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Introducing Curbed's 2015 Class of Groundbreakers

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Winners, clockwise from top left: MASS Design Group, Bureau V, Family New York, Iwamoto Scott, KSS Architects, Aamodt / Plumb, El Dorado, Jeff Sommers of Square Root Architecture + Design. Photos by Simon Simard, Mark Wickens, Mark Wickens, Patricia
Winners, clockwise from top left: MASS Design Group, Bureau V, Family New York, Iwamoto Scott, KSS Architects, Aamodt / Plumb, El Dorado, Jeff Sommers of Square Root Architecture + Design. Photos by Simon Simard, Mark Wickens, Mark Wickens, Patricia

Welcome to awards season 2015, when we at Curbed will be profiling the best people in the design biz, nominated by you and juried by the staff editors. We just kicked off the week with an intro to our Young Guns winners, who will be profiled all week long here on Curbed; and now, some details on our first-ever class of Groundbreakers.

In years past, Curbed has tended to throw designers of every stripe into one big potpourri of praise for our Young Guns award. This year, we decided to create a standalone category for architecture practices—because, let's be real, architecture is not a quick process. It takes a long time to conceptualize and then build an actual building. Thus, Curbed's inaugural Groundbreakers award honors dozens of architects, from eight firms both seasoned and new, who are making cutting-edge work that's changing the way the built world functions. We sorted through hundreds of nominations to establish an editorial mission: How does one build a practice in today's economy? How can a designer assert his or her own moral beliefs when working in a traditional client-based structure? How does architecture address and incorporate other disciplines, from biology to sociology to technology to art? Our first-ever class of Groundbreakers does it all (and more): health centers in impoverished countries, startup offices, guidebooks for building a modern home, prefab in a major American city, stage sets for Kanye West.

Over the next week, we'll be dropping several winner profiles a day, for a total of nine Young Guns and eight Groundbreakers. Stay tuned for lots, lots more, including some behind-the-scenes action with our 2015 class and lots of social media extras via Curbed's Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter channels.

Did you always want do what you're doing now? If not, what did you think you wanted to be?

Lisa Iwamoto, Iwamoto Scott: After, as kids, wanting to be a professional ballet dancer and drummer in a rock band, architecture was definitely what we wanted to do.
Andrew Plumb, Aamodt/Plumb Architects: When I was a kid I wanted to be an "inventor." I had thought that would mean making airplanes, rocket ships and amazing machines. When I started college, I planned to be an aerospace engineer but realized in my introductory class that I didn't love engineering, and you really have to love something like that to make it worth the effort. When I tried out my first architecture studio, I was head over heels.
Sara Nordstrom, KSS Architects: Nope, I wanted to be a veterinarian my whole life! I studied animal science as a first-year college student…and graduated with a B.A. in Women's & Gender Studies and Anthropology. What connects my early activism and my work as an architect is the human rights framework I apply to every design problem.
Michael Murphy, MASS Design Group: I wanted to be a writer or a journalist. I studied English literature and was convinced that the best way to talk about cultural production was through writing.
Oana Stanescu, Family New York: I think most people have no idea what they are getting themselves into when they choose architecture, unless someone close or in the family is in the field. Architecture wasn't on my radar, but I was always looking for a way to satisfy both the technical and creative nature.
Stella Lee, Bureau V: Once in college at Columbia, I decided to give architecture a go, but I burned out after my junior year so I left for Paris to attend a fashion design school. What ultimately brought me back full circle to architecture was a gig I had as a stylist's assistant where the shoot took place at Paul Rudolph's former home at Beekman Place a few months after he passed away, before the building was sold, where I spent 10 hours on a photo shoot navigating that mind-blowing space. It was the most perilous, spectacular, secret-laden space I had ever seen, and I had to be a part of that world of creation.

Photo by Mark Wickens.
Photo by Mark Wickens.

Architecture can be seen as a niche-y discipline. How does what you do transcend that assumption?

