Strada’s Philadelphia studio is celebrating 10 years. We sat down with Strada Principal Chris Kenney to discuss where Strada Philly began, and how it’s evolved since then.
How did Strada Philadelphia come to be?
Philadelphia occupies a transitional spot between the east coast and the midwest. Strada Principals Dina Snider and Ed Shriver (retired founding principal) embarked on a search for an existing small firm that would strengthen Strada’s ties to the mid-Atlantic East coast network to springboard future opportunities.
Enter UJMN, a firm that had kept its head during the recession and had striking cultural similarities with Strada. The goals of the firms were similar, and the types of projects were complementary. At a certain point, after we had discussed how we would blend and further the cross-disciplinary ethos of Strada, I recall Ed laughing and saying, “Why the hell not?” It’s a simple moment, but a testament to the quick camaraderie we built together. With that, UJMN put down their letters and became a part of Strada.
Was there a project that you’d say bridged the gap between the old firm and Strada?
You know, it was a funny time. We were coming out of a recession and building back up in a better way, together. We were infused with the type of energy you see in a start-up space- a team of people who knew each other and were excited to move forward with a new brand and identity. We were pivoting off of the previous firm’s history and relationships while seeking projects in a way that introduced the Strada brand.
We chased a lot, but the first significant win was a design project for community outreach. The Pittsburgh team had done this type of work extensively with the University of Pittsburgh. Sean Beasley was able to come in from the Pittsburgh studio to speak to the project type, while George Poulin brought the Philadelphia knowledge. The pieces all came together for that design, and though it was not built, the project was a great unifier for the team.
When did you begin to feel like a true Stradista? What does being a Stradista mean to you now?
When a firm is acquired, oftentimes the acquiring entity will require the new team members to adjust their culture and vibe to be in line with their new bosses. With Strada, there was a desire to find existing harmony between the studios. Strada principals are all so diverse in their views and their personalities, but willing and often excited to work together, and that comes through in the balance of our team identities.
Once the business transaction was done, I was invited to a principal’s home for dinner. The food was wonderful, the wine was wonderful, but it was the warmth that was truly important. Their enthusiasm and thoughtfulness in creating a moment that was outside of the business was one of many ways that Strada ensured that we would thrive in Philadelphia.
To be a Stradista now is to understand the merits of creative tension! It’s funny, but the further I get along professionally, the more time I spend trying to convince people of things. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes the ideas of others change my view. We’re all passionate people, working to create projects we believe in. As long as we manage our egos and are willing to stop and listen, we are staying true to our mission.
What makes the Philadelphia studio special?
It’s just magic! There are team member bonds (including a subset of rock climbers!), but we are not some monolithic cohesive unit. We are diverse, with vastly different interests, and this allows for that creative tension to flourish. We have creative designers, highly technical architects, landscape designers, interior designers and graphic designers, and their diversity of talents, interests, and passions make for a healthy design culture. There’s a great sense of humor, too!
I’ve been lucky to work with George this whole time. We are in some ways extremely different, but on most matters of business decisions, pretty much exactly aligned. George is a numbers and details guy. I’m more “go with the flow.” We’re both incredibly snarky, and know each other’s flaws and assets, which is a source of endless mirth. We look at the world in fundamentally different ways, and it results in a healthily functioning enterprise.
What have some of the big Philadelphia milestones been? What is Strada Philadelphia working on now?
Our first “big guy” was the Temple Alpha Center. Then, I suppose, were the Howard Center for the Arts, Adaptimmune, and 3440 Forbes (a big life science project). Our scale has only continued to increase, and the complexity of projects has grown with it.
One of the greatest things coming out of the Philadelphia studio right now is The Battery. It’s an incredibly complex project with a big impact on the history and waterfront of Philadelphia. The building we started with wasn’t really a building but rather a machine. It was a power plant, built in around 1917 and in operation as recently as 2005, and it was an eyesore. It’s now being brought into a new life as a lifestyle campus. Residences, coworking spaces, and event spaces all artfully combine to transform a building that was once a machine into a living space.
Our UJMN team had worked with the construction company originally on this project, and they pulled us in to take a look at the space. We met with the owner of the space, bringing Architect Aaron Bell with us, who had done a project on this very space in college. It was a great conversation, and though this project has had many stakeholders and iterations, we have held on through this passionate transition from machine to oasis.
Thank you for sharing all of these great projects and stories with us! What are you unwinding with now?
I’m currently reading Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang. It’s a collection of science fiction short stories. It’s one of those books that you read and it changes at a level of paradigm how you think about issues and the topics surrounding them.
I also love to bike. Going to bike in Europe with a bunch of friends, oh! You can’t beat that with a stick. I travel with a non-aggressive group of bikers. We bike, but mostly we eat, drink, and look at architecture.