In Defense of Using Local Architects

Posted on 28 Feb 2015 in All Posts, Firm Blog, Small Thoughts Blog | 0 comments

The south/central region of the United States has weathered the economic storm over the past decade quite nicely, thanks. In particular, Oklahoma City has enjoyed continued and sustained growth due to a diversification of its economy – as compared to the bust of the 1980’s. Admittedly, the most recent elevated growth in development has still been tied to the energy sector. However, the recent downturn in that industry has not overcome the strong, steady increase in the local economy due to public initiatives (MAPS 1, 2 and now 3), privitation of Department of Defense functions near Tinker AFB (Boeing), and a renewed interest by national retailers – to name but a few.

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One of the most important and significant projects to have completed over the past quarter century in Oklahoma City was accomplished by the energy company Devon. Beginning in 2009 and completed in 2012, the 50-story tower transformed the skyline of the City into a modern metropolis. Coinsiding with the arrival and success of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, Oklahoma City was garnering a renewed interest by many. Pickard Chilton was selected as the Architect, and most in the design community agree that it was a relatively successful design (especially if one is a fan of glass-clad skyscrapers). It was unfortunate that Devon chose to go outside of Oklahoma in their commission, but understandable since a significant, large multi-story office building had not been designed or constructed in Oklahoma City since the Leadership Square and First Oklahoma Tower days of the early 1980’s.

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Chesapeake Energy and their CEO Aubrey McClendon was the obvious father of the 2000’s energy expansion, not only overseeing the development of his company’s campus at 63rd and Western but also expanding interests in other development as diverse as a 60’s-style gas station (Pop’s in Arcadia), an expansive tree farm, and retail complexes. Most if not all of this development was designed by local architect Rand Eliott, which was therefore not your typical approach. Whether or not one might appreciate Mr. Eliott’s design aesthetic, his projects were all carefully thought-out, and brought further attention to the region via awards and accolades in the national design community. Cudos to Mr. McClendon for using local talent during his tenure at Chesapeake.

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Personal relationships between large corporate directors  and  out-of-state architects can prove detrimental to the local architectural community, however.  The most significant recent example of this occurred on the heals of Devon’s tower announcement, whereby one of their competitors (Sandridge Energy) purchased the original Kerr-McGee tower and surrounding properties in 2007 in view of establishing their own headquarters campus.  The original Kerr-McGee tower was designed by Pietro Belluschi (and Frankfurt-Short-Bruza of Oklahoma City) in the late 1960’s.  A somewhat typical icon for its time, it stood for many years as an integral part of the Oklahoma City skyline.  Sandridge Energy’s CEO at that time – Tom Ward – brought in Rob Rogers of Rogers Marvel Architects (New York City) to lead the 100-million reworking of this area of downtown Oklahoma City.  In addition to a reconfiguration of the original tower, plans called for the razing of various historic properties in the immediate area in order to create various “commons” (the architect’s term) for public access.  The architect’s sensitivity to Oklahoma City’s historic fabric was questioned by preservationists, and the plans were approved only after significant debate.  After Mr. Ward’s departure from Sandridge, Mr. Roger’s firm was also retained by him for his new venture, Tapstone Energy, in the renovation of the historic Mideke Building in the bricktown district.

Mr. Ward is not alone in this respect.  Other architects have likewise been “imported” by other CEO’s, business leaders, and even public entities.  Wade Scaramucci of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (London, England) first involved his firm in Oklahoma City through his design for his mother’s restaurant and retail shop (Nona’s) in bricktown.  Through various connections, the London firm is now providing design services on various projects in and around the downtown Oklahoma City area, and have even established an Oklahoma City office due to the increase of workload.  Similarly, the Edmond Public Schools began using an architect from the Tulsa area (Owasso) in the design of many of their new school facilities – so much over the past 8 years that they likewise opened an office in the Edmond area.  With the number of qualified and talented firms in Edmond and Oklahoma City capable of serving the Edmond Public Schools, this is especially confusing – as our property tax dollars are being used to assist a competitor in the expansion and establishment of his practice in our backyard.  Tulsa Public Schools meanwhile has not proven to be so benevolent towards Oklahoma City architects.

Not to be misunderstood, my thoughts are not an indictment of any lack of talent, qualifications or ability of any other architect.  I only want to point out that the Oklahoma City metropolis has a wealth of talented architects who are very capable of serving our private and public development needs – and with a vested interest which Tulsa, New York City and even London cannot provide.  Let’s try to keep our design needs local…