David Dowell, El Dorado Inc.: Living in Kansas City pretty much regulates how niche-y one can be, especially how niche-y a business enterprise can be. I say this with great love and affection: It's our home, by choice. KC is a very down-to-earth place, filled with real people who can only take so much esoterica on a day-to-day basis. There's real work to be done here, and an endless supply of opportunities. This all adds up to requiring that we relate directly and quickly to a broad range of busy people, mostly on their terms, if you want to get anything built.
Iwamoto Scott: On the contrary, we hear more and more about the value of the architectural studio model and design thinking for other disciplines, as well as "the architect of this" and "the architecture of that" in many other arenas. Architecture shapes cities and the way we live; it affects everyone. Maybe you're suggesting that design is something that only some people understand. We think that's totally changing. Good design is intelligence manifested in built form.
Mette Aamodt, Aamodt/Plumb Architects: If you are referring to "elite, esoteric, academic" then I can tell you that we are trying to be as straightforward and transparent as possible about what we do and how we can help you. Our focus is on building real projects so we don't spend much time in the academic world, which we think is too self-referential for anyone's good. Sometimes I can't even understand what other architects are saying, and we were educated at the same school!
Andrew Plumb: Transparency. Hardly anyone knows what architects do. The value that we provide is not self-evident to the public at large and that is a problem. To many, design and construction is a murky realm that should only be entered into with fear and suspicion.
Jason Chmura, KSS Architects: I actually see it as the complete opposite. Our specific task of designing for the human environment requires engagement in a very broad spectrum of variables and users. Comfort, safety, and inspiration for example, are all very basic human experiences that are not limited to a select few. Furthermore, architects have historically been called upon to have limited knowledge of a very wide range of topics in order to perform. I can be discussing the harvest cycle of arugula and the impact resistance of aluminum extrusions, all within the same conversation.
Dong-Ping Wong, Family New York: Hang out with (and design for) people who aren't architects. There are quite a few of them, actually.
Peter Zuspan, Bureau V: Architecture is traditionally a service industry, where design specialists provide their services for someone (typically someone wealthy or powerful). We've been working to move beyond this paradigm as much as possible. Young architecture studios rarely work as a service industry. I think architecture needs to face this reality. We need to find new audiences, new economic models, and new methods of getting to where we would like to be.

Photo by Barrett Emke.
Photo by Barrett Emke.

Have you ever experienced failure, and how did you use that to move forward in your career?

Peter Zuspan: All the time. If you take risks, it's a statistical certainty that things will fail at some point. Failure is refreshing. It lets you know that what you're doing hasn't successfully been done before—sometimes for good reason—but other times, because people have been too timid to try.
Mette Aamodt: We fail when we try to be something we are not. For example we have entered design competitions thinking about what the jury was looking for rather than what we really believe in. We are most successful when we follow our passions and we try to remember that to push us.
El Dorado: Of course. Though we'd call them mistakes rather than failure. One of the enduring lessons we learned from making our own work was that mistakes happen. Early on, we were working on a home for a client. They gave us the opportunity to design, fabricate, and install an elegant glass tread staircase. We were responsible for every part of it. We mis-measured our own, in-house-produced steel framework holding the glass treads—very, very expensive glass treads—and had to eat the cost of re-doing them. All involved won't be prone to make that mistake again. Measure three times, then act. One can never over-prepare. Architecture is a deeply human activity and humans aren't perfect.
Dong-Ping Wong: I wanted be a pro surfer growing up. But then there's a moment where you're out and you see someone your age who is objectively light years better than you and there's an immediate revelation of "wow that's so awesome, I didn't know real people could do that," and "Hey, I'm much better at this other thing so I should look in to that."
Laura Trevino, Bureau V: Prior to joining Bureau V, I had started my own studio here in NYC after leaving Asymptote Architecture. I had a large project in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for an 80 condominium development for which I partnered with SLAB Architecture (also our architects of record for National Sawdust) and we had completed the project up to Construction Documents when the financial crisis hit, right as we were about to start construction. The project lost its funding, and I found myself, as many other architects did, having a hard time finding work.

Photo by Debbie Carlos.
Photo by Debbie Carlos.

What's been the most rewarding part of your career?

Jason Chmura: I have been fortunate enough to work on several projects that have—or will have—significant social impact. From low-income apartment renovations to charter schools to urban farms, these are all projects that will have far-reaching benefits beyond the immediate users.
Sara Nordstrom: Watching Escuela Kemna'oj come alive on opening day! The teachers continue to share photos of the children learning and playing and celebrating in the building. To see a drawing I once did brought to life by the kids - it never gets old.
Michael Murphy: We recently heard that after the construction of MASS's new Tuberculosis Hospital in Port au Prince, the rate of patient suicide has significantly dropped.
Stella Lee: The best part of working the way in which we do is that I get to see my friends every day to work on projects that are meaningful to us, to our clients, and hopefully to others whom they serve. One of our most significant projects to date, a chamber music hall called National Sawdust, was a dream design project from its inception, but we never lost sight of the fact that this building would ultimately serve as a community builder in Brooklyn, not only within the music scene, but for those looking for a place to come together to experience new music and nourish the careers of fledgling artists.

