Design Digest: NBBJ
NBBJ recently made a big splash with their design for 250 High; a modern, 12-story building in the heart of downtown that will feature apartments, ground-level retail and offices (including those of NBBJ, who plan to relocate to the building). Just prior to the news breaking on that project, we spoke to A.J. Montero, partner in the Columbus office, about some of the other projects the firm as been involved in in Columbus and around the world. He also shared his thoughts on the unusual history of the firm, the growth of the local design community, and what Columbus has to offer as a cultural destination.
Q: Can you tell us a little about NBBJ?
A: Well, first of all, what a lot of people don’t know about NBBJ is how much work we do internationally out of Columbus. In reality, Columbus does more international work than any other office at NBBJ. And the reason for that is, for any office of a large firm, there aren’t always opportunities nearby. At times we’ve not only had to reach outside the region, we’ve had to look outside the country for opportunities that are transformational, wherever they may be, and sometimes that leads us to places where you wouldn’t expect a Columbus office to work.
Prior to NBBJ’s founding in Columbus, we were a different firm—Nitschke-Godwin-Bohm—and Seattle was at the time our only office. We teamed up to go after a couple of projects here in Columbus, including the first portion of the Greater Columbus Convention Center, which was a really successful collaboration. After a little while, it was felt that maybe NBBJ and Nitschke-Godwin-Bohm could form a collaborative partnership, which eventually turned into the single entity known as NBBJ. Friedl Bohm was a pivotal person in turning the Columbus market into something that was very attractive to a nationally based firm, and he eventually became the chairman of NBBJ.
The College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati was an early highlight for us, because at the time we were trying to develop a higher design profile. The strategy back then was to team up with nationally recognized design firms like Pei Cobb Freed for the Conservatory or Arata Isozaki for COSI. Teaming up with nationally and internationally recognized designers was one way of gaining a higher level of expertise, and doing that enabled us to start doing bigger and more interesting projects.
We’ve since stopped partnering in that way, because as we’ve grown into a design firm, we’ve taken authorship of our own design voice to make an impact in our community and abroad, especially in the Middle East and Russia. These overseas projects are a big part of our recent history.
It’s an interesting trajectory: a local firm, started by individuals from Central Ohio, joined with this national firm, then worked with international designers, and now we’ve become an international designer ourselves.
Q: NBBJ has been involved with a variety of projects, from parks to hospitals to master plans. Would you say there is an overall philosophy that applies to all of your work?
A: As we like to say, we strive for beautiful design, driven by powerful ideas and high performance outcomes. We recognize that architecture is complicated and subjective, and buildings are things that not everybody always agrees on aesthetically. But our experience tells us that buildings are a way to enable great experiences for people, so the experience of a design is something that we are very keen on achieving. That’s the thing that that really motivates us. We believe that buildings and spaces should perform, and by “perform” I mean they should have tangible results for our clients, that they should accomplish the goals of our clients and their communities.
Q: I know our readers are excited about the Northside Library mixed-use project you will be working on – anything you can share about the project or the approach you are taking to it?
A: That’s a very interesting project we’re doing with the library. As I mentioned, our firm is used to doing big projects, both in the US and abroad, but because we do these projects in far-off lands, one thing we’ve sometimes missed out on is our own community. So one strategy of reengaging with our community has been to take our expertise abroad and use it to pursue civic work here at home. The first project we had the opportunity to pursue with the Columbus Metropolitan Library, the new Driving Park branch, is fairly small, about 15,000 square feet, one of the smaller projects the office has done, but we felt it was a valuable project for reengaging with the community.
And that project led to the Northside branch. The great thing about the Northside site is that it brings together two parts of Columbus; the OSU Campus Gateway area and the Short North. This project has the opportunity to bridge the gap and spur development, but in a way that helps serve the community as whole. It’s a little early to say too much about the project, because they’re just in the early stages of programming. But it’s being thought of as a mixed-use development in which the library will be the primary anchor. It’s kind of a pioneer building: it’s going into a zone that’s not as well-defined as the blocks to the north and the south.
Q: In terms of architecture and the built environment, how do you think Columbus has changed in the years you’ve been working here?
A: Well, it’s certainly grown, and become more ethnically diverse. That’s the big one for me. When I came here 16 years ago, it was a very prototypical Midwestern city that had the typical diversity of black and white, but now there’s a growing ethnic Somali community, a growing Hispanic/Latino community, a growing Asian community.
You are also starting to see a lot of corporations and businesses moving to Columbus because the quality of life and cost of living are very beneficial to people coming from places like Chicago and other large Midwestern cities. Downtown has become more vibrant: more and more people are moving downtown, which is a big change, and NBBJ eventually plans to do the same.
At the same time the city has grown enough that amenities are there that didn’t used to be. We have a growing cultural contribution to make to the Midwest: at the Wexner Center, which has grown into an internationally known gallery; the Columbus Museum of Art under the leadership of Nannette Maciejunes; the growth of the Discovery District, anchored by CCAD and all the work Denny Griffith has done there; the Columbus Metropolitan Library, with Pat Lizinsky; and many others.
The point I’m trying to make is that, as a civic, cultural community, Columbus has grown since I’ve arrived. Those are the things I gravitate towards, but I also believe those have been the biggest changes.
Q: Do you see good things happening in the next 20 years? From a design and architecture perspective, do you think Columbus is on the right track?
A: In many ways our clients are getting much more sophisticated when it comes to design, so is the community as a whole. There’s a lot more pressure for quality, especially in the idea of a growing urban core, with quality architecture, quality spaces, diversity in activities, civic components, and the stewardship of all of it.
There’s a growing recognition that this is a community that has a lot to offer, and we want others to recognize that, through our buildings and public spaces and institutions. We’re a player in the region, and it’s exciting to think where Columbus will be in the next 15 years, because we have these institutions that are interested in pushing the boundaries. Columbus is growing, and not just in a way that’s about “more” – it’s growing in a way that’s about “more and better,” and “more significant.”
Q: Are there any other exciting new projects that you’re currently working on, or looking forward to in the near future?
A: We’re working for the Ministry of Health in the country of Kuwait to essentially redesign their entire hospital system, one hospital at a time, to update 30-year-old facilities and bring them up to modern healthcare standards. We’re also working in Russia, on a corporate headquarters for one of the world’s largest suppliers of the natural resources that contribute to the global food chain for billions of people. Those are just two of the exciting things that I’m personally working on.
In northwest China we’re designing a new town for a city called Karamay—that’s a master plan for a city of a million people. Essentially, that city is there because it provides a lot of the energy resources for the entire country, and we’re helping them transition into a less oil-dependent future. At the moment we’re designing a major university and hospitals for that town, as part of the master plan. The impact of projects like this shows the breadth of what our practice is trying to accomplish. We try to be very humanitarian in what we do, and the projects we choose represent those ideals.
At home, the Neuroscience Institute at Riverside Methodist is just being completed, and that’s one of the institutions that is changing the level of care here at home in Columbus. We’re very proud of the building and very proud of OhioHealth and what they’ve been able to achieve there. That’s currently the one that has the biggest impact on our community. We’re also working with Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the Ohio State University, and we’re excited about the contributions we can make to Central Ohio with those organizations as well.
More information about NBBJ is available on their website.
All photos and renderings via NBBJ.
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