Bertrand Julien-Laferrière

Producing Architecture

What is the impact of current economic transformations (the financialization and the acceleration of the economy, the increasing value of intangible assets) on the way architecture is produced? In only ten years, a massive influx of private capital has transformed existing buildings into fast-moving liquid financial assets. On the contrary, the production process of new projects has slowed down considerably and become much more complex, all the while the resources of the government and local authorities are dwindling. As a result, a process of devolution and transfer of architectural production to the private sector is occurring, and it is probably irreversible. In France, cultural and architectural needs were seen as being legitimately addressed only by public contracts due to the country’s Jacobin tradition (i.e., a centralized State tradition). Private commissions must gradually emancipate from the tutelage of the public sector; to achieve this, private decision-makers must increase their knowledge of architecture and architects and understand that design is at the heart of the process of value creation.

Bertrand Julien-Laferrière graduated from École Centrale, Paris, University of California, Berkeley, and Insead. He is Head of Real Estate at Ardian, a leading Alternative Asset Manager in Europe.

How does time impact architectural production and quality? How are production processes and organization models adapting to the acceleration of time and will they eventually influence the architectural product? What are the cultural and professional responses to this paradoxical situation of having to manage an increasingly complex context against a backdrop of accelerating consumption and information? How can development approaches be made sustainable when the Zeitgeist is to network dissemination?


Architecture, in between finance and politics

Today, we find that production times in our Western societies tend to become longer and longer: the administrative and regulatory framework is expanding due to the concern of better protecting citizens, the city, democracy, and the planet. The discussions on participation, the stages of consultation, the influence of community associations and lobbies increasingly mark the production process of urban design and construction. Electoral deadlines make the launch of major operations either possible or impossible even though politics should be concerned with the public interest on the long run, going well beyond political timing considerations.

Local authorities set the pace of urban developments; urban authorities and their technical departments undertake to control the development of supply and sometimes even to regulate the market. They aim to develop their urban spaces and, at the same time, to control them.

At the same time, money flows ever more rapidly, and buildings that had had one, or possibly two, owners over one hundred years, are now changing hands several times in a single decade.

Investment funds, with their ever higher financial resources, form and dissolve, invest in a country or another, in an asset class or another, move the sliders of time to suit their cash-flow simulations and return on investment calculations.

Thom Mayne, project for la Tour Phare, Paris-La Défense, 2007

Real estate has become a new financial asset class that is managed by a professional sector that is structured on the Anglo-Saxon model with its fund managers, its asset managers, its property managers and its facility managers—all paid according to the performance of the invested funds. Massive cash inflows in real estate, very low interest rates, and an improvement in the general economic situation have caused the property market to boom over the past ten years or so.

The establishment of a new fiscal framework (REITs/CIIs) for listed property funds and the transition to International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), which gives the possibility to have property assets appear at their “fair value” (market value) in their balance sheet, has strengthened the real estate compartment of Western stock exchanges.

In a continuously bullish market with historically low interest rates, the financial results were necessarily at the end of the line and creativity was not a critical success factor. The recent subprime mortgage crisis and its impact on the financial sector and real estate have started to rattle things up in this all-too-perfect world however and to bring the economic actors back to a reality that they had had a tendency to forget.

Though the world of financial real estate has gained much from the situation of these past ten years, benefits have accrued to others. Companies have taken advantage of this glorious age to cost-effectively outsource their property assets and to free up significant cash that they have been able to invest in the development of their core businesses. Individual house-owners have seen the value of their property rise sharply and have found in this transformation an opportunity to offset the shortcomings of their pension and retirement system. As for the State, local communities, and public institutions—the largest land owners—they have found new ways to finance their social or public programs.

Everything would be for the best in the best of worlds had part of the population not been excluded from this wonderful contrivance: young adults, first-time home-owners, low-income groups, renters in large cities—these populations are experiencing a gradual deterioration in their situation and their quality of life due to the growing share of the cost of housing in their overall expenses.

