International Conference “Architecture and Bureaucracy”
Organizational Signature: Norms and Forms in Late Twentieth Century US Architectural Practice
Conference Presentation, October 2019


In the late twentieth century US, increasing specialization in the construction field sapped the influence architects had over the realization of their designs, even as claims to individual authorship became ever more important for market competitiveness. At the same time, the emergence of new specializations and new roles within firms showed that changes were nascent in the then-conventional definition of the architect as a generalist. As a result, in writing the history of this period we must adjust our conception of “the architect” to include not only those remaining generalists at the top of the professional hierarchy, but also those who translate design into a constructed object—project managers, spec writers, draftspersons, and interior designers. We must write of an architecture that is undecided beyond the schematic design phase, an object that evolves from start to finish. In this paper I argued that instead of a design signature, historians should work to distill an organizational one, asking how a particular firm responded to challenges posed by specialization and administration rather than site or building type. As a demonstration of this method, the paper drew from archival research into a key project by the important late modernist architecture firm Gunnar Birkerts and Associates, a building for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Minnesota, completed in 1973. Despite inheriting deeply ingrained professional knowledge through the contracts and document formats they used, the architects had to make sense of unfamiliar management and scheduling protocols like the Critical Path Method, as well as an unfamiliar project delivery method that included new roles like Construction Manager and Interior Designer.

Construction photograph showing steel frame and suspension structure for Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis building designed by Gunnar Birkerts and Associates. Photograph by Balthazar Korab.