Creating Added Value through Sense of Place
Human beings have an intuitive and universal attraction to the synergy of design and function, much like our attraction to the blending of music and lyrics, which creates a memorable song. We are drawn to the poetry of environments that create a sense of place, which wed a building to its location, fashioning the spaces where we enjoy living, working and playing.
Though we may love the lines, the power or the functional simplicity of an automobile or an electronic device, buildings can be experienced and enjoyed for centuries. Also, unlike a painting or a new technology, our lives are literally immersed in architecture on a daily basis. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and thereafter our buildings shape us.”
Fundamentally, great architecture doesn’t have to cost more; it is a matter of being creative and working smart. John Cunningham explains, “For me, ‘can’t’ means ‘won’t.’ There is always a solution.” Cunningham, co-founding and creative design partner of ACi then described how ACi was formed and functions today. “The founding partners created the firm’s standards around ‘Value Added Design.’ ACi has seen enormous success for our clients over the last 18 years because the markets are looking for cool places that are created and implemented at or below the same cost as the typical product. ‘Value Added Design’ for ACi means our designs lease-up faster, they are financeable, driven by the quality of life for the consumers, ensure community acceptance, and are more resilient to downturns in the economy.”
Linking Form and Function
For Cunningham, these are not just ideals or platitudes; creating place, artistic sensitivity and meticulous attention to detail are part of his operating system and passion. From the soaring glass towers of the Hyatt Regency Orlando (formerly the Peabody Hotel) to the Bank of America building in Winter Park, with its classical approach, flora and fauna castings of grapefruit and oranges to preserve the historic connection between the building and the citrus roots of the community, these guiding principles are seen and experienced.
Walking into Cunningham’s studio at ACi, you feel like you’re entering the study of an art professor, not the typically sterile environments of many firms. Beatles and Abbey Road posters, along with countless drawings, both architectural and purely artistic, form a collage on the walls. The quote cited earlier by Churchill hangs over the entrance to his studio and architectural models dot the shelves. Castings, which Cunningham designed and fabricated for his clients’ buildings, lean against the wall along with his bass guitar. In a small black frame is a sketch, drawn on a napkin, which was the initial inspiration for what today is the stately Seminole County Courthouse.
Being Influenced, Being Influential
“I grew up outside New York City and my grandmother frequently took me there,” Cunningham recalled. “When I was 7, we went to the Guggenheim and I asked her what it was. She said, ‘This is architecture.’ I said, ‘What’s architecture?’ And she said, ‘This.’ It took me a long time to understand her meaning, but that was where it began. I grew up around majestic buildings and thought everyone did, until I moved to the Midwest. In school, I did great in art and history, but was terrible in math. It wasn’t until I was studying architecture and could connect the math to what I was doing, that it all clicked.”
“During my college experience, I studied architecture in Europe, and not long after I graduated, landed a job in Washington D.C., the American city with the most European influence. During that time, I worked on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial site and did some work on major historic buildings.”
The Golden Triangle of Value
For someone so motivated by design and beauty, Cunningham is remarkably conscious of not only the link between form and function but the link between form, function and funds. “In architecture there is what ACi calls the ‘Golden Triangle.’ The three elements of that triad are 1) project programmable square feet; 2) how expressive can we be with interior and exterior design finishes, and 3) budget. All three must be balanced. If not, you don’t have a successful project.”
“When I was in south Florida I worked for a large national firm where I was one of five senior designers. It was there I grasped large-scale projects…from airports and academic buildings to hospitals and courthouses.” Cunningham said. “Thankfully, I have always been able to easily move from large projects to small, from the 1 million-plus square foot Peabody Hotel to the 2,000 square foot train station in downtown Winter Park.”
Then he added, “But most importantly, along the journey I learned that understanding the human psyche is the crucial element in art, architecture and placemaking. At ACi, we’re creating the spaces where people live and work. Everything we do as people is around architecture, unless you are in the wilderness. A buddy sent me a birthday card that said, ‘You are the only person I know who will leave the world a better place.’ Of course we all hope to do that spiritually or relationally by being a kind compassionate human being, but he was referring to the physical…the kind of places ACi helps create.”