Christopher Sharples interview private sector responsibilities, Essex Street Crossing, and empathy

Christopher Sharples interview on private sector responsibilities, Essex Street Crossing, and empathy

By Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss

Srdjan: Can you tell me something about SHoP that I don’t know? I know that you started in the loft, on 32nd street.

Chris: Yeah, and now we’re two decades old. We currently have a staff of about 200, and we’re doing projects all over the world. I would say that there are two key things to understand about our office. One is how weve leveraged technology over the past 20 years to really look at ways of not only crafting our designs better when it comes to realizing them as constructed, but also understanding how we can use modeling, visualization, fabrication, and communications technologies in concert to make our designs perform better.

There’s that whole side of technology and how we use it in the office, which allows us to collaborate directly with, not only our consulting teams but with the people that actually build the projects.

I think Barclay’s Center is a great example of how that all came to pass internally. It was a very large project on a complex site and it had to be completed on a very tight deadline. Without an integrated approach to design that included rethinking internal, consultant team, and client-side communications as well as a streamlined direct-to-fabrication workflow, we could not have attempted the project.

The second important thing to understand about SHoP is that our very first projects were public parks, including a small one that rejuvenated the village center of Greenport, New York, and the very large the East River Esplanade in Manhattan. What we took from these projects is the importance of creating public spaces that are truly public, that are successful because they are embraced by the communities they are designed to serve. That lesson shapes all our architecture now: we learned that to create really meaningful architecture it has to embrace the principles of great public space.

And what’s interesting about this conversation, we remember Patrik Schumacher back in November in Berlin, and how he said that the private sector should take over public land and take responsibility for it.


Srdjan: What do you think about that?

Chris: He didn’t say it in the right way. What he should have said was that many private sector builders are starting to realize that creating truly great public spaces makes great business sense for their projects.

We have, actually, convinced a lot of the developers we work with – like Howard Hughes, our client for Pier 17 and other projects in Manhattan’s Seaport District – just how important it is to create a real contribution to the public realm in their projects. It’s not just about people going somewhere to shop, or going there to work, but understanding how a shared space becomes much more appealing to pedestrians, much more of an integrated experience in the life of citizens traversing the urban fabric. And I think those are the two most important things that we stride upon in our work: the innovative use of technology in the service of creating spaces for public use.


Srdjan: I interpret that as kind of your view on how social improvement and physical improvement come hand in hand?

Chris: We believe wholeheartedly that it’s not just the public sector’s responsibility for taking care and creating new spaces, it’s also the private sector’s responsibility.

And I think the private sector is starting to realize that it just makes good business sense to do it right. It’s a good idea. And one of the things that we made clear when we were working on projects like Pier 17 and Essex Street, is that we do not want those places just to speak to the tourists, to be seen as invasive by New Yorkers.

Nobody ever knew, as a New Yorker, for instance, what went down on Pier 17in the building that existed there before, because it was just a mall on the edge of the island. And now, as the new building and the surrounding walkways and plazas get ready to open, we do—because of the integration of the project with our East River Esplanade, and through creating this publicly-accessible roof deck that can handle several thousand people for different kinds of performances, or just to look across at Brooklyn or the Statue of Liberty. For this kind of work, in New York or any city, it’s all about creating spaces that the citizens of a place themselves will go to on a regular basis and use, places that become a vital and active part of the living city, and I think that’s something the private sector is starting to get a real sense for.


Srdjan: Now, on Essex Street Crossing project, how did you manage to mitigate the distance between the affluent and less affluent?

Chris: First of all, this is a two million square foot project and half of the residential units, half of all the dwellings that will be in this project, will be affordable. The idea from the beginning was that this would not be an enclave of the affluent. One of the first buildings that went up is a condominium project, but the rental buildings that are part of the master plan will be affordable.

So, the idea is that, like the best Manhattan neighborhoods, this is a place for everybody. The key that holds Essex Crossing together is the market, the public market space that links the project below grade, and how that really is the glue that connects all these nine different buildings together. That’s something that’s not only great for the people that live there, and the surrounding community, but will be a destination for the whole city. And I think that’s something.

The other thing that’s really important at Essex Crossing—which wasn’t so evident with the prior concepts—is that it needs to be open to the street, so people can see it. Especially when you’re going down Broome Street, you’ll be able to look into this atrium, look in and see the beautiful, sort of scalloped glass fiber reinforced concrete ceiling, and your eye gets drawn down into the market hall. We know it’s going to be amazing during the day, but at night the whole space starts to glow out into the surrounding streets: Broome, Ludlow, Essex.


