OfficeUS Interview with Peter Zellner

On 16 June 2014, as part of our special program for “Bodies and Architecture” at KCHUNG radio, I sat down with Peter Zellner to discuss a range of issues we are grappling with at OfficeUS… The resulting conversation turned out to be full of provocative ideas and proposals for how architecture can be thought and practiced today. Here’s the transcript of this thoroughly anti-nostalgic and anti-heroic talk: surely a sign of promise for the profession.




I’m sitting in a small, very functional meeting room, at the headquarters of AECOM in Los Angeles where I just had a short but very intense tour with Peter Zellner, the Principal and Studio Design Leader for AECOM Southern California. Peter Zellner, who I know for a few years now, dear friend, took up this post 6 months ago marking a pretty radical shift from being a sole practitioner, where he led his own firm, ZELLNERPLUS, in a series of very interesting, subtle, elaborate and sophisticated projects; boutique projects such as art galleries, houses, elite works. And now he runs a corporate office, so he is really an interesting character and I think a great person to start our “Best Practices” week at OfficeUS. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for OfficeUS, Peter.



Thank you Manuel, it’s a very nice introduction and it’s nice to see you here in Los Angeles after catching up briefly at the Biennale. So yeah, all of that is correct — guilty as charged.



No guilt charged! It would be interesting to know a little bit more about two things: obviously one is that not only were you a sole practitioner running very careful projects through ten years of individual practice, but you were also very involved in academia, and I believe you’re still teaching at SCI-Arc. So that’s one thing, the other thing is if you could talk a little bit about the structure of AECOM. Very broadly: what it is, when it was started, how it works.



Yes, I have made a transition from being largely what in this world would be termed a “boutique practitioner” and an academic, to working inside an architecture practice that is an important component of a very large infrastructure firm.


AECOM describes itself as a technology services provider,


and one of the largest infrastructure, let’s say, delivery organizations. What that means in practical terms is that our architecture group sits within a business line that is referred to as “Buildings and Places.” B+P incorporates everything within the urban environment from architecture to interiors, landscape architecture, urban planning, master planning, but also groups like Design Planning and Economics, and Environmental groups that conduct EIRs and so forth. Some of that work would involve let’s say not pure design per se, but economic analysis, cost analysis, and program analysis. B+P aligns with other business lines, such as transportation, water, and energy… it’s a very long list, but essentially if there’s any component of the built environment, AECOM is involved at some level. I think what is also fascinating is that AECOM is also organized by global regions. I sit with the Americas; I’m in the West region of the North American part of the Americas, but AECOM is organized around global regions so we have a long-standing presence in Asia, in the Middle East, in Europe as well as Africa. AECOM itself grew out of a series mergers and acquisitions. Many of the offices are extensions of legacy firms. The Los Angeles office of AECOM is the old DMJM, which was a kind of precursor in a way of what we call Integrated Services Delivery. DMJM was involved in everything from Aviation to Civic Buildings. The history of AECOM can be found on our website, but essentially it’s grown through expanding into different regions, largely through the process of acquiring significant players in regions and businesses. I’m an organic hire, which is something new, at least in AECOM Los Angeles, meaning that I’ve been brought into the firm without a pure acquisition and that is the case for Ross Weimer, who hired me, who is now the head of architecture for the Americas, who came to AECOM from SOM. So we’re both kind of new entities in some ways to the organization. Allison Williams, who is now our design director for California, also came to AECOM via SOM and Perkins & Will. So this is kind of a new strategy in terms of thinking out ways of growing our practice lines by bringing in leadership with or without significant corporate work experience. That said prior to my years in private practice I was with Gensler Consulting in LA and NY as well as Davis Brody Bond.



What percentage, roughly, of the work AECOM does is let’s say pure architecture — buildings — out of this mass of infrastructural projects? Is it a small percentage, a majority…?



Well that’s hard to answer because when we say “pure architecture” we’re referring to things that reside within our architecture group alone, but we have architects who sit within our transportation and transit groups, within our bridge groups, so architecture is actually very dispersed throughout the organization.  There are AECOM architects working on rail projects in Saudi Arabia, architects sitting with infrastructure groups in Asia, so it’s difficult actually to nominate a number because all of it ultimately you could describe as architecture.



Right, but here we sit in a kind of design studio; the thing I’ve just seen is clearly an architecture office. So are there also engineers sitting here with you? Does the set up work both ways?



There are, and in our California Region we have something called our High Performance Buildings Group, which is in our Orange office and is lead by a great Engineer named Alastair MacGregor. We’re learning to work increasingly in collaboration with them.


The goal is always to be able to go to a client and offer them what is called the full design-build-finance-operate-manage-maintain model (DBFOM).


