Celebrating 40 Years of Inspirational Design

A Firm Whose Time Has Come

Some individuals know early in life that they are destined to be architects. Others come to architecture in due course, which is the path that brought Scott Ziegler, AIA and Michael Cooper, AIA together in a master’s program at Rice University School of Architecture. Neither Ziegler nor Cooper had any previous background in architecture before arriving at Rice, but both were eager and passionate to become architects. Ziegler came with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and Cooper came with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Being gutsy entrepreneurs determined to succeed in their newly chosen field, Ziegler and Cooper decided to open their own firm before graduation. And so they did, in 1977, leveraging their combined degrees and graduate studies.

Of course, every fledgling practice takes time to mature. Ziegler and Cooper would never forget their early lesson in business risk management. While still at Rice, the two classmates pioneered a dual role of architect/developer to design and build urban lofts for their very first project. As fate would have it, a homeless person started a fire that completely destroyed the entire project. Fortunately, most milestones in the growth of the firm produced much happier outcomes as it learned to create superior buildings for clients, master new technologies and methodologies, and cultivate the expertise, skills and contacts to secure major commissions.

A Vision of Design

Since its founding, Ziegler Cooper has been guided by a strong belief that beautiful architecture enriches people’s lives, uplifts the human spirit, and provides a constant vision of excellence. Its faith in the power of design fueled its success. To support its belief, the firm established specialized internal studios that serve mankind’s most basic needs to live, learn, work and worship, assigning a principal of the firm to lead each studio. By organizing early into dedicated studios, Ziegler Cooper gave its staff the means to develop specialized practice areas, and to build a knowledge base to serve the needs of its clients. At the same time, the firm declared its commitment to the design of specific building types, assuring clients with particular needs that their projects would be handled well no matter how demanding they might be.

Today, Ziegler Cooper is a respected, award-winning architecture practice with a solid client base and projects that stretch from coast to coast. The firm has gained prominence for its creative response to the growing demand for urban living, the evolution of the workplace, and the contemporary needs of religious, institutional and community organizations. Its body of work includes commercial office buildings, corporate campuses, interior architecture, high-rise and mid-rise residential towers, hotels, retail, churches, schools and community buildings.

An analysis of the firm’s body of work identifies recurring design themes that can be characterized as crisp, modern expressions of a building’s form. They are inspired by organic and natural forms, utilizing texture, color and materiality as the medium to capture the interplay of light and space. Each of the firm’s designs begins with a site strategy that is clearly organized and represents the client’s program. In the firm’s search for an appropriate solution, there is a constant dialogue between interior and exterior spaces to engage the building with its context and its surroundings. As the design becomes three-dimensional, harmony and proportion are expressed in the composition of the building’s plan, sections and elevations. To design beautiful buildings, Ziegler Cooper has learned that an architect’s best friends are his convictions, perseverance, and patience.

The Formative Years

Ziegler Cooper’s 1980 founding of the Houston Architectural Laboratory (HAL), a CAD workshop that predated AutoCAD, was based on the partners’ conviction that desktop computing had a promising future as a forerunner in the database management of design, construction and real estate. By creating a digital database of building documentation, the firm provided building owners and managers a means to digitally verify and validate leasable space. This greatly improved building management and leasing tool created a valuable entrée for the young firm to the world of commercial and corporate real estate clients.

The closing of the Houston office of design giant Skidmore, Owings & Merrill represented a strategic growth opportunity for Ziegler Cooper in 1988. Seizing the opportunity, Ziegler Cooper hired key design professionals – a huge financial risk for the young firm – in a strategy that proved to be a transformational investment. Adding Louis Skidmore, Jr. as a partner bolstered the firm’s ability to enter the elite ranks of high-rise building architects, and elevated the public’s perception of the firm’s capabilities.

Higher Aspirations

Having designed its first high-rise building for BMC Software’s headquarters in 1994, Ziegler Cooper followed up with several high-rise residential buildings that created a solid foundation for its work in urban residential architecture. In 2000, the firm’s outlook changed dramatically when the Archdiocese of Galveston Houston selected Ziegler Cooper as the architect for the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston. Not only does a cathedral hold vast spiritual significance for a community, this particular Catholic cathedral would be the first built anywhere in the United States for more than half a century. The project award lifted the firm’s aspirations to a new level, fulfilling Archbishop Fiorenza’s wish that the cathedral be an inspiration for the ages via an expression of “noble simplicity.” Visits to European cathedrals by the design team revealed how a magnificent interplay of light and space could express an ethereal, spiritual quality. The Co-Cathedral design perfectly captures all of these qualities and has become an important Houston landmark.

