Like the city it has done so much to shape, Elkus Manfredi is evolving.
Thirty years after its launch, and 16 months after the death of co-founder Howard Elkus, Boston’s biggest — and most prolific — architecture firm is naming two new principals. The addition of Mark Sardegna and Andy West will bring new blood to the firm’s top leadership ranks, said founding principal and CEO David Manfredi, and they’ll bolster its expertise across the wide range of projects — from lab buildings to big hotels to college quads — that Elkus Manfredi is known for.
“We’ve never wanted to be typecast as science or housing or retail,” Manfredi said. “You learn something by doing every project, then you take it to a totally different building type and it transforms the space.”
It’s an approach that has paid off in an old city like Boston, where buildings of all types sit in close proximity, and the people who work and live in them regularly interact, helping to spark a kind of cross pollination that leads to big ideas. These days, Elkus Manfredi seemingly designs half the buildings in the city, everything from Kendall Square labs to the New Balance headquarters at Boston Landing to large swaths of the Seaport.
We recently caught up with Manfredi — in between his meetings with clients on new projects — for a wide ranging conversation about architecture and Boston. It touched on everything from Elkus Manfredi without Howard Elkus to the importance of sandwiches in the Seaport. What follows are excerpts from that discussion.
Over three decades, Elkus and Manfredi built their firm into a powerhouse, busy enough to rank 11th among US architecture firms in revenue in 2016. Though its home — and sole office — is in Boston, the firm does business around the world. But when Elkus died last year, the firm was left with just three principals, and only one of its co-founders.
“It was unexpected and a great personal loss. We were very good friends, and great partners. For the firm, I think we’ve been able to manage the transition. We have a lot of great talent, young talent. This firm is going to survive me. It’s going to survive all of the people currently in leadership.”
Three years ago, Elkus Manfredi moved to the Innovation and Design Building, an old Army depot that has become a business hub. The space, stuffed with models and renderings of buildings you’d probably recognize, boasts floor-to-ceiling windows showing off the Seaport on one side and Southie on the other. Crucially, it’s all on one giant floor, which has transformed the way Manfredi and his colleagues work.
“This has changed a big problem in my life, which is that I didn’t see people enough. Now I have to walk diagonally across the floor to get coffee. I have to walk diagonally across the floor to go to the bathroom. I do these things several times a day, and I might get interrupted three times each trip by people who want to talk something through. I can do that in five minutes, and I don’t have to set up meetings, or say ‘leave it for me and I’ll look at it later.’ It’s all happening in real time. Nothing’s better than that.”
Those casual collisions of ideas can also make cities great, Manfredi said. And cities, especially ones like Boston that thrive on ideas and innovation, are wise to design places where they will take place naturally. He said his firm tries do to that on projects big and small alike.
“Our role as planners and architects is broad. It often has to be about more than a single building. How do we improve connectivity? How do we make it more livable? How do we create really good public places where people want to be out on the sidewalk? A big part of innovation is making social spaces.”
Elkus Manfredi has been a key architect of the Seaport, the gleaming business — and increasingly high-end residential — district that’s oft-criticized for a lack of attractive and practical public space. Manfredi has heard those complaints, and agrees “there probably should be” more areas set aside for everyone to use. But he has faith that the Seaport will develop some lived-in character — just give it a little time. How does he know? Sandwiches.
“This neighborhood will evolve as it fills in. It will feel friendlier. Even three years ago, if I were here on a Saturday afternoon and I wanted to go get a sandwich, I didn’t have many choices. Come this Saturday and walk around. There’s hundreds of people. They’ve brought their kids. They’re on the Harborwalk, going to restaurants, visiting the ICA. Doing things that three years ago were almost unimaginable. And if I want a sandwich now, I’ve got a lot of choices.”
Another common complaint about Boston architecture: Too few signature towers. While Millennium Tower and the new One Dalton will make their mark, nothing since the John Hancock Tower opened four decades ago has truly stood out as a definitive Boston skyscraper. Is that a problem?
“Great cities need both. They need iconic buildings. I mean, look at the Hancock. Forty-five years later we still point to it as an iconic building. A city also needs really good texture and fabric. If you build a city of object buildings you run the risk of what’s happened in some new cities — the Dubais of the world — where everything is an icon. One of the great things about Boston is our physical environment. We’re very walkable. There’s a scale to this city, and we’ve done a really good job in Boston over many generations to preserve that scale.”
At some level, Manfredi said, creating places with character takes more than architecture. Architects can design the bones of a place, but the people who use it every day will, inevitably, make it their own. That’s something his firm sees all the time when it does work on college campuses.
“You can plan student housing all you want, down to locating every piece of furniture in the common room. Then the kids move in and within a week they’ve moved everything to where they think it should go. You can pave pathways, but they’ll tell you, with their feet, the best way to go from here to there. That’s what authenticity is. The user finishes the process.”