Jargon Etc. Interviews Onion Flats

From bottom left: Patrick McDonald, Howard Steinberg, Timothy McDonald, Johnny McDonald,
the founding partners of Onion Flats

A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down and talk with the four founding partners of Onion Flats. For those of you who aren't yet familiar with the firm, Onion Flats is a Philadelphia based, family run and oriented design-build organization. The enterprise began the late 1990s when two brothers, Timothy and Patrick McDonald, decided to buy an abandoned building the in Old City section of Philadelphia and turn it into an art gallery (a project now referred to as the "Market Flats", shown in the last two images below). Since that first project, the company has grown exponentially (albeit almost accidentally), and in 2005, Tim and Patrick were joined in their efforts by brother Johnny McDonald and lifelong friend Howard Steinberg.

STABLE FLATS (in development) *

STABLE FLATS, interior communal walkway *

The work of Onion Flats offers a refreshing example of what can happen when a bold dream becomes so inextricably tied to certain realities that the two are inseparable and, in this case, one isn't compromised by the other. These guys are well aware of what it takes to build in today's economic, social, and political climates. Between the four of them and the others in their office, there exists a fundamental understanding of how a building can move past the drawing board to get contracted out, financed, put together, and ultimately sold to tenants. Each project is conceived of, constructed, and marketed completely in house through their three divisions: PLUMBOB (the architect), JIG (the builder), and ONION FLATS (the developer). And while most involved in architecture might shy away from the responsibilities, risks, and associated restrictions that can inevitably come from such an intimate involvement in the complex design-build process, the partners at Onion Flats see this involvement as a means of replacing the linear, detached design process used by many architects with a non-linear, comprehensive, and well-informed way of thinking that in many ways uses the hard financial, environmental, and societal realities of today as starting points for a multitude of effective and visionary projects.

THIN FLATS (recently completed) *

THIN FLATS, kitchen and stair *

Tim and Patrick McDonald standing in front of MARKET FLATS, their first project together *

MARKET FLATS, renovated interior *

In our discussion, the partners went into greater length and detail about their approach to design, building, and architecture, explaining why they believe it to be both necessary and useful, especially for those just entering into the workforce. They also shared their views on issues like sustainability, the economy, and education, elaborating on what each means not only to the architecture and building industries, but also to society in general and to Philadelphia, its new mayor, and his plan to go green.

To view the full transcript of the interview, please click on the download link below. Also, make sure to check out Onion Flats' website, where larger images and descriptions of their work can be found, and to take a look at Jargon Etc.'s recent coverage of the firm and their newly completed project, Thin Flats.

Many thanks to Onion Flats for their time and thoughts!

Full Onion Flats Interview Transcript

* photographs courtesy of the architect's website, http://www.onionflats.com/nl_onion.php


Gabriel A. Cuéllar said...

Jared, very nice interview! I appreciate the time and effort for this.

I learned a lot of about the approach that these guys take, and I think it's unique and admirable. You should've controlled the conversation more--I didn't get all my questions answered ; )

I interned for four summers a design-build firm, so I am sympathetic to many of the the themes here. The majority of the interview reminded me of a discussion we had here on the blog a few weeks ago about whether architects should be politicians...

Surely architecture in the classical sense could keep us busy forever. Designing floor plans, façades, gutter details, etc. But will it keep our interest? Why is architecture so much more exciting when it branches out? Do we stretch ourselves thin by putting our eggs in every basket? Will architecture become stagnant if we don't branch out?

It seems there are aspects/trends of architecture that cycle around each other and affect the essence of the discipline. Style and diversity. Style being classical, gothic, modern, blobs, etc. Diversity being structural engineer, ornament designer, social idealist, computer programmer, etc. How much do the times influence how we busy ourselves?

What I found just slightly unusual was that Onion Flats discussed their firm as "going back to the roots," so to speak, of the discipline. Where it seems actually they branch out quite a bit beyond the usual master builder profile. Quite commendable!

Jared Langevin said...

Gabriel- thanks for the comment!