In some recent pursuits we have been able to integrate everything from design, cost analysis, engineering, to financing. This is another element of AECOM that’s really interesting, because there’s a “capital”group (ACAP) that can actually put equity into a development deck.



Does that mean that AECOM can finance its own developments?



AECOM is not a developer per se, but we have a funding source, inside of AECOM, that can actually partner with our clients to help support their projects.



Is that something that’s been happening from the beginning of AECOM?



No, this is relatively new. ACAP is pretty fresh, it works on the private side, so you can look at Corporate/Commercial developments, as well as developments on the public side, with P3 (Public-Private Partnerships). So these are kind of different models of how projects are rolled out. What’s interesting to me, as an architect, is that, and one of the reasons I suppose to get to your original question — or to get to the question that’s at the bottom of this interview — is


why would you leave your life as an academic and as an independent designer to join a very large Fortune 300 company?


And the answer is that AECOM is at the forefront of thinking about how the environment and spatial products are delivered. As an architect you have the ability to really not just be at the receiving end of the program or the receiving end of the master plan, but actually to be engaged in its conception, and


to have a place at the table. For me I think that is at a minimum a very interesting alternative to other more “autonomous” models of practice.



I suppose you’re embedded in a much richer, broader and complicated infrastructure, rather than being the person that puts the cherry on the top of the cake, which you could say is in many ways the role of the sole practitioner doing boutique projects, where you’re really just looking at surfaces, geometries, and doing something very superficial in the end. Even though you can obviously do great projects that way, like you have done in the past. But for me your move is very interesting because I do think that if we want to have a little bit more agency and — not even agency, but understanding — of how the city is made today, we need to engage with these massive processes of which you’ve just talked about. Whether it’s financing, political processes, or global logistical processes — which is something we are very interested in at OfficeUS, as you saw in Venice. Our project is very much to reflect on architecture’s role in globalization. So it’s interesting that AECOM is a real global player at this level (if not the global player), and I wonder in that sense, how you can really critically engage this; how do you perceive the relationship of corporate globalization and architecture, the argument that cities are becoming more homogenized and exclusionary. There is a critical discourse around this, also around the privatization of urban processes, which are complicated, difficult and thorny issues. But at the same time, I guess, issues and phenomena that as architects we ought to have a stake in or a position towards, otherwise we risk having neither agency (however limited) nor actual understanding. So, I wonder if you can talk a little bit to that, maybe also with reference to any specific project you might have at the moment. How do you see the role of the architect within this vast network of global processes of development?



Well, the cherry at the top is actually not insignificant, because the cherry is ultimately what the public has to live with. I think what’s interesting inside a very large organization like AECOM that primarily deals with very large scale logistics, is that the ability to design and visualize and communicate, what architects do, creates the kind of public value that is crucial for us to winning projects.


Design is not just “added value” per se, but it can be deeply integrated and embedded at every step along the decision-making path.


What’s interesting is that large organizations increasingly seek value for “design intelligence” because, if nothing else, it’s a means of convincing communities and governments of the value of some particular change.


When you’re making large-scale changes I think that the aspects of the public-private relationship become very crucial because, particularly in developed countries, the public is deeply engaged in and capable of wrecking any project at a certain scale.


So I think there are a couple of things here to discuss: one is the sort of assumption that large organizations can’t work for the public good and two that large scale organizations can’t deliver great design. I think those are both questionable assumptions. I think you would find inside of AECOM that there are a number of Public-Private Partnerships in which the relationship between AECOM and let’s say the client isn’t blurred, and they’re both on the same page in terms of how to deliver a better facility. So a local example would be something like the Long Beach Courthouse that we just completed, which is a P3 project, in which a kind of integrated project delivery system guaranteed not only faster and more economic delivery, but was also used to get the public side to be more engaged in being partners in the project’s delivery.


That doesn’t directly answer your question because I think that there’s a certain assumption underlying your question which is that for architects to do good work you have to have some sort of critical, e.g. “resistive” kind of positions within, let’s say, global systems. That position would be identified and attached to a particular ideology of critique and that critique would produce alternatives that would be autonomous and detached from let’s say the force majeure that is kind of impressed on the world by global capital. And to that, I would say two things:


one, that’s a fallacyIf you look at the majority of the work that was done in the 1960s and 70s by the avant-gardes; that research has been directly applied to products such as Prada, to the development of major international museum chains like the Guggenheim, so I think there’s also a question about the utility of resistance when in the end the research inevitably finds its way back into the mainstream. And secondly I think any particular claims these days as to the outsider status of the avant-garde have to be deeply questioned because it’s been so absorbed itself. So my attitude would be that jumping in, willfully and knowingly, as a means of finding a way to engage a system would be much better than pretending to be on the outside but actually being sponsored by the very thing that you claim to critique.




