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by Bene Wahlbrink


Summary of a research project on work methodologies within The Architects Collaborative, 1945-1995

With the increasing complexity of numerous projects and the constantly growing number of participants, equality between the disciplines involved in architectural practice is a difficult scenario to imagine. The idea that the charismatic architect acts in a well-considered manner at the centre of events and determines the issues as the dominant authority is still anchored in many minds and thus shapes numerous architectural debates. The professional field is characterised by employees who, in addition to the long working hours and low salary, experience little appreciation and are therefore looking for new career paths. Published projects are often merited to a single author, without taking into account the process of the several people involved. This was also the case with many projects of `The Architects Collaborative´ (TAC), whose numerous buildings are often only associated with the name of Walter Gropius. Even though the firm was `established on the concept of anonymity and internal cooperation´[1], its namesake buildings were epitomizing one of its founding partners. For example, the Harvard Graduate Center (1949) in Cambridge today is known as `The Gropius Complex´; the `Hansa Apartment Block´ in Berlin for the International Building Exhibition 1957 is called `Walter-Gropius-Haus´; and the master plan Britz-Buckow-Rudow– developed in West Berlin from 1959 for 45,000 people –bears the name `Gropiusstadt´. The reality is that these projects were developed by a team of several architects and many specialist planners and are not the result of one hand alone, as is so frequently assumed.


Hansa Apartment Block in Berlin, Design Sketch
(Landesarchiv Berlin)

Although TAC existed for fifty years (1945-1995) and became `one of the largest and most successful offices of the postwar era´[2] in the US, the former team-based practice is hardly relevant in today’s architectural debate. But due to a renewed interest in the topic of collaboration and authorship, even the most oblivious stories are finding relevance again. Michael Kubo’s dissertation from 2018 at the MIT brought many details of TAC's history to light and explores `the rise of the body of collaborative and team-based methods of production´[3] in the decades after World War II. In 2019 former employee Arnold Körte wrote about his own experiences working for TAC between 1962 and 1964, [4] after the company had already evolved from a social `Bauatelier´[5] in Cambridge MA into a large architectural firm. The history shows the complexity that an unconventionally run office can face and ultimately leads to the question that will gain relevance of the profession in the times to come: How should architects collaborate? And do collective processes lead to new perceptions of appreciation for the participants involved in the multidisciplinary field of architecture?

The project after completion
(Photo: Horst Siegmann,
Landesarchiv Berlin)

The Architects Collaborative, 1950
(Photo: Walter R. Fleischer)

TAC_1950_Photo-Walter R. Fleischer.jpg

Questioning the traditional structures of architectural offices, the eight founding partners of TAC initiated a fundamental change based on collective principles. Although some of the partners did not know each other at the beginning of the office‘s activity, all of them shared the idea of a cooperative teamwork based on unconventional working structures to influence architectural decisions. This was not about the dissolution of individual opinion, but rather the inclusion of individual positions within the work processes. Weekly conferences were an important component between the partners, where both architectural and company-related economic issues were discussed. The project managers presented the development of various building projects, which could only be further processed if an exchange took place. In terms of architectural design strategies, each project was initiated by two to three partners, regardless of size or complexity, and always had a principal architect. The profits and fees – including salaries from teaching activities – were divided equally among the partners to establish an equitable remuneration and appreciation for all those involved. With the name `The Architects Collaborative´, the founding members consciously decided on joint authorship and against competition within the firm. TAC was even the first major architectural practice in the US not to use the individual names of partners for the office name.[6]



The weekly conferences at TAC
(The Architects Collaborative 1945-1965, Arthur Niggli Ltd.; 1. Edition 1966, 15)

The importance of solidarity-based cooperation is particularly evident in the first realised settlement project, `Six Moon Hill´ from 1948. After completion, all the younger partners not only built up the newly founded architectural office, they also lived together with other families in a residential community. Thus from the very beginning, private family life was shared, with certain tasks such as childcare distributed between the households. This decision demonstrates how much the young office founders believed in the concept of collectivity. Since Walter Gropius had already been able to realise his own house in Lincoln ten years earlier, Six Moon Hill developed from the beginning into a special project in which all young founding members were involved together as partners-in-charge. 

