Gregg Pasquarelli: The Extra G Stands For Awesome

Last week we brought you the sage words of Michael Bierut. This week, we’re getting freaky with Gregg Pasquarelli. Founding partner of SHoP, which we thought of as a cute small firm with eight or so people who do great stuff with a small staff until we discovered that the firm has exploded and has forty architects and takes them to London, where they sometimes make questionable discoveries. We hung out with Gregg, chugged some mojitos, and learned about his suburban upbringing, moral compass, and predilection for long and voyeuristic night-time strolls.

Unbeige: When did you first realize that you wanted to work in design?

Gregg Pasquarelli: I’d always wanted to do it but was misguided by my banishment to the suburbs by my parents. When NYC went bankrupt they hustled me out and design wasn’t an option. It just wasn’t something you were allowed to do. So it wasn’t until I had my midlife crisis (I was working in finance at the time) at 23 so that sort of dawned on me again that there was something that I really wanted to do.

Unbeige: So you went to architecture school?

GP: I worked for a guy for a couple years who’d just set up a firm in New York. I taught him how to run a business and he taught me how to draw. And then I went to architecture school.

Unbeige: When did you start practicing as an architect?

GP: Right after school I started doing projects here and there, and then worked a couple years for Greg Lynn. We started SHoP shortly after, in 1996, only a couple years after grad school. We all met in grad school. The five of us came together completely out of a similar work ethic, and respect and commitment. I don’t think the five of us had this great design agenda — it came out of respect. This sounds a little hokey but it’s more about a moral compass, a kind of drive compass. Maybe a motivational compass.

And I think we had one fight back in month 7. And it’s been nine years and we’ve never had a fight since then. Not even close. It’s great. They’re the greatest guys. My partners are the greatest people you could ever imagine. We all have the desire to change the profession, because we think it’s worth a lot more than the generation ahead of us left it. That was the objective. It wasn’t about a style. It was about a process, and thinking about what architects can do.

Unbeige: I’m so there.

GP: it’s gotten a lot of power back. Fifteen years ago it didn’t matter. Architects were just producing wrappers for buildings — wallpaper that was based on an aesthetic.

Unbeige: What’s your favorite color?

GP: The glow of blue when you look into peoples’ apartments when they’re watching TV at night. It’s not really blue and it’s not really white and it’s not really gray but it’s just this beautiful color. I love to walk through the city and night and look up.

Unbeige: When did you first notice that?

GP: Just growing up in the city. I lived in the Bronx and spent time looking across the other apartment buildings when I couldn’t sleep. I thought they were ghosts.

Unbeige: What’s your favorite city, and why?

Gp: I’d have to say New York just because I’m completely narrow-minded. I wanted to go somewhere else like LA or London or somewhere else, but I’ve always been here, and I’ve always tried to escape, but it just keeps pulling me back. Kim [Holden] and I, when we both got out of school, tried to go to the west coast and we still have a fantasy. But then one day we looked up and saw we had incredible partners and forty staff.

Unbeige: When you get an assignment and you have your budget when you sit down at your desk or wherever you work for the first time, what do you do?

GP: Absolutely not design. We sit down and try and identify what the parameters are that don’t have to do with program, site, or budget. We try and identify what all the external influences that might affect what this project might be about – political, social, economic, climatic, the general atmosphere. And we start from the outside. And then we go very much into the core and then think about the diagram of what we want this thing to do performatively and then the form becomes a kind of thickness that is between those two things.

Unbeige: How do you express those ideas? Sketches? Writing?

GP: Text, diagrams, spreadsheets, charts.

Unbeige: So you never have that moment of thinking “this is a perfect form”?

GP: We think that’s a marketing gimmick by people with not that much talent.

Unbeige: Who has inspired you and why?

Gp: I think all of us in the firm are inspired by people out of the profession. Burt Rutan, the X Prize winner, because it was a challenge that took him a long time to complete… it was a challenge set out that shook the paradigm of anyone who had ever thought about aerospace. And with a lot of ingenuity and not a lot of money he made it happen. People like that.

I think it’s not necessarily about following protocol or the genius moment because we don’t believe in that. It’s about taking what you’re given, not complaining about it, and making something special out of it. The funny thing is there are so many architects who are like “Oh my God I would never take a budget that’s that low.” To me that’s the most exciting budget and the most exciting project.

Unbeige: If you weren’t an architect, what else would you want to be?

GP: I’m actually not really good at anything else. I think that’s the only reason I am an architect because it’s the only thing I was good at.

Unbeige: What a nice segue to the last question. What natural gift do you utterly lack that you most want?

GP: The ability to write. Writing is just such a struggle for me. I blame the New York City public school system.