CannonDesign, an international design firm with a global network of offices, was founded in 1945 by two brothers, Will Jr. and Don Cannon, one an architect, the other an engineer.
Driven by a passion to compete against the best in the profession, from the firm’s origins in Niagara Falls they crafted a vision that set the stage for expansive growth over the next 65 years. Today, CannonDesign is active across all of North America, in Asia, India and the Middle East, and is ranked in World Architecture’s 2014 Global survey as the 18th largest architecture and engineering firm in the world.
Yet the global firm’s connection to Buffalo, the University at Buffalo and the School of Architecture and Planning remains one of its most important conduits for talent, knowledge and innovative practice opportunities.
To explore the many dimensions of this partnership, the School of Architecture and Planning recently visited CannonDesign’s operations in Buffalo for a discussion with three members of its leadership team, including two School of Architecture and Planning graduates – Principal Michael Mistriner (BPS ‘86), Senior Vice President Keith Alf (BPS ‘90), and Chan Byun, the region’s design principal.
CannonDesign’s role as a top employer of School of Architecture and Planning graduates is perhaps the most measurable indicator of connectivity across the two organizations. Firm-wide, CannonDesign’s staff includes dozens of School of Architecture and Planning alumni, from the school’s earliest graduates to those with newly minted degrees. Many hold senior leadership positions. There are 18 School of Architecture and Planning alumni in the firm’s Buffalo office alone. Executives of the firm say the school’s graduates are among the best: “Our relationship with the school is more than necessary – we depend upon it. Their top talent is on par with any of the top architecture schools,” said Byun.
The feeling goes both ways. “As a global firm with a hand in nearly every dimension of architectural practice, CannonDesign serves as an ideal laboratory for our students and a forum for pioneering practice for our graduates,” said Dean Robert G. Shibley. “They remain one of our most important connections to the profession and practice of architecture.”
For decades, the firm has directly invested in this relationship through support of the School of Architecture and Planning architecture program. In 1989, the firm joined former UB president Steven Sample and Kathryn Brunkow Sample in endowing the Fred Wallace Brunkow Fellowship to produce the school’s annual journal of student work, Intersight. Then in 2001, the firm initiated the CannonDesign Scholarship to support the recruitment of top graduate students through an annual tuition stipend and apprenticeship. To date, 31 students – including three who remain with the firm today – have benefitted from the program.
Its hallmark is the summer internship, offering unparalleled opportunities for practice-based learning and mentoring. CannonDesign scholars have the option to rotate across the firm’s service lines, from interior design, to engineering, to construction management. They work directly on active projects, developing proposals for design competitions or building models, for instance. Each intern is also assigned one or more mentors based on their interests. “If they want to have the CFO as a mentor, that can happen,” said Alf. Adds Mistriner: “We would much rather grow someone than hire someone.”
Former CannonDesign Scholar Nick Cameron (MArch ’04, BPS ’01), now a vice president in the firm’s Chicago office, points to that as the differentiator in both his academic and professional career. With his mother battling terminal cancer at the time, Cameron said the scholarship allowed him to focus on his research, while individuals like School of Architecture and Planning faculty member Harry Warren, then design principal for CannonDesign, and Beth Tauke, associate professor of architecture, encouraged him to stick with it.
“I have been lucky in my professional journey to have been mentored by incredible individuals at both UB and CannonDesign. This is what differentiates both organizations.”
School of Architecture and Planning interns contribute at a high level, according to firm leaders – so much so that CannonDesign has expanded its internship program beyond the CannonDesign Scholarship. “UB’s architecture program is grounded. Its graduates and interns are doers. They are into delivering things rather than talking about it. That’s an asset,” said Byun, adding that students often introduce new technical skills or exploratory design methods to the firm.
School of Architecture and Planning graduates are also on the forefront of CannonDesign’s global impact, particularly in the hyper-developing cities of Shanghai and Mumbai, where CannonDesign has offices. Sitting on the front lines of this global movement is Principal Michael Tunkey (BPS ’00), who started the firm’s Shanghai office in 2005 and will be returning to Buffalo later this year.
The monumental task of building the firm’s China operation involved navigating a complex new market and bridging differences in language, culture and business practices. Tunkey says a passion for design formed in Buffalo, and one piece of advice from his mentor, CannonDesign Co-Chairman and CEO Gary Miller, to always “follow the firm’s vision and core values and the rest will work itself out,” ultimately made it possible. “I was literally on a plane to Guangzhou two days after my [Harvard Graduate School of Design] graduation ceremony,” he said, referring to the whirlwind adventure.
“I’ve never taken a long break and never particularly wanted to. UB was where I found that passion. I’m incredibly thankful for that.”
