Thompson Exhibition Building in Mystic (Credit: Derek Hayn/Centerbrook Architects)

Chad Floyd, Centerbrook Architects, on Metaphor, Public, and Place

in Art & Design

ESSEX — There were two choices for Chad Floyd as he designed the Thompson Exhibition Building in Mystic — the literal or the metaphorical.

“The basic idea was to respond to Mystic Seaport’s desire to have a building that would symbolize the institution,” said Floyd, a principal and founding member of Centerbrook Architects and Planners, in a conversation at his office on Friday.

14,000-square foot structure opened in September 2016 and has remained a topic of conversation in the region ever since.

“You could approach it in two general directions — what had been tried before by architects, which was to do it in a semi-literal way and to create a kind of wharf-like structure,” he said. “But to me that was very limiting because it was such a literal idea, and by the way, Mystic has a lot of wharves already, why make another wharf?”

Floyd said he thought it would be more interesting to try to evoke the identity of the seaport on a deeper level, eventually arriving at the building’s wave shape. 

Interior, Thompson Exhibition Building in Mystic (Credit: Derek Hayn/Centerbrook Architects)

“Mystic calls itself the Museum of America and the Sea and it’s got lots of aspects of America — the town, the ships — but the sea part is not as heavily emphasized,” he said. “It also uses spiral geometry, which I call the geometry of the sea because most creatures of the sea have a vertebra structure like that. And it’s also made of wood and feels a little like the timbers of an old sailing ship — so it’s about metaphor.”

For Floyd and the firm, creating the design in Mystic began with a process that is called “placemaking.”

“We’re not interested in the universal, we’re interested in the particular and we’re on a crusade because one of the things we don’t like is how much the same everything is getting”

“For a place to be memorable, there has to be some special sense of place — it’s not just like every other place,” said Floyd. “In our work, we’re interested in finding the particular elements that make a place special… One way or the other, you try to make what you’re doing really particular as opposed to universal.” 

Just because architecture serves basic human needs — shelter and a place to work, play, gather, or sleep — doesn’t mean that buildings and spaces with similar functions should look the same, the current trend in the United States, said Floyd. 

“We’re not interested in the universal, we’re interested in the particular and we’re on a crusade because one of the things we don’t like is how much the same everything is getting,” he said. “If you get in a car and go to Arizona, it’s not that different other than the trees and the heat. It’s the same franchises… the federal government has propagated lighting standards and lighting standards that make everything look the same and it just doesn’t seem very stimulating and we’re interested in making places special.”

It’s a process that requires a kind of deep inquiry that gives the community a chance to engage and participate in creating the design, said Todd Andrews, principal, who joined the interview with Floyd. 

“We really do invest time to understand the institution or whatever group we’re working with so that our designs are about them, not only resolving questions or their needs but becoming a better embodiment of who they are through that process,” said Andrews, who has been with the firm since 1996.

Todd Andrews, principal, Centerbrook Architects & Planners (Credit: CT Examiner/Hewitt)

Elizabeth Hedde, an associate principal, also part of the interview, said that the firm doesn’t have a design “vocabulary” that they overlay onto the client.

“That’s one of the core values of everyone who works here — that curiosity — the excitement that every project is different because every client is different,” she said. “We’re curious and we say — okay — now we get to learn everything about basketball arenas and this school and what makes them special and gives them an identity.”

Design-a-thons

Floyd graduated Yale School of Architecture in 1973, and spent the next year traveling in India to study festivals and concepts of celebration on a Winchester Fellowship.

His interest stemmed from his involvement in aspects of theater — acting, set design, lighting design. When he returned, he won a two-year National Endowment for the Arts grant to continue his work, attending festivals throughout the U.S.

“I did everything from Strawberry Days in Strawberry Point, Iowa, to the Santa Fe Fiesta, to Pirate’s Day in Tampa Bay — you name it, I was there,” he laughed.

Floyd developed his own theories about the elements of celebration comparing the U.S. and India. He related these theories back to public architecture, urban design and individual buildings. 

“We approached the local tv station and proposed that we have ‘design-a-thons,’ sort of like a Jerry Lewis call-in show, which fit in with the city’s Phil Donahue tradition”

A potential riverfront planning project in Dayton, Ohio, that had previously stirred controversy between the local government and the residents and property owners, stemmed from an interest combining theater with with his theories on celebration and public engagement.

It was 1975, the economy was slow, clients were sparse, and because the firm didn’t have much planning experience yet, it needed an edge.

“We approached the local tv station and proposed that we have ‘design-a-thons,’ sort of like a Jerry Lewis call-in show, which fit in with the city’s Phil Donahue tradition,” said Floyd. “We did six hours of live shows and they were phenomenally successful and we did the plan and it was successful, people loved it.” The firm got the job despite much larger, more experienced competitors. 

