The Interview: David Manfredi

For Boston’s most powerful architect, 2017 has been a year of triumph and tragic loss. But with a slate of new projects on the horizon, he’s shaping the city like never before.

david manfredi architect

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For nearly 30 years, Howard Elkus and David Manfredi worked tirelessly to redefine our skyline. Look around Boston and Cambridge today, and their fingerprints are everywhere, from Copley Place and New Balance’s headquarters along the Mass. Pike, to the Broad Institute’s research center in Kendall Square and the South End’s Ink Block. In April, however, Elkus passed away suddenly at the age of 78, and Manfredi lost a visionary partner and friend. In the aftermath, we caught up with Manfredi for a roving conversation about his longtime colleague, the evolution of his Seaport-based architecture firm, and his plans for moving Boston into the future.

I’m sorry to hear about the passing of Howard. Your partnership with him spanned nearly 30 years, which is a lot longer than many marriages. What was it that allowed you two to work so well together?

Partnerships are hard, typically. Our partnership was easy because it was based on shared values that were sacred to both of us. They were not values about design, but more about how you design. We both very much believed in collaboration, and we believed that good ideas can come from anywhere. They can come from the 23-year-old recent graduate; they can come from the landscape architect or the structural engineer. And we shared the same ethics and values when it came to how to treat clients and how to do the business of architecture. I can say this without hesitation: Howard and I never had a serious disagreement. We always knew that the firm came first. It was never a question of self-interest; it was always a question of what was best for the firm.

Over the course of the firm’s existence, the city has changed dramatically. There seems to be a divide between old Boston and new Boston that cuts across all aspects of the city. Are you conscious of this divide when conceiving designs and starting projects?

We live in a city of great architectural heritage—look at Trinity Church in Copley Square, and all of the texture of the Back Bay and Commonwealth Avenue, and the Boston Public Library. We have great modern icons like the John Hancock building. So we have a very nice but delicate, maybe even fragile, balance of our historic fabric and our new architecture, and we always need to keep those in balance. I think you can have a vibrant conversation about the importance of the buildings as architecture, but the real importance is understanding what happened in those buildings and when it happened.

There’s a development boom in Boston’s Seaport that’s attracted the likes of General Electric, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. At the same time, climate change, rising sea levels, and potential storm surges are real threats. What’s Boston doing right in that regard when it comes to design solutions?

There’s a growing sense of urgency, and that’s good. You’ve got to think about sea level and solutions to sea-level rise at different scales. One scale is districtwide. There are places like Columbia Point, where UMass is growing and where there’s the opportunity for relatively significant development. Columbia Point’s going to need new streets, new infrastructure, and new utilities to get to its ultimate density. So instead of thinking block by block or developer by developer, let’s think districtwide and think about what’s the right infrastructure for storm water, what’s the right elevation for new streets. The development will come block by block, but put the infrastructure in with a master plan in mind that’s relevant to climate change.

There’s been some early chatter about erecting a massive barrier in Boston Harbor in response to sea-level rise. Do you think you’ll see something like that in your lifetime?

I do think we’ll see the beginning of an implementation strategy in my lifetime. The good news about our harbor is it’s a great harbor in terms of its configuration, and you can think about this incrementally. You’re really looking for solutions to two problems: sea-level rise, which is incremental, and storm surge, which can happen at any time. I think it’s essential that we head that way with a sense of urgency.

As someone who helped design Fenway Triangle Trilogy and the South End’s Ink Block, how do you account for the city’s housing crunch and rising rents when working on high-end real estate projects?

One of the great issues facing this city is affordability. We could talk about climate change or social inequity, but affordable housing is a huge issue. We’re attracting young talent to this city, and in order to retain them, they need to be able to afford to live here. And then there is a more disadvantaged population that we also need to protect. So what are the solutions? I think the mayor has put a lot of emphasis on this, and he’s done a great job. He said his mandate from day one in office was to add 53,000 new housing units by 2030. He’s going to beat that, and you may see him even increase the goal. I think the local economy has shown that when you increase supply, you do put control on costs. But we’ve got to build different housing types.