In order to address this social and political problem, whose growing impact can be seen in recent election debates, elected officials attempt to introduce new legislation, new regulations, new constraints, and new obligations to encourage the private sphere to take on some of the obligations of public authorities.

Similarly, cities try to control remaining urban land and to manage its use—just about any plot of land in the city center becomes the focus of arduous and protracted discussions as well as political games.

The time scale of real estate has accelerated over the course of these last ten years in a binary manner:

– on the one hand, existing buildings have become increasingly liquid financial assets—their turnover and value increase have accelerated drastically and have therefore followed the acceleration of time. Big money has imposed its pace, and the time of real estate has become that of finance.

– on the other hand, the production process of new projects has become more complex and has slowed down to account for new social and political challenges. The technical and administrative temporality has slowed down.

Architectural production is therefore embedded in a very specific context in which will the financial sphere and the political sphere rub shoulders. This confrontation is not new and it has in fact existed from time immemorial. But what is new and radically different is the way in which these relationships are articulated and the novel forms that the modes of architectural production take on.

Let us take a moment to review the situation of architectural production in France. Where are we coming from? Where are we now?

Jean Nouvel, Quai Branly Museum, Paris, 2006

French architectural production

This country, that we believe serves as a role model but that is in fact viewed as an exception in the eyes of the world, remains dependent on a cumbersome legacy:

– the legacy of a formidable historical and cultural heritage, which is a source of constant doubt in the discussions on aesthetics and urban planning and makes us very conservative;

– the legacy of a tradition of State centralization that leads us to believe that the public sphere can more legitimately address cultural and architectural needs than the private sector;

– the legacy of a social organization that stifles private initiative and strengthens the already hegemonic weight of the higher levels of government in spatial planning.

In France, architecture has been living on the remains of this history since the end of the war. Since then, there have been several major phases however:

– the period of reconstruction and the theorization of Modern movement and the new man embodied by Le Corbusier and his mentors within the public service in the post-war years;

– the commoditization of architectural mediocrity in the name of modernity as well as the ongoing confusion between modernity and modernism, which has ossified the aesthetic vision in France until the 1980s and has allowed a few mandarins to dominate architectural commissions;

– the initiative of President Giscard d’Estaing and a group of forward-thinking senior officials to shape the architecture of public buildings through a proactive policy of competitions (the new cities served as a field of experimentation) up to the emergence of a new generation of architects and to the policy of major presidential projects whose success varies from very good (the Louvre Pyramid and the Quai Branly Museum) to mediocre (the Opera Bastille and the Grande Bibliothèque);

– the willingness of cities to oversee the architectural and urban design of public developments and local governments demand architectural competitions for private operations taking place in the municipality;

– the initiatives of major private developers of launching architectural competitions to entice elected officials and the use of star architects to help obtain building permits.

Nobody can deny the fact that France has seen the emergence of an architectural production that has improved notably in the past twenty years.

Nobody can now deny that the role of public authorities in terms of initiative or pressure has been crucial in breaking mandarinates and the dominant ideology of the 1960s and pave the way for architectural diversity and a richer and more successful creation.

Nevertheless, the limitations of the system are beginning to be felt. The government no longer has the means to fund new facilities for the public as it used to. Local communities, which have taken over the national government in this area pursuant to the devolution laws will soon lose the means to do so too given that local taxation, which has soared for the past fifteen years, has reached a record level. The absurdity of the French public budgetary system, which dissociates investment budgets and operating budgets, has put the maintenance and operation of most public facilities at risk.

Major planning and real estate developments, which are controlled by local authorities but are privately funded, concentrate most of the quality architectural production happening today. Elected officials and the public administration remain the chief organizers of the selection of architects and architectural projects via the competitions on which architects depend on for their livelihoods (or survival).

At the same time, and though a landscape law has been approved and the whole world is sounding the alarm regarding the environment and the protection of natural areas, the French countryside is being disfigured by cookie-cutter tract housing developments. These soulless constructions form a monstrous urban sprawl that future generations will not fail to criticize.

