An interview with

Bob Harris

Architect, FAIA, LEED Fellow, Lake Flato

True To Me Too: I was watching your Ted talks video and there’s a really great quote where you say you always loved art and nature so you chose architecture.  When did you start piecing that equation together?

Bob Harris: From an early age I took art classes and really loved drawing and sculpture so I really imagined myself being and artist first.  I happened upon it by chance, some friends were helping an architect who had gone out of business, to dispose of some of his stuff and I was given a bunch of equipment.  I took it home, probably at age 13 or so, and started drawing and started to make things that I thought were cool.  That’s kind of what got me into it and I was pretty much hooked and knew from then on that I wanted to study architecture.  There was really no other path for me, people tried to dissuade me, my Grandfather, the one I quoted in the Ted talk, tried to convince me that the only stable professions were doctors or lawyers, he said architecture was quite unstable in terms of income and work.  Even though he was right I just had to do it.

You grew up in Springfield, Ohio and from a quick Google Maps tour it looks like a very traditional industrial city. 

I didn’t really grow up there but I was born there.  It’s a really wonderful town.  I used to spend my summers there when I was a kid, which was great because it allowed me to escape the heat and kind of craziness of Houston where I grew up during elementary school and junior high.

Those are two very different cities in terms of architecture.  How did being exposed to such contrasting styles influence your view of architecture?

I never thought about that.  Growing up in Houston, at least in the part of Houston I grew up in, it was very visually complex and not very well organized.  Houston didn’t really have any kind of development control, at least when I was growing up, I think now they’ve done a lot better in terms of understanding how to create good urban environments but in that day it was just a hodgepodge of suburban and urban development all mixed together with no real order to it at all.  Visual chaos, it was quite disturbing to me even as a kid.  I remember driving, in Houston you drive everywhere, constantly in a traffic jam, and you’re surrounded by some of the worst kind of roadside development, very little aesthetic control or physical control over it at all.

So when I did escape to placed like Springfield, which was really a small town in the middle of farming country in the Miami Valley, it was home to the International Harvester Company plant back in the day, it was beautiful hardwood woodland, lot’s of shade and cool temperatures.  To contrast that against the harshness of the concrete jungle that was my neighbourhood in Houston, on the south side of Houston, it was just night and day.  I kind of thought of that more tranquil beautiful wooded environment as a escape, a respite.  Actually I kind of feel it restored me in a lot ways and made me feel really good. I think some of the urban versus smaller town, in terms of landscape, was a great change for me. There’s a contrast there as well where you see a city like Houston in the middle of the sunbelt, with the high tech and oil industry, compared to the old rural Ohio, which I would characterize more as a rustbelt kind of city, which is now a different environment entirely.  But that eastern hardwood forest to me, I still love it, I was out in Pennsylvania a couple weeks ago, we were doing an organic farm out there, it was very much a similar hardwood forest.  Every time I’m in it I feel renewed, it brings back those memories of summer in Springfield.

Bob Harris at the head of the table (Photo courtesy of Lake/Flato)

How did you chose which school to apply to when you were looking into colleges?

(laughs) this is going to be very disappointing to you.  I was in Houston and by the time I was in high school we had moved out to The Woodlands, which was also very transformative for me, The Woodlands is a planned town development, in the pine woodlands of the northeast.  We had moved when I was in high school to escape our neighbourhood, south Houston had become rather rough and it was tough living there, so like a lot of people we had moved to the ‘burbs.  This was a new kind of suburbs, a new town that really tried to create a harmonious relationship with the natural town and a better urban design.  Frankly it was like moving to heaven in terms of my feeling of security, my feeling of connectedness to nature.  I still had gone through that experience and realized I wanted to get as far away from Houston as I could.

I love Houston now, I don’t want to say it’s a bad place, but at that time in my life I just wanted to get away from it.  I figured out that Texas Tech was the farthest I could get away from Houston and still pay instate tuition.  So I applied to one school and I went there.  I knew they had an architecture school and that was what I was signally focused on.  If you know anything about the panhandle in Texas and Lubbock it’s a completely different environment.  I went from the pine woodlands of north Houston to the great prairie, which is just the most open environment, they talk about the big sky state in Montana but I think North Texas is very much like that.  I had driven out there all in one shot and when I got out of the car I thought I was at the beach because I had never been any place that was that open in my life.  It was a real shock to my system, I just loved it.  In fact when I moved from there to Washington DC, which is rather jungly and humid, we lived on Capitol Hill, it was really dense and I really longed for those open spaces.  I think for most people they don’t know how to deal with the open land but for those people that live there it becomes a part of their system.  You crave those open spaces.

