Chaos Theory Applied or My first Day at BTA

Thirty-odd years ago I landed a job at Benjamin Thompson and Associates in Cambridge Massachusetts. It was in the heyday of BTA—Faneuil Hall Marketplace had been fully opened for a few years, Baltimore’s Harborplace was finishing up and the firm was embarking on a series of performing arts centers around the country.  BTA would shortly to be selected as AIA firm of the year and Ben Thompson would go on to win the gold medal a couple of years later. It was heady stuff for a relative greenhorn like me.


It was a long and convoluted hiring process that actually started with my wife going in and interviewing for an interior design position.  She came home shaking her head with the assessment that “that place is crazy” followed abruptly with “you’re the one who really oughta interview with them.”  Thanks, dear.  Anyway, after a disjointed series of meetings that had me feeling like the marble in a huge pachinko game, I found myself reporting to One Story Street across from BTA’s Design Research building for my first day on the job.


At this point I had never actually seen Ben Thompson or scarcely anyone above NCO status.  As junior guy I was assigned a desk with a broken parallel ruler way out in the middle of nowhere, given a stack of stair drawings to look at and promptly abandoned for several hours. Furtive glances to my left and right revealed an inordinate number of models of widely varied and interesting buildings –all in various states of incompletion.  I could also see an inspirational poster that read, “There is no limit to what can be achieved if you are not concerned about who gets the credit.” Someone had scrawled, “What is this place—a monastery?” across the bottom.  I returned to the task at hand.


I was nose down, trying to look industrious when I was startled by a gruff voice from behind.  “Gruff” may not fully convey the quality of it—imagine the voice of the angry apple tree in the Wizard of Oz saying, “how would you like it if someone picked something off of you?”  This voice of course belonged to Ben Thompson whose first words to me I will always remember, “Who the hell are you?” I managed to squeak out, “Palson, sir.” “What do you know about interior design?”


Well here was a dilemma.  I knew full well from the gentle comments of my spouse that I was a virtual bonehead about “real” interior design.  And it seemed bad form to start out on one’s first day deliberately misleading the boss.  So I just blurted out, “Practically nothing!” A pause followed. “Perfect,” he grunted, “grab your stuff and come with me.”


Ben then led me through a maze of workstations, past many a quizzical stare, up a flight of stairs to the grown-ups’ floor, past his assistant and in to his corner office. This was not a “corner office” in the corporate sense.  Ben’s office was dominated by a neon “DR” (Design Research) sign about seven feet tall leaning up against the wall. Artwork, photos, boxes of slides, sketches, decoys and other bric-a-brac from his place on the cape were sprinkled around amidst piles and piles of paperwork.


“Sit over there.”  He pointed to a little drafting table in one corner. Ben started to explain that the office was engaged in a project to design a dormitory in Greenwich Village for the NYU Law School.  He wanted me to take a look at the student commons on the bottom floor, half a flight below the sidewalk.  His primary concern, it turned out, was that he suspected no self-respecting student would eat in the sanitized student commons if the options of Greenwich Village were just outside the door.  He rolled out some trace over what appeared to be a fully-worked-out furnishing plan of the space and asked me to come up with something while he made a few phone calls.


No pressure there.  Of course I was unfamiliar with Ben, the building type, the students, Greenwich Village and pretty much New York as a whole.  I started by reading the title block of the drawing, and found that it had been generated in-house about a week before and checked by a certain “JVS”. Ben was leaning back on the phone with his arm draped over his head talking big numbers to an unknown person in a distant city.


At this point a senior partner wandered in and sat down to wait for Ben to get off the phone.  He paid no attention to me.  As I started scratching a few things on the trace, Phil started absent-mindedly sifting through the stack of papers on the adjacent table.  He stopped sifting. Out of the corner of my eye I could see he was fixated on a particular piece of paper.  Ben hung up.  Phil said “Ben, there’s an invoice here for $60,000 that’s over four months old.”  Ben looked a little sheepish.  “I guess we ought to pay it.”  “No, Ben, it’s our invoice waiting for your signature…”  I tried to blend with the furniture—a wholly unnecessary effort.  The two got up and left the office. Seemed my wife was on to something.


After some time passed, I thought maybe it would be wise to get a little more background information on my new project.  I asked the woman outside who JVS was and where I could find him.  “That would be Jim—he’s down the street in the annex with the NYU team.”  OK, interesting.  I picked up my drawings and headed off down the street where I found a team of about 25 people in a semi-frantic state of getting the drawings out.  I found Jim and got the familiar, “who the hell are you?” salutation.  I told him I was new and Ben had me working on the student commons fit-up and I had come to find him since I knew nothing about the project.


Pained glances were exchanged amongst the team members. Jim looked a little suspicious.  I managed to convince them that I was only there to be helpful if I could and I just didn’t feel comfortable working in complete ignorance of the project parameters.  These guys were really busy, but they took enough time to load me up with drawings and explain enough of the project to convey that I was way, way past Johnny-come-lately status and that this was “typical Ben.” They shooed me out and back to the corner office.


Later, Ben returned to check on my progress.  To my horror he was clearly unhappy with the fact that I had gone to seek out the project team.  “Was this Jim’s idea?”  It was evident that his intention had been to set me up in competition with the project team as some sort of secret weapon, and spring the results on them later.  I had blown the whole deal, just four hours into my first day.  I just didn’t get it.


I wasn’t sure there would be a second day, but as it turned out I was there for over six years. Over time I began to understand a little of Ben’s process.  Ben was at the head of a highly creative organization, and I believe he saw himself as a kind of Prospero working various stratagems in the Tempest.  Friction, anxiety and sometimes petty rivalries were often big motivators.  He would set people up in opposition, watch the sparks fly and cherry pick the best ideas that came to the surface.  The work was exhilarating and frustrating at the same time.


The experience of those years shaped the outlook of a lot of us “alums”.  Despite an occasional effort, I don’t think any of us has been able to recreate that atmosphere, and I know many who wouldn’t want to.  And so it goes.