Ennead Emerging: Polshek Partnership Re-Brands & Revitalizes

In the middle of a brilliant second act, Ennead Architects is showing exactly how to build on—and succeed—its legendary founder.

Let’s get this out of the way. All together now: Ennead?!?

Okay. It’s a funny name for an architecture firm. It’s a funny name for anything. Its meaning—Greek for a group of nine—is obscure. Its pronunciation, too; whichever way you choose to say it (en-KNEE-ad? any-AD?), the name chosen by the nine principals of what was once Polshek Partnership (and before that, the eponymous James Stewart Polshek Architect) does not roll trippingly off the tongue or trigger many useful associations in the public mind. Certainly, that was the conventional wisdom in the weeks after the June 2010 announcement, when those who busy themselves reacting to such things met news of the new name with a round of head-scratching and a collective outcry: Ennead?!?

But let’s be frank. The name Polshek itself is hardly the song of birds on a spring morning. Names (mine and yours included) are just noises to which meanings may come after the fact. This one is no different. And it is hardly a deal breaker in a professional setting in which Atelier Bow-Wow, a thing called 00:/, and, until recently, Ginseng Chicken Architecture PC, do business unconcerned with potential client confusion or disgust.

Of more interest is how the firm, an interesting firm doing interesting work, is faring more than a year after its bold rebranding. It has been 16 months since Ennead abruptly codified what is actually a decades-long transition into the post-Polshek era—distancing itself, at last, from more than a name alone, but to a degree, also, the man it named: James Polshek, stalwart of the New York architecture scene for five decades, dean of the influential architecture school at Columbia University from 1972 to 1987,
an architect who built a trusting institutional clientele by supplying them with a kind of architectural service that is, sadly, all too rare: service itself, with integrity and style.

“I, as you know, have never been a predictable one-man band of an office,” says the 81-year-old Polshek, reached while visiting his office at Ennead, where he serves in the largely honorary role of design counsel. “It’s something I’ve yapped about for the past forty years: the importance of modesty and generosity in architecture.” And what is more modest, more generous, than consenting to the jettisoning of one’s own name? “I have colleagues who say, ‘When I go, you all go,’” Polshek continued, “and that, to me, is immoral.”

Outside of the corporate fold, few firms ever successfully outlive their namesake founders. There’s too much tied to that formative persona—too much mystique, too much marketing value, in some cases too much star-system hype. Fortunately, Ennead is neither corporate nor in any sense “star.” When I met with the partners recently—Joseph Fleischer, Timothy Hartung, Kevin McClurkan, Don Weinreich, Susan Rodriguez, Tomas Rossant, Todd Schliemann, and Richard Olcott, in their airy ground-floor offices in Greenwich Village; Duncan Hazard on the conference table squawk box—they collectively recoiled from even my generic use of the word “corporate.” In professions of communal effort and shared credit, they distanced themselves from the common alternative. It was not until an hour into that discussion that the word “ego” first surfaced, and then decidedly in the negative, spat out.

Their debt to the Polshek legacy is evident in that obvious comfort with collective architectural action. As it should be: Fleischer and Hartung have been partners with the firm since the 1980s; Rodriguez, Olcott, Schliemann, and Hazard since 1998. Only three of the nine became principals after Polshek’s nominal retirement at the end of 2005, and all worked there prior. As James Polshek “yapped” for so long, as the Polshek Partnership embodied, Ennead is one of those firms that distinguishes itself by embracing the teamwork that underlies all architectural production, while evincing an admirable concern for architectural fundamentals: programmatic analysis, lucid detailing, efficient project management, creative insight into client need, and of course a fluency with the language of design that packages all that unsightly sausage-making into an honest work of architecture.