It’s crazy how geographically diverse the United States and even just Texas can be.

We wanted to come back and I ended up getting a gig as an assistant professor for Charles Moore, at the University of Texas, who was a prominent architect at the time, he had been the Dean at Yale and done a lot of interesting things.  I came back to Austin from DC to work with him and go through the graduate program there.

Architecture degrees have been getting a lot of bad press recently due to their high level of unemployment.  You did a masters program, do you think that helped your career? Would you recommend students pursue it?

I definitely would recommend it.  I pursued it because I had met E. Fay Jones… are you an architect?

Shangri La Nature Center-Orange, Texas (Photo by Paul Hester, Hester+Hardway)

No. Not at all.

Okay, E. Fay Jones was a prominent architect out of Arkansas who was really one of those quintessential American architects, he received that American Institute of Architects award, they don’t give it every year they just give it when people are worth of it. Charles Moore was one of the recipients of it, he received it when I was with him, but E. Fay Jones had won it.  He had done some amazing projects and I admired his work, one project in particular, The Thorncrown Chapel, that really followed in the footsteps of I would say Frank Lloyd Wright to some degree, but he brought a new quality to it.  I met him when I was in DC, had dinner with him, and a lightbulb sort of went off and I thought this guy is pretty amazing and I wondered what he did.  I realized that he had one foot in the academic world and one food in the professional world, he always taught in Arkansas and had a practice on the side.  He kept his practice very small and there are a couple of other folks who do that successfully so that idea appealed to me and I thought if I go back and pursue a masters degree then I’d have the qualifications to teach as well as practice.  I was lucky enough to meet Charles Moore and he selected me for his assistant instructor for the post-professional masters program at the University of Texas.  He was a great great person and a great architect.

I think one of the major things I didn’t think I would learn about going back to school was that my undergraduate degree was very highly focused on architecture, it didn’t really factor in much of the humanities.  You can imagine a place like Texas Tech is more focused on technical aspects, which I think served me well because I learned a lot, I learned how to build things, how to think about design, how to actually draw, all those things that really go into the art and technical side of architecture.  I was really not that strong on humanities and when I went back to grad school I just took the opportunity to get into them more, I didn’t take the typical design courses, I did art history, and forced myself to write, and I feel like I learned a lot  teaching, writing, doing things besides just architecture.  After that I felt like everybody should have a balance of those things, the humanities are so important, I do a lot of the hiring here at the office and I always found that students that had a well rounded background, that could write but also draw and think and design, really made for the best employees.  They weren’t always ready to go with the technical aspect day one, but they could learn that.  They had a background in thinking about the world in a different way, I think that’s a big deal, I kind of learned that in grad school.  When I got out into the profession again after graduating I realized that even though I had thought I might want to go into teach I really felt like the profession and dealing with the issues of design and construction outside of academia was really my preferred way of going.

You mentioned people like E.O. Wilson and Jay Appleton and it sounds like you have a very solid personal philosophy that influences what you’re doing outside of the technical aspects of the job.

In a general sense I’ve always had a curiosity about the world and that really extends to the natural world in addition to the world of art and construction.  When I was growing up as a kid I loved art and nature and being outside, you could put a fly rod in my hand or you could put me on a trail outside, that’s where I always wanted to be.  I’m surprised now that kids don’t seem to be taken as natural world as much as they were.  Even in urban environments when I was growing up we’d go find a drainage ditch and try to find eels and fish.  I think it was more a curiosity about those things and I think as an architect, at our firm in particular, we have the good fortune of being able to be invited to work with clients from around the country, often it’s to work in nature centres or buildings that are connected to the land in some way or even to work with non-profits in areas that are involved with their communities, and we get to learn a lot about new places every time we have new projects.  I’m doing a project in Mississippi right now and Colorado and San Jose and Naples Florida and all those places are different.  You get to learn about the natural world and the customs and traditions you find in the area, the way people have built and lived there for years.