Site Plan_Six Moon Hill.jpg
Fletcher House, Six Moon Hill, Lexington, Mass., 1948. Photograph by Ezra Stoller, Esto ©

TAC, Six Moon Hill,
Lexington, 1948-49, site plan

Fletcher House, Six Moon Hill, Lexington, Mass., 1948. (Photograph by Ezra Stoller, Esto © Ezra Stoller/Esto)

Over the course of time, the organisational structures and areas of responsibility of the office management were elaborated. Although TAC's unconventional approach caused opposition and doubt, especially amongst other architectural firms, the consortium developed into a firm with unprecedented growth and global activity. Such a development required new office premises, when the firm incorporated as `TAC Inc.´ in 1963. Incorporation required that TAC appoint a president, vice-president, and series of other directors. Because such a procedure was regulated by American law, and not in line with the working methods and the concept of a horizontal structure, TAC rotated these positions among the partners on an annual basis. With a new headquarter in Cambridge, inaugurated in 1966, and a comprehensive 25th anniversary monography from the same year, this period marks the high point of the office's history and is at the same time characterised by many changes. In the course of the history, branch offices were established, for example in Rome, Kuwait and San Francisco, with many new architects and junior partners who have taken on more and more responsibility within the offices. The Founders’ idea – where general practitioners worked together, rather than separated into different roles – was no longer compatible with the size of the office. 

TAC on the Cover of
Casabella 318, September 1967


Although, the following years of the history have hardly been documented to date, yet it can be said that the collective approach from the beginning became increasingly replaced by a profit-oriented office model. In the first years, an atmosphere was created to unite against internal competition in which the employees influenced and supported each other in their work processes. In an essay on TAC's working methodology, founding partner Sarah P. Harkness mentioned that `there are two ways to go – towards competition or towards collaboration´[7]. According to Arnold Körte, a status oriented mentality developed within the office between the newer junior partners, which led to more narrow hierarchical relationships evolving that proved to be difficult to reconcile within the founders’ framework.[8] From 1983, when about 390 people were still working in the office, the number of employees decreased consistently. Follow-up orders from projects in Kuwait and other countries in the Middle East kept failing to materialize, and so the office suffered a final major financial setback in 1990 after Iraq attacked the state of Kuwait and the Second Gulf War ensued. In the last few years TAC was burdened with too much bank debt and was declared insolvent in 1995.

The Architects Collaborative Suspends Operations.jpg

The announcement of the suspension of operations, Progressive Architecture Magazine, June 1995.

This short summary reveals only small parts of a long history. Many internal decisions, but also economic and political circumstances from different periods shaped the course of the office. There are many opinions describing TAC’s evolution. On the one hand, it is assumed that with anonymous authorship, the architecture also remains anonymous and lacks for relevance to contemporary debates. Other voices claim that the architectural quality is not comparable with the early work of Gropius, with which the oeuvre of TAC can be associated with. Above all, the unconventional approach of collaboration based on solidarity must be appreciated as a challenge that led to many years of increasing success and an idea that changed the perception of the working environment for many architects.

The pivotal moment for TAC was probably when it tipped from being a balanced collaborative project, to an incontrollable financial machine governed by the forces of the market, what ultimately led to its demise as a working entity. This development could be seen as a direct consequence of the reliance on larger projects financed by speculation and draws a parallel somehow to the growth of the well-known commercial architectural brands of today.

Nevertheless, it can be seen that increasingly more positions and tendencies are currently developing that consciously aim at a new kind of collective approach. Young architectural practices especially, are trying to build an approach that takes into account several, more relevant issues such as granting equal rights, design responsibilities and supporting fairness within the working environment. The example of TAC shows how eight architects, through the desire for social change and their search for new roles, have above all made an appreciation of the collaborators possible. 

[1] Walter Gropius and Sarah P. Harkness, The Architects Collaborative 1945-1965 (Teufen: Verlag Arthur Niggli, 1966), 27.

[2] Michael Kubo, Architecture Incorporated: Authorship, Anonymity, and Collaboration in Postwar Modernism

     (Thesis: Ph. D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Architecture, 2018), 109.

[3] Ibid., 05.

[4] Arnold Körte, Begegnungen mit Walter Gropius in »The Architects Collaborative« TAC. (Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2019)

[5] Walter Gropius and Sarah P. Harkness, The Architects Collaborative 1945-1965 (Teufen: Verlag Arthur Niggli, 1966), 28.

[6] Michael Kubo, Architecture Incorporated: Authorship, Anonymity, and Collaboration in Postwar Modernism  

     (Thesis: Ph. D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Architecture, 2018), 138.

[7] Walter Gropius and Sarah P. Harkness, The Architects Collaborative 1945-1965 (Teufen: Verlag Arthur Niggli, 1966), 28.

[8] Arnold Körte, Begegnungen mit Walter Gropius in »The Architects Collaborative« TAC. (Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2019), 47.

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