Successful Approaches to Developing Cultural Attractors Internationally

It requires clear expectations, execution, and effort. International work is exciting — providing opportunities seldom found in domestic markets — but its unique nature can also be demanding, as projects can be resource-intensive and carry financial risk. The following are best practices to approach the design of cultural attractors in the international market developed over time.

Expertise and staying power

Starting With a Unique Expertise

At Cambridge Seven Associates (C7A), our first international work in the late sixties came out of our unique experience designing a new prototype of cultural attractions, specifically aquariums, children’s and science museums. These spaces were different from the typical art or history museum prototype — they focused on content that was either unique in its specialization or regional focus and placed great importance on interactive experiences which is commonplace today. Our specialized expertise provided an opening for international projects which in turn, gave us the opportunity to continue to develop the concept of cultural attraction in new and different cultures. This was especially useful as the American market for cultural facilities matured over the next twenty years, because we found that having an international practice gave us the opportunity — just as it does today — to work at a much larger scale and with greater design vision than that of domestic projects.

Expanding Market Reach Through Credibility

As a young firm, C7A was not always savvy to developing existing client relationships into greater regional opportunities and therefore more work. At first we were simply flattered and thrilled to be a part of the international scene which at the time involved setting up local, temporary offices for the duration of the projects — a necessity because the availability of mass communication. More often than not, these outposts were closed at project completion with staff returning back to Cambridge hoping to find the next, great opportunity. In was only twenty years ago that we changed our outlook, beginning with our work in Kuwait to develop our international practice on a regional basis rather than exclusively on a project type. This refocusing led to a greater commitment, but also regional reputation. It allows us to have a full representation of our project portfolio globally, not just our specialized projects, but most importantly it had a resonating effect on our domestic projects because the value and scale of our international work had greater depth and breadth.

While being an expert can get the foot in the door, building international credibility builds with one client at a time. The basics of marketing are the same in both domestic and international markets. Face-to-face contact is valued universally; and cultivating an international practice requires dedicated time, travel, and resources, often with a greater commitment of senior staff. We have found that success in international practice is a long-term process that requires dedication and attention.

Larger scale, larger opportunities

As mentioned earlier, our international work provides opportunities for us to design work at a scale that is often unparalleled within the United States. Since we are often selected to design spaces for our expertise in a specific building type, we find this work allows us to build, but also explore the concept of communicating a common theme (such as aquatic life) across various cultures where values, concepts, and language change the meaning of what an aquarium is to its visitors.

Developing the Cultural Story

In all of the cultural facilities we have been involved with over the last 50 years, it has been essential to work through the programming and theming of the facility early in the design process for the client and designer to understand the project goals and metrics for success. For example, some aquarium projects deliberately choose to focus local ecosystems at great depth, while others choose a more global outlook (often to include penguins, which visitors adore), or a combination of both approaches. In our experience, as the architect and exhibit designers, providing a holistic approach to developing the content and the built form simultaneously supports both the curatorial story and the support spaces needed to operate the facility. Our greatest success has come from the integration of content, interpretation, environment, and facility that is sensitive and celebrates the regional community in which the building is situated in.

Often international clients know and understand the international architecture and are familiar with their own regional development process, but lack a detailed understand of the process of developing content. It is not uncommon for future international cultural museums to commission the shell and core and then postpone the development of content until it is too late to integrate creatively within the space. We have turned this gap in planning into an opportunity to provide coordinated services. Just as other firms rely on the diversity of their project portfolio to counterbalance market fluctuations — a typical example is to develop an interiors-focused portfolio when new construction is down — we have used our exhibit design expertise to balance and enhance our architecture practice. We have found that the integration of the building and the activity inside is our strongest asset in international cultural projects since there is sometimes uncertainty about where to begin to develop content, or more importantly what is the strongest story to tell visitors. As one principal at C7A said, the “number of empty museums being built around the world is almost criminal.” Museums by their nature need content and a story to appeal to the visitor and make a positive connection between to the museum’s mission.

