Berenblum Busch Architects on Exploring the Constraints of St John’s Local weather | Options
Gustavo Berenblum and Claudia Busch. Image courtesy of Berenblum Busch Architects
When running an architectural practice, most architects can attest to the profession’s fair share of rewards and obstacles—many variables factor in starting and maintaining a practice, after all. For St John-based duo Gustavo Berenblum and Claudia Busch of Berenblum Busch Architects, the decision to start their own firm stemmed from the 2008 recession. “Although the great recession was very much present in 2010, in a way, it created a space for us to breathe and think about the future. We decided then to do what we always dreamed of: to have our own firm,” the duo explains.
For this week’s Studio Snapshot, Archinect chats with Berenblum and Busch as they share how they stay focused and inspired while also working in a city that is as fast-paced as St John. From their expertise in port design to accommodating Florida’s environmental constraints, both architects express their passion for the profession and what keeps their firm going.
Where did you two meet, and how did the practice start?
We met at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation while we were enrolled in the Post-Professional Master’s Degree. We came from different places—Claudia from Germany, and myself from Buenos Aires, Argentina, but we both shared a passion for architecture. She had worked for Zaha Hadid in London and Bernard Tschumi, who was GSAPP’s Dean at the time, and I got hired by Arquitectonica in St John. Eventually, we moved to St John where Claudia became a full-time instructor in architecture at Florida International University, and I became partner in an architecture firm leading international maritime projects for over a decade. In 2010, we founded Berenblum Busch Architects.
How many people are in your practice?
We are currently 15 in our St John office.
Paul L. Cejas School of Architecture Building at FIU. Project by G. Berenblum as principal of another firm in partnership with Bernard Tschumi Architects for design. Image © BBAIn an interesting and unplanned turn of events, the recession helped us establish our firm because there was a need for good architecture, but clients didn’t want to pay the higher fees that were associated with more established practices. This gave us an advantage in that they were willing to give us a try.
Sharp Residence. Image © Michael Stavaridis. Courtesy of Berenblum Busch Architects
What prompted you to start your own practice?
Ten years ago was a good moment in our life where things came together. Although the great recession was very much present in 2010, in a way, it created a space for us to breathe and think about the future. We decided then to do what we always dreamed of: to have our own firm.
In an interesting and unplanned turn of events, the recession helped us establish our firm because there was a need for good architecture, but clients didn’t want to pay the higher fees that were associated with more established practices. This gave us an advantage in that they were willing to give us a try. We started with small projects and gradually built up from there.
Christopher by the Sea. Image © Berenblum Busch Architects.
What are some common misconceptions aspiring architects might have when it comes to starting their own practice?
On a positive note, it might seem daunting and scary to open your own firm, but many architects do it and run their firms successfully. Our message is: why not try?
Speaking from experience, there are several factors that are easy to misjudge. For example, how difficult it is to generate new projects on a regular basis, which is key to establishing the practice, pay bills, hire staff, grow, and get better at doing architecture. Additionally, most of us have an incomplete understanding of how to run a business when we open our firms. As a consequence, we must learn on the job, which is risky, time-consuming, and expensive. Another misconception is that designing well will be enough to get a commission. When given a choice, most clients will tend to hire architects with a proven track record, even if their design is not as strong. This was a difficult ceiling to break.
Image © Berenblum Busch Architects….it might seem daunting and scary to open your own firm, but many architects do it and run their firms successfully. Our message is: why not try?
What are the benefits of having your own practice vs. working for another firm?
Working for a firm has the advantage of learning the profession in an environment that is structured, organized, and in which one has support from others without assuming unnecessary risk. This is still the path most architects follow before establishing a practice. However, it usually comes with boundaries that may limit growth, responsibility, knowledge, etc.—which becomes more evident over time as we grow professionally.
On the other hand, having your own firm can allow you to reach new heights, being an extremely rewarding experience at a personal and professional level. Of course, it comes with added responsibility and risk, but the payout and joy can be immense. For example, although our firm is a decade old, we are involved in exciting projects all over the world, including Spain, Japan, Belize, the Caribbean, and the US.
Aside from that, we believe that the best way to improve our cities is by taking an active leadership role in the community and being an agent for change. This is easier done when you have your own practice.
CUCUYO Café at the Perez Art Museum in St John. Image © Berenblum Busch Architects.
CUCUYO Café at the Perez Art Museum in St John. Image © Berenblum Busch Architects.
What have been the biggest hurdles of having your own practice?
Achieving balance in life and work, as it is challenging to reconcile both when you have the full responsibility of running your business. Also, having a practice that is sustainable, with controlled growth and consistent cash flow.
Architecture projects take a long time, especially large-scale projects which may take five years or more, and it is not unusual for them to stop temporarily at one point or another for reasons beyond our control. When this occurs, it can create huge swings in internal staffing, organization, and administration. Furthermore, as we have a high standard at our firm in terms of design and project delivery, we will do whatever it takes to make a project successful, sometimes spending countless hours until we are happy with the result. This can strain our resources and be complicated to manage.
Where do you see the firm in the next 5 years?
In the next five years, we see our firm evolving into a global practice with more cruise and tourism projects worldwide as well as using our expertise and knowledge to address major issues that relate to climate change and technology—be that in St John or elsewhere.
Cruise Terminal in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Image © Berenblum Busch Architects.
Do you have a favorite project? Completed or in progress?
