William Sharples co-founded SHoP Architects more than 20 years ago, the New York-based design firm behind high profile projects including Uber’s headquarters, Google’s Silicon Valley campus, and the 44-level twin-tower Collins Arch development in the heart of Melbourne CBD.
But rewind to the 1980s. It was after studying to become a structural engineer and subsequently working in the profession for almost a decade, Sharples realised he wasn’t satisfied with the outcomes of many of the projects he’d been involved on.
Craving greater control over a building’s architectural outcome, he went back to school to gain his masters in architecture.
And since following the call, what does he love most about the craft?
“The fact is, I just love problem solving,” Sharples told The Urban Developer.
“There are new problems every day with architecture. It’s spatial, it’s data driven.
“At the same time, we’re also understanding proportion and great placemaking, and really addressing real world problems such as climate change and the housing crisis.
“These are all things that really drive not only me but all of us at SHoP.”
How can design change the world?
Well, we like to believe that we can save the world!
I mean, we have some serious issues and it really is up to our profession to solve, or try to address as much as possible, issues of housing the population and producing designs that also address the economics of that. It must be affordable. How do we design something that encompasses all the values that I’ve talked about but at the same time anyone can have access to?
The other major issue is that of climate change; we take that very seriously.
As creators in the built environment, we’re aware these buildings and spaces will live on long after we will. What’s your view or philosophy on your own urban legacy?
Our buildings age gracefully.
It’s all about something that is well made; it wears and patinas in a way that enhances its beauty. We like to apply authentic materials – terracotta, stone, metal, brick – in a way that is more grounded and substantial.
In the case of 447 Collins, we incorporated huge, pre-cast elements that support this substantial building and allow the building to scale itself to the pedestrian experience. We then used stainless steel and glass to break down the scale of the building in terms of its texture.
SHoP has been involved in projects, including Uber’s HQ, Google’s Silicon Valley campus, the Botswana Innovation Hub, the Barclays Center, 111 W 57th St. and as mentioned Melbourne's 447 Collins, what are the highlights of your career journey to date?
For me, the highlight is really that I don’t see work and life as two separate things.
I have interests – I sail, my brother and I collect cars, we love aerospace – and these all have a huge impact in terms of how we think about design, craft and technology.
When you come into the office, you see more models of airplanes and cars than you see of buildings, so there’s very much a blur between our personal interests and how they blend into how we approach problem solving.
We don’t necessarily look at the AEC industries for solutions, we look to other industries such as aerospace, automotive and industrial design.
So, for me, the great highlight of my career has been that I get to combine all the things I love on a daily basis and in such a creative and intellectually stimulating way.SHoP co-founder Bill Sharples
Darkest moment, or biggest professional struggle?
The two darkest moments have been September 11 and the mortgage crisis of 2008.
September 11, as New Yorkers affected by the disaster, and also as architects, professionally, because we could really see that architecture failed us that day.
Buildings should be safely designed in such a way that an event like that is never able to happen again.
In the case of the mortgage crisis, we didn’t have a portfolio that was diversified enough, and as a result, we lost half of our staff. We learned that it was important to develop a portfolio that didn’t rely on one marketplace and one location.
In this case, we relied on the residential New York market. Now, we have a diversified portfolio that is roughly a third residential, and we also focus on work outside of New York – we have projects in Europe, Central America, Africa, East Asia, and, of course, Australia.
Buildings should be safely designed in such a way that an event like that is never able to happen again.Bill Sharples, on September 11
You’ve lectured widely, including Cornell and Yale University, as a teacher in this space can you name someone bringing something innovative to the field that you’re most excited about?
My influences tend to be outside the realm of architecture.
I enjoy auto racing, specifically Formula 1, and the engineering design behind that is very influential.
One specific Formula 1 engineer that comes to mind is Adrian Newey, a British engineer who is currently the CTO of the Red Bull Racing team.
What is new in the space of design and architecture you are most excited about?
Without a doubt it’s modular, pre-fab and CLT. We are very excited about what’s to come in this space.
SHoP’s message centres on the unity of technological invention, artistic inspiration and public responsibility, unpack this — how do these realms meet in a meaningful way?
I think, for SHoP, technology enables us to not only address issues of resiliency, from an environmental standpoint, but also social challenges and to create something people are excited about and is beautiful.
It’s a holistic process: we’re not solving for one of these things, we’re solving for all of them. It’s not something that’s additive.
Technology for us is a performance-driven process, we like to act on data, but we also tie that to inspiration, proportion, things that have always driven us as designers: making things that are beautiful and inspire joy.
We find that when you create great space, you create something that people want to be in contact with; they want to take care of it, and for us that is the most sustainable aspect.
We don’t produce something that is a throw-away, it’s not something that is consumable, it’s something that has this ability to evolve over time, not only in terms of its aesthetic materiality but also in terms of visibility and performance.
And finally, a few fun facts...
Name someone that inspires you?
Kelly Johnson, aerospace designer. He had no limits and he knew how to manage ideas with his team and client.
A building or project that inspires you?
The Woolworth building, where we have our offices, is one that inspires me. The bones of the building completely inspire us in terms of how buildings are made. It has one of the most beautiful lobbies in the world. It was the first skyscraper of New York.
And who are you looking forward to meeting at Urbanity?
It’s difficult to choose just one person. I’m looking forward to experiencing Urbanity for the first time, and all that the conference has to offer. We love working in Australia and are always excited to network and learn more about designing here.