Is Your Firm an Elephant or a Cheetah?

At the ASLA 2011 Annual Meeting, Mark Johnson, FASLA, Civitas, ably moderated a session on how mid-size firms can better compete with the big multidisciplinary shops, asking pointed questions of some of leading landscape architects practicing in the U.S. and Europe today, including Martha Schwartz, ASLA, Martha Schwartz Partners, Peter Walker, FASLA, PWP Landscape Architecture, Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, OLIN, James Corner, ASLA, james corner field operations, and Adriaan Gueze, International ASLA, West 8. Johnson said “we are all friends, we all like each other, we are competitors, and want to get ahead of each other so this should be interesting.”

The marketplace is changing. Big firms like AECOM are getting bigger and becoming “one-stop shops” so how can small landscape architecture firms of around 30-40 people compete? How can these small firms accept the “risks and liabilities” associated with increasingly complex projects?

Each firm described their own current predicament: OLIN has grown through the recession and is 35 years old. There are now 11 partners but the main question is one of succession with the expected retirement of Laurie Olin, FASLA, one of the world’s leading landscape architects. Martha Schwartz, whose firm yo-yos between 30 and 70 people, said she has worked her way out of the U.S. and now does most of her work in Europe and the Middle East. In contrast to her earlier work, she now focuses on “sustainable strategies bigger than the site scale.” James Corner’s office has about 35-45 people. From 1998 to 2011, he grew very quickly, adding about 25 people. The lead designer of the High Line park, Corner focuses on “complex projects in the public realm.” Peter Walker, landscape architect behind the new 9/11 memorial in New York City, has around 35 people, “goes where the projects are,” but usually focuses on “slow, big, public” projects. West 8 has around ten staff in New York and another 50 in the Netherlands. 

Here are just some highlights from the topics covered in this free-wheeling debate:

On Elephants vs. Cheetahs

Schwartz immediately turned the session’s premise on its head, said either-or dichotomies are “really stupid.” Doing her research, she said elephants live together, with women playing a central role in raising children while men are on the outskirts. They eat all day long, destroying their environment in the process, but only digest about 40 percent of what they eat, meaning that they “aren’t very efficient. They can’t sustain themselves. They are going extinct.” So, she said she definitely didn’t want to be an elephant. However, cheetahs also have their issues: They can go from 0-60 in 3 seconds but “aren’t very smart.” To catch prey, they have to “trip up the animal.” Then, they take 30 minutes to recover. “They are also going extinct” so she didn’t want to be a cheetah either. “I don’t want to be either. I have my own model.”

The Threats to Smaller Firms

Many of the design leaders on the panel discussed how many of their trusted vendors and partners are being bought up by the big multidisciplinary firms. Sanders at OLIN said “there are not many firms that we trust so I see that as a threat to our industry. They are taking away resources we rely on.”

Corner was more concerned that the AECOMs of the world are becoming more sophisticated with their designs. Corner said AECOM won the Rio Olympics project with a fairly smart design. “Some of these big firms are starting to push the design edge. That threatens our capacity, but competition is healthy.”  He wants landscape architecture firms to take on these multidisciplinary, complex projects – “maybe this is where we can lead.”

The Particular Value of Landscape Architects

When Corner was starting out as an intern, he worked on the Royal Dock Works project in London. In one of the early examples of a multidisciplinary project, there were architects, landscape architects, ecologists, transportation engineers. However, “nobody could speak outside their disciplines. No one was listening to anyone else. There was lots of scoffing.” This was because “no one had been trained to deal with these projects. Nobody could orchestrate a bigger synthesis.” Corner said this is where “we need to target the entire field” because there’s “something about our creativity. We are good listeners, work well with systems, and are not control freaks.” Furthermore, a “smart landscape architect can offer more direction and orchestration,” and not just add in the trees at the end of the project. 

Schwartz agreed, adding that “big firms can’t go where we go” providing “strategic conceptual approaches.” Landscape architects are focused on “systems but also materials, the texture of projects.” However, she also said big firms, unlike smaller ones, can get “infrastructure going, they can get a beachhead into places like China.” Then, once they create the ecosystem, the “little animals” (i.e. smaller firms like hers) can benefit and come in. She added that mass-produced landscapes aren’t possible – the conditions are “so different, variable” so in that sense, there would always be work for firms that do quality work.  

How Can Small Firms Get the Edge?

