Location: How big are you guys now?
Mr. Pasquarelli: We’re 60-something people—a 65-person firm, which is a little smaller than we were a year ago, but we’ve been stable. We were probably 80 at the top.
What’s the breakdown of work? You’re a principal and you have four co-principals?
There are five partners in total: two husbands and wives, and then the identical twin brother of one of the husbands. So it’s a very unusual family tree and a very close-knit group. We all went to school together and have been friends for a very long time.
Do you split up design of projects?
No, it’s a lot more like a think tank where on every project, every partner is involved.
You guys are seen as one of the city’s more avant-garde firms, but at 60 people, you’re not a small boutique. How did you get to the point where you’re attracting the eye of some of these big developers that would normally be attracted to something more conservative?
I think we took a lot of advantage of emerging technologies and invested all of our research into emerging technologies to help us build these avant-garde buildings using techniques in construction that control the cost. … We can both do evocative design, and know how to put it together.
What’s the magic with keeping costs low?
The magic is in using the kind of techniques and methods of production as one of the parameters of design itself. So it’s not just to make a beautiful object and figure out how to build it. It’s have a kind of protoform, figure out how you’re going to build it, and use the constraints of the building technology to drive the form itself.
You’ve been brought into Atlantic Yards to design the Nets arena along with the firm Ellerbe Becket. How did you get involved?
We just got a call from Bruce [Ratner, the project’s developer] one day. I think Bruce said, ‘I’d like to come visit your office. I’ve talked to a lot of people around the city, and they told me you might be the firm that could figure out a great design and figure out something that could be built, and could do it really fast.’ And so he came over, and we had a great conversation, and that’s how it started.
What’s he like to deal with?
I like Bruce. He’s very intense. He’s very smart, and he’s dealing with a lot of things at one time, but I know his heart is really in making a fabulous design.
It’s kind of odd—they used to do these really boring designs, and then suddenly with the Times building—
—Suddenly it’s Renzo, Gehry, and SHoP.
We’re honored to be even uttered in the same sentence.
So that was June that he came in?
What was the task you were given?
The task was, ‘We need you to get up to speed as quickly as possible in understanding what this building is and all of its constraints, and we need you to collaborate with Ellerbe Becket. And we need you to do what you do best, which is figure out a way to make a beautiful building, and figure out a way to build it.’
Was it mostly the exterior?
I think we started there, but very quickly we had to think about the integration between the two.
Coming late in the game, I assume it constrained your options. You couldn’t completely rethink an arena, right?
Absolutely. Look, EB is known for making some fantastic arenas, so there were certain things about the basic protoform that EB had a lot of experience doing and the client was really excited about, so we saw that as a parameter. So where the steel was set—we didn’t want to start redesigning all the steel, so take the steel where it is, and just make some really precise small changes and see what you can do to push the building into the next realm of architecture.
One of the big distinguishing features of the exterior are these metal steel bands that are wavy. How did you settle on that?
Metal seemed to be the right kind of material, and I think we were trying to avoid a finished type of material, like a painted material. We really wanted a natural material, because we felt over time, that would weather and patina and be more authentic. … So natural materials—there aren’t that many, and when we got to thinking about weathered steel, we thought, that could be really cool. It has a grittiness to it, but also a sort of refinement.
Is it tough being part of a project that is a target of a lot of caustic criticism?
Yeah. We gave serious consideration as to whether we wanted to do it. And I think the thing that convinced us was, after speaking with Bruce, we were convinced he really wanted to make a great building. … We showed Bruce—we didn’t hold back, we said, ‘Here’s what we want to do,’ and it was daring, and, ‘What do you think?’ And he really loved it, and was incredibly supportive and pushed us to make it as good as possible. And even knowing that the project was going to have its critics no matter what we designed, we felt like it’s our role as New Yorkers to try to make it as good as we could.
With the rest of the project, is it awkward designing the arena not knowing what the four buildings that border it are going to look like?
We were always told to design a building that can stand on its own, for the short term, and a design that clearly doesn’t have anything that can obstruct the rest of the plan. … That was another difficult part of it, thinking about both contexts.
Would you want to do some of the buildings around it?
Is it awkward to be designing a project that’s making a superblock out of something that was a grid? Urban planning is generally going the other direction.
Over a site that has that much transportation infrastructure, I think it’s the only ethical, rational, sustainable thing to do to put density, and sometimes density requires some superblocks.
What did you think of the Gehry design?
I thought it was a brilliant design. I thought the idea of nestling an arena inside four towers was really, really interesting, and I thought it would have been a really exciting project.
Does the design allow the towers to still do that?
I think there are probably ways to still do it.
Is it still hard to get something cutting edge done here in New York?
It’s very difficult. I think there are a couple reasons. It’s the pressure of the precious commodity of Manhattan real estate. It’s the ever-tightening zoning envelopes since contextualism became a word that people knew, and the sort of tightening of the zoning envelope against the FAR [Floor area ratio—or density] that needs to be built in order to afford the land, leaves you very little room for creativity. It’s a thing I call ‘zoning spread,’ which is the spread between the full FAR and the zoning envelope, and the tighter it gets, which is what contextual zoning tries to do, the less ability you have to make interesting buildings. And that’s been a mistake.
You designed a new South Street Seaport for General Growth Properties. Not that that’s going anywhere fast right now, but what was your task going in there?
They were a terrific client to work with, because they really said, ‘Push it, let’s see what we can do.’ And there was a place where we broke down the superblock, because I thought that was the right thing to do at that location. And the notion of bringing the street grid under the FDR, and putting that plaza 300 to 400 feet out into the river facing the Brooklyn Bridge almost at mid-span, and then the view of Governors Island and the Statue of Liberty from the south, I really felt could make one of the most iconic places in the city. That would be photographed as much as the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. … I still have hope that that will go forward. I think that General Growth really wants to make that happen.
You think they still want it?
I think they definitely do. I think they’ve got to get through their other issues, but the company is viable, and when they get through their issues—we talk to them all the time, and I think they have a lot of faith that they’re going to do it some day.
You both develop and design some projects.
How’s that been going?
We’re facing the same difficulties that every other developer has, and we’re trying to work our way through it.
Why did you go down that road? It’s rare for architects to assume risk like that.
We felt that by taking responsibility and taking on risk gave us the opportunity to push design and try new things. … We felt that if we were willing to take on that risk ourselves, that our clients would have more faith in us, that that what we were doing was the right thing.