Amy Korte is a principal at Arrowstreet Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts. She leads the design of much of Arrowstreet’s residential work and has played a key role in orchestrating the firm’s large-scale mixed-use and commercial projects in Boston, Cambridge, Worcester, and Revere. Her multi-disciplinary background in environmental design, retail design, and development allows her to deliver creative project solutions that bridge multiple disciplines. Amy’s leadership role includes serving as co-chair of the Urban Development Council and the Living with Water charrette created by the ULI Boston, which is developing ideas on minimizing climate change’s impacts on local real estate assets. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to meet with Amy and learn more about her philosophy and approach to design.
On becoming an architect
In high school I loved art; I loved drawing; I loved making things. I feel like I just picked the right discipline to study. I received my undergraduate degree from Parsons School of Design and my masters from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). Parsons had a broad environmental focus; so much more than what we think of today as sustainable design. They taught us smaller scale interventions; how do you do the minimal amount of architecture, yet make the greatest impact? We did projects on the Gowanus Canal, the abandoned Roosevelt Island Small Pox Hospital in NYC, and underutilized urban spaces in NYC that blurred landscape with architecture, remediation of soils with building and temporal interventions with more permanent ones. It was a broad range of landscape, architecture and urban design merged with an in-depth understanding of phenomenal transparency — how people move through spaces and engage with space. At the GSD, the scale of the projects was much larger and I was able to continue the work I started at Parsons. I feel like I just got lucky. I love what I do. I love that I can come into work every day and do something different and continually push to redefine architecture.
On her influences
It’s going out — seeing architecture and understanding spaces in different cities firsthand. It’s talking with people about it. I had a lot of great teachers and mentors at Parsons and GSD that encouraged me to think about architecture in different ways and to challenge the boundaries of what the discipline could be. My strongest influences continue to come from outside the realm of what is traditionally thought of as architecture; identifying relationships between these parallels in technology, science, social sciences to inform practice. I’ve been focused on bringing that kind of research here into the practice over the last year or two.
On the firm’s approach to using research
I became involved with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) last year to help them implement a Kresge grant they were awarded to study resiliency. Super Storm Sandy had hit New York two years earlier and I had been looking at how the city was addressing resiliency — both in adapting existing buildings and building new developments — because Arrowstreet was working on a number of projects on the waterfront. In 2014, we organized a series of charrettes that looked at four different sites around Boston: South Boston, Cambridge, Revere, and Back Bay. Each charrette brought together a diverse group of stakeholders: developers, architects, insurance experts and city/state officials to discuss how Boston could prepare for climate change and rising sea levels. We published the research and design ideas from the charrettes last fall in a report called “The Urban Implications of Living with Water.” The report was featured in a number of publications, and successfully continued conversations within the development community around resiliency. It sparked a number of tangential research projects, lectures and studies for addressing climate change in Boston. One of these projects, which was just completed this fall, focused on how East Boston, can address climate change. My colleague, Jordan Zimmerman, worked on that project. Arrowstreet’s research on resiliency has informed a number of our projects in East Boston, South Boston, Cambridge and Revere and we continue to work on finding solutions to protect real estate development given the City’s inevitable sea level rise. For example, our project in South Boston, Parcel K (a half million SF mixed-use development), addresses sea level rise by raising critical infrastructure far above the 100-year flood elevation to protect it.
On how her role has evolved
I started my career at a venture capital-funded development company founded by Harvard Business School and GSD alumni. The firm designed and developed small-format retail concept stores that were placed in excess parking spaces within suburban strip-mall parking lots. The stores, for Lavazza coffee and T-Mobile, were exquisite modular designs and took up 4–8 parking spaces on the outskirts of each retail center. This role embodied all my interests: development, prototyping, research and the reinvention of traditional typologies, which I’ve carried through to my work at Arrowstreet. I’ve been able to form my own career here, which I’ve loved. I now focus on complicated mixed-use developments and residential projects, but I also think it’s important for architects to be continually reinventing themselves and to consider how your expertise is evolving, changing, or growing. How are you able to stay ahead of the changes in the profession, which are incredible and rapidly occurring?
On Arrowstreet’s guiding principles
Arrowstreet is driven by the challenge of creating great design. We focus on what makes a project unique and how we can approach it in a way in which our clients may not have considered. Our current work on Congress Square is a good example. Related Beal asked us to look at block of seven existing buildings and imagine what the development potential could be. The original proposal (by another developer) was a facade-ectomy on the buildings and blowing out Quaker Lane in the middle, which is an underutilized space in the middle of the city that’s now just used for trash and dumpsters. We suggested to our client, “What if you took a more minimal approach? How might you transform Quaker Lane into something that’s more like the laneways of Melbourne or Sydney, Australia?” By redefining the question and the development possibilities, we’re able to create a new typology of development, in Downtown Boston, where land is so scarce. Reimaging the potential of the alley along with exploiting the potential of the roofscapes, we are adding two new additions on top of the existing buildings, which allows us to preserve and reinvent the existing fabric of the city. One of these additions is a seven-story, sculpted glass box at 40 Water Street which appears to float above the existing, historic bank building below. This floating effect is created both by carving away the new building, where it meets the existing, and cladding the underside of the carved façade with an undulating and perforated copper soffit. The space between new and old becomes a third space — a hybrid space of inside/outside — where people can work, socialize, and collaborate. We are currently working through a number of 3D printed models to design this undulating soffit: when you look up from the street level, the underside of the new addition will appear as a solid, yet when you are inside the office floors, the soffit disintegrates into linear twisted perforations that allow unobstructed views out. These types of renovation + strategic addition projects allow us to preserve the authentic elements that make up the city’s culture and repurpose existing buildings into new uses…while also maximizing the value for our clients.
