Renegade Architecture | By Saundra Marcel

Renegade Architecture

These Designers can't call themselves architects. Yet they've gone to school, logged the hours, and scored the jobs necessary to qualify them for the title. So, what's the holdup?

These four designers thought they'd become something else. All four went to traditional architecture school, and all four had grand plans to follow in the hard worn footsteps of the many greats that had come before them. But Carrie Dessertine, Dana Jaasund, Matthew Grzywinski, and Amador Pons all ended up taking unconventional routes to their present career paths. And despite doing things a little differently--or maybe because of it--these four have all turned out just fine. More than fine. They're building and designing, and living the dream. But is the road less traveled really the best way for these designers to become the next starchitects? Especially if they're not really architects at all?

Small Scale

Carrie Dessertine and Dana Jaasund, founders of Own Entity, don't make big buildings or brand-new buildings. They don't make buildings at all. They make interiors, focusing on the minutia of much smaller spaces, and picking up where an architect's work typically ends.

What makes Own Entity different from traditional interior design firms is not just their background, but their approach. They've had training in the large scale; they know building codes, structural constraints, and construction possibilities. But having practiced for more than ten years at both large and small architecture firms, they've learned that interior design suits them. "There was something about the way we approached projects and materials that hinted our attention spans were better suited for a smaller scale. When you study under famous architects you don't even think about what else there is in the design industry. That is, until you're in an office and confronted with the task of designing a beautiful door handle, as opposed to the facade of a building. Something fits better about it," Dessertine says. "We see our projects through the more intimate scale of human experience. And sometimes it's a huge advantage to ignore constraints altogether and just see what develops organically. Then when it needs to weave its way into the realistic, built world, we can adapt."

Some might call Own Entity's work "trendy," but Dessertine and Jaasund aren't among them. Because for these two, being "trendy" means being a follower--seeing "cool" and repeating it, and that's not what they do. They humbly acknowledge the way things are supposed to be and then do it just a little bit differently. Common materials are often used in uncommon ways, like canvas walls and upside-down porcelain lampshades. Their spaces are designed to feel inclusive and accessible, and frankly, comfortable. At the Anfora Wine Bar in Manhattan's West Village, one of their first projects together, patrons chatter unhurriedly, enveloped in an interior that kindly commands them to slow down. Relax. Their newest project is located in the posh Tribeca neighborhood, a restaurant called Super Linda. Own Entity was challenged to turn an old Greek diner into a hip Latin-fusion hot spot. It was a gut renovation, and the team completely recreated the space with all new surfaces, new lighting, and new furniture, for a whole new look. It is now a fun and playful place to dine. For Dessertine and Jaasund , making these kinds of special experiences are what makes designing for a smaller scale so rewarding.

Big Buildings

Seven years ago, Matthew Grzywinski and Amador Pons joined forces to design Hotel on Rivington, an unapologetic 27-story glass tower on Manhattan's Lower East Side. They were only 27-years-old. And though it's unusual for such a junior team to win such a prized project, their naiveté and nerve produced something with sass.

Confident in their combined abilities and willing to give every possible ounce of their combined effort, Grzywinski and Pons managed to convince the project's developers that they were up to the task. "We were too young to know that we were too young," Grzywinski says. It might have been a risky prospect for everyone involved, but they pulled it off, proving that expertise can, indeed, precede experience. Today, they're done more than 20 projects together, producing four more new construction buildings in New York City, making them among the youngest to alter the Manhattan skyline.

And actually, their youthfulness is awfully convenient when the project is a swank metropolitan hotel. Their latest commission is the brand-new Nolitan, another building located in another gritty-on-the-verge-of-trendy Manhattan neighborhood. Just opened this summer, the destination promises an infiltration of newer, hipper, and younger crowds to the area. And these two certainly look like they'd be right at home with that crowd because, well, they are. "Usually, by the time you're licensed to do your own work, you're all dried up," says Grzywinski. So while most 'traditional' architects in this age bracket are still gruelingly paying their dues at large firms with punishing hours and torturous tasks, Grzywinki and Pons have been making it--literally getting out there and realizing their visions.

Doing it Differently--Worth it, or Risky?

At the moment, none of these four designers can even call themselves architects. Despite undergraduate and graduate training from accredited universities, years of internships and work experience, and passing a series of difficult exams, the long and arduous path of becoming "licensed" remains elusive.

J. David Hoglund is president Perkins Eastman, which employs over 150 licensed architects and is the second-largest architecture firm in New York City. Hoglund is credentialed as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, an honor bestowed on fewer than 2% of architects in the United States, and is also a LEED Accredited Professional in green building practices. He knows the licensing process well and confirms that it is "absolutely necessary as a professional standard." But he stipulates: "I am concerned that the process has become so lengthly and expensive that it has discouraged young professionals from pursuing licensure; and therefore the ability to truly be called 'Architect." Among the requirements for certification is interning for up to eight years under accredited professionals, keeping careful track of hours spent in different aspects of the field, and the hardest part, for many, reporting those hours every six months to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards The NCARB charges fees for everything: to be an intern, to take the required exams, to apply for certification, and an annual renewal once status in conferred. Students of architecture spend thousands of dollars to get the title, and once they have it, thousands more to maintain.

