headed for Chinatown. Sitting outside on a bar-stool, immersed in the distinct smells and sights of the steaming city, we discussed the future of the profession. She warned me that while I am entering a very challenging profession, if you persevere and have a knack for business, you can be successful and you can design intelligent, efficient buildings.
Working for Smith-Miller and Hawkinson has shown me, very vividly, how being an architect content with designing mediocre structures with a fifty year life-span is very profitable. However, if you have the ability to withstand the fight, be skillful in your business ventures and endlessly network, you may have a chance to improve the living environment of the average person. That is what I intend to do - I will.