The most significant office projects, in La Défense or elsewhere, must comply with exacting environmental standards (HQE) but operations of a more modest size continue to proliferate outside of the heart of the large cities with buildings that are devoid of soul and architectural interest and that can often not be absorbed by the infrastructure.

Relationship between architecture and the private sector

Why is it that when we roam the suburbs of Brussels, Antwerp, Barcelona, or Milan, we find designer houses that are sometimes quite modest but always developed with a genuine desire for architecture? Why is it that this is so rare in France when it was a real tradition only one hundred years ago?

Right besides the Great Wall, Soho China developed its “Commune,” a condominium of fifteen houses or so that were designed by prestigious architects such as Shigeru Ban and Kengo Kuma. Why do we not see small prestige operations of this kind in France? How is it even possible that we had to wait for the initiative of a company from the emerging country of China, and one founded by two young entrepreneurs, for the first Silver Lion of the Venice Biennale of Architecture to be awarded to a property developer? Why must we go to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, London, New York, or Los Angeles to get to see the extraordinary flagship stores that the mainly French and Italian luxury brands have commissioned to the hottest architects of the moment and why can’t we find them in France, where so many of these large luxury firms are established?

Soho, China, Commune by the Great Wall, 2006

So why are private commissions in the field of architectural production so rare and amateurish in France, except when they are driven or imposed by cities and officials? Perhaps simply because, in France, architecture still belongs to the public sphere and that the private sphere still hasn’t taken ownership.

The issue of the modes of architectural production in France and its reconquest by and for the private sector seems essential since a process of delegation and transfer to the private sector is engaged in a way that seems irreversible:

– by the private sector, because it is good for individuals and for private companies to develop private commissions that take full responsibility for architectural production. As we will see, the key element here is this fundamental concept of responsibility;

– for the private sector, because individuals or groups of individuals must learn to value architecture, including in terms of financial, social, commercial, political, and strategic value.

The starting point for the conquest of the field of architectural production by the private sector lies in clients taking on stronger responsibility in the manifold process of value creation. At present, many large property groups boast architectural quality policies and materialize this commitment through the systematic use of architectural competitions, which are often imposed by municipalities and public authorities.

When one thinks of this coldly, it is very surprising to see these real estate companies accept development costs that are often very high and put up with such things as cities compelling them to organize architectural competitions, public authorities suggesting the names of the architects and designers that they’d want to see invited, and often letting elected official dictate their preferences or even select the winning proposal.

In this approach, when a major development is launched, it is necessary to wait for the end of this fairly random process to get to know which estate product will really be offered to the market. The premise is that the real estate product and architecture can be interchangeable and that ultimately the value of this product remains the same whatever the scenario. This means that for the developer, consensus and the support of the local government have a higher value than what can be achieved by acting more proactively.

Indeed, there seems to be something in it for everyone.

This fosters the conditions that developers need to get the support and the backing of the public authority, and therefore facilitate the clearance of administrative authorizations and licenses.

Elected officials and local authorities see it as a means of ensuring some degree of oversight on the final result of the operation and of retaining control on the image and identity of the city.

France, as noted earlier, remains dependent on its inconvenient legacy. Here again, the Jacobin tradition will impose the weight of the public authority on the choices of design and aesthetics of private developers. Indeed, the production process and method deprives the consenting private parties of the responsibility of these choices and therefore also of the architectural product that they desire to produce.

Most private groups adhere to this process with no qualms. Their representatives use these competitions as levers for communication and use them to display their sense of social or public responsibility.

– they are admittedly much attached to the clearance of permits and administrative permissions, and therefore are very pleased to see a consensus emerge with the public authority on the choice of design;

– they admittedly know that they will then be able to adapt the project as it progresses in its development in order to meet their technical, economic, and commercial constraints.

But isn’t the reason elsewhere?

