In Good Company

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The six degrees of separation theory—the idea that all are connected with a chain of no more than six links—can be easily disproved. Sometimes the world is small enough for the links to be less than six. Or five. Or four. Take the world of inhabited by those within the California architecture and design realm: the chain is so small it could be argued as non-existent. For proof, follow the below narrative of award winners—both AIA National and AIA, California Council.

Let’s begin with 2015 AIA Firm Award Recipient Ehrlich Architects. This team, comprised of 38 employees, works in a repurposed dance hall built in 1917. “Everyone is out on the floor. There are no private offices,” said Steven Ehrlich, FAIA.


Ehrlich Architects

The partners and employees are adept at listening to their clients as well as their surroundings, perhaps because they are all out on the floor together. The practice began with Ehrlich’s time in Africa—a period that influenced how the firm embraces multicultural modernism. This philosophy stems from the realization that there is value in looking outside of one’s familiar circle and observing another’s as closely as possible. “We don’t impose what is the correct way to practice architecture, but we listen and observe people and place,” said partner Takashi Yanai, AIA. The firm culture reflects the architecture philosophy. They conduct in-house pecha kuchas where staff share ideas and experiences. They range in ages from just out of college to experienced and sage mentors whose careers span decades. The firm is comprised of 50 percent women. “We’re all foodies, so that helps,” said Takashi with a slight chuckle. These are attributes that only enhance and strengthen the team and the work they produce—the places they create.

Next week at the National AIA Convention in Atlanta, Ga., Ehrlich Architects will be honored as this year’s Firm Award Recipient. They will present in a moderated talk format “Understanding an Inspirational Space,” Sat., May 16. (Come with questions; they’ll be happy to answer.) First, watch the 2011 Maybeck Award recipient Ehrlich himself in aecKnowledge’s “Insights” collection. (We highly suggest if one views nothing else, at the very least click on “Open Your Eyes and Plagiarize,” where he articulates his advice to students on learning to be a great observer.)

Krista Becker, FAIA

Krista Becker, FAIA

Krista Becker, FAIA, Principal at Moore Ruble Yudell, the 2015 AIACC Distinguished Practice recipient. (And, Moore Ruble Yudell is also the recipient of the 2006 AIA National Firm Award) Ehrlich and Becker consider themselves friends and colleagues.

Becker has a passion and affinity for embassy design. America’s embassies are among our most visible, significant, and sometimes controversial public buildings, and embassy design has received tremendous critical attention in recent years. The design challenges of the US embassy program are unique. As for Becker’s philosophies, she stated quite simply when asked about the nuances and delicate nature of understanding and adhering to another culture’s laws and ways: “I love challenging complex programs and I can’t think of anything more challenging than an embassy project.” It may go without saying that Moore Ruble Yudell also views architecture as a way of connecting—as embassy design itself embodies connection and collaboration.

By opening the door to design excellence in a series of highly visible projects, Becker’s work has demonstrated the potential for great design in embassies with projects for The Hague, Helsinki, and Santo Domingo which were used by the AIA to illustrate the State Department’s new Design Excellence Program in a briefing to the US Senate in 2011.

In-Good-Company-Graphic-FellowshipIn 2012, Becker was elevated to Fellowship status. Three years after that, she can now celebrate the distinguished practice award.

It was her passion for embassy design which impressed this year’s Council Awards jury, along with several other attributions. The work is challenging when considering the several different government rules and requirements to navigate. Despite the challenges–communications, interpretation’s as well as design–her examples of excellence thrive. The United States Berlin Embassy in Germany is one such example. She collaborated on the project with Gruen + Associates, who also happens to be the AIACC 2015 Firm Award Winner, and the next on this linked chain of separation (or lack thereof).


United States Embassy, Berlin Berlin, Germany

United States Embassy, Berlin
Berlin, Germany


The jury noted Gruen + Associates as having a strong legacy and impact on the value of design with generations of leadership. After the presentation given to the board by Gruen, one board member said, “Their retention of staff speaks well for their value of employees as people.” Gruen has a strong voice in not only the design world, but within the profession with core philosophies of supporting and mentoring those new to the architecture profession. They have a consistent quality in their work and have been home to architects such as 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate, Thom Mayne, and the first licensed African-American female architect, Norma Sklarek. But beyond the strong legacy, is their strong collaborative environment—collaboration which has helped garner more than 250 awards; collaboration which leads to successful buildings. For example, the United States Embassy in Berlin, completed with Becker and the team at Moore Ruble Yudell.

Lawrence Scarpa

Lawrence Scarpa

Larry Scarpa, (Brooks + Scarpa) the 2015 Lifetime Achievement recipient, is the next link. He is also part of the international design circle. He is currently serving as part of the Industry Advisory Group for Embassy Design. Scarpa, who has received more than 100 Design Awards—14 of which are National Institute Honor Awards and five AIA COTE Top Ten Green Building Awards, is leading the charge in sustainable design without necessarily being boxed into a specific compartment or label. The Council Awards Jury was quick to notice this. “He has really embraced sustainability and moved the profession forward showing that exceptional and sustainable design do not need to be different,” one juror commented.



The Solar Umbrella Home

The Solar Umbrella Home

“It’s a great honor,” Scarpa said. One can look to Scarpa’s own residence, “The Solar Umbrella,” for his philosophy for his firm’s creative approach to sustainable design. He was a bit surprised that he was nominated for the award, just like he was when he heard about the 2010 AIA Firm Award Nomination (Another link on the chain of separation: Scarpa is also the 2010 recipient of the AIA Firm Award—an award 2006 recipient principal Buzz Yudell, of Moore Ruble Yudell, convinced him to submit. Yudell wisely said to Scarpa, “If nothing else, submitting will give you a feel for the submittal process.”) When asked what was next on the award agenda, Scarpa chuckled and said, I’m not sure.”

Scarpa, along with Becker and Gruen + Associates, will be honored later in the year at the AIACC Design Awards Reception. Details on this event to follow in the near future.

This weekend, many are packing bags and double checking itineraries for AIA’s National Convention. 400 of which are from California. It’s a good time to reflect on possibility and connection. Remember, California boasts a population of 38.8 million; the world’s 7th largest  economy and packs in 69,762,936 of square LEED-certified feet (USGBC), and yet the six degrees of separation can be narrowed down to zero—at least in the world of architecture. Funny thing is, this connection is not tight enough. The closer the designers are, the narrower the gaps are in humanity. The above firms and firm principles are proof of this, all one has to do is listen or read. Yes, California leads the world in many ways—but California architects lead the charge of good, smart, connected design.


Shannon Calder

Shannon Calder, a Sacramento-based writer, joined the AIACC in 2013. She is the author of, “Jack and Abigail Make a Compass,” a novel about people, birds, and orchids. She spends her days both on and off hours, looking for connection, which is a good hobby to have when linking the value of design to public perception.

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