International collaboration isn’t necessarily easy, but it can enable great design. Sasaki does it by selecting the right clients, relying on local expertise, and bringing in former employees who have local knowledge.

International collaboration isn’t necessarily easy, but it can enable great design. Sasaki does it by selecting the right clients, relying on local expertise, and bringing in former employees who have local knowledge.

Sasaki Associates’ offices in Watertown, Mass., are located in a renovated mill building dating to the mid-1800s that overlooks the Charles River just a few miles upriver from downtown Boston. This might seem like an unlikely place from which to run a global design firm. The spaces are open and democratic — purposefully so in order to encourage the collaborative and interdisciplinary spirit that is the essence of the firm. Landscape architects meet with urban planners; architects strategize with specialists in eco-technology; interior designers seek to learn from graphic designers and vice versa. The atmosphere is warm but frenetic, cordial but passionate. Designers are encouraged — even required — to step outside the normal bounds of their professional disciplines. Multiple ideas are put forth; resolution comes only after issues have been tested and debated in a lively forum.

Because of the extent of the firm’s international work, in any given week there might be clients in from the United Arab Emirates, India, or Vietnam who join the charettes and design critiques, and almost invariably they leave saying how stimulating and invigorating the process has been. One Sasaki principal, with a background in literature and the arts, describes our way of working as akin to Aaron Copland’s music — elegant and harmonious but open to improvisation and individual imprint.

Sasaki Associates is one of the world’s leading multi-disciplinary design firms. We won the 2002 international competition to design the urban design framework for the Olympic Green, the principal site of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. At present we have major ongoing projects in Greece, Lebanon, Abu Dhabi, India, China, and Vietnam, among many others. Our global world view is matched by the diversity of our 350-plus professionals, representing 37 countries and speaking 30 languages.

At Sasaki, no one studio dominates. Each contributes multi-perspective approaches to solving design problems. Our firm structure echoes this balance — virtually unique among major design firms, all disciplines are represented in firm ownership. This is done purposefully so that no one group can eclipse another.

When people look at our firm’s current portfolio of work, they almost always assume we have large, fully-staffed offices in the four corners of the earth. We do not, and our decision to focus and concentrate our studio operations here in the United States has much more to do with preserving our unique way of working than with the cost of foreign operations or moving employees and their families overseas. We believe strongly that the quality of our designs is dependent on the lively give-and-take that exists in our firm, day in and day out. There is an esprit de corps and a control of quality that simply could not be replicated by renting a few thousand square meters of office space and hiring staff in Athens, Dehli, or Shanghai. Laptops may be portable, but the creative energy of a large interdisciplinary design studio is not.

This working strategy by its very essence requires international collaboration. We see this collaboration as existing on several different levels: in the clients we choose to work with, in the crucial local experts with whom we team on large complex projects, and on the wide network of what I call Sasaki alumni — the many people who have worked at this firm over its 55-year history and have gone on to form their own firms in distant parts of the world. This diaspora of Sasaki talent is important to us because these people, having been tutored at Sasaki, can form an indispensable resource for us on the ground around the world.

The Right Clients

We believe in working for clients who share our values and world view, including among other things: a commitment to an environmentally and culturally appropriate solution to the site and program at hand; a belief in the public urban realm and in vibrant, economically and socially diverse cities; and a philosophy that design must go beyond problem solving toward a poetic expression of a people’s highest collective beliefs and aspirations. We look for projects that will, in the end, benefit society, broadly and globally defined.

Of course, in the fiercely competitive global architecture, urban design, and landscape architecture market, one cannot speak strictly of “picking” one’s clients. On the other hand, Sasaki’s depth of experience and insight in various markets allows us to build on long-term relationships with both public and private entities. One example is Shui On Land Limited in China, whose own self-described vision is “To be the best property developer, owner, and operator on the Chinese mainland.”