We’re doing a marine education centre in Ocean Springs, Mississippi right now so part of what I like to do, it’s one of my favourite parts about these types of projects, is that I get to meet with local ecologists to walk the site and spend time learning about the flora and the fauna. To think about what kinds of action throughout history have shaped the site and what the climate is like.  To think about what people have lived there and what they’ve built in the area. To try to bring all that together into an appropriate response for people to live and to use that site today for their own purposes.  For instance when I was working on the World Birding Centre in the Rio Grande Valley I had the good fortune to work with some of the best birders in the region and by being out on the site with those people and watching how they interact with the natural world I started to learn little pieces and bits about the Valley and birding and actually became a little bit of a birder myself because of that.

It’s really just the curiosity about nature that caused that.  I think that curiosity causes me to approach a project site differently than a lot of architects do.  Other people here at our firm feel the same way.  A lot of architects will just approach a design problem as though it’s a problem for them to solve on their own, that their supposed to have a stroke of brilliance or an idea or inspiration that comes from within them and that’s their role and they’re being hired to provide that to their client.  I really feel like it’s us who is supposed to learn from them and learn from the natural world as well and try to create something from that context that serves the people and the environment that the building is in.  That really just comes from having a curiosity about nature and wanting to connect to it. The quote I had in the Ted talk by my grandfather, about walking in the woods slowly, is really something that as I’ve grown older I feel is important.  Whether or not people realize it it’s important to everyone in one way or another, even people that live in urban environments, I live in an urban environment and I know that nature and those things that are of the natural world are the most important things we’ll be dealing with in our pallet of elements that we create and deal with in creating architecture and cities.

World Birding Center- Mission, Texas (Photo by Paul Hester, Hester+Hardway)

I picked up Lake/Flato’s Buildings & Landscapes and it talks a lot about the firms dedication to the environment, sustainability, and also commitment to the local cultural traditions.  How do you manage to incorporate these elements while at the same time creating such a wide variety of unique projects?

That’s what’s fun about it, there are no two projects that are the same.  I did a lecture at Louisiana State and used the example of three natures centres I was involved with.  The first one is the Rio Grande Valley Birding Centre where I had the good fortune at the time to just spend a few days down in the Rio Grande Valley driving around, it’s where the Rio Grande runs between Mexico and Southern Texas and it’s a very vast river delta, it’s not really a valley, it is an amazing place, there really isn’t another place in the United States that’s like it.  For that project we spent three days just driving all over the whole valley, visiting every nature place I could, looking at all the architecture, taking pictures, thinking about the difference between the larger urban areas, small towns, and rural areas there trying to discover what it was about the Valley that was special.  I feel like the client had asked us to do the project because we are known for regionalism and I think for them it was the idea the Rio Grande Valley had more to do with the Spanish colonial heritage, which is held up pretty highly in the Rio Grande Valley, there were a few smaller urban areas that have older buildings that are really beautiful brick buildings that have been made using some of the Spanish colonial era type detailing.

After doing that what I realized was that to me the valley was really about how the people who live there now think of the valley as nature and agriculture and so our response for the design was built around efficient buildings that would save money, energy and resources and fit into the environment and honour the traditions of that era.  Those traditions were really more evidentially and broadly based in the agricultural world.  Our solutions really took from that context and we used 50% less material than we would have otherwise to create a roof enclosure for these structures and we used the money that was saved to put into the landscape and restore an old agricultural field into a resacas like environment.  95% of that resacas has been lost and we felt like the appropriate solution was to honour the local traditions in the way the local people would honour the land by treading lightly on it and being efficient with the way they built and creating an emphasis on restoration and bird habitat.  Rather than just a building you go into and look at pictures of birds in an exhibit room you would actually create habitat for birds outside, butterflies too.  That was an example of the kind of thinking that took into account the natural environment and cultural context and translated it into architecture.  This project ended up winning the National Honour Award, which is the highest award the profession gets for design and it’s now iconic for the Rio Grande Valley.  I didn’t know how people would receive it because it’s quite different in terms of the way it looks. For people who thought they might want Spanish clay tile and a more traditional thing really saw something different that I think they take a lot of pride in.  It’s been published on the cover of the Rio Grande Chapter and the American Institute of Architects website and it’s really well appreciated so I’m proud of that.

If you come up here to central Texas another project that was going on at the same time, same client, which was in a ranching area on an aquifer.  The cues there were more of a ranching environment opposed to an agricultural growing environment, different climatic context, different landforms.  We were able to take our cues from some of the things that you’d see in the ranching environment.  We used a recycled oil field stem pipe, which you can find all over the oil fields, it’s often used for cattle pens and other things in the ranching environment.  So I decided to build our structures out of that and create a water tower that will allow gravity to push water down into the landscape and flush the toilets and that will be exemplary of how to use good water practices for sustainable living and development in the Texas hill country.  Government Canyon was the project that came out of that and it ended up winning the Committee on the Environment top ten award, which is the highest award that green buildings can get.  It has a completely different look but the same program, same function, same client as the one in the Rio Grande Valley.

