polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide


by Ivan Valin

Some of you may have heard yesterday that Stantec — a big, multi-national, publicly-traded (ticker STN for all you polis readers in the financial sector) corporation — acquired San Francisco based architecture firm Anshen and Allen yesterday. Shame! some cry; just another example of the loss of a recognizable and respected business to the faceless fathoms of corporate structure. It's basically like Walmart came to town and burned down your mama's and your papa's store. But is this really so bad? And, if I may dare, could it be good?

First, what was Anshen and Allen — what did the world supposedly lose? A firm with a 70-year history that might have peaked with the Eichler homes and a cool chapel in Arizona. But since then — since the early 1960s — the firm has built a reputation of responsible and service oriented architecture with a particular focus on health care facilities (Tang Center anyone?). Competent, efficient, professional. Nothing risky. With offices in the US, Canada, and London the firm had already done its work at expanding to fill a global market. Stantec took on the firm not to eviscerate it, but to stretch itself into another niche. In other words, it is in everyone's best interests that Anshen and Allen just keep on doing exactly what they were doing before yesterday. The world might lose an entry in the phone book but it won't lose studio.

And what if this acquisition was a good thing? The urban design/landscape/architecture fields right now are abuzz with the notion that the world will be renewed by virtue of its infrastructure. And simultaneously we are re-conceiving the idea of infrastructure: no longer isolated acts of engineering, infrastructure is the functionality of the city itself and is a site for new symbiotic relationships. (The Mammoth blog has led an interesting discussion with Polis and others on this topic here.) We are no longer so naive as to believe that the site ends at the property line. As builders, as thinkers, as activists, as planners, our work exists within a larger system of relationships; it participates in urban and regional ecologies; it spawns local economies and impacts communities.

If this is the scale of our enterprise, then do we want it all done by a single firm? Of course not, this work necessarily pulls from the expertise of many. We need collaborative problem solving more than creative inspiration. Corporations like Stantec and AECOM house many of these experts under the same global roof and are ideally positioned to take on the new scope that we are imagining for ourselves.

Two things stand in the way of reaching this potential: corporate villainy and design pedagogy.

The first I don't know much about but I don't deny it. Certainly, the corporate structure exposes its various component businesses to new levels of risk and risk management that may compromise the professional capabilities of that business. And then there is the greed …

But failure may also be preordained in the education of designers. The top schools still teach a largely self-centered, individualistic process and reward creative and artistic excellence. In this environment, the word “corporate” is tantamount to “wasted” and the brightest minds leave school to toil away for their idols, not for Stantec or AECOM or WPS or URS Corp.

If you peeled away all the jargon, however, these corporate design firms — as assemblies of diverse collections of experts — might have something in common with universities and think-tanks. We talk about the advantages of working across disciplines, but in corporations collaboration is structural. It stands to reason, then, that if collaboration leads to innovation then corporations — and the collected minds within them — could be the new avant-garde.

Credits: Original photo of the Chapel of the Holy Cross from Wikimedia Commons.