The success of a real estate operation

Do the leaders of these large private groups actually have the ability to make these design choices? Do they have the courage to do so? Do they have the conceptual vision that would allow them to know what they really want to do prior to the operation?

Isn’t it ultimately more reassuring to see a board or a committee gather and collectively make that choice? Isn’t the choice made easier when it comes to choosing between several definite, concrete proposals rather than having to guide a creation process and provide a conceptual framework? Isn’t it less risky to listen to opinion leaders, the dominant force, the broad consensus, rather than to individually take on the responsibility, which will obviously put the decision-maker in the position of having to have their own vision of the project?

Isn’t participatory democracy actually the most beautiful adornment for politically-correct decisions?

All these reasons or excuses exist in order to justify the method that is chosen and to self-congratulate on its results. But what is the result of these wonderful consensus-based processes?

What are we to think of the architecture of the various Parisian ZAC (zones d’aménagement concertées—integrated development zones), of the recent programs in Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, or Toulouse, of the latest high-rises erected in La Défense?

ECDM, project for Lyon Confluences with ING, Lyon, 2005

On the whole, it is a success. The architecture is homogeneous, and much better than what was done previously; it performs rather properly, is well-accepted by the local citizenry, and investors are happy—nothing wrong then.

But where is there anything exceptional to be found? Where is the oeuvre? A special genius? The unique success that would make us the envy of the whole world? Where have we created a “destination” that is transcended thanks to its architecture? Where and when has architecture found its true expression and been able to contribute to an operation with a strong design and a value creation process that has been well integrated and thought through?

Unfortunately, asking the question is answering it.

So what are the standards that define a real estate transaction as exception and what is the mode of production that allows architecture to contribute to the process of value creation?

Why are competitions paradoxically the best solution for those who do not want to take any risk but the worst one for developers that are determined to achieve something exceptional? This is due to several reasons.

Promoters and investors cannot and must not choose their architects randomly, due to political compromise or on the basis of an image conveyed by an architecture competition and its seemingly consensual products. That choice must follow thorough consideration, analysis, and a proper understanding of the specific issues of the operation. It must also result from a good fit in terms of personality, professional history, work, expertise, style, and design approach. This of course implies first and foremost that the design vision and the level of ambition are shared but also that there is a trusting relationship.

As long as the developer has a well-defined vision and ambition for a given project, there tends not to be many different designers that can materialize it. There certainly is an ideal designer for each project though they are sometimes difficult to identify or to approach. To properly choose an architect, it is necessary to really know them—not their name or the image they convey, but their work and their personality. There is therefore a need for continual upstream investment, especially on the knowledge of architecture and architects, and it must be understood that design is at the heart of the process of value creation.

Ideation is a key stage in the development of projects and provides the required structure to carry them forward. During this phase, the overarching concept that will underlie the whole design process will be defined, though not the architectural design itself. This is the miraculous moment when the client and the architect meet, share and exchange ideas, interact on them, inform one another’s thoughts, feed on paradoxes, develop the design approach, define the level of ambition and the framework strategy, accept the level of risk attached to the level of ambition, finalize the defining principles of the property product, position the project in relation to its environment, reflect on the development methodology of the project, prioritize, put the specific expertise required in place, and consolidate their relationship.

As a procedure, competitions cause designers to work on their own and to laminate this ideation phase by delegating it exclusively to the architect. Paradoxically, it is because the responsibility of the design choice is left to the architects in private architecture competitions that the result is most often good but never exceptional. All good architects know that architectural quality comes from the paradoxical tension between perspectives and constraints that seem difficult to reconcile.

When a decision-maker signs off a project on behalf of his company, they both become accountable for that decision and must therefore bear the risk that comes with it. Their goal is to create value and to do so they must have a well-defined vision and ensure that is widely shared. They must then take responsibility for their choices and decisions and take the full situation into account as well as its many implications (financial, political, marketing, cultural, social, administrative, technical, and environmental).

