Sweating the Details
An interview with architect Nicole Dosso
As Technical Director in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s New York office, Nicole Dosso is an expert in overcoming the technical challenges of skyscraper construction, especially in complex urban contexts. Dosso’s notable contributions to 7 World Trade Center and One World Trade Center have earned her wide acclaim in the profession. Ahead of her upcoming appearance at Bloomberg Businessweek Design, Dosso sat down with Alex Miller of SOM’s Digital Media team to discuss her journey into architecture and career highlights.
Alex Miller: Why did you become an architect?
Nicole Dosso: I had made a decision to become an architect by freshman year at Syracuse. Coming from New York, I was always surrounded by great buildings. It’s a special place to have grown up — being able to walk around the city and get influenced by architecture. And my father worked in construction — specifically infrastructure. So I walked construction sites with him from a very young age. He was involved in the New York City water tunnels for basically his entire career.
AM: A recent 99% Invisible podcast told the story of the union that has worked on those tunnels.
ND: Oh, the Sandhogs. The work they do is pretty amazing. Before my father’s retirement, I had the opportunity to walk the Number 7 Line, which was his last job. And true to the very different scale and nature of infrastructure work, he gave me a pair of waders and we walked from 34th Street to 42nd Street through knee-high muck.
AM: Were you ever interested in pursuing infrastructure?
ND: If I had gone to Lehigh, I would have studied engineering. Ultimately, I decided to go to Syracuse and the rest is history.
AM: What drew you to Syracuse’s program?
ND: I did know that I wanted to get a Bachelor of Architecture, and I had heard that their program was very well balanced — that it wasn’t just focused on design. That was pretty much what drew me there.
AM: Did you imagine, then, that you would develop expertise in the technical side of architecture?
ND: As a student, your idea of what you’re going to be doing is so different. I certainly never would have envisioned joining the technical department at SOM: At the time, I was much stronger in design than I was in technical. Most other students had some experience in mechanical drafting — they had taken some technical classes as part of their high school curriculum. And I had nothing. I bought this $150 wooden supply box for class, opened it up, and there were things in there that I had never seen before. It took me six months to figure out what you do with an adjustable triangle. By my sophomore year, I had caught up, along with the others who didn’t come in with that prior experience.
Even so, generally you gain very little technical experience in school. That’s the one thing that you really need to learn on the job. You don’t come out of school being able to run a project. You could come out being able to design certain portions of projects. But you have to work on a few projects, learn from your experience, and you become better at the whole process.
AM: Now that software is available to pretty much anyone who wants to download it, does this hold true with architecture students today?
ND: I was at Kansas State last week, and the students are employing software and processes that are very similar to what SOM uses. One studio had even teamed up with a glass supplier, to come up with different ways to look at more energy-effective glass walls. And they actually built and tested them. So, it was quite impressive. For students, it doesn’t matter that they don’t know the ins-and-outs of all the programs — that’s what they’re going to learn what they get to work. But the fact that they know their options is really great. When I was a student, we were still hand drafting.
AM: How would you then describe the knowledge of the newest crop of architects?
ND: A lot of it is technology-based. They are really savvy with computer programs, and they have access to the Internet and much more access to travel. Culturally, they’re just exposed to a lot more.
But you know what’s interesting? When I visited Kansas State, it was the first time that I had really seen hand drafting again. They actually make their students do a year of hand drafting, even though it’s a dead art. There’s something powerful about it: As a student, a professor was criticizing something that I had drawn and asked, “What is this line? You drew it, so you should know what that means.” Everything does mean something.
You end up approaching problems a bit differently with this background. I came on to the World Trade Center project very early on, and I asked somebody, “What are the work points? What is the geometry?” And they said they had to go open the Revit model. Well, the person out in the field doesn’t have a Revit model. So unless you can take that information and correlate it to a two-dimensional drawing, it’s of little value to somebody out in the field. So, the thought process is a little bit different with young architects today.
AM: Can you tell me about some of the unique challenges that you faced with 7 World Trade Center and One World Trade Center?
ND: I think a lot of what I learned on those projects helped me gear up for the work that I’m doing today, in terms of complexity. I was talking with someone recently and they had no idea that there’s a Con Edison vault in the base of 7 World Trade Center. I guess we were really successful! That was the most complicated, technically challenging portion of the project. The vault has its own MEP, fire protection, electrical — it’s a standalone building. An office tower just happens to be sitting on top of it. A lot of people probably don’t recognize that when they look at it. They just see a commercial office building. Which is good because that’s exactly how people should see it.
In terms of One World Trade Center, there were so many great moments with that building. For me, personally, it was completing our construction documents in June 2007, and then it was getting the building to ground level. It’s interesting how the press didn’t perceive getting to ground level as a major milestone. But professionals understood its importance, because some of the greatest technical challenges were below grade: We were neighboring all of these different projects, and we also had rail tracks to contend with. We were able to preserve the existing slabs, which still had electrical distribution for the tracks hanging from them. Our slabs are sitting above them.
AM: As a native New Yorker, how does it feel to contribute to the reestablishment of Lower Manhattan and to the city overall?
ND: Ever since I started at SOM, I’ve been very clear about my commitment to wanting to work here. And right now, I’m doing a lot of projects elsewhere, but there won’t ever be a point in my career when I’m not working in New York.
Right now, we’re doing a lot at Manhattan West and Hudson Yards. It probably won’t get as much global recognition as World Trade Center, but locals know that these are some of the most important projects in the city right now. We’re opening up the whole West Side. And if I had to pick one aspect of that work that resonates with me, then that would be the Dyer Avenue overbuild. Someday, this bridge will allow people to freely move from Madison Square Garden to the Hudson Yards site. It may not be in a picture frame on the wall, but in terms of how it’s going to improve the West Side, it does reshape the city.
Many articles have said that it’s the next Midtown. And while some people may disagree with that, but with improved public transportation and new residential, hotel, office, and retail components, I can’t imagine things not shifting.
AM: So it’s not hard to imagine how much these projects will impact the overall urban fabric?
ND: For me, not really. I wasn’t involved in the Time Warner Center project, but I had been living in that area since the late 1990s, and that project revitalized the West Side so thoroughly that it’s amazing to think of it not being there. And you can say that for a lot of things.
Many years ago, somebody asked what I could possibly do next after the World Trade Center. Well, I think the one of the greatest things about living in New York is that there’s always going to be something else. I wouldn’t have imagined that, working in the midst of the World Trade Center project, I would have this great opportunity to be involved in the West Side development. One World Trade Center is one of the most recognizable towers in the world. To me, the West Side development is equally or even more gratifying, because in some ways, it’s going to have even more prominence in New York than the World Trade Center.
AM: How do you view the advent of supertall buildings in global cities? You’ll be discussing high-rises at Bloomberg Businessweek Design at the end of April.
ND: Well, the race to build the tallest buildings has been going on for generations. You’ve got the Burj Khalifa, you’ve got Kingdom Tower — it’s almost double the size of One World Trade Center. Over 3,000 feet. I think that it’s probably never going to end. People will continue to try to find the means.
You’ll find that most of these projects are mixed-use, as most have to combine uses in order to become financially viable. One World Trade Center is, I believe, the world’s largest all-office building. Beyond being able to rent something that tall, one of the biggest obstacles in this race is vertical transportation. I just read that they’re looking into fiber cables for the Kingdom Tower. So, I think as long as there continues to be advancement in vertical transportation, people will continue to build taller.