When Larry Perkins and Philip Will opened the office that bears their names 75 years ago, they could not possibly have imagined the firm as it exists today: over 1500 employees in 23 offices on three continents. It’s not that the partners didn’t have ambition; today’s Perkins+Will would not exist if its founders had not seen further than the practice they started on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. But at that time, few architects employed more than 10 people. You could count the offices with staffs greater than 100 on two hands. And most of the architects who practiced on more than one continent were war-wary Europeans in the process of moving to America. Imagining a global enterprise on the scale of today’s Perkins+Will was simply unfathomable.
Perkins+Will is now one of the world’s largest architectural practices. Through internal expansion, acquisitions, and mergers, the firm has experienced growth over the last 20 years that may be unprecedented in American architectural history. Further, that growth has taken place against a turbulent economic backdrop in the profession, with overall architectural employment gyrating wildly around boom and bust cycles. Through it all, Perkins+Will has continued its ascension more or less unscathed.
Perhaps even more remarkably, the larger Perkins+Will retains many of the defining characteristics of its younger, smaller self. For instance, the firm achieved its initial prominence with a groundbreaking education project and remains a significant force in that market sector. Winnetka, Illinois’ Crow Island Elementary School, designed in conjunction with famed Cranbrook architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen, propelled the barely 5-year old firm (then Perkins, Wheeler & Will) to a position of prominence in 1940.
The school was an immediate sensation in education and architecture circles, establishing a model for primary education architecture in the United States that would endure for decades. It was awarded the coveted “25-year Award” by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) not long before Firmwide Design Principal Ralph Johnson joined Perkins+Will. Johnson subsequently has achieved some of his most important recognition—which includes nearly 30 regional and national AIA design awards—as the designer of a series of schools noted for their functional excellence and esthetic distinction.
Johnson has worked with other building types as well of course, and the firm, under his design direction, has maintained its early reputation for producing thoughtful, unapologetically modern architecture. To be sure, there is a modesty to most Perkins+Will buildings; call it Midwestern reserve. But it is refreshing to look at the handsome Troy High School in suburban Detroit, and recognize both its patrimony at Crow Island, built some 50 years earlier, and its clear understanding of contemporary issues in education.
Of course, no firm of this scale could limit its practice to one building type, and Perkins+Will has made markets in specializations other than education, including healthcare, research, workplace environments, civic buildings, and multi-unit housing, among others. In Asia alone, recent projects include airports, corporate headquarters, medical centers, and entire new towns. The diversification in and of itself is not unique in today’s global architectural economy. The ability to execute it with consistent care and attention to design is.
In a way, the birth of Modernism at the turn of the 20th century foretold the possibility of firms like Perkins+Will: multi-faceted international practices that would apply coherent design and delivery methodologies to a variety of architectural problems, each as part of the search for a better built environment. Architects would master the efficiencies of corporate structure in order to systematically improve the building process. To some degree, that has come to pass; unfortunately, too often at the expense of quality; a bigger firm does not necessarily make a better firm.
What makes a firm better, regardless of its size, is a passion for the work combined with the expertise to deliver it. Perkins+Will, as it has grown, has carefully acquired the expertise necessary to expand its markets while continually stressing design as the rallying force that drives successful product delivery. In short, the firm remains excited about its work, and it shows.
Consider the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building at Arizona State University. By the time Perkins+Will won this commission, it could claim dozens, if not hundreds of university and research buildings in its portfolio. This one could easily (and profitably) have been executed as just one more, and very few people would have noticed (I know, I used to teach at ASU).
But take a look at this building. It is a striking project, with a muscular concrete frame and elegant louvers that bespeak both the precision of high technology and, in its careful response to the Arizona sun, a respect for the science of climate control (the building is LEED Gold Certified). The slight kick of its corner creates a thoughtful public space on a campus that has little of it. In short, the design moves well beyond expediency. Without adding to the budget or the program, it embraces material, symbolic, and civic agendas to become architecture. This is the work of people who look like they’ve never had the opportunity to build one of these before—and want to do more of them.
Which, one presumes, is exactly what will happen: Perkins+Will will do more buildings that are labs, and more that are offices, and more that are schools. And each time, they will approach them with excitement and rigor. How can I make this prediction?
First, there is a long record here, and it is consistent. One has to presume that record is at least partly the result of leadership and a corporate culture that encourages achievement.
Second, I recently served on the jury for Perkins+Will’s first Design Biennale, which presented more than 100 projects completed over the last 5 years. The jury was unanimous in its recognition of the general (as well as specific) level of quality of the work; there were many very good projects on the table.
Which raises point three: a significant portion of the work represented a new generation of designers. This was particularly exciting in its suggestion that despite the firm’s global operations and multi-disciplinary structure, the core values and beliefs that have led it from a small Chicago office to a multi-national industry leader remain intact and are being transmitted.
That transmission will be vital as Perkins+Will moves forward. In a digital age, one where individual design and rendering methodologies have been replaced with universal software applications, there will be an inevitable “smoothing” of architectural differences. At the scale of a large corporate office, the result could be numbing in no time. The exciting work we saw in the Perkins+Will competition suggests strongly that the firm is not succumbing to this inertia. The next generation is fresh and confident.
This essay, and indeed much of the attention of architects, is focused on the design heritage of any given firm, and that is important if architecture is to progress. But progress can be measured in many ways. And in its remarkable growth and longevity, Perkins+Will also offers a fascinating model of practice that should not go unexamined—one clearly built on a record of many, many satisfied clients.
When firms grow large through acquisitions and mergers, it can be difficult to create a cohesive culture. Perkins+Will, despite the fast pace of its growth, seems to have avoided that fate. At 75 years, the firm is large, and undoubtedly mature. But it is also vigorous and forward-looking. The work in this volume confirms that, both in terms of recently completed projects, and those still on the boards. Look at it all closely. I think you’ll see the heritage of Crow Island and a promising vision of the future as well.