This is a huge responsibility given that it aims to embed heavy decisions in a world of very high and multifaceted complexity. It is of course not taken single-handedly and the main stakeholders take part in the process. The views that are expressed, everyone’s ideas and suggestions, the understanding of the environment and the internal and external constraints are all taken into account. But at the end of the day, decision-making and accountability must both fit in a clear and structuring design vision.

The responsibility is often difficult to take on and that is why a number of private clients (most of them, actually) prefer to leave it to the local community or a panel of stakeholders to decide. Of course, they then retain the possibility of regretting the decision, or even to criticize it if the outcome is not good enough.

Architectural competitions can really make sense in a number of specific situations but are too often used by the decision-makers of contracting authorities as a way of eluding their responsibilities.

Finally, the competition process is intrinsically perverse. It creates a single winner and many losers:

– losers are often bitter, frustrated and sometimes fraught in financial difficulty. Their enthusiasm is affected by their setback and they are less engaged in their work as a result. Enduring residual traces remain and can gradually develop like malignant cells or tumors that transform enthusiasm into frustration;

– conversely, the winner, who has often been in the role of a frustrated party during previous consultations is suddenly glorified in their genius, crowned in their proud success, and put in the limelight. This success, they owe it to their project and design, not to the client.

The methodological hierarchy is upset as a result, the logic sometimes has a tendency to turn upside down, and the mode of production may become quite confused. The crucial stage of the basic agreement on the design process is sidestepped and the architects and their clients tend to rush directly to the phase of architectural design, to the architecture project that has become the finished project... And yet often all the work remains to be done. A combat situation emerges between the architect who tries to “save” their project, the same one that had inherited the votes of the jury of the competition, and the contracting authority that must “recapture” the project and have it coincide with their industrial logic.

Ego relations, misunderstandings, communication mishaps, rising suspicion and mistrust—what a mess in a professional relationship that must aim, by various approaches, to reach a common goal.


The client, the project, the architect

Good architects openly acknowledge that there is no good architecture without a good client. Of course, they will tell you that all their customers are good (NB: because it is not useful to upset them and lose them by saying otherwise).

For them, good clients are fundamentally not only clients that employ them for interesting architecture projects but more importantly clients with whom constructive, open, and intelligent collaboration pushes the level of ambition of the project to its highest limits.

France has been able to nurture good architects with its policy of public contracts. These architects have not always been able to adapt to work properly in the highly different context of private commissions however. The new generation, which is less ideological and more grounded in reality, appears to be better prepared to have a quality working relationship with private clients.

The issue and the challenge in France today is to develop “good” customers, in other terms, decision-makers who are both responsible and proactive, able to make design choices, and to maintain the conceptual coherence of these choices during the entire development process of the project, even though the architectural form or the project itself is poised to change.

Experience shows us that when a project that is kicked off on a clear, logical, and intelligent conceptual basis, it easily adapts to the many constraints and requirements throughout the operation and that these constraints and requests will most often improve the architectural quality rather than threaten it. In other words, constraints become opportunities for improvement and contribute to the ambition of the project as long as they are taken into account within a well-defined and logical basic concept.

Conversely, experience also shows us that taking constraints into account in a project that reflects a compromise or that is a string of poorly defined programmatic requests often leads to a disaster and weakens, or even destroys, the already very low architectural standard of the operation.

A good customer must therefore be able to put in place the following conditions, which are the necessary conditions for the production of quality architecture:

– a clear and strong leadership, which serves to ensure conceptual coherence and the coherence of the modalities of production;

– an ideation phase that is based on a professional, cultural and conceptual approach that is both rich and creative;

– a well-adapted project organization, with short decision trees, true leaders that both take risks and bear with them, professional teams that can be numerous as long as they intervene in their areas of competence, and effective coordination and information mechanisms;

– tactical acumen that is informed by past experiences (successes and failures), a broader context analysis, and a strong grounding in prevailing political, commercial, administrative, financial, and technical realities.