You go over to the next one in East Texas on the bayous and it’s different still.  It’s using the cyprus trees that were knocked down during Hurricane Rita.  It has steeply pitched roofs that shed the water quickly in a high rain environment and uses resources that are available on hand in the area such as cyprus and pine.  The character of each one of those designs solutions comes specifically from the traditions of building practices, the place, the building materials that are available in the place, the cultural expectations or precedent of the place, even the construction methodologies that are prevalent.  In addition to the relationship to the different climate, landform, and nature.

Government Canyon Visitors Center-San Antonio, Texas (Photo by Chris Cooper)

You’re heavily rooted in location and it seems like you can’t walk around San Antonio without spotting one of your projects.  For an architect what are the benefits of being based in a specific location and dedicated to that area and that community?

I think it keeps you honest (laughs) it keeps you relevant.  I don’t see how architects who don’t root themselves in the culture or the place and don’t think about the region context of the place can do it.  How could you ever come up with stuff that’s just coming out of thin air, I think a lot of people think that’s what architects do, or should do, a lot of young architects come out of school thinking they should do that.  My feeling is really that they should be so immersed as much as they can in the place that they’re in.  Architecture should kind of naturally come out of that, it shouldn’t be that hard.  I think that our office is filled with people who think that way.  To come to a place like San Antonio, I’ve just fallen in love with San Antonio, a lot of people don’t understand the qualities of a place like San Antonio, it’s one of the oldest cities in the country if you think about the early Spanish conquistadors and the missions that first established this region, this are is steeped in history.  There’s a reason they were here and one of the prime reasons they were here is because this is the crossroads of 5 different ecosystems, right here in the middle of San Antonio.  It’s rich with water resources, we have a deep aquifer that provides fresh water and fresh springs, rich habitat for a variety of species because of this overlap of the ecosystems.  Because all those things were here the native people were here as well as the Spaniards, the Germans later on, and settlers of all sorts.  This place is so rich with all that and the history of architectural traditions that are here span centuries.  It’s a town that’s not as economically privileged as a lot of towns and cities in the country of it’s size, in fact it ranks rather low on that scale, but it is absolutely culturally rich and in terms of history and quality of the people here to me it took me a really short period of time to fall in love with it and want to honour that with the work that we do here and try to support the community and do things that are good for the people.

Do people approach the firm because of its commitment to the environment or do you pitch it to people to try and show them the benefits of sustainable construction?

It’s a little bit of both.  I think that we’ve gotten to be known enough for it that people approach us from all over about it.  Even if they’re just shopping around they see the value in it.  Sometimes they come without an understanding of it and through our normal process they become more familiar with it.  I don’t think most people really know or think much about the importance of the built environment. We spend 80% of our time indoors and people often are so busy and a lot of times not observant enough to understand the impacts that our buildings have on us.  Not just our buildings but our communities as a whole.  Once they start to stop and look at those things they’re often changed and they really start to understand why the things we build and the way we use them matter not only to the environment but to their own lives.  A sustainable building can be energy efficient, it can be nontoxic, it can be all these things but it can also enrich your life, it can make it possible for you to have a more fulfilling better life, feel better, more healthy, energized, satisfied, proud, all those things.

Livestrong Foundation-Austin, Texas (Photo by Frank Ooms)

I saw you recently gave a speech about the dangers of toxic building materials and volatile organic compounds, how do you constantly stay active in the industry with all the new innovations and breakthroughs?  How important is it for an architect, at any stage in their career, to stay up to date and informed?

It’s really hard.  I’ve got to tell you that it’s one of the more complex things that we’re dealing with in architecture these days, to understand the constituent parts of materials we choose to put in a building.  Over the last 150 years every part of our society has become more complex and architecture is no different.  Buildings now are more complex creatures made up of an amazing number of different elements.  One of the things that we’re beginning to understand better is the effect of those chemicals constituents within an indoor environment.  We’re starting to get a better understanding of that but it takes a lot of work and a lot of research, frankly it’s not an individual thing, it’s more of a collective thing.  It takes a group of people to discover everything we need to discover about what goes into buildings and whether or not they’re making us sick or not .