What do you mean by that?

Everything from micro-units to cohousing that supports all the different populations that live here. The reality is, in order to maintain this engine of innovation in Boston and Cambridge, you have to provide housing at an affordable cost. Maybe it’s through this idea of cohousing, where tenants have their own place to live but share a whole cluster of amenities, even down to kitchens and dining space. My clients think in terms of the rate per square foot. The user, that graduate student, thinks in terms of “What’s my rent every month?” And that’s what we all have to think about, because frankly, there’s a lot of competition for all of the talent we have here, and it could move.

From a business perspective—even when you’ve attained the level of success that your firm has—how do you differentiate yourself? Especially when working with engineers, construction firms, and subcontractors?

Architecture is the marriage of art and science, or art and technology, or art and engineering. But the thing that differentiates it from the pure arts is that you have to have a client. We need clients in order to build things. So when Howard and I started this firm, one of our primary tenets—and it’s kind of audacious to say this—was that we’re not going to let ourselves be framed by a particular building type. We’re not going to be the healthcare architect or the hotel architect or the retail architect or the residential architect. We work every day to achieve diversity. Today, we’re actually working on a pop-up retail store in Manhattan that’s 1,500 square feet, and we’re working on planning MIT’s Volpe site, which will be millions of square feet.

Are there any buildings in the city that you look at and say, “Jeez, I wish I’d thought of that”?

Absolutely. I look at buildings and I really admire the design solution, the creativity, the craft. I can name a number of them. The Media Lab at MIT, by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, stands out for a variety of reasons. It houses the Media Lab and it creates this whole sense of open innovation. You can walk in, and what you’ll see is all of the stuff that goes on in the Media Lab, from the robotics to the prosthetic devices to all their sustainable city activities. There’s an atrium in the middle, and all these different types of creative studios look into each other. And as you walk through the building you’re looking into them. It’s a beautiful building that really serves its function. It promotes that culture of innovation.

With the tech boom and the biopharma boom, are you seeing the design of the city change?

We’ve been a very innovative society at least from the Industrial Revolution—you could argue even before that. But what’s changed, and what you see when people talk about the innovation ecosystem in Cambridge and Boston, is that innovation is open. Whether it’s Kendall Square, MIT, Harvard, or the big biopharmaceuticals like Novartis or Sanofi, they’re not going to suburban campuses and building a big security fence around an office park. They’re coming into the city, they’re being part of the public realm, and they’re mixing. Eric Lander, at the Broad Institute, calls it “a free-trade zone” of ideas. I love that phrase. It’s a big, big idea that there is so much more to be gained from collaboration than competition.

What’s the toughest part of this business?

When the economy is bad, it’s very bad for our profession. We’re very responsive to the economy, and I’ve had young people—particularly in 2008 and 2009 when the world fell apart and we were in the Great Recession—who said, “This profession is too hard. It’s too subject to outside forces, and I want to go do X.” And I would say to them, “Don’t let me stop you from doing X if X is your passion. But if architecture is your passion and X is your second choice, stick with the passion.” I tell them they’re right, the industry is cyclical and we are vulnerable, but in fact, over the long term, they can do a lot if they really love what they’re doing.

How did you get into architecture—did you play with Legos all the time as a kid?

I didn’t play with Legos. I played with something called American Plastic Bricks. They came in these canisters with different sizes of bricks, and different kinds of windows, and different roofs. I honestly don’t even remember who gave me the first one, probably my parents, and I fell in love. I had thousands of these bricks and I took over the ground in our basement and I built cities.

Did you know then that you wanted to be an architect? How did you get your start?