In one project for Shui On, we created a comprehensive land management strategy for the entire 9,400-hectare Lashihai Basin in southwestern China. Often described as one of the last great places on earth, the basin’s history and ecosystems are threatened by breakneck economic growth. The framework plan seeks to integrate aesthetic, social, cultural, and economic objectives, as well as long-term strategies that promote ecological conservation and restoration. Sasaki identified a limited amount of land for new development that is carefully sited so that it does not upset the delicate ecological and cultural balance of the basin, thus preserving the area’s unique environmental heritage. The new development will be a mix of uses such as hotels and spas, residential communities, cultural attractions, and educational facilities that will ensure that the area attracts low-impact tourism uses rather than the mass tourism that currently is the main economic driver in the region. Development areas are sited carefully to minimize impact to existing villages and agricultural land, and buildings are organized to echo the fabric of traditional settlements in the basin, learning from the patterns of this unique architectural vernacular.

In the booming city of Kunming in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province, another Shui On project is Caohai North Shore, designed as a sustainable urban district regeneration, which holds the promise of becoming a model for ecologically restorative development in the region. One of the key elements of the plan is to restore a portion of the lake — currently one of the most polluted bodies of water in China — through a series of strategies including identifying locations for new wastewater treatment plants, dredging sediment to reduce phosphorous and nitrogen loads, constructing additional wetlands that will filter stormwater from the community, and reintroducing native vegetation and wildlife. While the cleaning will be a long and arduous process, the plan looks to a future when the previously neglected waterfront will be the new “living room” of Kunming, composed of cultural and entertainment venues, pedestrian-oriented streets with ground-level retail and restaurants, a collection of offices geared toward creative industry, multiple new schools, and a variety of unique residential neighborhoods with dramatic views of the lake.

Acting Locally

Design for the built environment is complex under the most “normal” conditions — that is, an American firm doing an American project. Add the language, code, and cultural differences that present themselves overseas, and finding the right local collaborator firms is crucial.

Here again, Sasaki’s interdisciplinary firm structure plays an important role. The tight compartmentalization of individual disciplines in a firm can lead to an impression that it is strictly an architecture firm or that it does only landscape architecture. Our cross-disciplinary structure allows our experts to speak as peers to their counterparts in collaborative local firms, who in turn are more versed in local laws, customs, and codes. But they nonetheless realize that Sasaki has expertise across multiple fields. As such we never turn over any particular aspect of a project to a local firm. Rather, we work together to make the best decisions in the interests of clients and the final project.

While we eschew the idea of opening permanent offices overseas, we do at times establish one- or two-person project offices in particular project locales. As it happens, this is often a person who has worked at Sasaki in the past and has gone back to his or her home country and applied our work style with success there, although at a smaller scale.

A Digital World

Digital technologies have transformed the design world and allowed firms on the international stage to minimize their carbon footprints. As a firm committed to the environment, Sasaki finds the use of communication technology especially important. Teleconferencing, FTP sites, e-mail, instant messaging and the many other forms of sharing information are crucial in our goal of reducing overall jet travel. Harnessing technology can not only minimize the effects of great distance, but it can also mitigate the frustration of time differences — when we’re just beginning our day, they’ve all gone home and vice versa.

I have a good recent example of this. We have an especially effective relationship with the client, located in the United Arab Emirates. The client group is a governmental agency but one with a private, entrepreneurial spirit. By that I mean that their standards are exceptionally high, but they look beyond immediate profit to the larger improvement of local and national economies and citizens’ lives. The project is to transform a former major sports venue into a mixed-use urban district with retail, residential, hotels, office, live/work, and community sports facilities, all replacing what is at present an assemblage of under-used structures and parking lots.

A few weeks ago, as is often the case, the design team needed to confer, but members were dispersed around the globe. So we organized one of our regular conference calls. I was in a taxi in Gurgaon, India. The project manager was in Boston; another project designer was visiting his mother in Toronto; the landscape architect was working from home in Providence, R.I.; the client and infrastructure consultants were in the UAE; and a Sasaki alumnus and member of the design team was in Buenos Aires, where he lives. The 40-minute call, across four continents, went off without a hitch. We were able to talk and share visual information, but most important, we were discussing things in real time, going back and forth, reaching a consensus.

It’s not always this clean and seamless — collaboration can be messy. But out of messiness can come great design. As I see it, the necessary elements are designers and clients having aligned interests and visions; tapping into known professionals at the local level, especially ones with whom we’ve collaborated in the past and who are familiar with our firm’s way of working; and making the best use of modern technology’s abilities to blur borders and bridge divides of time and space.