In the Future, We Will All Live in Plastic Houses Put Together in Six Weeks

Though they’re largely unknown in their hometown, Philly architects Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake have shaken up the international architecture world with their edgy designs and bold ideas about sustainability and prefab construction. Is this the end of your McMansion?


"The toughest place to get work is in your hometown,” says Stephen Kieran, who has worked around the country and around the world, designing buildings that have won an armful of honors. His colleague for more than three decades, James Timberlake, phrases the phenomenon slightly differently. “Quite honestly,” he admits, “we’ve had very few projects in Philadelphia. Sometimes I think the syndrome is, your hometown doesn’t know what they have.”

If you’ve never heard of KieranTimberlake (and right off the bat, no, that’s not a Bieber-like younger sibling of Justin), you’ve got company.

Yet Michelle Obama knows KieranTimberlake. Sasha and Malia go to a school in Washington called Sidwell Friends, the master plan for which was created by the architecture firm—founded by two Penn grads—and reflects their early adoption of sustainability in building, including recycled materials and constructed wetlands to recycle water. When the First Lady met the architects, she told them her daughters think it’s really cool to attend a green school. More recently, Michelle’s husband nominated James Timberlake for a seat on a presidential advisory board on building.

Brad Pitt knows them for the prototype house the firm designed for his Make It Right project, which is trying to help rebuild New Orleans’s devastated Lower Ninth Ward with affordable, energy-efficient—and good-looking­—modern new homes.

It’s safe to say that Charles, the Prince of Wales, also has his eye on the firm, which last year won a design competition for the new American embassy in London. The Philadelphians’ high-tech tufted-glass cube for the billion-dollar project on the south bank of the Thames is exactly the sort of building the traditionalist architecture-buff prince loves to bemoan.

“Right now, KieranTimberlake has the highest profile of any architecture firm from Philadelphia,” says William Menking, who edits a national newspaper for architects. “If they use it right, the London embassy project will sort of ratchet them up to the next level of notoriety.”

Even in their hometown? Well, the firm will hardly escape notice here when renovation of Dilworth Plaza begins at the western doorstep of City Hall (assuming the Occupy Philly camp can be convinced to move out of the way), with two sweeping, glass-covered stairways leading down to a bright transit station. Add to that a role in the new Delaware River master plan, plus a possible rebooting of the Kimmel Center to make its public spaces actually attractive to some of the public. For a firm that has labored Loman-like in Philly for nearly three decades, at long last attention will be paid. (An architect can’t live solely on love from the First Lady and Brad Pitt, after all.)

Of course, getting noticed isn’t always something to wish for in this town. “We don’t mind flying under the radar,” Timberlake says. “It allows us to get more work done.” Yet self-effacing Philly-esque statements­ aside, peek underneath the well-designed public facade of KieranTimberlake­ and you find two guys who want to achieve nothing less than a total transformation of how architecture is practiced.