Fred A. Bernstein

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The Man With the List at Architecture's Party

Profile of Reed Kroloff, an advisor to architecture competitions.

Published in The New York Times, January 11, 2003


Frank Gehry is at the University of Connecticut, where he has just presented his design for a new arts center to an audience of faculty and students. Reed Kroloff, who is moderating the program, asks the audience if there are any questions.

A student stands up and says: "Now that you're an internationally renowned icon--"

Mr. Kroloff interrupts. "Are you speaking to me or Frank?"

Mr. Kroloff can afford to be cheeky. Later that day, he helped award what is a large prize even to a star like Mr. Gehry: the commission to design a signature building for the university's sprawling campus. And within the following weeks, Mr. Kroloff, 43, helped select architects for nearly a dozen projects, ranging from an addition to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan to an aerial tramway system for Portland, Ore., to the Motown Center, a Detroit museum founded by Berry Gordy.

Mr. Kroloff is one of a small coterie of competition advisers, who organize and administer the bake-offs used to determine which architecture firms will design which coveted projects. These advisers are both catalysts for - and beneficiaries of - an upsurge in interest in how architects are chosen. Competitions that only five years ago would have been local affairs now draw thousands of entries from around the world, partly because the Internet makes the rules available to any architect with a computer and modem.

It was a less high-tech connection that helped Mr. Kroloff establish himself as a competition adviser. Until April 2002 he was the editor of Architecture magazine, a position he resigned when the magazine was sold. One of the first people who called him was Mark Robbins, an artist and architect whom Mr. Kroloff had described in an editorial as "one of the architecture community's great assets."

At the time, Mr. Robbins was director of design programs at the National Endowment for the Arts. There, he had created New Public Works, which provided small grants - usually in the mid-five figures - to help organizations run design competitions. "The government can't give someone $75 million to build a building, but it can give them $75,000 to build a better building," Mr. Robbins said.

Mr. Robbins gave his grant recipients a list of competition advisers that included Ralph Lerner, former dean of Princeton University's School of Architecture, and Roger Schluntz, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. After he added Mr. Kroloff to that list, Mr. Kroloff was hired to run a half dozen competitions under the aegis of New Public Works. (Mr. Robbins and Mr. Kroloff also teamed up in 2002 on the competition for the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon, which was sponsored by the Army Corps of Engineers.) The endowment disbanded New Public Works in 2002, and around the same time Mr. Robbins, now 47, resigned from the organization to accept a fellowship at Harvard University. Yet the program lives on through more than 30 competitions, some of which are only now getting under way.

New Public Works competitions take a variety of forms, ranging from wide-open to by-invitation-only. In Connecticut, Mr. Kroloff drew up a list of 57 architects he thought might be right for the job; it included stars like Mr. Gehry and Zaha Hadid. A committee that included several of the university's administrators narrowed the field to three finalists, who were invited to present designs - in the form of drawings and models - to a jury that included the well-known New York architect Hugh Hardy, Monica Ponce de Leon of the "hot" Boston firm Office dA and Mr. Robbins.

Mr. Lerner prefers anonymous contests that any licensed architect can enter, he said, in order to "foster innovation and help promote young talent." Invited competitions, he said, tend to favor architects who are already at the peak of their profession. In fact, at the University of Connecticut, the criteria for selecting the three finalists included their ability to raise money for the building. That almost guaranteed Mr. Gehry one of three spots, since he is, as Mr. Kroloff put it, "a commodity."

Mr. Kroloff's invitees tend to be a mix of marquee names, like Mr. Gehry and Ms. Hadid, and modernism's young turks, including the New York firm SHoP/Sharples Holden Pasquarelli and the Yale architecture professor Joel Sanders. They are in many cases the same architects he championed at Architecture. He said he is "unapologetically a modernist" and that one of his goals as a competition adviser is to convince clients that "cutting-edge architecture isn't something they need to be afraid of."

Much of Mr. Kroloff's power comes from assembling the list of architects invited to compete. Once a competition begins, Mr. Kroloff's role is much like that of a judge in a trial court: though the final decision rests with a jury, the judge - by setting the ground rules and controlling the flow of information - has a great deal of influence on the outcome. (Mr. Kroloff does not vote except in the case of a tie.) And that from a man who says his mother "cried her eyes out" when he told her he wasn't going to be a lawyer. (Mr. Kroloff has three brothers; two are lawyers and one has finished law school.)

Mr. Kroloff said that his goal is to "make the process transparent, so that everybody knows what's going on." At a meeting at the University of Connecticut, he walked the architects through the competition requirements the way a teacher would review the requirements for an exam. At one point, he told Mr. Gehry, "If you don't pay attention, we're sending you back to the fifth grade."

Clearly, he enjoys the give-and-take. Later that day, he ended a presentation by the flamboyant Zaha Hadid by saying to the audience, "Thank you, Posh Spice."

To help Berry Gordy define his vision for the Motown Center, he spent a day at Mr. Gordy's house in Los Angeles, brainstorming with Motown luminaries like Smokey Robinson. Tanya Heidelberg-Yopp, the director of the Motown Center, said that Mr. Kroloff did a great job not only of choosing architects for the competition but of representing the center's goals to the designers. But the job isn't all glamour. During the finals of the Fashion Institute competition, Mr. Kroloff spent much of his time trying to turn down the air conditioning in the meeting room.

For all the effort, Mr. Kroloff has yet to see one of his New Public Works competitions yield an actual building. (Right now, one New Public Works project - an addition to the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, by the Los Angeles firm Koning Eizenberg Architecture - is under construction, according to Jeff Speck, the National Endowment's design director since last August.)

But even before ground is broken, the competitions may have had a positive effect. Motivated by tight deadlines and knowledge that rivals are working around the clock, architects do some of their best work in competitions, Mr. Kroloff said. And because most competitions include a period for community comment, "competitions require architects to speak the public's language," Mr. Kroloff said.

Mr. Kroloff is about to spend six months abroad, studying Italian design magazines as a winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome. When he returns to Washington in August, he said, he will begin running at least three new competitions. None of those are dependent on New Public Works money. The demise of that program, Mr. Kroloff says, "will be a significant loss."

Mr. Lerner agreed. "It's critical that the federal government - which is one of the largest builders in the country - set the standard," he said. "And the standard ought to be programs that encourage people to put architecture in the forefront."

Fred A. Bernstein contributes to a number of architecture magazines. He wrote one article for Architecture magazine during Reed Kroloff's tenure there, on modernist architecture in America's national parks.