Successful residentials architecture often involves meticulous, almost obsessive attention to every aspect of a house. The ideal commission comes with a substantial budget that allows architects to package the total concept, from a house's layout and proportions to the pattern on the curtains and the shape of a chair leg. For many architects, even that is not enough. In the last decade, big-name architects have broadened their artistic reach—and their revenue stream—by mixing markets; middle-class consumers now happily buy bathtubs designed by Philippe Starck and dustpans by Michael Graves. But architecture can also influence seemingly unrelated areas of design, and vice versa. An increasing number of architects, it seems, are getting paid to design Web sites and product packaging and to invent brand identities. Some are making narrative films about their ideas; others are putting their architecture to music. For a growing subset of architects, the office has become quite a versatile place, an atelier of modern technology and creative culture.

  • Credit: Jo Tyler

On the one hand, this freewheeling design sensibility is most prevalent among graduates of progressive art and architecture schools such as the Pratt Institute, Columbia University, and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). Los Angeles architect Liz Martin, a 1992 SCI-Arc grad and the founder of Alloy Design and Technology, notes that in preparation for large-scale design competitions, Rem Koolhaas sometimes hires an extra 50 people from disparate design backgrounds for a brainstorming session, and that Thom Mayne, a SCI-Arc founder, also works that way. Recently, however, cultural theorists such as Richard Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class) and Daniel Pink (Free Agent Nation) have weighed in on the grassroots nature of this phenomenon. In his newest book, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead Books, 2005), Pink says cross-disciplinary design is part of a growing cultural shift in the way we think and work, and he predicts that the ability to master that kind of creative synergy will mean the difference between who gets ahead and who falls behind.

“Design is a high-concept aptitude that is difficult to outsource or automate—and that increasingly confers a competitive advantage in business,” he writes. By high concept, he means “the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new.”

Mixed Media

Whether or not it's the wave of the future, architects with melting-pot practices say it enriches their professional lives. For Craig Bachellier, it's also a handy way to broaden his client base while he works toward an architecture license. Bachellier started his Manhattan firm Assemblages in 1998, a year after earning an architecture degree from Pratt. Trained as a classical cellist from age 3, he studied film and photography at Pratt, and along the way picked up Internet code programming. After setting up shop with three partners—an architect, a graphic designer, and another architect-in-training—an eclectic mix of projects began rolling in. Commissions from commercial clients often segued into requests for business branding, Web design, and residential work.

A serendipitous contact kicked off the business model by which the firm operates. While designing a house addition in Vermont, Bachellier was asked to create a Web site for the client's sister-in-law, Kerry Kennedy. Kennedy wanted a Web site to help publicize her book Speak Truth to Power, which tells the stories of 50 human rights defenders. That commission led to promotional pieces for several spin-off projects, including a multimedia presentation for a traveling photographic exhibit.

Unlike traditionally run large firms that compartmentalize their architecture and graphics divisions, charrette and crit sessions at these offices usually include everyone. “A lot of this is fluid, making connections in ways you wouldn't doing strictly residential work,” Bachellier explains. “We've had some weird moments, talking about how we'll put a house together but having my programmers plugging in ideas for using a similar abstract language for Web projects and logo branding.”

Big-picture thinking is second nature for students coming out of experimental schools, where traditional drafting and AutoCad are viewed as boring and outmoded. Eric Safyan, owner of Coney Island Architecture in Brooklyn, says PowerPoint presentations were banned at SCI-Arc because they are too linear. In one studio, students were required to create computer Flash sites for their presentations, showing how people move through and interact with space.

Safyan, who graduated in 2001, wants to attract multi-family housing clients who need not just construction drawings but a marketing concept that includes a Web site, brochures, and material samples. Currently, he's building a site for Terrence Blanchard, the Grammy Award–winning trumpet player and film score composer, which entails streaming music and video, message boards, and animation. For a friend who's a barbecue master, he's fashioning an identity for a new barbecue sauce. “A lot of this stuff just comes at me and I don't say no to a project, so I end up flipping back and forth,” Safyan says. “Architecture is my first passion, so as soon as I get my license I'll be much more involved with building. But this other stuff will be an important part of my practice, putting a whole concept together that you can market in the built world and the virtual world.”

How architects think is as important as what they build, and filmmaking can enrich the architectural imagination too. At Lightroom in Decatur, Ga., an architect, a graphic designer, and a multimedia designer (or expat architect, as Kevin Byrd calls himself on his Web site, lightroom.tv) explore the various ways people experience space. Two years ago, Byrd founded the firm with Bill Carpenter, his architecture professor at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga. Byrd notes that architecture, interactive CD-ROMs, and Web sites all use compressed and expanded space to provide information and entertainment. “To a certain degree that's why we became interested in film, because the narrative nature of that medium can inform architecture as well,” he says. “When you're working with people from other disciplines, you're able to take on more complex problem-solving.”

As well as designing modernist houses, Web sites, and print media, Lightroom has explored filmmaking mostly for pleasure and self-promotion. A recent film, Insert Logo Here, looked at the relationship between consumers and the corporate image. The Cycle Theory, a short narrative film, was shown this spring at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts in Atlanta, part of an exhibition about the design process.