Writing in Slate, architect and author Witold Rybczynski analyzes trends in the naming of architecture firms.
In 1857, when the American Institute of Architects was founded, architecture was struggling to be perceived as a profession like law. Thus the preference of early architecture firms for stringing together the names of their principal partners. It took a century for some firms to break with that tradition and start using initials, which, Rybcyznski writes, "carried the cachet of efficiency and no-nonsense, just like—well, IBM." There was another advantage to using initials: it solved "the delicate issue of succession" after the original principals left the scene. The best-known initializer remains SOM, originally Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Things really changed in the 1960s and '70s with the advent of coined names like Archigram in London, Archizoom in Florence, and Morphosis in Los Angeles. "The trendy monikers made up for the fact that these fledgling firms created more drawings than actual buildings," Rybczynski observes. "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."
Made-up names say "cutting edge," says Rybczynski, who sees a "subversive" new trend on the horizon: having it both ways. Case in point: Architectural superstar Rem Koolhaas, who "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)."
Rybczynski doesn't mention it, but I find it interesting that many of these firms' websites don't use the .com domain extension. Archigram, Morphosis, and Noroof (in Brooklyn) use .net; OMA uses the Dutch country code, .nl. I don't think these choices are a matter of coincidence or exigency. Rather, .net and .nl are yet another way to say "we're different."
(By the way, Rybczynski's own name is pronounced VITT-old rib-CHIN-ski. I've enjoyed several of his books, most especially Home: A Short History of an Idea and The Most Beautiful House in the World.)
Naming conventions are always so interesting. Thanks for this post and your expansion on the Slate article.
Naming is an expression of ownership it seems to me and thus identity.
I agree .nl and .net suggest "we're different", but in what ways?
If Morphosis expressed "we're cutting edge" what does "Office for Metropolitan Architecture" suggest?
I have to admit "Office for Metropolitan Architecture" made me think of a Monty Python skit or two.
Remember "Ministry of Silly Walks"?
Posted by: Mike | November 14, 2007 at 04:23 PM
As Nancy noted, most design firms go through an evolution of names with ownership transition. A good example is today's "Gensler," which was originally "M. Arthur Gensler & Associates" and later "Gensler & Associates." However, the root of the naming tradition lay in the licensing laws of many states, which mandated that ownership of architectural firms be limited to licensed architects, and the name of the firm be limited to the names of those architects.
Gradually, the licensing laws have become more expansive, and we have seen the rise of non-architect owners, as well as new types of names.
One of the most notable naming exceptions was The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, which was known in the profession as "TAC." The firm was founded by Walter Gropius in 1945, who had been the Director of the Bauhaus in Berlin prior to WWII. According to www.greatbuildings.com, the name "embodied his belief in the value of teamwork." TAC became one of the most well-known and respected architectural firms in the USA, but after years of minimal profitability, it went bankrupt in 1995.
Three additional sidebars --
1. I worked at SOM in the early 70's. Although "SOM" was commonly used within the profession, the firm's manual of style required the use of "Skidmore, Owings & Merrill." However, this changed after the publication of its first monograph.
2. I did a quick WHOIS search of morphosis.com and morphosis.net. The former was acquired in 1996, the latter in 1997.So I suspect that the .net suffix was convenient, rather than planned.
3. When Rem Koolhaas opened an office in NYC, it was called "AMO" (OMA backwards). That entity was not originally engaged in architecture, however, having a contract with Conde Nast to reconceptualize several magazines.
Posted by: evvance | November 15, 2007 at 07:56 AM
Mike--Good question about non-.com domains. To me, .nl clearly says "we're Dutch and proud." As EV Vance points out, .net may sometimes be the runner-up choice, but because it was originally set aside for communications companies (att.net, comcast.net, etc.), architecture firms that choose .net may be attempting to emphasize that they're communicators, too.
EV Vance: Thank you for your excellent observations ... and for the WHOIS research, which I confess I didn't take the time to do myself.
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | November 15, 2007 at 02:07 PM