Cultural Attractions Make a Place Unique

Attractions — such as aquariums, children’s and science museums — become iconic cultural elements that stitch together a region. They are destinations for visitors, but also a strong symbol of shared values. As snapshots of a particular culture, they become much loved, and at best, are spaces that residents can be proud of. Approaching this responsibility, communicating a project’s message must be accessible, inspirational, and unique to reinforce its sense of place. This requires a strong understanding of related museum building types and programs, knowledge of local and international competitive facilities and interest in the regional context for a unique solution. The degree of cultural interpretation desired will differ for each client. Some may have a desire to replicate indigenous shapes, others may be looking for international forms. Also be prepared for clients to ask for a building just like one seen in the United States.

Occasionally, interactive experiences or messaging is in conflict with local customs such as introducing a theater where genders are not allowed to mix without supervision or introducing the concept of diversity in a culture that does embrace the concept fully. Communication and rapport with a client is essential in defining institutional and cultural values that align with the story of a cultural attraction. Expression and interpretation will develop over time and as cultural values may change. The best cultural attractions recognize this change, update, and reinterpret over time with varying exhibits and messaging. Keeping it touch with clients as their facilities change — and likely grow — is a great way to develop relationships and become an ongoing resource.

A Good Idea and Supporting Visuals Can Transcend any Language

Whereas all clients are interested in both the design product and the process involved in how it developed, international clients tend to be more focused on just the result of the finish building. This can be both liberating and frustrating for designers. While it opens up the exploratory design process without restrictions to expose a designer’s process of working, it can also be riskier in the event that the client does not agree with the design solutions presented. Some designers need continual client interactions to develop ideas; this is not always possibility when there is a large geographic distance. Learning how to develop strong design and communicate it properly comes with experience. There are logistics of sending materials overseas for presentation and approval to consider. This often changes the methodology of presenting a design. Almost every architect who has traveled internationally has a story of how some part of their presentation got held up in customs or a model that got damaged in shipping. This is why developing strong communication skills are so important.

One design strategy that we have found is extremely successful is to begin with describing the design through conceptual metaphors that are open-ended enough to have multiple meanings. This is not meant to be ambiguous, rather to provide a generative idea that is multidimensional. Using metaphors allows clients to engage with the imaginative quality of the concept while not getting too focused on its literal meaning. Often we are asked to provide multiple design schemes for a project. By providing different metaphors for different schemes, clients remember the different forms much easier, rather than simply Scheme A versus Scheme B. It becomes easier for them to engage in the comparison of the Nautilus Scheme versus the Canyon Scheme. Metaphors engage and challenge generative opportunities while also suggesting larger formal opportunities for the massing of a building.

International Working Relationships: open outlook and approach are essential

Specialized Skills

Professional skills that serve architects for domestic work translate well into success for international work; however, with care in developing the specialized skills unique to global practice the transition can be much easier. Seeing an international project from concept to completion is an admirable feat, and the rewards can be great both in design freedom and satisfaction. As the world becomes more and more connected, architects must consider international opportunities seriously. International work is exciting — and to be honest, there is nothing else like it. Above all, having an open attitude towards meeting new people and new ways of practice can be the best determining factor for success abroad. Being open to global culture and practices can enhance and refocus our own ways of doing thing without changing your core focus. The key is to take the best of your practice and infuse it with new ideas to create something unique.

Metrics for Success

The range and measures of success vary from firm to firm, project to project, but certain common themes arise especially in international work. Does the project design reflect the cultural values and programmatic goals of the client? Was it a successful working relationship? Will the experience provide opportunity for repeat work in the region or develop opportunity and exposure for similar development elsewhere?