Schwartz thinks that “design has to be exemplary to beat AECOM.” Gueze at West 8 said that a design “needs to be outstanding. It can’t be mediocre. To get a job, you have to deliver.” It also pays to have a network. “You have to know people. There’s not just one client. They have issues, communities, problems they are dealing with.” Furthermore, “you need to have outstanding rhetorical quality. You need words, metaphors because your ideas will be constantly undermined.” He believes that this is not related to firm size.

Corner thinks that’s of course true but wanted to focus on “management structures,” arguing that “structures can give us a shot” at the big projects.

Is Firm Size Important?

Schwartz felt that “size creates an agenda. We need a work volume to feed the size of it.” She asked whether, strategically and artistically, do we want to do this? In her case, the answer is no. “We all have a heavy hand in the size of our firms.” Also, big firms “need to feed this big thing. It’s not about desire anymore.”

Walker seemed to disagree, arguing that he’s “resentful of people who say the profession should do this or that,” adding that Corner can “go big if he wants” and scale up his practice to take on the big firms.

“There are lots of assumptions about the motivation of our office,” Sanders said, if the firm grows larger. “We understand people’s profit agendas but it’s a personal decision to decide to go big or small.” She thinks there are also other agendas: “It’s not always about making money.” Large firms don’t make more profit than smaller firms as a percentage of revenue.

Walker thought that Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who recently died from pancreatic cancer, had it right: Making the perfect thing can lead to more money. It’s not a choice at the start between the perfect thing and making more. He added that quality should be “recognized at every scale.” Sanders whole-heartedly agreed, saying that “quality does matter. We still do lots of precious jewels.”

Where do your firms need to go?

“Everyone is up here because we invented something. We create value, edge, and that moves the culture forward,” said Schwartz, and this is increasingly something that clients want. As a whole, she said landscape architects are far better now than 30 years ago in meeting the needs of clients.

For her, Europe is the next big market. “The U.S. is a first world country but is behind the 8 ball. Scandinavian countries are reinventing their cities and, there, landscape is central to the public realm. There’s a big desire for landscape architects there.” Here, she’s tired of playing the advocate, “campaigning.” She said “green roofs are nice, but what about sustainable cities?” 

Corner said he can never get 100 percent of what he wants in advance but focuses on being a good conversationalist. “An outcome is the best I can hope for.” He also wants landscape architects to become “stronger advocates for a more coherent built environment.”

OLIN is more focused on growing its own people. “To do this creatively, effectively, it takes concerted effort.” Sanders’ firm is focused on “creating places for people,” and will always value quality. To ensure this, the firm has started a research department to “compliment, bolster our efforts, enriching our conversations with clients.” OLIN wants to make sure their senior people are credible.

Gueze was concerned about the “American obsession with business” – design is about “much more than business practices.” He added that Frederick Law Olmsted’s business was a “mess.” He said West 8 “fails all the time,” but “if it’s in the stars, the client will recognize something in our proposals.” In a sense then, the ideas, designs are far more important than the management structures. “Some projects are organized well but fail to deliver.”

Where does landscape architecture need to go?

Gueze: “We are engineers with a certain illusion or romance. We need to bring this knowledge to the contemporary culture. Landscape is still tied to 19th century ideas.”

Corner: “Cities are where it’s at. Spectacular spaces. We’ve lost a sense of that. We can get mired in environmental subjects like ecology, but need to create a new level of experience.”

Sanders: “Those two ideas, plus we need to have conversations without using the word sustainability. We need to understand what we are saying when we use that word.”

Walker: “I can’t affect the field through some new theory; I can only provide an example. The separation of landscape architecture and planning was a disaster so I am going to dedicate my remaining time and energy to getting this dialogue to work easier. When the fields separated, planners took away politics, sociology. Landscape architects took away botanical knowledge, knowledge of spaces.”

Schwartz: “Climate change. We as a profession and in our individual capacities need to educate people on a personal basis and apply ourselves to this problem. I feel personally responsible. I fly a lot – am I worth it? I feel compelled to work on this. Cities need to more efficiently use resources. Art and landscape can create real connections to landscapes. We can’t leave behind human connections in our attempts to fight climate change and create cities of density.”

One thought on “Is Your Firm an Elephant or a Cheetah?

  1. ozzie 11/10/2011 / 12:30 am

    You trade quality for convenience when you shop at the supermarket. Its a bit the same with a one stop shop consultancy…

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