I think that’s a very eloquent response and I’m very interested in this “cherry on the top of the cake” issue because we’ve had a kind of gloating of cherries in the last 20 years, more or less, and architects have used these cherries to a large degree as a way not to engage with these much more difficult, much more pervasive, and in a way much more hegemonic processes you are involved with now: the making of cities, the making of infrastructure, the working across different disciplines of the built environment and not just, let’s say, “pure design.” So your move is, I think, very brave, and very necessary exactly for the reasons you’ve mentioned: not to reify the divide between let’s say a pure critical practice which declares itself as autonomous and can therefore disregard the realities all around it; realities that allow the so-called detached position to exist in the first place. So in this sense, you’ve displaced the usual architectural heroism (the myth of the avant-garde) towards an emerging contemporary architectural norm-core, which is definitely an interesting proposition and you’re kind of establishing yourself there. And I wonder, within this realm, the question is: have you taken this position a little bit as a “trojan horse” in the sense of opening up architecture to these issues that it usually doesn’t want to talk about? And then, going back to the academic project, how does your connection to SCI-Arc relate to your position at AECOM — are they two worlds that you’re trying to bridge somehow?



I think that with any process of hybridization the question is whether either or both parties survive the transformation. And so, I suppose the degree to which the transformation takes hold, and thrives is yet to be seen, since I’m only six months into it. But I will say this: I was approached by Ross Weimer to run the Los Angeles office. Ross is an individual who spent most his professional life at SOM, which for me is one of the best examples of a firm that has managed to balance let’s say commerce and ideas, very successfully, for the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s still a great model, because I think SOM has managed to hold on to its virtues as an ideas factory while pursuing financially, as opposed to culturally, lucrative engagements. I said this in another venue recently:


I don’t understand why there continues to be some sort of a divide between commerce and art in architecture


— I think that’s a very traditional position and is one, certainly, that if you were to look at the Nikes and the Disneys and the AECOMs of the world, that kind of position just seems antique. I think the view is corrosive to architecture and it continues to perpetuate


this kind of dichotomy that I think serves the academic interests of our communities because it allows architecture schools to continue to operate in “resistance” while they themselves are actually engaged in pursuing let’s say the best dividends of the global riches of our planet. So for example you can see now that most schools survive through the importation of foreign capital that is foreign students with significant capital. And, at the same time schools are sort of factories for supplying talent to large firms. It’s totally circular. And so, to get to the question of where the “trojan horse” is: I don’t even know if there are any trojan horses anymore.


It’s a nice kind of conceit as a way of implanting one system into another, but my sense is that the artificial ecology that global finance has created around the demand for urban development in particular, and the means of aligning the resources that are necessary to delivering that, has completely eliminated these kind of divisions. So if you were to look at different contemporary projects, let’s say like ones


in the UAE, there are all sorts of players from all over the world there: Chinese financiers and developers, European high-end designers, Anglo-American construction delivery firms, imported and sometimes forced labor from the developing world… when you get in that world, it’s really quite messy, and there are fewer boundaries that one would imagine. So, I believe, rather than thinking of this model of getting over the castle walls, and then secretly beginning to kind of — I hate this word — “hack” the code so that somehow the system will collapse upon itself — these are like “Matrix” fantasies of revolution and models of counter-resistance and espionage that seem, again, really antique.


I think the more I look at the world through the lens of this organization I just start to see a real flatness and evenness and truthfully, a willingness actually to make better things. So


there is this kind of imagination or fantasy on the art side of architecture that somehow the things that get to market that are delivered by large organizations have no flavour or no personality because that’s the intention. The reality is that there just isn’t time — things move very fast. So one of the tricks, I think, inside large organizations is getting this notion of “design intelligence” in front of the process as quickly as possible so that you can find a way to deliver, let’s say, better products as opposed to just repeating the usual generic solutions.


But I don’t find, in my dealings I suppose, that there are people running around saying let’s make the most abominable space possible — this is a kind of fantasy that the avant-garde has…that somehow there are people dedicated to producing spaces of anonymity and “junkspace”… whatever. That’s just not the case, it’s just that


in the developing as in the developed world things go very fast — you have clients with a lot of capital who need solutions quickly; you have investors who don’t want to test a particular experimental idea, so they’re just going to roll out whatever was done successfully in some other site.


