World-Architects recently visited the Princeton, New Jersey, office of ikon.5 architects to speak with partners Joseph Tattoni, Arvind Tikku and Charles Maira about the firm's background and their working process, and to look at some new projects.
The office's setting is a bit of a surprise for a firm ranked in the top 10 of ARCHITECT's 2014 “Architect 50” Best in Design category, just behind SOM but ahead of Studio Gang Architects, Brooks + Scarpa and other firms known for strong design. The surprise isn't the Princeton locale so much as it is the fairly non-descript two-story building sitting on the other side of the lake from the town’s namesake university. But as I learn in my conversation with the partners of ikon.5 architects, the modest setting is an appropriate one, befitting a firm focused on doing quality institutional and educational work yet not burdened by the desire to "grow for growth’s sake."
Right now ikon.5 is a 20-person firm, a good number for being able to achieve projects in the wide budget range of $2 million to $200 million. Yet what is most amazing is that they maintained that firm size even during the recession, something the partners chalk up to "a strong foundation" of diverse work, much of it in the realm of higher education, which was not hit like other sectors, such as multi-family residential and commercial. This focus on institutional and residential work can be traced back to before the firm's 2003 inception, as three of the firm's initial five partners* worked in the higher-education studio at Hillier, a Princeton-based, then 400-person juggernaut that was purchased by RMJM in 2007 to become an international practice with more than 1,200 employees. Here the reasons for the firm's focus on a smaller studio culture also becomes apparent.
My visit to ikon.5's Princeton office falls on a Friday, which happens to be when the office has breakfast in the studio space located at the end of the roughly L-shaped office. This space is fairly open and taller than the other spaces, surrounded by the usual output and tools of any architecture office: drawings (presentation and working), models, books, binders, and materials. The partners sit next to other employees in this area, alongside the central space that serves as circulation, library, storage and once-a-week breakfast nook. This open space makes it comfortable for employees to speak directly to the partners on issues of design (Joe), management (Arvid) and technical (Charlie), even as the responsibilities of the partners are interwoven, belying these distinctions.
When World-Architects started the Building of the Week feature on the American platforms in 2009, the very first project was ikon.5's Kirkwood Public Library in Delaware. Having featured three more projects over the years – School of Art & Design at New York State College of Ceramics, E.J. Ourso College of Business and Monmouth Battlefield State Park Visitor Center – I've gleaned some insight into their design process. Nevertheless, it was valuable to hear the partners describe how they tackle projects, most of them coming about through RFPs (Request for Proposals), a standard means for academic work. Once a project comes into the office Joe works on it to determine important issues and craft a narrative; the latter is particularly important, since it taps into the particulars of a place and institution to find a way for the project to extends those into the future. The narrative then guides the project as it involves the other partners and employees, often in teams of three to four, one of whom will follow the project through to completion.
The strongest impression on my visit is how the firm's thoughtful design work permeates all of the spaces in the office. As mentioned, the building is modest, but its inside serves as a canvas for the models and drawings that reveal how no detail is too small for design investigation. There are massing models, site models, and large models of particular spaces, but also numerous models and drawings studying facades and other details at larger scales. Just as the partners promote what they call the nurturing of "complete architects," by giving employees responsibility and the ability to make mistakes, it's clear that they create "complete architecture," where considerations of design, technique and sustainability consolidate within the narratives that anchor each project. The resulting architecture moves beyond function and program to embrace expression and meaning, expressing an institution's mission while rooting the building into its context. This approach is clear in their portfolio of completed buildings, but also in some recent projects highlighted below.
*A note on the firm's name: "ikon" is the Latin version of "opus," which translates to "the making of images." With opus already being taken by another U.S. office, the firm opted for ikon and tacked on the "5" for the number of partners at the firm's inception; they maintain the name/number even as the number of partners is now three. Regardless of this lineage, the name ikon.5 architects points to an emphasis on the work being produced over the personalities involved, a refreshing position in these days of celebrity architects and name brands.
ikon.5 architects is a busy office – during my visit I count at least a dozen projects that are in-progress or just wrapping up, four of them highlighted below. Photographs, drawings and project descriptions are courtesy ikon.5 architects.