If they practiced another way—if The Nine had been bred by their one-time leader to practice another way—the firm might have followed Polshek himself into retirement, or at least floundered its way into irrelevance in the six years since. They have not; the firm retains its impressive list of institutional clients, and it has grown through the hard years of the current recession, to 160 employees at present. They’ve added more than 20 employees since the rebranding last year, and the partners say that as other firms ramp up, they are fending off a new round of poaching; about 65 percent of staff are licensed architects, a very high number. “We’re plagued with people of extraordinary talent,” Duncan Hazard says.

A key part of this success story is the fact that Ennead’s particular clientele—museums, universities, research institutions, hospitals—has remained more robust through the down economy than the private wealth or speculative developers that many other firms rely on. And similar to the way Skidmore, Owings & Merrill mirrored the structure of its clients during the years of its ascent, Ennead looks like the groups that it serves.

Theirs is not a corporate structure, with its well-defined lines of who-reports-to-whom. Neither is it—very clearly now, nominally decapitated—a firm where all decisions must pass by a single head. An evolved sense of trust, self-confidence, and mandatory attendance at the Monday all-partners meeting seem to be the only rules. New work is sought by all (“There’s no Gene Kohn here,” one of the nine joked) and pursued by teams that match one of the four design partners (Rodriguez, Rossant, Schliemann, and Olcott) with one of the five management partners. The teams are based on availability, and though intra-office alliances shift from job to job, a team stays intact through each project—a quality, all the partners agree, that suits the often elongated timescale of institutional work, and which appeals to that particular type of client.

Let’s go around the horn with six of the nine, speaking as one:

Don: “It’s interesting, these institutional clients, the complexity: they’re like hydras. The decision-making process often involves many, many people, many constituencies, which we favor. We enjoy it, and I think we are good at it—the approval processes, say, for some of these complex institutional jobs.”

Timothy: “I think that’s part of why we get the work, not only from a design point of view, but how we really embed ourselves in the culture of the client. They appreciate that we’re thinking the same way they are. We’re not coming from the moon, trying to convince them that they should do something that is inherently different from their own mission.”

Todd: “Which goes to Don’s point. The contexts we operate in with our clients are not just physical ones. There’s politics, and budgets—there’s all kinds of stuff. And the kinds of constituencies that the buildings have to serve in the end are broad. Which means you can’t just have one idea. You have to have a depth of ideas that belong to the building.”

Susan: “We’re entrusted with bringing vision to the project, but also responsibility.”

Tomas: “That’s another reason we’ve survived this recession. The times have changed for the institutional client. They don’t want some hotshot who’s going to say, ‘I don’t care about your budget, I need twice as much,’ or, ‘The schedule is going to be blown,’ or, ‘I’m gonna put the building here even though you told me to put it there.’ We do very innovative designs, but we also, basically, deliver them with a high degree of competence.”

Kevin: “Everyone here is interested in being an architect, not a flighty designer.”

This manner of designing—neither style-first nor style-deficient—goes hand in hand with the way Polshek designed the practice that begot Ennead. For years now, Todd and Susan and Richard have been designing under the Polshek flag, each with their identifiable style. But there was always something in the work, something in the consistently excellent detailing, something in the frank disposition of a program, and perhaps the fleeting sense of a junction in the process where a formal concept might have—modestly, generously—deferred to a real-world site condition, that screamed “Polshek” to those looking closely at the work. But Polshek, the man—as in any large, busy firm—was not always there. “You get tired of going on an interview and having people say, ‘So where is he?’” Timothy Hartung says. “There was also the issue of the press looking constantly for the bella figura,” he added. “Regardless of who was doing the work, there was an inclination to credit the person whose name was on the door.”

So they ditched the name. They hid their own names under an inscrutable new one. And in doing so they go even where modest, generous James Polshek feared to tread: “The partners now are comfortable with anonymity—more comfortable than I ever was,” he says. “I would preach Cistercian abbeys, but I would practice ego. The value of anonymity is great, but I know that in this market-driven economy, it’s important to be visible.”

Categories: Architecture