How architecture firms name themselves.

What we build.
Nov. 14 2007 7:34 AM

Building a Brand

How architecture firms name themselves.

While most architectural firms are known simply as John Doe & Partners (or John Doe + Partners, plus signs having replaced ampersands among the smart set), over the last several decades architectural practices with names such as Mecanoo, UNStudio, and OMA have appeared—and that's just in Holland. What's going on?

When the American Institute of Architects was founded in 1857, architecture was not yet considered a profession—it was one step up from carpentry and contracting. To be taken seriously by clients, architects followed the practice of law firms—a well-established profession—and strung together the names of the principal partners. This produced Adler & Sullivan, Burnham & Root, Carrère & Hastings, and that powerhouse, McKim, Mead & White. It sounded a bit stodgy, but also reliable and, above all, respectable.

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Sometime in the 1950s, a few larger architectural firms started using initials instead of names. Streamlined initials carried the cachet of efficiency and no-nonsense, just like—well, IBM. I don't know which architectural firm first used initials, but the best-known was Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, or SOM. During the 1950s, SOM was the leading corporate architectural practice in the country, and its offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco produced outstanding buildings such as Lever House, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the John Hancock Center in Chicago. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill began in 1936, but over time the original founders were replaced by a later generation—Gordon Bunshaft, Walter Netsch, Bruce Graham—and using initials neatly solved the delicate issue of succession. The faceless initials underline the collective and collaborative nature of large-scale architectural practices. URS, HOK, and RTKL—to name only a few of the country's largest firms—are no longer individual offices but international organizations.

During the swinging '60s, particularly in Europe, another naming fashion took hold. You read about these firms in Domus and Architectural Design: Archigram in London, Superstudio and Archizoom in Florence, Haus-Rucker-Co in Vienna. The trendy monikers made up for the fact that these fledgling firms created more drawings than actual buildings. Impatient to make a name for themselves, the young designers did the next best thing—they made up names, usually names that made them sound both arty and avant-garde. One of the first American architectural firms—certainly the most prominent—to adopt a fanciful name was Morphosis, founded by Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi in Los Angeles in 1972. It sounded a bit like one of those bands of the '60s—Procol Harum or Iron Butterfly.

Fanciful firm names have become de rigueur for young architects who want to be seen as being on the cutting edge of design: Asymptote, Allied Works, Office dA, Studio/Gang, and, one of my favorites, a Brooklyn firm called noroof architects. The irrepressible Rem Koolhaas actually has it both ways; he has adopted a serious-sounding organizational name, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, whose corporate initials—OMA—sound like a Buddhist mantra (and the German for grandma). What's going on? Another shift. Not satisfied with being perceived as respectable or corporate professionals, these architects want to be seen as subversive artists, bad boys—and girls—with laser cutters.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.