Gehl founders hope an infusion of new talent will aid generational leadership transitions to come.
By Jennifer Cooper
When you hear about mergers of design firms, it usually involves a global conglomerate swallowing up a smaller office to obtain local clients and staff. You seldom hear about two firms coming together simply out of mutual interests, but that is how the principals of Rebar, in San Francisco, and Gehl Architects, of Copenhagen, describe their new venture together. The new U.S. entity, Gehl Studio, will keep those offices and have a new one in New York.
In their San Francisco space in the Mission, John Bela, ASLA; Blaine Merker, ASLA, of Rebar; and Helle Søholt of Gehl Architects talked about the impetus for joining offices, which began in March. Søholt cofounded Gehl Architects in Copenhagen with Jan Gehl 14 years ago based on Gehl’s research on people and the ways they use public space. Together they have worked on projects around the world for cities and organizations such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Until recent years, the firm focused primarily on large-scale planning but saw the need to prove their concepts to governments and communities in urban projects, as they did so successfully with New York’s public plaza and street improvements.
Simultaneously, Rebar was moving toward the same place from a different direction. Rebar, begun in 2004 by Bela, Merker, and Matthew Passmore and incorporated in 2009, situated itself between art, design, and activism with a scrappy start-up fervor. Their Park(ing) Day initiative became a global phenomenon, and as their practice evolved, the ideas of tactical urbanism and the importance of programming became more accepted by governments and an expected part of the public process. But they yearned to have a larger and more lasting impact on city environments.
A fortuitous meeting in Copenhagen last year began the conversation. Bela says he was immediately struck by Gehl Architects as a “cadre of intelligent people working in cities all over the world.” The firm was “mature, focused, and capable,” and operating from the long background of Gehl’s research. Rebar has always worked more on instinct, though they were intrigued by the idea of being able to test their hypotheses and get feedback using Gehl’s “measure-test-refine” methodology. And Gehl was beginning to think about the future of his firm.
Gehl, who is 30 years Søholt‘s senior, always knew a generational transition was inevitable. To set the stage for the next phase of the company, Gehl Architects has recently promoted five senior designers to partnership positions and is looking to the new U.S. locations as a way to better serve their North and South American clientele. But the arrangement with Rebar is interesting in that nothing was purchased. Most of Rebar’s staff, including two of the three founding partners, were hired by Gehl. The third founder, Passmore, will continue a more art-focused practice called MoreLab. From Rebar’s perspective, joining with Gehl allows them to pursue much larger projects and to have a broader influence on cities around the world while achieving a stability rare in small artistic firms. The Rebar organization will wind down by the end of the year as current projects are completed.Jennifer Cooper is an instructor, writer, and licensed landscape architect at GLS Landscape Architecture in San Francisco.