There’s a great network of people who are now starting to emerge to share information that they’ve learned, the industry as well is starting to realize they need to be aware of what’s going into their products.  That’s all happening now, there’s no way I could keep up with it all but we have a team of people here who attempt to keep up with it as much as they can and we share that information with other architects and other people who are working on their own areas who are sharing what they are learning with us.  I think over the next 5-10 years we’ll be a lot more intelligent about all those things.  10 years ago no one knew how to do a LEED building, the LEED program has a rating system for green buildings, 10 years ago people were scared by it and they didn’t know how to do it but now everybody knows how to do it and I think in a lot of ways it’s transformed the marketplace.  We’re in that same transition now on understanding the issues surrounding indoor air quality.

You work on a lot of adaptive reuse projects, what are some of the challenges and benefits of taking an older building and turning it into something new again.

We are very involved with that because we know it’s a really emerging thing.  If you look at the amount of building stock in the country, in fact there’s some statistics on this on the architecture 2030 website, that really analyzes the amount of old building stock in the U.S. and recognizes that it’s in the rehabilitation of that older building stock that the biggest change is going to occur in regard to sustainable building.  There’s so much building out there, especially in out urban areas, we know we need to revitalize these buildings because a lot of times those buildings aren’t built in a way that’s appropriate to how people use them today.  They were built in a different time, in a different era, with a different set of technology and application, than what we need right now.  This is a great opportunity for architects to create something new out of the fabric that’s old.  It’s so important because even though for our work there is a high emphasis placed on nature and conserving nature, we know we can only do that if we live as efficiently as a species in a more concentrated way.  That means developing urban areas to their maximum impact but also bringing in elements of nature into the urban world so that it becomes more humane and livable.

In focusing on the urban environment we think there’s so much opportunity to create better social contexts but also better natural contexts as well, in addition to improved energy performance and all those things you would expect out of a good green building.  It’s just exciting work. Again it’s that difference between thinking you’re creating something completely of your own, out of yourself, or reacting to something that’s part of the natural world or part of the urban world.  When you’re rehabbing an older building you’re dealing with a context there that has a certain set of givens, it’s fascinating to go in and discover how a building was built in 1924, the craft that went into that, why they made decisions about the structure that they did.  How the thermal envelope worked?  Why they loved it?  What kind of passion and energy went into the older structure? Then you can honour that in a way that can be transformed into something new and relevant for today.  That’s a super exciting proposition.  Some people might think architecture is all about creating something new and flashy but I really feel like it’s kind of the opposite.  If you can deal artfully with something that’s already there it’s actually a harder problem because you’re dealing with these things that are already there, these givens that are really outside of your control to some extent.  If you can take that and turn it into something fresh and new for today, what could be better?

World Birding Center-Mission, Texas (Photo by Paul Hester, Hester+Hardway)

Did you ever intern?

I did work for an architect back when I was in Houston in high school, I worked for a civil engineer.  I didn’t have a lot of money to go to school and they didn’t have the same kind of student loans, boy do they hand out a lot of student loans now, these poor kids get into such debt.  But back then they didn’t hand them out as readily so I worked for architects but it wasn’t part of a formal academic interning system.  Now there’s a lot of those systems and I think they’re fabulous.  We have anywhere from 6-12 interns in our office at any given moment and they’re great great people.  It’s great for them and it’s great for us because everybody benefits.  Definitely people who come in looking for work and they’ve had some of that experience it’s a huge plus.  They’re smarter too cause they know a little bit more about the profession and it helps them shape their career a little bit better.

You mentioned you used to do the hiring so I imagine you’ve seen a lot of portfolios.  What makes a portfolio stand out?

I’ll be frank, to me the portfolio is important, but what wins the job is the passion you bring to it and the confidence you have.  I think the portfolio needs to avoid being to cute and trying to hard, sometimes you see somebody who comes in and they’ve made a custom portfolio out of wood and rusted bolts or something like that, like a crazy piece of furniture or something.  I don’t think that really helps.  What you want to do on your portfolio is focus on what you’re passionate about.  We’re looking for people who are passionate about the work they do and about why they’re doing and what matters to them and what they’ve done to make their work good. It’s not so much about how it’s presented as much in terms the graphic format, although I just don’t know how to say how to do that, I think just as cleanly as possible. Really get into the heart of what you’re trying to say as an architect is the most important thing.  They need to be able to display their skills but that comes in variety of different forms, for some people it’s a really great ability with sculptural elements, other people it’s really great technical ability with digital formats, for other people it’s just a good intuitive sense or a great freehand and drawing capability, maybe somebody who is just a really good logical thinker.  Figure out what you’re good at and try to show it the best you can.  Stay true to yourself, don’t try to dress it up and make it something that you think people expect, just let yourself come through.

