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Collaboration and the Executive Architect

Maddy Burke-Vigeland, Gary Hilderbrand, Tadao Ando and Annabelle Selldorf at the grand re-opening of the Clark Art Institute. Image Gensler

For the past decade, Gensler has had the privilege of serving as Executive Architect for the expansion of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (The Clark), and Principal Maddy Burke-Vigeland, AIA, has directed the project for our team. We’ve worked hand-in-hand with Design Architects Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, Selldorf Architects, and wHY Architecture; Landscape Architects Reed Hilderbrand; and Master Planner Cooper, Robertson & Partners, in the design and implementation of the project which includes a new visitor center named the Clark Center, renovation of the existing Museum Building and the Manton Research Center, and extensive new landscaping.

We sat down with Maddy to discuss the role of Executive Architect, how the experience has enriched her career, and how intense collaboration among architectural firms benefits the final design of a project.

Architects survey the site of the New Museum in New York, another project for which Gensler was Executive Architect. Image © Gensler

ET: What does an Executive Architect do?

MB: The title Executive Architect has emerged as a term referring to a firm that takes on the leadership role in directing complex projects and the myriad of design consultants who contribute to it. Think of an orchestra conductor coaxing the best performance out of each musician, from the solo violinist to the entire percussion section. In the case of the Clark, though, imagine multiple orchestras on the same stage.

In addition to overseeing these teams, an Executive Architect also manages the relationships among them, including the Design Architect’s relationship with the client. The goal is to ensure that a project advances seamlessly —that all designers contribute their best work and that the end result gives clients a design solution that well serves the people who ultimately use the building.

While the AIA considers Architect-of-Record “as the legal entity that has contracted for and completed the work in question,” when most people hear the term, they assume it refers to a firm that executes a limited portion of the work (specifically, the construction documents) in conjunction with a Design Architect. In order to distinguish a role that is more encompassing, the title Executive Architect has come into use; however, from a purely legal standpoint, Architect-of-Record is the recognized term.

Architecture has always been a highly collaborative process and even more so in the 21st Century when specialty consultants are critical to the demands of changing technologies. For projects as complex as the Clark, an Executive Architect is crucial to achieving an integrated result, which we believe also means a result which exceeds the sum of its individual contributions.

Sustainable water features unify the campus's disparate elements and create a resilient, environmentally friendly hydrological system for the Clark and its community in Williamstown, MA. Image © Gensler

ET: Can you offer an example of this—of bringing out the best in the full design team?

The Clark is a great example. The central, unifying element of the museum campus is a new reflecting pool. While traditionally designed water features are inherently environmentally unfriendly because they require large quantities of treated water, this project took a unique approach. Working in collaboration with the full consultant team, Gensler proposed and led an integrated campus water system approach (we call it the Water Commission), with Reed Hilderbrand, Landscape Architect, as a critical collaborator.

The key was the careful integration of the way that water moves through every portion of the project, from the buildings to the landscape. Rather than doubling the amount of water that the campus uses, we were able to create a campus designed to reduce water consumption by 25 percent. The campus is designed to use 1 million fewer gallons of water per year than it did before we added the water feature.

This is a great example of how a collaborative design approach can positively impact the environment and improve the original design brief.

In-progress construction at the Clark, where nature will play a prominent role in experiencing the museum. The Clark Institute © Courtesy of Turner Construction

ET: You’ve played the role of Executive Architect alongside firms including Tadao Ando Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Kazuyo Sejima with Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA. Why do such well-known architects partner with Executive Architects, and what does Gensler as a firm gain from such collaborations?

The first time I served as an Executive Architect was 12 years ago for the Clark campus, and Tadao Ando Architect & Associates served as Design Architect back then too. It was an expansion project that eventually resulted in the Stone Hill Center, which became the first phase of what is now a decade-long campus expansion. Other collaborators were also the same: The team included Cooper Robertson as Master Plan Architect and Reed Hilderbrand as Landscape Architect. Because Ando’s practice is based in Japan and only a small number of the firm’s projects had then been completed in the U.S., the project needed a firm that could help navigate and lead a team of consultants here in the U.S. I think it was not only our strong technical and management expertise, but also our reputation for designing places “that work” that allowed both the Clark and Ando to be comfortable with Gensler as a partner. Our work focuses on end users, and the experiences we create for them.

The Clark Art Institute. Image Gensler

Gensler benefits, as well, from the push-pull that comes from partnering with a great Design Architect. We review the design and challenge it when it doesn’t meet certain criteria. We stretch our vocabulary in pushing through the technical solutions and add insight when and where we can, always respecting the vision of the Design Architect. We see our role in working with a Design Architect as similar to working with a Design Director in our firm—in embracing the vision, we expand the diversity of our viewpoint and we discover how to make it work best.

Maddy Burke-Vigeland led the Gensler team, which served as Executive Architect for the expansion of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. It reopens opens July 4, 2014. Image © Gensler

ET: On a personal note, what have you learned from the process of serving as Executive Architect, and how has it impacted your career?

Working with other architects and other firms and seeing how they approach the overall discipline of design and architecture has opened up my life to new ideas and experiences. It’s a challenge (in a very positive sense) to partner with other architects, and doing so has helped me find new perspectives, become a better architect, and gain some new lifelong friends along the way.

I think it’s important to acknowledge the role good collaboration plays in architecture. Just as a film has a director, a writer, a producer, and actors, a project such as the Clark has a Design Architect, an Executive Architect, a Landscape Architect, and a whole cast of brilliant engineers and design professionals fulfilling a critical role in its making. Every person who worked on this project contributed in some way to the design and success of the project. I think I can speak for the entire, extended design team in saying we are very proud of the experience we’ve created for the people who will visit, research and work at the Clark.

Maddy Burke-Vigeland is an Architect and Principal who leads Gensler’s global network of Community Sector practice areas, which include our Education & Culture, Health & Wellness, Aviation & Transportation, Planning & Urban Design and Mission Critical Facilities practices. Contact her at maddy_burke@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (2)

what a great experince that must have been, to work with that high caliber of designers and to be a leader on the team.
06.26.2014 | Unregistered Commenterdoug wittnebel
Maddy has always excelled in her endeavors - whether Goldman Sachs, Davis Polk or as an "executive architect" - she always brings out the best - an amusing story I will never forget when she was Principal in Charge of the massive renovation of Weil Gotshal in the GM bldg -- we had a "team" of Margo, Maddy, Marie and Marita - and a lawyer quipped -" does everyone have an "M" in order to work on our project?" - another great team experience. Maddy has perfected the art of quiet but firm client relationships that has resulted in impeccable references.
07.14.2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargo Grant Walsh

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