On Brooklyn Boulders
One of my partners, Sean Selby, is leading a series of projects for Brooklyn Boulders that exemplify a trend we have been seeing across our practice — a complete merging and reinvention of programmatic and building typologies. For Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, we converted an old envelope factory into the largest climbing space in the Northeast. The interior is designed to merge climbing with a co-working office spaces and party space; TEDx has held events there, while entrepreneurs have launched their start-ups in the space and brainstorm while climbing. Arrowstreet’s latest project for Brooklyn Boulders (it’s opening in Long Island City soon) takes this concept even further by merging residential apartments with bouldering and co- working spaces. We carved their two-story climbing gym out of a basement of a pretty nondescript apartment building. You can live upstairs, go downstairs to work out and work, as well as network with your neighbors at after parties in the gym. That’s something I love about architecture — there’s this merging of typologies happening right now to reinvent the ways many have traditionally thought of certain building types.
I took a break from teaching when I had a child; I couldn’t keep teaching at night, attending events and working full-time, all while raising a family. I got back into teaching again two years ago, focusing on classes that were relevant to our research and practice. For example, I taught the Affordable Housing Competition at the Boston Architectural College as a way to expand our affordable housing and workforce housing research, as well as a faculty course for teachers pursing their Certificate of Design Education, which I co-taught with a good friend of mine, Anne Brockelman, from Perry Dean Rogers. In the faculty course, we ask teachers to reflect on their own methods and how they teach design. In teaching that course I am constantly learning new processes that we can apply to our teams back in the office.
On the relationship between professional practice and teaching
It’s totally intertwined. As a principal, one of my priorities is building great teams through hiring amazing people and giving them opportunities to grow their careers. It is critical that we mentor young designers and lead teams in a way that gives them autonomy and independence while also fostering a great team dynamic. One of my roles in the office is bringing questioning and critical thinking to our projects and process, “Do you mean to do that? What if you thought about it this way? What if you ask the craziest question ever and approach the project in a completely different way?” That has given us some of our best work so far.
On the future of Arrowstreet in the next 5–10 years
What I love about Arrowstreet is that it has that ability to stay current; we continually reinvent ourselves as a firm. Every firm has to do that if they want to survive. Yet at the heart of our practice is our ability to take really complex projects and distill them into a number of potential design and development opportunities for our clients that can be quickly and beautifully executed. That’s what Arrowstreet does really well, and what has sustained our firm in the past and will continue to sustain us in the future. In the mid-sixties we specialized in community planning and had a non-profit practice that ran parallel to the firm. In the eighties and nineties, Arrowstreet did a number of large urban renewal projects that revitalized communities in Cambridge and Providence. Our current projects build upon our history of community engagement while also challenging the traditional typologies of schools, labs, residential, office and hotels. Arrowstreet has been able to successfully adapt to changes in the profession because no one person’s name is on the door. We were named after Arrow Street in Harvard Square and the firm evolves with each generation of partners. Four of us (David Bois, Sean Selby, Larry Spang and I) were made partners two years ago and we, together with the senior partners, are all looking at how we might approach architecture differently. How are we challenging our clients in a good way? How do we challenge the preconceptions and push the boundaries of the quality of architecture that comprises our commercial building stock? Oftentimes there’s this notion or bias that the best architecture is reserved for higher education, libraries, museums, etc. Commercial buildings are so integral to people’s everyday lives; how do we make that experience better?
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
What I’m excited about is how the disruptions that are happening in other fields — like Airbnb, driverless cars, drones — are going to impact the future of architecture. With drones, you have the potential of a reinvented delivery system and construction methods. Imagine how our building typologies would change if packages/goods were flown up to building windows or loaded from roofs — how does this impact traditional loading docks and service areas within buildings? And, better yet, how could it allow us to reinvent those blank facades at street level? Another example is Airbnb, which is impacting the design and development of hotels across the world. People, especially millennials, are looking for the opposite of a big, corporate hotel experience and it is forcing the major hotel brands to adjust to a market that is more chaotic and disruptive. To address this, brands are now crowdsourcing ideas with their local hotel managers to reinvent underutilized spaces within their hotel and create the authenticity travelers crave. Marriott is testing this in their hotels in Budapest, Dubai and London, developing concepts to reflect the desires of both travelers and the local communities. This shift is informing both our hospitality and residential work. Our buildings will also need to evolve to accommodate the connectivity of data. Architecture is so much more than aesthetics: what’s the performance of the building, how are we merging different materials with the latest technologies and how are we regaining authorship of the construction process? The more architects can stay in control of that, the better. I am wrapping up a project at Logan Airport with David Bois, another principal at Arrowstreet, which exemplifies this process. As a fast-track project we only had six months from concept design to complete CDs. We had an idea early on in the project to create a large kinetic façade, spanning 8-stories high by 290 feet wide, screening two sides of the garage, and becoming a more ethereal backdrop to the 9/11 memorial at Logan. Within the compressed timeframe, we traveled to a fabricator in Pennsylvania who has done a lot of work with Ned Kahn, an artist in California, and worked with him to create a series of 48,000 kinetic squares that ripple with the wind. We built a mock-up, put it through wind testing, and coordinated the relationship between the GC, fabricator and subcontractor to make sure it met Massport’s budget, schedule and design goals. And, although the technology wasn’t quite ready for this project, I’m optimistic that one day these kinetic panels will be able to collect energy and take on another function beyond aesthetics.
On advice she would herself give before starting
Naiveté about the unknown helps because you take on any challenge. I have a problem saying “no” to a lot of things. But, I think that’s helped me in my career. You take on the challenges, you say “yes,” you figure out a way to do it, and you push yourself. As architects we need to be doing that more.