I really think the biggest part for young people is just having a combination of self confidence and a passion for what you have to say.  Being able to communicate that verbally is really important.  All those things that go along with verbal communication, which I feel are posture, eye contact, all those basic things.  It’s interesting you asked this question because I was just invited out to the University of Colorado, they’re looking to start a new bachelors degree program in architecture, this topic came up and I said that I feel like young architects aren’t well versed in how to communicate their ideas.  They’re very well versed in how to draw, how to design, how to think technically, but they don’t know how to speak and they don’t know how to communicate.  You can have the most brilliant ideas, I often worry that we’ve passed over some brilliant people that have great contributions to make but they just didn’t know how to communicate it well and they couldn’t speak clearly with conviction and knowledge and preparation.

(Photo Courtesy of Lake/Flato)

How did your first position at Lake/Flato come about?

San Antonio is an interesting place in that it’s the largest small town you’ll ever run into.  There’s a group of people here in the inner city who really work hard to try to make it a better place and when I came here I got plugged into that.  I moved into a neighbourhood that was built in the 1920s right in the heart of the city and I became interested in urban design issues, I volunteered to help write a master plan for the city of San Antonio along with a few other people.  I met David Lake in that process, one of the founding principals in Lake/Flato, who because of his own passions was in the same situation.  We met, I think he liked me (laughs), I was already working here kind of on my own doing contract work with some folks, but I had a friend who was working here who had actually gone through the same program that I had, he was one of the students in the Charles Moore program with me and David Flato asked him one day if he thought I would be a good guy to think about bringing into the firm.  The firm was going through a transition then where it was just starting to do more civic, institutional and commercial type work.  The firms history really goes more to the residential, ranch and rural land kind of development and they were just starting to transition to more public work. I came in and we talked and I got the job.

It was through volunteer work that I made the connection.  I think sometimes people underestimate what it takes to have an impact on a community.  Relationships are really important and it wasn’t a relationship I made at the country club it was a relationship I made through volunteering for my city, everybody can do that and it’s really important.  We really focus on that here, when people come to work here we say we want them to be out in the community doing stuff so we have people who are volunteering in almost every aspect in our community and that helps us become more integrated with out city but it also helps us from the point of view of people being known as people who care about this place and makes us more valuable members of San Antonio.

Do you remember your first big project?

I would say the World Birding Centre or Hotel San Jose, they were happening around the same time, and Government Canyon, those are my top three.  I’ve never really had the luxury of just doing one project at a time (laughs).  I was working on those three projects intermittently, projects in architecture don’t always start one day and then finish X months later.  A lot of times they’ll start one day and some work will be done and then they’ll go away for awhile and come back and more work will be done.

Hotel San Jose-Austin, Texas (Photo by Casey Dunn)

Those are very different types of projects.

Hotel San Jose was really interesting because in contrast to the others it was an urban context project, it was a rehab project, but it was in an emerging part of South Congress, Austin. It was a great, brilliant young lawyer Liz Lambert, who I am actually going to drive up to Austin and visit with after this, she just had a great idea of taking this old fleabag motel and making into a really great place.  It has the highest occupancy rate of any hotel in Austin and has become a cultural meeting grounds for people, it’s iconic for the whole neighbourhood.  It was really cool to have a chance to do that and then to become friends with your clients and have relationships that last, it’s been 15 years.

As a young architect presenting your ideas how did you handle the criticism or rejection?  How do you take that criticism into account and work it into your next attempt?