Looking ahead, Tunkey says China’s shift away from purely economic-driven growth to sustainable, human-oriented growth will have dramatic implications for the industry: “We’re just at the very, very beginning of this shift, but I believe we’ve reached a tipping point and will see massive change in Chinese society’s expectations.”
Indeed, as globalization accelerates change in the profession, fluid dialogue between the academic and practice realm takes on increased importance — a trend that’s readily apparent at CannonDesign and the School of Architecture and Planning.
Mark R. Mendell, co-chairman of CannonDesign played a direct role in this arena. He is a founding member of the School of Architecture and Planning Dean’s Council, an advisory group of leading professionals formed in 2013.
“Over the years UB has been a prime recruiting ground for us because a number of our top performers are alums. I attribute this to the exceptional quality of the students they attract, to the school’s faculty and especially its innovative leadership.”
Added Mendell: “Personally it’s been gratifying to work in support of Dean Shibley as a member of his Dean’s Council because it is such a powerful mechanism to connect the academy and the profession – something many other schools of architecture can learn from the School of Architecture and Planning!”
This academic-practice exchange is pervasive, extending from the classroom to community. For instance, CannonDesign associates are frequent lecturers and visiting critics, and several serve as adjunct faculty. The firm is also a frequent sponsor of the school’s public lecture series, most recently co-hosting a conversation among UB faculty and students and Buffalo practitioners on public interest design, practiced by the firm through its Open Hand Studio.
“Our collaborations with CannonDesign continue to enrich our students’ educational experience. The department is able to tap into the office for teachers, critics and perhaps most importantly employers,”
said Omar Khan, associate professor and chair of architecture at the School of Architecture and Planning. “This is a great resource for the school to have in its backyard. I am also encouraged by the dedication of our alumni at the firm to keep the pipeline of dialogue and mentorship open with their regular participation in our reviews and lectures.”
The two organizations are also deeply entwined around a commitment to research-based design. As former director of research for CannonDesign, Principal Peter Hourihan (MArch ’71) led the firm’s efforts to integrate evidence-based inquiry into all aspects of design, from a building’s water and energy systems to workplace design for enhancing productivity and collaborative interaction.
Hourihan says the roots of his multi-disciplinary and investigative design ethos were established in Buffalo in 1969, when he enrolled in the first graduate class of the “School of Architecture and Environmental Design.”
“What still resonates with me is the spirit of research through practice and engagement and the school’s learning-through-doing model. It’s still a valid way to build professionals,”
said Hourihan, who works out of the firm’s Boston office. He joined CannonDesign in 1974 after the firm acquired Building Sciences Inc., a research and consulting practice co-founded by Hourihan and four other School of Architecture and Planning graduates.
A recent example of this research-based design at work is the firm’s partnership with the School of Architecture and Planning’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center) on the design of Greiner Hall, an award-winning residential complex that opened in 2012 on UB’s North Campus. Engaging faculty and students through a design studio, the collaboration applied the latest practices in universal design to create a simple, intuitive space that can accommodate everyone, regardless of ability. Post-occupancy studies on Greiner Hall will further the IDeA Center’s research on universal design standards for public buildings.
Together with the latest research on green design and learning landscapes, the design approach created a model for campus living and a new design standard for the UB campus.
Among the LEED Gold Certified building’s features are electrical outlets high enough to be accessible to wheelchair users, floor tiling made from recycled soda bottles and man-made ponds that capture rainwater.
Greiner Hall’s design is also noteworthy in its response to UB’s campus plan. Working closely with UB’s facilities team, including Shibley as UB’s campus architect, CannonDesign laid out Greiner Hall’s ground floor to encourage students to cut through it, thereby seamlessly connecting the campus’ residential village to its academic core. “The building reaches an arm out to the campus and integrates it in new ways,” said Alf, project manager for the Greiner Hall effort.
The firm is also creating new connections – and designing world-class architecture – on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus in downtown Buffalo. Its facility for Kaleida Health’s Gates Vascular Institute (GVI) and UB’s Clinical Translational Research Center (CTRC) has catalyzed development on the campus and spurred a new culture of design for collaboration. Named by the AIA last year as the most innovative health facility in the country, the building brings together patients, surgeons, researchers and professionals in one “vertical campus.” A two-floor “collaborative core” connects GVI’s clinical care below with UB’s medical research team above.
Mistriner says the facility is part of a broader plan for the medical campus – and the region – that UB and the School of Architecture and Planning has helped to establish, and that has set the stage for a renaissance in Buffalo Niagara. “The foundation has been laid, so now it’s just a matter of putting our seatbelts on and watching it go.”
Indeed, firm leaders say the greatest rewards for their work come when they see the connections across their work and their contributions to place-making in this region and around the globe. Says Mistriner: “If the community prospers, we all prosper.”
As the School of Architecture and Planning grooms future architects to embrace such community-building and a passion for design inquiry, this point of connection is likely to bring these organizations together for years to come.