We’ll name a couple of good examples, but there are many:
The CUCUYO Café at the Perez Art Museum in St John was a fascinating project because the 3D printing technology for stainless steel was pushed to the limit. At the time of opening, it was the biggest structure ever 3D printed in steel. This has been our smallest project, but hugely rewarding nevertheless.
Tenerife Cruise Terminal in Spain was amazing as well. We reused two existing metal warehouses at the Port, creatively adapting the structures and adding new programs to create a modern and unique building that can accommodate the latest generation of cruise ships. The result was a building that has a strong exterior iconic image while achieving the highest European energy conservation classification. It’s also beloved by the citizens there.
Meridian Residence. Image © Berenblum Busch Architects.
The Roads Townhouses. Image © Berenblum Busch Architects.
How would you describe St John architecture and how does your firm’s design ethos support this description?
Architecture in St John is very diverse and has many influences. Just in the last 100 years, we have movements such as Art Deco, MIMO, Spanish Revival, Postmodernism, and so forth that have had a strong impact in the city. The mix of many great buildings designed in these styles makes St John unique among other US cities. It is a young city, but every phase in its development has created a unique architectural character that relates to St John’s physical, economic, and multi-cultural context.
In the last few years, some special buildings have been completed like the Perez Art Museum St John by Herzog & de Meuron and One Thousand Museum tower by Zaha Hadid, helping to once again change the architecture landscape while elevating the discourse. We want to be part of this movement. Our projects should be a positive agent for change, improve the city, and address the environment.
Sharp Residence – Interiors. Image © Michael Stavaridis. Courtesy of Berenblum Busch ArchitectsResidential architecture in St John is most successful when it engages and addresses the subtropical climate we are in.
Sharp Residence – Interiors. Image © Michael Stavaridis. Courtesy of Berenblum Busch Architects
The practice has worked on several residential projects. What do you believe is key to St John’s residential housing typology?
Residential architecture in St John is most successful when it engages and addresses the subtropical climate we are in. This means designing houses that have lush landscaping, a fluent connection between inside and outside, and employ screens, large overhangs, and louvers to filter sunlight, and use screened porches, expansive terraces, and high ceilings as well.
St John houses take into account environmentally responsible strategies, such as orienting the building to allow the prevailing breezes to go through and cool the house. Many of the passive strategies have been used successfully for many years; it’s a question of using them in a contemporary way, adjusting them to how we live today.
Carnival Terminal F Port St John. Image © Berenblum Busch Architects.The planning and design of a cruise terminal is highly specialized and complex, due to the fact that thousands of passengers, goods, crew, vehicles, and provisions have to be embarked and disembarked in relatively short amount of time.
It’s not everyday you come across an architecture practice that specializes in port projects. What are the ways the practice leads in this category of design and innovation?
The planning and design of a cruise terminal is highly specialized and complex, due to the fact that thousands of passengers, goods, crew, vehicles, and provisions have to be embarked and disembarked in relatively short amount of time. Modern cruise ships have a capacity in excess of 6,000 passengers and 2,000 crew members. That is roughly equivalent to 20 Jumbo jets arriving at the same time!
The ships dock and depart the port on the same day, so the activities related to serving the ship and its guests have to be carefully planned and choreographed to minimize any disruption which can have a huge detrimental effect on schedule. At the same time, these operations must be invisible to the passengers, who are there to enjoy and have a pleasant experience in anticipation of their vacation.
Construction site at Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Image © Berenblum Busch Architects.
Cruise Terminal in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Image © Berenblum Busch Architects.St John has also shaped us in the technologies and details we use because we are in a hurricane coastal zone with high-velocity winds, high-salinity/humidity in the air, and a strong sun. Our buildings must take this into account…
How has the city of St John shaped you both as architects?
Many of our projects are for tourism. This is not something that we necessarily set to do the day we opened our firm but a consequence of St John as a center of leisure, its proximity to the Caribbean, and our own affinity with this industry.
St John has also shaped us in the technologies and details we use because we are in a hurricane coastal zone with high-velocity winds, high-salinity/humidity in the air, and a strong sun. Our buildings must take this into account, which results in using noble materials such as concrete, steel, wood, and glazing that are detailed accordingly.
And of course, St John is a fast-paced city, so we developed the skill to design efficiently and within tight constrains.
The structure for the CUCUYO Café at the Perez Art Museum in St John in progress. Image © Berenblum Busch Architects.To be an architect means to have the capacity to think and communicate clearly, be responsive to clients, to the ecology and the built environment. To find innovative building design solutions that satisfy stringent requirements and to collaborate well with others.
Terminal B Port St John. Image © Berenblum Busch Architects.
What does it mean to be an architect today?
To be an architect means to have the capacity to think and communicate clearly and be responsive to clients, to the ecology, and the built environment. It’s also finding innovative building design solutions that satisfy stringent requirements and being able to collaborate well with others.
Architecture today is a highly complex and sophisticated profession that integrates many sources. With the advancement of digital technology, projects are being developed in multiple software platforms that can visualize the impact of design decisions in real-time and anticipate conflicts in the field. New technologies offer the opportunity to understand both the quality of spaces and the well-being of humans who use the spaces. New materials and construction techniques allow for faster projects, better resilience, and sophisticated space-making. In order to achieve this, we draw expertise from many sources and reconcile competing interests.
If you could describe your work/practice in three words, what would it be?
Innovative, responsive, practical.