In the first decade of the 21st century, technology helped architecture become flamboyant, immodest, and wildly expensive. Leaner times need lither designs, preserving spectacle but banishing self-indulgence. The essential firm of the post-binge era is shaping up to be SHoP, headed not by a celebrity but by a half-dozen fortysomething New Yorkers who share a messianic high-tech pragmatism. Having spent a dozen years leapfrogging from youthful novelty to boutique eminence, SHoP is staking its name on the world’s tallest prefab tower.
The 32-story building with the vitamin name, B2, will rise at Atlantic Yards, that troubled monster where every new move courts fresh opprobrium. Half of B2’s 350 units are designated for low- and middle-income families, which means the developer, Forest City Ratner, needs to allay suspicions that it’s grinding out gimcrack pods for the poor—even as the apartments are made in factories and the whole process is designed to shave as much as 20 percent off construction costs. SHoP’s partners, though, consider prefabrication a designer’s godsend, the key to making housing awesome yet affordable. “Modular construction could radically change what living in New York is like,” says Gregg Pasquarelli, the most voluble of the five original founders.
Pasquarelli is the P in the firm’s acronym; the S belongs to twins Christopher and William Sharples and William’s wife, Coren, and the H to Kimberly Holden, who is married to Pasquarelli. They all met at Columbia in the early nineties. “We liked each other from the beginning,” says Holden. “We still vacation together.” The sixth principal, Jonathan Mallie, who in 1999 became the firm’s first hire, launched the spinoff SHoP Construction in 2007.
This genial handful has gathered in the Pasquarelli-Holden apartment in the Porter House, a zinc-paneled diadem they designed for the meatpacking district a decade ago. They’re still young for architects, and their work combines edginess and maturity. “We have the tool kit to pull it off at the highest level in this pressure cooker of New York, and to export it to the rest of the world,” Pasquarelli says, punctuating the self-assessment with a cocky grin: I may be arrogant, but I’m right.
He has to be both. He and his partners have spent years honing a virtuosity aimed at convincing skeptics that a fantastical design is feasible. Consider a high-tech innovation center they’re designing for Botswana, which will be assembled from parts designed in SHoP’s Park Place office, fabricated in South Africa and Botswana, and hauled to a field outside the capital, Gaborone. When it’s done, a range of low artificial ridges with glass walls will nestle in a gentle depression, wrap around existing trees, and lift above the grassland, supplementing the scarce shade. The complex’s contours are seductively wavy, but the real innovation has been the process that made them cheap enough to build.
Their first foray into digital fabrication came in the late nineties, with a small project on the waterfront of Greenport, Long Island. The structure housed a late-model version of the old “camera obscura,” a closed chamber in which to see a projected 360-degree view of the world outside. To build it, the architects developed a 3-D digital model, exploded it into thousands of components, and sent the specifications to a computer-controlled milling machine that could cut curves, slices, and angles with superhuman finesse. That kit was shipped to the site and clipped together into a tiny, liquid-looking shed, a wooden teardrop that no carpenter could ever fashion by hand. Like B2, it was prefab, affordable, and forward-looking.
Many “advanced” architects treat their buildings as oversize snowglobes to be admired from afar; SHoP designs for the sensual experience of being there. At their East River Waterfront Esplanade, a small but triumphant strip of high-decibel park under the FDR Drive that just opened this summer, you can sit on a bar stool at the ipe-wood railing and contemplate the waves beneath the harp and altar of the Brooklyn Bridge. Nearby is the just-completed double-decker Pier 15, whose upper slab rests on a pair of glass pavilions and is topped with a patch of aerial lawn. Ramps and stairs give it the feeling of a hilly landscape, and its highest point nearly lifts you into the rigging of the tall ship moored alongside. The jetty unfurls its glamour at twilight, when a reddish glow emerges from the slats in the second story’s undulating underside. This is high-level public architecture—a beautiful object, but also a viewing platform for the urban spectacular.
Eventually SHoP may redesign the entire eastern lip of lower Manhattan, from the Battery Maritime Building to the Brooklyn Bridge. A plan to overhaul the South Street Seaport died from wounds inflicted by neighborhood opposition, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s hostility to a 40-story tower, and, finally, the client’s bankruptcy. Now, though, the firm is reworking its designs for a new owner, the Howard Hughes Corporation. The project will inevitably be controversial, but SHoP seems to savor a good fight.