Emboldened by success, Floyd took the ‘design-a-thon’ model to Roanoke, Virginia, where he reached 90,000 viewers.

“When we were done we had huge list of private public projects to be done,” he said.

Before the times and government funding changed, he went on to use the model to spark planning projects in Watkins Glen, New York, Springfield, Mass., Indianapolis, Indiana and Salem Virginia.

“The television aspect of that community design workshop stopped but that process is something that still carries through in our design today,” he said. “Those workshops that started as design-a-thons now carry through as community workshops, whether it is with a city, a church, a school. It’s a process that has really been refined.” 

“It was in the 70’s and 80s,” he said. “There were policies that were conducive to urban development that were stopped during the Reagan administration — programs to pay for public investment that were linked to private investment.” 

The basic idea of it remained, however, and design-a-thons became essentially the prototype for the firm’s inquiry process, Andrews explained.

“The television aspect of that community design workshop stopped but that process is something that still carries through in our design today,” he said. “Those workshops that started as design-a-thons now carry through as community workshops, whether it is with a city, a church, a school. It’s a process that has really been refined.” 

Given the omnipresence of television today, Floyd said he was baffled that the on-air process fell away.

“It seems even more likely that it would be successful now, but we’ve never been able to find anyone interested,” he said. 

Wide-ranging projects

Centerbrook Architects has done a vast number of projects across the country, and many in the local area. A few local projects include the Walter Commons for Global Study & Engagement at Connecticut College, residences and rehearsal hall at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, the Krieble Gallery and a new master plan of the Florence Griswold Museum, a number of projects for the Connecticut River Museum, the renovation of the Garde Arts Center, and others. 

“Younger graduates are drawn here for the work but the challenge we have is we’re not in an urban environment, however those that come here are looking for that smaller town — raising families here, having the outdoors”

This year the firm hired 16 new employees, for a total of 67. The staff includes 12 different countries of nationality, said Jason Cunningham, director of public relations, in an email on Friday. 

Working in Essex away from an urban location can be a challenge for younger hires, but the firm’s reputation and its efforts to provide intellectual stimulation can fill the gap, said Andrews. 

“Younger graduates are drawn here for the work but the challenge we have is we’re not in an urban environment, however those that come here are looking for that smaller town — raising families here, having the outdoors,” he said, adding that every Friday after lunch, firm members hold a 15-minute “Sugar Cube” presentation, named for the space in the building called the cube, focusing on a project, or travel. “It’s a great way to have people present and share about who they are,” said Andrews. “Despite the fact that we might not be in that urban setting, we’re creating a real enclave of design and intellectual exchange.” 

Next year will mark 50 years that firm members have been designing in the Essex building, set on a two-acre campus that includes the Falls River Dam. The complex includes solar panels, a water turbine and a pond geothermal combine that provides 30% of the needed energy. 

“The current Dam was constructed after the flood of 1982, which also swept away other buildings, but this site has been water powered since 1697 through varied forms of industry,” wrote Cunningham, “Our predecessors in this building were the Connecticut Valley Manufacturing company, which produced patented auger drill bits.” 

The firm is also planning to work with the Nature Conservancy on a fish ladder project in the coming months. 

Creating the unique

Aaron Trahan, a senior architect, who took a few minutes away from his projects Friday afternoon, said a conversation with one of the principals of the firm convinced him to leave his position in Boston six years ago to come to Essex. 

“I met Jim Childress at a conference and he described his firm as fitting to the context of wherever they were building. He talked a lot about the values of the firm, like human-scale design, and things that felt good, place-making, design that was meant for people,” said Trahan. 

“There’s a big difference between local and vernacular inspired architecture like we practice, even when it’s a more modern-looking building. A lot of international-style architecture — that could be anywhere”

“I was at a Boston firm doing a lot of big mixed-use projects, so it was a lot of work that was very repetitive — sort of how many ways can you do the same building — and here it just seems like every project is unique, every client is unique, every design is unique. You’re not doing the same thing twice and that was very appealing.”

Trahan said he’s designing several projects for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, including a single family house, a DNA learning center for public school kids in Brooklyn, an auditorium, a research lab that just finished construction and a master plan that will include two hotel buildings, three new research labs and an administration building. 

“Within this one client, we have so many different kinds of projects,” he said. 

Aaron Trahan, senior architect. 2017 AIA Connecticut “Emerging Architect Award” winner.” (Credit: CT Examiner/Hewitt)

Though firm often designs “modern” buildings, they are particular to their environment and could not be placed into other locations, said Trahan. 

“There’s a big difference between local and vernacular inspired architecture like we practice, even when it’s a more modern-looking building. A lot of international-style architecture — that could be anywhere,” he said. “And that was one of the draws that brought me here — each building, you couldn’t just plop it anywhere and it would fit in. It’s a big driver of why I love it here and that’s who we try to design every building, so that it means something to wherever it’s going.” 

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