On 16 June 2014, as part of our special program for “Bodies and Architecture” at KCHUNG radio, I sat down with Peter Zellner to discuss a range of issues we are grappling with at OfficeUS… The resulting conversation turned out to be full of provocative ideas and proposals for how architecture can be thought and practiced today. Here’s the transcript of this thoroughly anti-nostalgic and anti-heroic talk: surely a sign of promise for the profession.
I’m sitting in a small, very functional meeting room, at the headquarters of AECOM in Los Angeles where I just had a short but very intense tour with Peter Zellner, the Principal and Studio Design Leader for AECOM Southern California. Peter Zellner, who I know for a few years now, dear friend, took up this post 6 months ago marking a pretty radical shift from being a sole practitioner, where he led his own firm, ZELLNERPLUS, in a series of very interesting, subtle, elaborate and sophisticated projects; boutique projects such as art galleries, houses, elite works. And now he runs a corporate office, so he is really an interesting character and I think a great person to start our “Best Practices” week at OfficeUS. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for OfficeUS, Peter.
Thank you Manuel, it’s a very nice introduction and it’s nice to see you here in Los Angeles after catching up briefly at the Biennale. So yeah, all of that is correct — guilty as charged.
No guilt charged! It would be interesting to know a little bit more about two things: obviously one is that not only were you a sole practitioner running very careful projects through ten years of individual practice, but you were also very involved in academia, and I believe you’re still teaching at SCI-Arc. So that’s one thing, the other thing is if you could talk a little bit about the structure of AECOM. Very broadly: what it is, when it was started, how it works.
Yes, I have made a transition from being largely what in this world would be termed a “boutique practitioner” and an academic, to working inside an architecture practice that is an important component of a very large infrastructure firm.AECOM describes itself as a technology services provider,and one of the largest infrastructure, let’s say, delivery organizations. What that means in practical terms is that our architecture group sits within a business line that is referred to as “Buildings and Places.” B+P incorporates everything within the urban environment from architecture to interiors, landscape architecture, urban planning, master planning, but also groups like Design Planning and Economics, and Environmental groups that conduct EIRs and so forth. Some of that work would involve let’s say not pure design per se, but economic analysis, cost analysis, and program analysis. B+P aligns with other business lines, such as transportation, water, and energy… it’s a very long list, but essentially if there’s any component of the built environment, AECOM is involved at some level. I think what is also fascinating is that AECOM is also organized by global regions. I sit with the Americas; I’m in the West region of the North American part of the Americas, but AECOM is organized around global regions so we have a long-standing presence in Asia, in the Middle East, in Europe as well as Africa. AECOM itself grew out of a series mergers and acquisitions. Many of the offices are extensions of legacy firms. The Los Angeles office of AECOM is the old DMJM, which was a kind of precursor in a way of what we call Integrated Services Delivery. DMJM was involved in everything from Aviation to Civic Buildings. The history of AECOM can be found on our website, but essentially it’s grown through expanding into different regions, largely through the process of acquiring significant players in regions and businesses. I’m an organic hire, which is something new, at least in AECOM Los Angeles, meaning that I’ve been brought into the firm without a pure acquisition and that is the case for Ross Weimer, who hired me, who is now the head of architecture for the Americas, who came to AECOM from SOM. So we’re both kind of new entities in some ways to the organization. Allison Williams, who is now our design director for California, also came to AECOM via SOM and Perkins & Will. So this is kind of a new strategy in terms of thinking out ways of growing our practice lines by bringing in leadership with or without significant corporate work experience. That said prior to my years in private practice I was with Gensler Consulting in LA and NY as well as Davis Brody Bond.
What percentage, roughly, of the work AECOM does is let’s say pure architecture — buildings — out of this mass of infrastructural projects? Is it a small percentage, a majority…