At one point, the project’s budget was questioned, and an aesthetic dispute arose when the Archbishop sought to lower the height of the building to save money. Ziegler Cooper defended its work in terms of the timeless principles of cathedral architecture rather than resorting to building economics. “I invoked Palladio’s concepts for ideal building proportions and the important interplay of divine light on the sacred space, then brazenly compared the Archbishop’s cost saving suggestion to Medici’s asking Michelangelo to shorten the marble statue of David by cutting away his mid-section to save a few Lira!” Ziegler remembers. “Thankfully, the Archbishop accepted my explanation, and hailed the final design as ‘a Great Cathedral for a Great City.’”

Giving Your Best

Four decades after its founding, Ziegler Cooper is clearly a firm on the rise, with the commissions, clients and accolades that accrue to professionals who know what they are doing and enjoy contributing to the good of individuals, organizations and society. Every thriving architecture practice has its own reasons for success. At Ziegler Cooper, it is the firm’s passionate pursuit of beauty, and its mastery of the aesthetic, technical and economic issues associated with good design that is striking and timely.

Given the firm’s early focus on urban infill projects, it is not surprising to find that an enduring passion for urban design continues to motivate the firm. “With the population migrating back to more dense urban areas,” Ziegler comments, “we find our future bright, as we reshape the landscape of the markets we serve and breathe new life into new urban districts. We’re working where young Americans want to be, trying to balance the demands of the 24/7 lifestyle and create more livable cities.” Under Ziegler’s leadership, the Urban Residential Studio has master planned, designed and constructed high-rise condominiums, hotels, lofts and high-rise apartments totaling over 22 million square feet to date, all across the nation.

The Commercial Office and Corporate Facility Studio, led by Kurt Hull, AIA, LEED AP, who has managed some of the firm’s largest, most complex projects, has been cited as a cutting-edge design studio and thought leader for corporate office parks and build-to-suit projects. The studio is responsible for nearly 20 million square feet of corporate and commercial office buildings, nearly a half billion square feet of master planning and mixed use projects, and five million square feet of commercial redevelopment. The studio is recognized as an expert in formulating performance-driven buildings that fulfill the needs of owners, occupants, and investors.

The Workplace Interiors Studio at Ziegler Cooper has built a strong recognition in the workplace market for specialized design expertise of energy companies, financial services, banking, law firms, consulting, insurance, engineering companies, and creative office space. Led by Mark Nolen, AIA, LEED AP, Ziegler Cooper serves as architect of record for more than 100 office buildings, with 50 million square feet of tenant space.

The firm’s work with institutional clients has been equally impressive. The Worship, Educational and Community Studio, led by Stephen Lucchesi, AIA, has brought together talent and expertise that is currently at work on 30 campuses in a variety of community-based projects. Besides having the requisite professional qualifications, the studio is adept at building the close working relationships required by institutional clients. Planning a place of worship is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences a congregation will undertake. As the studio is well aware, the design of worship spaces becomes an outward expression of faith and a physical invitation for others to join in the celebration of worship.

The Years Ahead

Ziegler Cooper faces the future with an undiminished appetite for fresh challenges and demanding assignments. Yet the firm has also decided not to be all things to all people. “We enjoy keeping in close contact with the communities we serve. Even though technology has changed the way we practice, we still embrace the physical nature of architecture, the people, and the locations in which we work. While we respect large, global firms, we don’t want to be one ourselves,” Ziegler admits. After three successful acquisitions, including the most recent merger of HBL into the community architecture studio, the firm will continue to look for similar opportunities as it nurtures internal growth.

The belief that the densification and urbanization of large U.S. cities is a vital, sustainable urban growth strategy remains an enduring vision for Ziegler Cooper. “We enjoy design on an urban scale to create a distinct sense of place and enhance the sense of community,” Ziegler says. “As a result, our work plays a significant role in who we are and who we want to become.”

History has taught us that a city’s greatness is measured in large part by the quality of its art, architecture and urban environment. Yet many urban communities around the country have yet to realize but a fraction of their potential. Seeing an enormous opportunity in meeting this challenge, Ziegler Cooper is prepared to show what it can do.