Photo by Simon Simard.
Photo by Simon Simard.

Who's your ideal audience?

Alan Ricks: People that assume architecture isn't a critical part of improving our world and helping to change their minds.
Michael Murphy: People who don't understand the power of design.
Dong-Ping Wong: If a kid is down with it, I'm down with it.
Peter Zuspan: Architecture is rarely contemplative in the eyes of its audiences. I love people thinking about our work, but it's not always necessary. Architecture is sneaky, and there's a very specific power in that.

Photo by Michael Persico.
Photo by Michael Persico.

What's a dream project you'd like to tackle?

Jeff Sommers, Square Root Architecture: I have a dream of designing a modern net-zero/positive community. This community would be manufactured by a transportable pop-up prefab facility and would serve as a prototype for design and construction for future sustainable communities.
Mette Aamodt: We would love to design a visitors' center at the edge of a spectacular landscape. There is a program like that in Norway, where I was born, that commissions young architects to design these outposts and the results are incredible.
Sara Nordstrom: A renewable energy-powered city for Syrian refugees with warm homes, bright schools, well-equipped hospitals, peaceful streets, delightful parks, and diverse public art designed by an international network of architects, planners and engineers lead by professionals with local expertise. Also, that same thing for everyone, everywhere.
Michael Murphy: Designing the deconstruction of American prisons.
Two typologies architects need to address the most are healthcare and criminal justice. In our country we need to take down the amount of prisons that we have; designing that system would be something I'd dream to work on.
Stella Lee: If I really could choose, I would love for one of our next projects to be a religious building such as a church, mosque, synagogue, or a school. These typologies are closely related as sites dedicated to nurturing, community building, learning, and reflection.

Photo by Mark Wickens.
Photo by Mark Wickens.

Who else in your industry do you consider a Groundbreaker?

El Dorado: It's a good question; lots of great stuff happening out there. Two practices come to mind immediately: Sans Facon and SHoP Architects. One is an artist collaborative based in Calgary and the other is, well… you know SHoP. They are architects reasserting their commitment to the art AND business of architecture. We think that's smart.
Iwamoto Scott: Groundbreakers in architecture are those people and firms who develop and evolve a set of ideas over time — designers and thinkers who contribute a unique voice and vision to the discipline, chipping away at a large block one project at a time.
Jeff Sommers: People that I read about and reflect on often are not all directly in my industry, but whom I draw inspiration from are Michelle Kaufmann (prefab queen) and Sam Rashkin (DOE home energy guru).
Mette Aamodt: We consider MASS Design Group, another young firm in Boston, to be groundbreakers because they are using their skills as architects and the funds they raise as a non-profit to address the health, economic and social challenges around the world. [Editor's note: Ditto!]
Andrew Plumb: These firms have been around for a while but firms like Jonathan Segal and Gluck+ are inspirations in how they have made their own definition of what an architectural practice can be with strategies like architect as developer and architect led design build.
Jason Chmura: Rudolph Schindler, for budget-driven simplicity. Samuel Mockbee, for selfless devotion. Rem Koolhaas, for questioning who and what we are designing for.
Sara Nordstrom: All the big heroes of the movement to transform the architecture profession to benefit traditionally under-served communities: Samuel Mockbee, Bryan Bell, Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr, Shigeru Ban. The thousands of designers doing the grassroots work every day of implementing the principles of public interest architecture.
Alan Ricks: Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) and Theaster Gates.
Michael Murphy: Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative.
Dong-Ping Wong: I really like our friends Something Fantastic in Berlin and that London collective Assemble.
Oana Stanescu: We are in an interesting period of transition, but there actually isn't all that much tremor happening just yet. Junya Ishigami is probably by far one of the most unique and exciting architects today. There are far more, but I am particularly excited to see what he will do next.
Stella Lee: I think that Angela Co of Studio Co is a groundbreaker, as well as Adam Marcus of Variable Projects. They are both former classmates at Columbia, and I have found their work, intellect, mirth, and enthusiasm inspiring.
Peter Zuspan: Shawn Maximo, Mustafa Faruki (theLab-lab for Architecture), and Benjamin Farnsworth.

Stay tuned for in-depth profiles on the winners from Groundbreakers 2015, this week on Curbed.

· All Groundbreakers 2015 coverage [Curbed]