Lifetime Achievement: J. Robert Hillier, FAIA


At the AIArchitect site, Heather Livingston recently published a profile of J. Robert Hillier, who earlier this year was awarded the Michael Graves Lifetime Achievement Award. This is the highest honor bestowed by the New Jersey Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, recognizing the completion of a significant body of work, as well as the influence that work has had on the practice of architecture as a whole. Hillier has gained the reputation of a client-focused practitioner, and Livingston quotes some of his words here:

I think the key to success is that you have to be a good designer, you have to be able to sell good design, and you have to be able to sell yourself. They’re all bundled up together….You’ve got to protect the clients, keep the clients, and keep the clients happy. You have to keep them happy not just by doing what they say, but by doing really great design and having them understand and endorse and embrace it.

Last year Hillier’s company was re-christened RMJM Hillier, after merging with RMJM, a British firm which maintains 17 offices worldwide and is the world’s largest strictly architectural firm. Hillier is a Fellow of the AIA and an adjunct professor at the Princeton University School of Architecture, his alma mater. He sits on the Advisory Board of Architectural Graphic Standards, 11th Edition.

Hillier credits several mentors, starting with his professor, Jean Labatut, whose strong suit was site planning. Masters Degree in hand, he went straight to work at a small design-build company, assuming the title of lead designer right from the start. The company’s owner saw his potential and treated him less like an employee and more like the traditional apprentice, including Hillier in all client meetings and presentations to familiarize him with the social aspects of the trade. On the practical side, the young architect also learned everything there was to know about projecting the costs of a project, the kind of knowledge that keeps clients sweet because they are not confronted with budget surprises in the budget area.

By 1966, Hillier was 27 years old and ready to go out on his own. He began as a sole practitioner with a single client, his own dentist, whose home renovation project offered a fee equal to what had been a year’s salary. From there, the Hillier firm went on to receive more than 300 design awards at the state, national and international levels. Its projects include many educational institutions, including the New Jersey School of Architecture, and many corporate headquarters, including GlaxoSmithKline in London (pictured) and Louis Vuitton in New York. Last month, RMJM Hillier was announced as the design architect for Genzyme Corporation’s new research and development facility in Beijing.

In April, J. Robert Hillier addressed the graduating class at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, telling his audience that the number of buildings in the world will probably double within 25 years, so there is a crying need for a vast number of new architects ready to take up all the challenges that will entail. But the main message for his young listeners on that day was, “Through passion, you can make a difference.”

SOURCE: “Face of the AIA: J. Robert Hillier, FAIA” 02/01/08
photo courtesy of cybaea , used under this Creative Commons license

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