My father was a carpenter and a homebuilder, and he would take me to construction sites when I was six or seven years old on a Saturday morning. I worked for my father every summer in high school and every summer in college. It was a very small company that he owned, and he built only three or four houses a year. So I would spend the summers swinging a hammer, and from that I came to have a great respect for craft. I’ll never forget that I would go to work with my father in the morning, and at the end of each day he would stop before he got in his truck and look back at what we had built that day—the progress of the last eight hours. I was a teenager, so I’m not saying I was all that conscious of everything going on around me, but that sort of tangible progress stuck in my brain.

But you still took a bit of a circuitous route to architecture, right?

I went to Notre Dame as an undergraduate and I was an English major. Then I went to the University of Chicago as a graduate student and got my master’s degree in literature. And then several years later I went back to Notre Dame to get my degree in architecture.

There seems to be a bit of a disconnect between a master’s in lit and designing buildings, no?

I don’t think they’re that different. They’re related through the creative process, they’re related through the storytelling, because I think buildings tell stories and books, obviously, tell stories.

That’s a pretty serious mustache you’ve got. Have you ever shaved it?

My first mustache appeared freshman year in college. It has had all sorts of manifestations, as you might imagine. You’re not going to find a mustache style that I didn’t have at one point. And at some point, I don’t know why, I said, “When I turn 50, I’m going to shave off my mustache.” And so I did. I shaved it off, and it was shocking. I literally shaved once and grew it right back. I couldn’t deal with it.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Discover what’s going to get you excited every day. I can’t imagine having a job or being in a profession where it starts at seven in the morning and stops at six at night. That is not what I do. Architects are thinking about their work all of the time, because you live in a world that you’re contributing to and building in some way. You have to discover your passion, you have to work hard, and, maybe most important, you have to be compassionate.

Close your eyes and envision the Boston skyline a hundred years from now. What’s it like? Are we going to look like an Asian megacity? Will the Pru and Hancock be dwarfed by a new generation of skyscrapers?

That’s a fabulous question. I wish I were smart enough to know. I don’t think we’re going to look like Hong Kong or one of the new megacities because we’re really very compact—we’re 48 square miles—and in many ways surrounded by water. We’ll grow in density, but we need to solve the mobility problem. Density works when we have mobility. When we have the ability to get on the Red Line and get from the Seaport to Kendall—that’s a very big deal. I think the city will grow and I think population will grow as long as we solve the big problems. But I don’t see the day when the Hancock is a small building in the city.

Can you ever walk or drive past a building you’ve designed and not look at it, or are you constantly scrutinizing your work?

Every day for work I come into South Boston from the South End and go past Liberty Wharf. I look at it every day. I look at it because there’s wood on that building, and the wood changes color and they take great care of it, and I look at it every day. I look at the New Balance building—I look at it at night when the lights are on. It’s great when you’ve got a building that’s under construction and you go past it every day, because then you see a little bit of progress every day. I look at these buildings sometimes in a very self-critical way and say, “I wish we’d done this differently” or “I wish that that color was lighter or darker.” I have those thoughts, for sure.

Do you find yourself thinking about retirement?

When I was younger, people would tell me that architecture is an older profession, and you see people such as Frank Gehry, Cesar Pelli, Norman Foster—international stars working into their eighties and even well through their eighties. So I think that part of the reason why people stay so long in this profession is because you only do this if you really love it, and if you really love it, you want to continue doing it. But I also think that it’s because you have to earn the really good opportunities and you earn them over time. It takes a long time from when a project is conceived to when it’s finished. So if you start stacking up those five-, six-, and eight-year-long projects, all of a sudden you’re getting older. But I love what I do and I love working in this city.

How do you start thinking about the future of the firm now that Howard has passed?

We remain committed to doing what we do, and we remain committed to the city of Boston. We have, over the past several years, been putting into place different parts of a plan for how the firm will transition over time. I certainly never anticipated this, but we always thought that the firm would succeed us. We have a lot on our plate and are going to move forward with great anticipation, with the wind at our back. Howard was my friend and a great partner for many years. So I’ll move in to the next chapter ahead, but I will never forget the chapter that came before.