In the past five years, New York architect Audrey Matlock has flown back and forth to Kazakhstan more times than she can count. She has designed a 2,000-square-meter house near Almaty for a prominent developer, as well as a sports center. Not long ago, she was invited to enter a design competition for an office building on a key site next to the national library. "That client said he came to us because of our fame in the country," Matlock says. "We had gotten a reputation." You might well ask how an architect who runs a small firm in lower Manhattan, with just 15 people on her payroll, became famous in Kazakhstan. But this is not a Borat joke—and Matlock is not an anomaly: hers is one of a growing number of "boutique" design firms that have begun to nab sizable commissions overseas, ex-porting the fresh ideas of a new generation of American architects. (Story continued below...)
The world still looks to the United States as an architectural leader, thanks to the big grandfather firms such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. But the United States will likely keep its competitive edge overseas with the innovative thinking and agility of younger architects whose experimental work clearly looks toward the future. That forward-looking approach is rooted in America's design education. Its graduate architectural schools are considered the best in the world, attracting legions of foreign students. In many countries, architecture is taught as a technical skill. "Here we teach how to think," says Gregg Pasquarelli, a teacher at Yale and a partner in SHoP, a fast-growing boutique firm. "American schools emphasize not the end product but the process. It's about finding new solutions, using the freedom and creativity that our society tends to offer."
That spirit of experimentation comes in large part from the cutting-edge architects, often just starting out, who teach part-time in university design studios. Peggy Deamer, a professor at Yale, spent a year as chair of an architecture school in New Zealand, where, she says, teaching appointments are rigidly tied to traditional academic credentials—a system that seems out of step with a profession undergoing rapid change. In Europe, according to Deamer and Columbia Architecture School dean Mark Wigley, the Bologna Accord, created to set uniform educational standards in the EU, is actually hurting the potential for innovation in design schools. By contrast, says Wigley, Columbia's programs "act as a laboratory. The world is now changing at such a speed, a school like ours has to be increasingly inventive." Columbia, a pioneer in digital design in the early '90s, has recently established studios in Beijing and Moscow.
The cross-fertilization between schools and designers is at the heart of small avant-garde practices like Reiser+Umemoto, which has two major projects going up in Dubai. When Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto started the firm in New York 20 years ago, they had one assistant and "lived on paychecks from teaching," says Reiser, now a tenured professor at Princeton. They submitted radical designs to international competitions, not because they necessarily expected to win, but to experiment and push ideas with competing architects. "Everyone was interested in complex geometries," Reiser says. "But it was in advance of how the work could be made."
The digital revolution finally catapulted his firm and others to real-world success. Thanks to the innovative technology that came out of schools like Columbia and firms like Frank Gehry's, the irregularly shaped designs from offices such as Reiser+Umemoto and Asymptote—an experimental New York atelier that was recently shortlisted in a competition for a massive urban rehab project in Seoul—could be built at a reasonable cost. "Digital technology allowed a firm of our size to do a building that a decade ago would have been done by an army of draftsmen," says Reiser. SHoP's practice was founded on using the computer not just for design but for fabrication and building specs—as evident in its dynamic design for the new Adidas flagship store in Beijing. And the computer means that architects no longer have to open an office in a foreign country to work on projects there. "We can design as easily in China as Philadelphia," says Pasquarelli.
The high-profile architecture of stars such as Gehry and Zaha Hadid has increased the appetite for avant-garde design worldwide. "There was a shift in expectations," says Reiser, "a realization that architects could do much more." Dubai is mostly a forest of traditional glass-and-steel skyscrapers, but it was the unconventional design of Reiser+Umemoto's O-14 office tower that won over its young developer. "We began to rethink the possibilities of a tower in that climate," says Reiser of its curving concrete structure with holes punched in it to admit light and air. "It's an exoskeleton that acts as both the structure and a sunscreen"—and will save an estimated 30 percent in cooling costs when it opens next September.
Unlike an earlier generation of American architects who built desert skyscrapers just like those in Houston or Atlanta, the new cutting-edge designers don't ignore local culture. "We like to find out the DNA of a city," says Hani Rashid, cofounder of Asymptote, who's finishing a hotel in Abu Dhabi and has designed strikingly unconventional towers to be built in Busan, South Korea, and Tbilisi, Georgia. "We don't come into a client meeting and say, this is how we did it in that place, and this is what you should build." The best of the new American generation are not only inquisitive and quick, but they understand a seeming paradox: that globalization doesn't mean standardization. But if their designs respond to local conditions, these architects also are inspired by what's always fueled their work: the infinite, innovative possibilities that lie just around the next corner.