Srdjan: You know there is a lot of talk about urban ecology, but I’m also very curious about how you work and do you have any discussion about, so-called, construction ecology. Meaning is there anything about how things are constructed?

Chris: Oh, absolutely. It’s one of the things that we’re focusing on quite a bit in the office right now. I would say that one of the challenges that we face in this profession is the whole process of how you move from the conception of a design to the realization of that design in the field. And what makes this even more complicated is if you’re doing this in a very dense urban context and you’ve got all these different governmental or community-based entities with official or unofficial oversight.

Whether it’s communications with the consulting team, the contractors, and subs, or the constraints of the site, the materials that are brought to that site, the amount of congestion, any number of things can go wrong. Things show up and they don’t fit right away, you may not have enough lay-down area, or you have to consider just the particulate matter that’s created by the activities that take place on the job site, and the noise for people living nearby. All of these things can ruin the quality of life for a project’s future neighbors.

So, one of the things that we’re focusing right now is the need to develop relationships with companies and manufacturers outside of our sphere, both here in the USA and in Europe, to look at trying to draw as much of the construction on a job site as possible into being a manufacturing problem instead. And so we’re actively working with other industries that are built on manufacturing, to learn how to transfer that knowledge effectively into the construction of buildings.

And you know, as you know Srdjan, if you come to our office, you’ll see all the cars, you’ll see all the planes. We all know that all these are manufactured. They’re not built. And so there’s that side. And we have a proof of concept in the offsite construction of the B2 building in Brooklyn. It was a rocky road, but as a profession, architects have a lot of reasons for continuing to pursue modular building.


Srdjan: Why was it rocky?

Chris: The other thing we’re working on right now related to manufactured or offsite construction is looking at the applications of new materials, or, rather, traditional materials that are getting a new lease on life. I think mass timber, CLT construction is another way that bridges this gap between more manufactured elements happening in contemporary construction. So in terms of modular, we’re talking about doing the whole thing in the factory except for the foundations and the first floor.With mass timber, you’re basically prefabing the system. It comes as a flat pack, and it assembles very cleanly, answering a lot of those questions about how to build with low impact in a dense city. The challenge here in our city is that a lot of these new systems are not yet been approved by the Department of Buildings and the Fire Department, so there’s going to have to be a lot of work done in the next 5 to 10 years to get that process in place.

But we’re not going to wait for everything to happen. We’re going to aggressively do it right now, aggressively build these relationships, whether it’s with companies in the States, or with companies in Europe. I mean, we’ve had some really great runs with fabricators, like MBK Maschinenbau in Germany, or Métal Sigma, but at the same time SHoP is looking at new materials, like 3Dprinted carbon fiber, 3D printed bamboo, with companies in Chattanooga and Nashville.

We’ve proved out a lot of these ideas with our small, sort of, pavilion projects. In the past year, we’ve done two: one for Design Miami, with a very large-scale 3D printed carbon construction.


Srdjan: When was the Miami project?

Chris: That was during Design Miami in November, and then we finished a piece in terracotta in Milan for the Interni show. And that was in March.

The name of the terracotta piece is WAVE/CAVE.The one from Miami was called Flotsam and Jetsam.


Srdjan: I have the last weird question. Chris, what is your favorite book on architecture? I’m trying to figure where you come from.

Chris: It’s a really short book I read a number of years ago and it’s called Brunelleschi’s Dome. It’s a whole story, start to finish, from engineering to actually managing the job site to the construction.It shows how it’s really the collaborative process where the designers and the builders are working together to make things happen. I think that’s a great one for a people, in general, to look at.

To be honest with you I think that one of the books that everyone should read is Adam Smith’s book on moral sentiment because one thing that’s critical to this process is—and this is where technology plays a big role—the way that we’re able to model the things now. Because of that, we can make this whole process highly transparent and collaborative.And by doing that, there are two things that happen and need to happen in order to build a really strong relationship between the design team, the build team, and the owner, and that’s trust, which everybody understands is important. But even more important to that is empathy.

Adam Smith talks about these two principles, trust, and empathy, as the driver for how people think about how they not only produce things, but produce them in a way that they meet the public’s need, and at the same time, people get value out of it, and the people who produce it actually get fair value as a result.

I think these are the principles that need to be brought back into how we think about architecture, because right now its a very adversarial environment where people silo themselves and basically say, well that’s not my problem, that’s your problem, because you’re the architect, or you’re the builder, etc.


Srdjan: That’s beautiful. Thank you, Chris.