New South Student Center
The New South Student Center at Georgetown University is a renovation and addition that transforms an existing mid century residence hall into a vibrant new university living room for undergraduate life. Inspired by the unique ‘Hoya Saxa’ (stones) identity of the Georgetown student body, the center creates an experience of study and casual living spaces carved out of interior and exterior stone edifices. The ‘Saxa’ living wall is a stone clad green wall that provides a natural bio-friendly character to the Great Room that overlooks the Potomac and is one of many design features that assist this project in achieving a LEED Gold certification. Inside the ‘Saxa’ living wall are 12 individual wood clad group study rooms with enhanced video display systems and writable glass partition for students to work on projects together or separately. The Riverside Terrace is an outdoor landscaped area that extends the living space of the Great Room outdoors and overlooks the Potomac.
Supporting the casual and study spaces of the student center are a pub and smoothie café that offer alternative food venues to the campus dining hall. An art gallery and music and dance studios give the student artists a place to showcase their craft. A 350 seat ballroom and dividable meeting rooms offer multipurpose use for student organizations and groups. The overall character and themes of each of the program spaces evoke the proud heritage of the University in a contemporary and modern architectural language that builds on the ‘Hoya Saxa’ identity of Georgetown and adds to the many interpretations of its Latin root in built form.
The City University of New York
Medgar Evers College Library
Set within the existing Bedford building of The City University of New York, the Medgar Evers College Library transforms an existing 45,000 square foot traditional library into a modern information commons. A new addition, located adjacent to the library, adds a glassy 2,000 square foot welcome center that gives the library a more civic presence on the street while providing new front door to the College along Bedford Avenue.
The concept for the renovation is inspired by illuminated manuscripts and their modern counterpart, the computer screen. Treating each interior surface as a bright reflective page, the renovation transforms the former dark and shadowy space into a bright and airy learning environment, taking advantage of an existing north-facing two-story glass wall to admit light deep within the building. Natural light enters the three story space from the north facing windows and an overhead skylight to illuminate the space frame, interior surfaces, sculptural stair, group study rooms and offices. A new three-story opening along the north facade and new sculptural staircase physically and visually link all three levels. This opening increases the legibility of the space and the building’s clarity by allowing visitors to see the various program functions of the library at entry. The result is a light-filled inspiring information commons with adjacent study and classroom spaces.
Newark Housing Authority
Training Recreation Education Center
The Training Recreation Education Center (TREC) is a recreation and education community center in a residential neighborhood boarding Weequahic Park in Newark, New Jersey. Inspired by the geometric collision of the urban grid of the city adjacent to the Park, the building’s form is two interlocking triangles each representing a portion of the city at the shift in the grid around the park. The result is an iconic building formed by two triangular wedges next to each other. One wedge is open and transparent at the meetings and classrooms. The other wedge is solid and opaque at the gymnasium and recreation functions. This iconic community center is intended to be the anchor for the adjacent community and rejuvenate housing.
Suffolk County Community College
Grant Campus Learning Resource Center
The Learning Resource Center at the Grant Campus of Suffolk County Community College is a prism for illuminating the interior spaces during the day and a beacon for illuminating the campus during the night. A simple nine square cube deploys the library program on two floors. Portions of the cube are removed or expanded to allow natural light to penetrate deep within the building, thus the majority of spaces have access to day light and view throughout the facility. A central lantern houses the information commons, the collaborative learning room of the college, and rises above the roof line of the library to become a visible beacon or cupola on the campus. The lantern can be clearly seen from any part of the academic mall or from the east and west parking lots. In addition, a portion of the second floor is removed on the south side of the building to allow sunlight deep within the building and to create a green roof garden for outdoor reading and study during pleasant weather.