For all businesses looking to be profitable, an essential metric is the ability to get paid for the design services provided. This requires a deep understanding of legal and contractual documents that form the relationship between the client and designer. Two common mistakes in international practice are (1) not factoring design fees net of taxes and (2) not confirming the currency of payment. While both project and currency insurance is available, the cost benefit should be factored into the overall design fee profitability and future financial exposure. Just as in the United States different client types (e.g. corporations, developers, and government agencies) have varying processes for payment. In our experience, government-based or public/private organizations have a record of consistent payments due to their state resources. Just as with work undertaken domestically, the liquidity and expectations of the client carry through into their ability to compensate for design services. Proper research cannot be stressed enough.

Economic Ups and Downs

Developing an international practice can hedge against economic downturns, especially in focused markets, such as attractions and cultural institutions. In the last decade, we have found that when local markets tend to slow more international opportunities ramp up and vice versa. There seems to be a similar balance between the commercial and non-profit sectors of the building industry. We have found that maintaining a diverse international and domestic practice, which in our case focuses on four major market sectors: cultural attractors, higher education, transportation, and hospitality, is our best insurance against market fluctuation. It has also been a good balance for maintaining staffing levels and the sustainable vitality of our practice. Add to that our diversified experience in providing both architecture and exhibit design, we feel we have a marketable flexibility, much more so than when we began pursing international work over forty-five years ago. Additionally the high profile nature of international work attracts and engages a higher quality of staff. The cache of international work attracts designers who are passionate about exploring the relationship between culture and the built environment. Our unique body of work is a reflection of the talent within the office, but also serves to attract outside design talent to join the office. We see it as a win-win.

Distance is Not Always Measured in Miles

In the educational field, an expert on distance education, Michael Moore, developed a theory of transactional distance to describe the psychological and cognitive space between those who teach and their learners. This theory can also apply to different ways in which architects approach domestic and international projects. For example, a local firm working within their own region would likely have numerous face-to-face meetings and interactions over the duration of a project. These frequent moments, occurring easily because of the short physical distance between the designer and client, build rapport and interaction, setting the tone of the relationship. This is a common project management tool to ensure that the client feels their needs are being met with continued and sustained onsite contact. In the case of an international project where there is a greater physical distance, architects must find a way to reduce the transactional distance by being available through video conferencing, mobile phones, and e-mail and by reducing response time, especially taking note of international time differences to ensure the same type of service as a local project. Overcoming the barriers of physical distance can simply be a matter of changing interaction and delivery procedures. In this case, quality interactions can contribute to common understanding and perceptions more than the quantity of meetings. After all, an international client chooses an international design firm for the type of global service they can provide that cannot be found within a close geographic proximity to the site.

The theory of transactional distance relies on three components to shorten the perceived distance between the parties and ensure meaningful experiences and outcomes: strong dialogue and interaction, structure of the process, and autonomy given to the designer. When successful, an international project can be completed without a significant burden to a design firm, provided that there is proper structure and understanding in the process and expectations of the project.

Strong Dialogue

Maintaining clear and strong interaction between the design team, the client, and their appointed stakeholders is an essential element of any successful project — domestic or international. Designers should devote extra attention to client concerns when frequent meeting is not possible due to physical distance and/or international time differences. The reliability of internet and mobile communications has been a game changer in the last ten years. Not only has the cost of communicating internationally significantly decreased, it has provided American firms the ability to close their transactional distance through better response and service. For example, it is not uncommon for me to receive a cell phone call or text from a co-worker while they are traveling internationally. The new normal is connectivity.

As any good communicator knows, non-verbal communication can enhance and reinforce interaction, building trust and understanding between an architect and their client. Trust cannot always be developed via e-mail or even video conferencing, especially when there may be subtle language differences. As architects today, we practice in a world with fluid and fast communication. Care needs to be taken in choosing the language and tone of electronic communication in any professional realm, but especially in international work. In a cross-cultural context, a simple one- or two-line e-mail can be interpreted in variety of ways without the full context and subtly of intention. While there have been no international incidents during in my professional career, there has been some misunderstanding about names and relationships. In these cases, a sense of humor never hurts. When communication is done well and professional rapport is developed, the physical distance between the design team and the project becomes irrelevant because the client feels well-served and is happy with the end result. This is the goal of any successful project.

