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Bene Wahlbrink on Sarah P. Harkness and the Idea of Collaboration
10 April, 2023
“There are two ways to go – towards competition or towards collaboration.”
The discourse about how to work together within the complex field of architecture still poses many inconsistencies. How are we going to face the journey ahead of us? Which course do we want to pursue? And above all, with whom do we want to tread this path? On the one hand there are moments of cohesion, euphoria, and hope. Most people have slowly become aware of one important aspect. Architecture, of any kind, is not the work of a single creator, but the result of an interactive process. The question of collaboration between the disciplines involved in architectural practice and what impact this decision can have on the built environment is thus of particular importance. On the other hand, moments of egotism, resignation or frustration can arise. The heroic and stubborn behavior of a few often affects many others. There are stories that have been forgotten because of the same narratives that are be told over and over again. Stories that address efforts of change and the idea of collaboration.
The architect Sarah P. Harkness was part of such efforts within the post-war period in the U.S., attempting to establish a new understanding of the concept of teamwork. With the idea of establishing a methodology based on solidarity she founded `The Architects Collaborative´ (TAC) with seven other partners in 1945. Questioning the traditional structures of architectural offices, TAC initiated a fundamental change based on collective principles. Although some of the partners did not know each other at the beginning of the office‘s activity, all of them shared the idea of a cooperative teamwork based on unconventional working structures. This was not about the dissolution of individual opinion, but rather the inclusion of individual positions within the work environment. Weekly conferences were an important component between the partners, where both architectural and company-related economic issues were discussed. The various building projects could only be further processed if an exchange during these conferences took place. In terms of architectural design strategies, each project was initiated by two to three partners, regardless of size or complexity. The profits and fees – including salaries from teaching activities – were divided equally among the group to establish an equitable remuneration and appreciation for all those involved. Sara P. Harkness and her colleagues chose the path of shared authorship with the aim of including a synergetic work process that would also fundamentally influence their architectural projects.
The importance of this approach is particularly evident in the first realized settlement project, `Six Moon Hill´ in Lexington, Massachusetts from 1948. After completion, seven of the eight partners not only built up the newly founded architectural office, but also lived together with other families in a residential community. In addition to the building plots, which were distributed among the residential group in a lottery, the architects earmarked up to twenty percent of the entire plot as communal space for various activities. However, the quality that distinguishes `Six Moon Hill´ from other projects, is that important decisions were discussed amongst all members of the residential community and defined by democratic principles. The residents met through various meetings to converse on important issues, with each household receiving two votes. Subsequently, everyone had the opportunity to actively participate and debate changes. From the very beginning, TAC exemplified an approach where private family life was shared with certain tasks such as childcare distributed between the households. This decision demonstrates how much the young office founders believed in the concept of collectivity.
Nevertheless, the journey of TAC is also marked by contrasts throughout their 50 years of activity. In the beginning, the group sought to express social needs in the form of new architectural concepts which they demonstrated for example with several educational projects like the `Wayland High School´ in Massachusetts from 1958. Together with the school committee and a pedagogical consultant, the architects spent a year researching and exploring educational concepts related to the development of the expression of the building. The result of this collaborative effort was a progressive design that received wide press coverage, including Life Magazine and the New York Times. Only a few years later, TAC became one of the biggest architectural offices in the U.S. and fell more and more victim to the market and capitalist conditions. The most well-known example is probably the construction of the `Pan Am Building´ (today MetLife Building) in New York City. In 1958, TAC started to work as a consultant on the development of one of the most prominent commercial skyscrapers in New York on one of the most expensive sites in the world. Moreover, the team members often sat in the shadow of one of their office partners, Walter Gropius. As in most common stories, also architecture is often associated with a protagonist, the main character who takes centre stage, gets attention, and receives ovations. The result is that most of the projects are related only to him, despite TAC being the first architectural firm in the U.S. not to use its own founding partners’ names. For example, the Harvard Graduate Center (1949) in Cambridge today is known as `The Gropius Complex´; the `Hansa Apartment Block´ in Berlin for the International Building Exhibition 1957 is called `Walter-Gropius-Haus´; and the master plan Britz-Buckow-Rudow– developed in West Berlin from 1959 for 45,000 people –bears the name `Gropiusstadt´. The reality is that these projects were developed by a team of several architects and many specialist planners and are not the result of one hand alone, as is so frequently assumed.
Over the course of time, the organisational structures, and areas of responsibility of the office management were elaborated. A new headquarter in Cambridge, inaugurated in 1966, and a comprehensive 20th anniversary monography from the same year, marks the high point of the office’s history and is at the same time characterised by many changes. TAC established branch offices for example in San Francisco, Rome and Kuwait, with many new architects and junior partners who have taken on more and more responsibility. The founders’ idea – where general practitioners worked together, rather than separated into different roles – was in most cases no longer compatible with the size of the office. Although, the following years of the history have hardly been documented to date, yet it can be said that the collaborative approach from the beginning became increasingly replaced by a profit-oriented office model. From 1983, when about 390 people were still working at TAC, the number of employees decreased consistently. Follow-up orders from projects in Kuwait and other countries in the Middle East kept failing to materialize. In the last few years, the office was burdened with too much bank debt and was declared insolvent in 1995. At the end, TAC reached the top of the mountain, Sarah P. Harkness already described in her essay published in 1966, which she probably never wanted to climb.
However, her approach towards collaboration was an inspiration to many architects. The early history of TAC shows how eight architects, through the desire for social change and their search for new roles, have above all made an appreciation of the collaborators possible and led to many successful projects. In the first years, an atmosphere was created to unite against internal competition in which the employees influenced and supported each other in their work processes. A story that has unfortunately been forgotten over time.