Constancy & Change
“Memory and Invention. . . . All art and all periods must work within this spectrum. There is always memory. There is always invention. The question is the relationship between the two. The tension between them is where the energy comes from.”
—Robert Campbell, “Why Don’t the Rest of Us Like the Buildings the Architects Like?,” Bulletin of the American Academy (Summer 2004)
Robert Campbell’s statement and the article from which it is taken reveal something fundamental about MSR’s culture and values. It concisely summarizes the fundamental relationship in architecture between memory and invention, between constancy and change, between what exists and what can be imagined. We call it old/new. It applies as much to wholly new projects, which intentionally or not interact with their existing context, as it does to renovations, additions, and adaptive reuse, where the new directly interacts with existing fabric. I have come to see how it also applies broadly to many aspects of life and in particular the life of an architectural firm.
In 1981, Jeff Scherer, Garth Rockcastle, and I formed Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd. (MSR). We came together around our shared passion for architecture in all its manifestations: wonderfully built places we experienced, stimulating intellectual ideas explored in the academic environment, and the challenges of practicing architecture. This passion bonded us—even as the strength and diversity of our individual ideas and approaches to projects challenged each other. The common desire for success and high quality work united us. Our individual core beliefs about architecture evolved slowly even as a feisty collaboration led us to fresh solutions beyond our individual horizons. A studio culture based on open-mindedness and accepting diverse ideas grew, and we learned to listen to and challenge our clients as we did each other.
Jeff, Garth, and I were trained in modernism, which was being aggressively and contentiously challenged by postmodernism when we started the firm in the early 1980s. Ironically, modernism came to mean memory, and postmodernism’s renewed interest in historical ideas became invention. It was an energized and contentious time in architecture, and although MSR did not embrace the stylistic excesses, we loved the debate. Postmodernism faded, but architecture changed. Three aspects of that change shaped the firm’s approach to projects. First, modernism’s sometimes reductionist, highly rational concerns of function, structure, and technology were leavened by narrative and emotional ideas, symbolism, and a desire for visual delight. Second, the critical importance of context in shaping architecture was reenergized, and we embraced responsiveness to place-specific physicality as well as the myth and memory associated with a place. Third, working with clients and internally, we sought inclusion, multiple readings, richness rather than minimalism, and cultural expansion. The interplay of existing and new, constancy and change, convention and invention, are manifest in each of these aspects.
As the firm approached its 20th year, Jeff, Garth, and I began to discuss our own personal futures and that of the firm in a new light. Our first mission statement had challenged MSR to be “A self-renewing practice: A self-renewing practice has two meanings, each reinforcing the other. Internally, it means a place in which the practice of architecture is continually inspiring—giving a daily sense of purpose and energy to our work. Externally, it means that the work we produce embodies the quality, worthiness, and grace that bring more opportunities to create.” We had by then firmly established a successful culture, reputation, identity, and substantial body of award-winning work. We saw renewal (change) as the necessary activating agent played against these more stable (constant) aspects of the firm. This interaction would regularly renew our vitality—reenergizing, refocusing, and repositioning the firm for current circumstances in the profession, economy, and culture.
MSR has had hundreds of talented and dedicated employees and colleagues over the years. Many of them have moved on to start their own firms or become leaders in established firms. The natural turnover of staff has always been a catalyst for change. Sharing ownership and leadership with a new generation of architects and designers is a conscious strategy for renewal, and today MSR has eight owners with an approximately equal stake in the firm: the three founders and five supremely talented and dedicated next generation leaders. Matt Kruntorad, Traci Lesneski, Paul Mellblom, Jack Poling, and Josh Stowers are wonderful colleagues, and with them the firm, as it always has, is evolving and our mission of self-renewal is advanced. These five principals now manage the firm’s day-to-day affairs: running the business and providing marketing leadership and technological advancement. All eight principals—including the three founders and five next generation leaders—are involved with project work and marketing. For me, it is freeing to have more time to work on what I enjoy the most—designing projects. All of us strive to develop and advance MSR as a leading quality design firm. I couldn’t be more pleased about our current leadership and am deeply excited about the future of MSR.