It was a fun first interview for sure. Sorry I couldn't ask all of your/our questions, but these guys were talking rather passionately about some of these issues and I had to try my best to keep the great commentary flowing- next time I'll do better to interject a bit more, perhaps.

I think that it's a good question to ask (why is architecture more exciting when it branches out?")
My answer would be that when we get too caught up in the "givens" of the field - floor plans, facades, gutter details, we lose a sense of the greater mission of the architect/builder, something that they discuss pointedly in the interview. Ultimately, in my mind, and architect should inherently be a public servant, and not just someone who knows how to do a very specific set of things in order to design a nice individual building. In the case of Onion Flats, this role seems to be well understood and pursued in their work, made all the more effective by the comprehensive and diverse nature of their knowledge base and respective fields of expertise, which allow them to realistically achieve what they want with each project and really control the way it develops from a thought to its inhabitation. Also, their intimate involvement with the political scene evidenced in the interview is giving them a consistent and accurate understanding of where their work fits into the larger issues tackled by a city like finances, environment, social inequality, etc.

I definitely think that trends in architecture are cyclical as you suggest. The stylistic trend of the past 10-15 years is now ending and giving way to a generation of architects that are more interested in shedding the traditional duties of an "architect" and getting more involved in other fields. You can sense that. I don't think that this is a phenomenon unique to our period in architecture, but I do think that the outreach this time could be by necessity more comprehensive. What I mean is that in order to keep up with and implement some of the amazing new sustainable technologies that are in such high public demand, architects will likely have to gain more than a superficial understanding of what the technology actually means and how it actually works. Right now, in accordance with the model of the "traditional" architect that OFlats mentions (one concerned with the paper design side primarily), many architects are asking engineers to take their buildings and simply apply these technologies to them so that they'll function
"sustainably", resulting in some disheartening, machine like works. Such a practice is already turning many architects into unnecessary middlemen and putting many out of jobs, while engineers continue to get loads of funding. So if we don't branch out in a meaningful way sooner or later, I think that we'll miss an opportunity be a part of larger, multi-disciplinary movements that would allow us to regain a wider public role/influence, and yeah, architecture could become pretty stagnant.

13thMonkey said...

Awesome interview and commentary. As usual, the amount of talking points far out paces the space provided in the comments for talking.

First, on the team themselves, I find that they have great perspective. Each one was articulate and knowledgeable about their field and the pressing issues at hand. This shows not only good family communication, but a grounded business goal. Change indeed from the usually fractured and ego splintered micro-architecture firms which dot the professional landscape.

Second, an interesting point to me about the interview is that they never got into specifics of their projects. There were some details about the founding of the office, but minuta about day to day or glories of a past projects were not mentioned. In general, don't mind this, and attribute it to the interview environment (which Jared did a fantastic job facilitating).

Third, I come to Tim McDonald's comments about the renaissance architect. This is an approach to the field which I am personally very split on. I feel that historical examples of the architect are too vague and hard to compare to the current condition or practice. Our material palette range is 1000 times what it was in the days of Bernini and 100 times that of even the early Modernists. If this complication was not enough, the speed expected of architects to perform their duties is 100 times faster. Building the size of Cathedrals once too 300 years to complete; now 300 days becomes a normal schedule for a single story object of that magnitude to be completed. Amongst this depravity of time and infinity of potential, the Renaissance character may be just a nostalgic brightness from a past era, teetering on an event horizon, ready to be swept into a black hole of irrelevance.

Then again, my own frustration with the limitations and single mindedness which drives a specialization, my own aspirations, these tell me how appealing the Renaissance figure can be today. A study of music, poetry, geology, geography, and physiology, expands one ability to make articulate choices. If there indeed is a feral tempest surrounding the daily execution of life, is not the ability to be poignant all that much more important? I would argue that it is, and that diversity of understanding is the only way to achieve such.

Fortunately for us, the Onion Flats team has resolved the dilemma with just that, solid cooperation and understanding. I hope that more offices emerge from this economic blight with the clarity, drive, and potential of Onion Flats.
Thanks for the interview fellas.

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