Structure and Process

Establishing clear expectations and schedules is a must. We have a saying in our office that “it is not over until it is over, and even then, it is not over.” Restating positions, understandings, and reviewing prior negotiations is a commonplace and useful tactic for keeping to the structure and expectations of a design project. Hopefully expectations were agreed upon at the beginning of the process, including a schedule for research, exploration, design, development, refinement, documentation, and tendering. The design team should anticipate their answer when and if a project goes astray. For instance, are there measures in place to allow the process to get back on track? Actively anticipating schedule changes in case there is a sudden shift in project scope or client leadership ensures that the project timeline will continue as agreed and protect the design firm’s financial liability.


International design firms are chosen for a reason — they have something that the client’s local market cannot provide. In some cases this is a specialized expertise or design reputation. As a result there is an implicit expectation that architects will have a degree of autonomy to explore and produce a unique product worthy of the international status.

International practice is as big as it gets, so it is easy to understand the allure and thrill of global practice. It can also be time consuming and resource-intensive. At Cambridge Seven Associates, we have found that international clients often expect multiple solutions to a design problem so we are often clarifying several options where domestic clients would expect us to focus our resources on developing the one ‘best’ solution.

From Concept to Completion, a Signature Building Takes Time

Many of larger developments, like sites for the two cultural attractor buildings we are designing for the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, are just beginning to excavate and lay out the infrastructural backbone for the complex development. The completion of basic services and transportation networks takes time, and therefore can add years to the overall construction timeline from concept to completion. In comparison, domestic projects in America almost always tie into the basic infrastructural network of power, sewer, water, and transportation access. International projects can require a longer horizon and outlook. From start to finish, it can take two to three times longer than the project timeline of a similar domestic project.

In our firm culture, we have a low rate of employee attrition. The retention of our staff, aligned with longer-term, international projects is a distinct advantage in our eyes. In a firm culture where project teams would turn over more quickly, it could be difficult to provide the continuous client service and institutional memory of a project.

You Have the Watch, We Have the Time

With increased global connectivity comes the expectation from clients that the design team is available at all times. A design firm must take care to understand the differences in working hours for both design team and client. For example, the Eastern U.S. is exactly 12 hours different than one of our clients in Mongolia, which often requires the design team to start video conference calls at 9 p.m. at night. For Middle East clients, we often prefer early U.S. mornings to coordinate with their afternoon. Once timings are set, the type of day and season can make a difference. While American firms work on a five day work week with a two-day weekend, some of our clients may work a six-day work week with Friday off. With this group, we know that it is not useful to ask for urgent information on a Thursday U.S. afternoon. Learning to be sensitive and fluid with international time requires a flexible personality willing to trade the traditional limits of personal time for the larger professional international opportunities.

We find that different cultures also perceive the concept of time differently. A client in the Middle East once said to us, “you may have a watch, but we have the time.” We took this as a wise way of communicating their value of the interaction. They were willing to devote the energy needed to resolve the issues regardless of the number of hours it took. On the other hand, an Asian client took a different perspective and was eager to get the design portion of the project undertaken as quickly as possible — as if the urgency was so important that the project was already behind before it even got started. Just as every client is unique, every perception of time is unique. Being sensitive to their cultural expectation of time should be rolled into the project expectations as well.

Although there are risks to international practice, the rewards are numerous. It is also a long-term prospect and one that should be given great consideration. That being said, the design and construction of an international cultural attractor can be some of the most rewarding design work out there. It provides for an unparalleled opportunity to explore design on an international scale, have a remarkable impact on a community bring a new resource and interactive facility to a local place, and meeting and engaging with clients that value your expertise in a new way. Creating meaningful experiences is what architecture is all about.

Emily Grandstaff-Rice is an associate at C7A, based in their Cambridge office. A graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Harvard University, Ms. Grandstaff-Rice was the recipient of the 2008 AIA Young Architects Award. She currently serves as the Vice-President / President-elect 2013 for the Boston Society of Architects.