Telling stories with buildings

– Spotlight on David P. Manfredi and Elkus Manfredi

The construction industry is highly collaborative and requires many interdependent players in order for buildings to get built. Within our own ranks, Local 12 plumbers need GBPCA contractors to provide the projects and the infrastructure so that they can work–just as the contractors rely on the plumbers to get the work done. The plumbers, in turn, have to work cooperatively with other building trades as part of an integrated, team effort.

Comparing building projects to movies, which by their nature also require a great deal of collaboration, general contractors are like film directors. They oversee the process and orchestrate the subcontractors (who are the cast and crew in this analogy) to bring buildings to life.

But it all starts with architects. They are the ones who conjure buildings in the first place. They write the scripts, if you will, and tell the stories of what buildings will be. One of the region’s most prominent and visionary firms is Elkus Manfredi Architects, led by David P. Manfredi, CEO and founding principal. Its vast portfolio of projects, which includes some of the Boston area’s most noteworthy buildings, also spans across the country and beyond.

David P. Manfredi Boston architect
David P. Manfredi
Photo: Ben Cheung

At first glance, it might come as a surprise to learn that Manfredi originally pursued English Literature. It was only after earning a graduate degree in the subject that he made his way to architecture school.

“I took a circuitous path,” Manfredi says, noting that his father was a carpenter and home builder. He remembers coming home as a young child from his dad’s construction sites covered in mud. Throughout high school and college, he swung a hammer alongside his father. That influence eventually led Manfredi into the industry.

But, he believes, his passion for literature still plays a part in his chosen profession. “We are storytellers,” says Manfredi, characterizing architects. “Telling the narrative of how we design, persuading people of our ideas, is a big part of what we do.”

Another reason that Manfredi shifted career paths is that he truly enjoys engaging with others, both within his firm and with the engineers, clients, contractors, subcontractors, and others who work on his designs. Whereas literature is typically a singular, and sometimes lonely, pursuit, architecture demands camaraderie and collegiality. So instead of focusing on literary works, Manfredi weaves three-dimensional stories with his design projects.

Design diversity is among founding principles

After working together with Howard Elkus at The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, the two formed Elkus Manfredi Architects in 1988. (Elkus passed away in 2017.) From the start, the two decided that they didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a building type. They were too curious about the entire design spectrum and eager to tackle a variety of projects. As a result, the firm has produced landmark life science campuses, office buildings, hotels, residential complexes, retail projects, academic buildings, houses of worship, cultural institutions, and more.

While they never wanted to be a single-purpose firm, Manfredi says they always wanted to be a single-office firm. Their work can be found in Los Angeles, Florida, Chicago, Houston, and elsewhere, but it all emanates from one base.

“We’re here in Boston. This is where we live as well as work,” says Manfredi. “We’re committed to the city.”

Boston is also home to many of the firm’s signature projects, including the Pier 4 mixed-use office building, the 14-acre Boston Landing development and the adjacent New Balance headquarters on the Mass Pike, and the restoration of the Paramount Theatre. Elkus Manfredi projects outside of the region include The Grove, an urban retail and entertainment destination in Los Angeles; the vast, multi-use Miami Worldcenter development; and The LINQ Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Among the projects that Manfredi considers to be the firm’s most significant is The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

New Balance headquarters at Boston Landing
Photo: © Robert Benson

“The work we’ve done at the Broad Institute is really important to me, because the work they do is so important,” Manfredi says, citing its breakthrough genomics research. The building is designed to be flexible so that the Institute can be agile and adapt to the rapidly evolving science. “In some very small way, we were able to support what they are doing,” he adds.

Other projects Manfredi singles out include the new corporate headquarters for MassMutual on Fan Pier; the 44-story residential apartment tower, The Alcott, set to open later this year in the West End; and multiple life science projects, including research and development hubs for Pfizer and Novartis.

Collaborating with mechanical contractors

GBPCA contractor Cannistraro has worked on many projects together with Elkus Manfredi including Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ global headquarters in the Seaport and the InterContinental Boston hotel on the waterfront. President John C. Cannistraro, Jr. admires the scope of its design portfolio.

“David’s firm is unique in its range of talent. On the one hand are these massive commercial projects. In the other is the pencil that designs building restorations which are more mystical and spiritual,” Cannistraro says. Among his favorites is Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. “I did not work on that one but find it more peaceful that way when I visit and look up in wonder.”

Cannistraro says that the working relationships between subcontractors and architects have been evolving. Mechanical contractors, he says, are sometimes brought in during the pre-construction phase to help shape the design of a project. The pandemic, Cannistraro believes, has accelerated the trend. The calamity has enabled those in the construction industry to reconsider the ways that they work together and has made them more open to new ideas and processes.

Cathedral of the Holy Cross
Photo: © Robert Benson

Manfredi agrees with Cannistraro’s assessment, noting that increased collaboration has allowed the construction industry to do things more accurately and faster than ever before. He also says that subcontractors, architects, and other building trades are more dependent on one another than ever before. 

“We start it, and it ends up with subcontractors. By the time the building gets built, we’ve all had our hands in it,” Manfredi says. “It’s all positive–all for the good.” Citing Cannistraro’s massive, new pre-fabrication plant in the Seaport, he notes that “it helps them offer better coordination, higher quality, and better durability. That’s good for all of us.”

Respect for the trades

Manfredi’s regard for the building trades can be traced back to his father, the home builder. “I tell young architects all the time to listen to the people who are going to build your buildings because you’ll learn a lot. They’ll often know how to build what we envision.”

He acknowledges that his firm’s success is dependent on the success of the trades. “Hopefully, the trades feel the same way,” Manfredi adds. “We recognize in Boston that the talent resides in the union trades. I think we’re really fortunate to have a lot of innovation in the trades here.”

Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, says that Elkus Manfredi has made a huge impact in and around Boston with its collection of projects. He notes that the firm’s designs are both aesthetically striking and rooted in practical function. “It’s an honor for us to work on its buildings.”

As with virtually everything else, the pandemic has been disruptive for Manfredi’s firm. He says that he and his colleagues have discovered that they can be surprisingly productive using technology and working remotely. That’s been a revelation, but Manfredi longs for a return to in-person collaboration. He hopes there is a way to combine some of the technology breakthroughs that have emerged with the industry’s best collaborative practices and reinvent the architectural design process.

There are new buildings to build and new stories to tell in the post-pandemic world. Perhaps there are new ways to join together and tell these three-dimensional stories.