 The key to success lies in a quality that is somewhat rare among decision-makers because it is paradoxical: the ability to continually shift back and forth between the conceptual level and the methodological level, abstraction and reality, in a perfectly well-structured and streamlined dialectic.

The leaders of big American companies, and in fact of large international firms in general, usually say that they work (i) for their clients, (ii) for their stockholders, and (iii) for their employees and that the success of their business rests on the satisfaction of these three groups of stakeholders. The most progressive organizations also speak of satisfying the “community” at large, i.e., the rather undefined group of individuals and organizations that are directly or indirectly affected by their activities. Real estate projects and their developers can only achieve a certain level of success by not only interacting with their future users (clients), investors (shareholders), and project participants (employees and service providers), but also by satisfying public authorities (local elected officials) and the local citizenry (neighbors, residents, the media, intellectuals, opinion leaders, etc.).

Success and value creation in real estate developments comes with the satisfaction of all the stakeholders of the project, which is what makes our trade so complex but also so fascinating.

Architecture is certainly one of the keys components of the response to this problem and it is probably the main way to give coherence to an approach that is likely to satisfy the various stakeholders of the project.

Develop quality architecture

I talked with the owners of Soho China, who are old friends of mine, about their project on Tiananmen Square. The idea is to reinvent an exceptional 40 hectare site that they recently acquired with retail, leisure, and residential components right in the heart of the city of Beijing, in front of the Forbidden City in fact. To do so, they will subtly balance the full conservation of old buildings (hu-fong) and the creation of flagship stores for major international brands, which will act as contemporary avant-garde landmarks. A soft and modern architectural linkage acts this out, powering up and linking these elements and the management of the flow of visitors.

Curiously, it is in Beijing, with Chinese entrepreneurs under the age of 40, that this type of approach seems to really achieve its full bloom and that the importance of inventing a scenario, of developing quality architecture, and of finding a conceptual logic that may satisfy the innumerable stakeholders are really taken into account.

For this type of operation, the objective of value creation is based on a resolute ambition and on a conceptually strong architectural production rationale.

The aim is to create a “destination”—a powerful concept with a high level of excellence, a strong image, a political logic that will give the operation to give impetus to its development.

The key success factors of these kinds of projects are always more or less the same, although the approach of course will always specific to a given development:

– working on the basis of a well asserted vision and ambition;

– pushing ideas and conceptualization forward in a unique and highly creative way;

– demonstrating unwavering determination;

– sharing proactive dynamics of motion;

– demonstrating flexibility and adaptation on non-core elements and holding firm on the core;

– organizing a platform for dialogue that averts any precipitation and allows for the control of the context;

– achieving a gradual buy-in by allowing all stakeholders to find a response to their concerns regarding the project;

– providing the operation with its own communication logic with growing capabilities and proper prioritization.

But the main objective remains to make the interest of all stakeholders compatible and consistent and to ensure that they easily take ownership of the project.

It is imperative that prime contractors develop these skills and these ways of working. Giving a broader meaning to the mission of the builders of today and tomorrow will be conducive to much progress and the creation of considerable value. Sustainable development is precisely all about aligning public and private interests. Professionals are now confronted with the issue of inventing the projects and innovative approaches that will support the development of society and address the increasing level of complexity of the environment. Enhancing the awareness of the heavy responsibility of private and public decision-makers in the architectural production has become an imperative. Resolutely engaging in meaningful design approaches is a risk that must be taken on both the individual and the collective scale.

Beyond good intentions and incantations, let us hope that the measure of value creation will become more tangible and that it will incite all those involved with architectural production to better account for all the surrounding issues.

The acceleration of time and the increasing level of complexity of the development context are heavy constraints that may paradoxically act out by driving this change and making it essential to take into account all the dimensions of the act of architectural production.

It remains to be seen whether developers and architects will meet this challenge and prove their capacity to drive this transformation.

This article was published in Stream 01 in 2008.