And so, it’s not to dismiss the thing, but to understand that the only way to engage it is to sort of understand it fundamentally as just another design problem. Which leads you back to the question of


what is it that architects actually do? Is it that we decorate capital, and I would hope that’s not the case — but that’s certainly been the case for the avant-garde for the last 15-20 years, the sort of gilding of the lily of the global financial success, whether it’s petroleum dollars or museum money or sports facility money, whatever that is — but if you were to say: look, there’s a whole series of other problems that can be engaged by architects and they occur at much more minute scale, and they require a very different intelligence which moves toward the norm-core solution, as opposed to the special solution, and that designing average things better is not only an enormous challenge but an incredibly rewarding thing to be doing at this point. We spent 20 years making special objects and we have entire legions of schools dedicated to the elaboration of hyper-articulate things that have very narrow audiences…that’s not my interest any more.




I think this is also very interesting in terms of your previous works, which are really very subtle works, and do engage in a very deep way with “the normal”; with really unspectacular geometries, materials… and so in a way your move could be seen as a scaling up of exactly the same attitude — just with many more resources, many more challenges, and much bigger scales.

I’d like us to talk for a second about something very mundane, which I couldn’t help thinking about during the little office tour you just gave me: the space of the office. This is perhaps a bit cliché, but how the space of the office itself, is let’s say a function or a variable of the kind of office culture we produce and we live in. And so I couldn’t stop looking at the cubicles, which are such a symbol of the twentieth century. AECOM’s office here has small cubicles, about 120cm tall separations where everyone has their own desk and their own computer. And obviously this is a different model than what you would get in a so-called avant-garde office which are usually completely open-plan. Is this something that you are considering too; the very mundane details of the day-to-day practice at the office, and how that interfaces with all these huge questions we’ve just been talking about?



Yes absolutely. It’s funny — I think part of my role here has been also the design of the culture at the office and beginning to make slow transformations and tweaks in the ways in which we work so I’ve kind of come up with a very management-consultant “wheel” that is made up of 5 elements: people, training, ideas, tools, media, and space. And so what we’re trying to figure out is what the ideal spatial paradigm would be for how we work together.


And the truth is that the open-plan is very efficient for smaller offices because it neutralizes the role of the individual and subjugates the role of the individual in some ways to the authority of the lead designer — and so it’s not actually as flat as you’d think, it’s actually much more vertical in terms of social relationships because there’s no space for the individual to hide.


The cubicle, on the other hand, is a kind of relic of the 1960s and 70s and so it’s something we’re looking at again. But as we start to transform this office we’re probably going to end up with a balance of spaces for private work and spaces for collaborative work… so there isn’t a perfect fit. We do have a group called “Strategy +” that’s the former DEGW that’s been looking at this very question for the last 30 years probably.



One question that came up in Venice during the opening talks was if schools are becoming more like offices or whether offices are becoming more like schools — and obviously we could think of the more so-called “radical” schools, such as SCI-Arc, which have a very different kind of atmosphere to a corporate office. Is that something that you’re interested in — transforming this office with different kind of working dynamics; not just spatially but also culturally?



Well, I think this is a larger problem for the architecture industry in general. It used to be, once upon a time, that offices were structured as pyramids and as you got closer to the top of the pyramid you had individuals who had accrued years of experience working with clients, working with cities, with project types… and they would work under the direction of a leader. So, seniority had to do really with a temporal relationship to the work and the workforce. And you still see this in a lot of bigger practices that we would associate with mastery in the field, so that would be the case, say, for


Zaha or Frank.


But the reality now is that the tooling that is required to move projects on quickly, and the skill sets that are five, ten, fifteen years old now, that clients are actually looking for, reside in a group of people that are mostly under the age of 35 or 40. So the trick now is to figure out how to balance the legitimate and I think necessary experience of senior staff who must make educated judgments about a project’s delivery, with the enormous capacity that sits in the junior bench. So


I’m finding that you build a very deep junior bench but then you have to have the wisdom to track and balance that with good judgments. But the situation is kind of upside down now — because really the question of where ideas come from, when you have this over-capacity of productive energy in the newest ranks within an organization, completely changes the dynamic of how you make work. It’s inversive to the old model in which ideas flowed from a master to a studio through a couple of filters.


The truth is now we’re pushing projects forward especially on these very tight deadlines on the corporate-commercial front — we just finished a design for a tower where the best idea for the ground planning came from a 4th year architecture student who applied an equiangular spiral diagram to the site and we said: that’s it. And of course


it’s part of a larger dialogue, it’s not undirected, but it’s not the 19th century atelier either, which ironically the avant-garde is very engaged in perpetuating.



So I think we have to let Peter go now as he has another meeting. Thank you very much for your time. We look forward to seeing the products and the processes that you set in motion in this new period.



Well thank you; you may not recognize them as being special though — they might just look like another part of the world!


  1. • Sean Billy Kizy:
    2014-07-09 14:10:21
    Most important interview I've ready in a very long time. Brilliantly critical insight by Peter. From the beauty of the mundane to the importance of the regular, it boasts a critique of so many design blogs and fetishes with frills.