But those who make the rules don't think they're too demanding. Architect John Sorrenti, director of the NCARB for the New York region, says "we've simplified the process in this state, and the six-month rule is not a hindrance, but a benefit. It is so much easier now to keep records." He also reports that the organization has taken steps to make the seven-part examination process easier, with more testing centers and the opportunity to begin test-taking earlier than before. The numbers back up his claim: in 2005 there were 504 licenses granted to architects in New York State, and in 2010 the number had increased to 683.

The Own Entity duo chooses to remain in a state of suspension. "Like anything else that's hard to complete, people 'fall off' along the way, and are sometimes more inspired by other aspects of the field," says Dessertine. At the University of Virginia, where they completed undergraduate work together, their trajectory had been the same as everyone else, entrenched in all of the established ideals and traditions of the trade. But real-world experience proved to be a greater teacher, opening their eyes to bigger possibilities of the profession. The pair began to understand that there could, in fact, be alternate paths than just the one they were taught. "Today, there is a lot more specialization among design firms," says Jaasund. More possibilities. For Dessertine, a turning point in her career was shortly after finishing graduate school at the University of Michigan. "I was just doing what I was attracted to, and after a few years I realized: I wasn't actually doing architecture anymore, not in the traditional sense. And I didn't really care anymore about logging hours." When Dessertine, and later Jaasund, accepted positions at a New York-based design firm without licensed architects on staff to apprentice under, they knew that the door to getting certified had truly closed. Own Entity maintains that it was a strategic decision to abandon the pursuit, since changing scale to work on interiors meant that they no longer needed to endure the rigorous architectural certification process. But it was also a logistical problem: to become licensed you need to work with others who are licensed.

For Grzywinski and Pons, there's nothing strategic about their current position, and it's one that causes much angst. "Whether we like it or not, it's a branding of legitimacy," says Pons, who knows that becoming licensed is essential. "It's a protection. We have huge liabilities and a huge responsibility." Grzywinski is on the track to receiving his license, but Pons is actually right on the finish line. Only one checkmark from the prize, he is very, very close to being deemed an official architect. Although the designers are capable and talented, the logistics of being unlicensed is a nightmare. "Everything is by the book," says Pons. Their clients know their status, every box is checked, every piece of paperwork filed, and every single plan, sketch, and idea must be reviewed and signed off on by a licensed architect for every project. In New York City, building codes require that a true architect be held accountable for projects that involve structural changes, and without one the building owner can incur significant fines. The solution is to have both. Grzywinski and Pons cannot legally put their name on a permit, so they must work with someone else who can. Own Entity does the exact same thing. "It can be a little nerve-wracking actually, in the beginning with potential clients," says Jaasund. "We have to explain to them that we cannot take the place of their architect, so they have to hire two teams." Dessertine struggles to define this unique relationship. "It's a collaboration of 'designer-architects' and 'official-architects," she explains. "Except we can't use the 'A' word."

While Grzywinski and Pons may be young for their accomplishments, they are getting a bit old for this particular pursuit; most complete the requirements within ten years post graduation. "I didn't drink the Cool-Aid early on," says Pons, who spent summers off from the School of Architecture at Syracuse University working in construction management while his peers were interning for free. "I came back flush, and I learned how to build."

Grzywinski got a late start for another reason. If this tall, hunky 33-year-old looks like he should be posing on catwalks, that's because he does. Or rather, he did. Grzywinski spent time abroad as a model before returning to his professional roots. "The opportunity was there. I did it. I saw the world and traveled to many places," he says. It was his graduate school, in a sense. Taking full advantage of the moment, Grzywinski traveled with an architect's eye; seeing, studying, taking notes, and developing a style that is now reflected in his work.

Despite having done it differently, both Grzywinski and Pons maintain that the purpose of the professional internship process is sound and necessary. By now they have more than paid their dues and logged their hours. And Pons admits something else: "I was a little cocky, actually."

What's Next

The future for Own Entity means launching their own product lines of lighting fixtures, household accessories, and cabinet hardware. Eventually they want to design furniture. They will continue to push creative bounds and stay inspired. They describe themselves as an anomaly in the market, with a unique mission and an idiosyncratic style that varies from project to project. It's no surprise that clients love them. The Dessertine and Jaasund duo--who are also best friends--are pensive and quietly confident, attuned to reading the other people's personalities. Work life and personal life are as interchangeable as their sentences, friends become clients, and clients become friends.

Grzywinski and Pons are going to keep us guessing. Their most pressing goal is to get registered and become official. They'll continue to design super cool buildings with the unique flair that has earned them accolades. They hope to someday return to academia, and an ultimate achievement would be to build something for the common good, like a school or infrastructure. In retrospect, Pons says that he might have done things just a little differently. Less attitude early-on and more concern for title-getting. But both partners are also incredibly proud of their work, and feel both glad and lucky that doors have opened for them. "I don't know anyone else that's doing what we're doing right now," says Pons. They acknowledge easily that an alternate entrance wouldn't have led them to the same place, and they can't imagine being anywhere else.

These four designers share an ability to dream, and then do. Sure, maybe if we had caught up with them ten years ago they couldn't have foretold these exact dreams. Each of them have had their own winds in the road, bumps along the way, and turning points where a single decision set upon them a new course. But their success is built on genuine talent and very hard work, and they are also risk-takers. Own Entity wanted to run a business, so they said goodbye to their much safer jobs and made a business. Grzywinski and Pons were offered a make-or-break project at a young age, and they decided to make the most of it. The four have continued to take on more work and are winning more accolades. So it seems, the risks have been getting rewards.

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