(laughs) more of them are rejected than are approved.  You learn that in school.  It’s one thing professors are pretty good at is heaping on rejection.  If you can take that you’ll graduate and continue on.  If not you’re not really going to be cut out for this profession.  Almost everyone here has a real strong affinity for collaboration.  I really don’t want to be out there working by myself, some architects want to do that, I like getting feedback and working with other people and hearing their ideas.  There’s really nice and good ways to critique and suggest and collaborate and change and then there are really rude and unhealthy ways of doing it.  If you can surround yourself with people who know how to do it in a healthy way, there’s nothing better.  There’s times when your ideas aren’t as understood or accepted as you’d like them to be but that’s just part of it.  That’s a learning experience to because every time you have some idea that you think is amazing and it gets rejected there’s a reason for it (laughs) either you didn’t present it well, a lot of times that’s a good reason, or that even though you thought it was a brilliant idea it wasn’t the right idea so you’ve got to come up with another one. That’s part of the excitement of it and that’s part of the discovery of how to do something that’s good.  Our firm has been really successful and a lot of times people will say “you guys are so luck you get such great clients” and I do think we get great clients but we aren’t successful because we have great clients, I think we’re successful because we’re willing to work really really hard and we’re willing to put out an idea that might be risky and to challenge our clients.  We’re also willing to hear our clients say “hey I don’t want to do that but did you think about this?” we’re willing to put in the time it takes to go back and rethink our ideas and come up with a new one.  A lot of times architects, and everybody in the world, they just want to be able to do it all at once and get it done.  The most efficient way to make money is to have a great idea and just get it done but the best way to make great architecture is to be willing to go and work at it and work at it and work at it and take the criticism and make it better.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to?  Do you have a dream project?

I don’t have a dream project but I do have a dream for our projects becoming truly sustainable, not just partially sustainable, I want to see a time when the whole profession and the whole industry is capable of supporting a real model for sustainability.  I don’t think we’ve found that yet.  When I say that it goes beyond just having a zero energy building it really goes towards having a model and a paradigm and a way of building for people that really satisfies their needs in multiple ways beyond just the technical performance of the building.  It’s spiritual, it’s cultural, it’s physical.  I think we’re inch by inch improving our way of doing that and each new project is a great opportunity to discover a way of thinking about it and hopefully a little more progress towards that goal. I don’t have a set one building type that I think is the ideal, I think it comes in small ways in every project that you do.

Hotel San Jose-Austin, Texas (Left Photo by Casey Dunn, Right Photo by Tom Loof)

Can you name a couple positions related to architecture that you collaborate with and work with?

There’s a lot of people who come through architecture school who don’t end up becoming architects.  There’s some statistics that I don’t have off the tip of my tongue but a high percentage that go into the academic world for architectural training don’t come out on the other end working in a traditional architecture practice.  I do think that architects are trained to collaborate and to problem solve.  Architects are trained to work in a world that isn’t always black and white and I think that’s a little different from someone in science, engineering, math, where there is always a right answer, there is always a 1 or a 0, a right or wrong.  In architecture there’s an amazing number of shades of grey. For young architects who come out of school I think they know how to deal with those complex problems and to balance out all the competing issues and think creatively.  That comes in handy in a number of different ways, what exact profession is the right one?  I’m not sure.

I see some people who find their way into the development world, which has a great mixture of vision and business sense.  They can bring their skills and knowledge about architecture and what’s possible to bear there.  I think there’s a need for more visionary developers out there doing imaginative things, especially if they’re going to take on the idea of sustainability.  There is the construction industry too, in face we’ve had a number of recent interns who rather than going into architecture have decided they want to go build things because they fell in love with the craft of building things through their architectural training.  We have folks who sometimes just go into the arts, they discover that their niche in architecture because designing things like furniture or cabinets and they’ll pursue something along those lines, even things like jewellery.  I would say architects, after having some experience, become good educators.  Civic contributions, working for municipalities or counties, thinking about communities and urban planning.  Sometimes even natural resource conservation groups because architects are trained to think about environments and users and how they can collaborate and work together.  A lot of times when you have an environmental advocacy group or a land trust those skills come in handy there as well.

Do you have any final advice for aspiring architects?

I asked Charles Moore that just before he died and after thinking about it a long time, like he did, his answer to me was “the biggest problem with young architects is they sometimes take themselves too seriously” and I would extend that advice.  I don’t think at the time he told me that I really understood it.  I remember thinking at the time, that doesn’t seem very profound, but I think that’s because at the time I was taking myself too seriously.  What Charles knew was there are a lot of ups and downs in the profession, there’s lots of twists and turns and you never know where it’s going to take you, so you want to have fun, you don’t want to take it too seriously.  You have to be able to be in the moment working with the people you’re working with and be open and be creative and have fun with what you do.  I think that’s still great advice.

Date: July 7, 2014 • Category:
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  • Elsa Monanteras

    I want to say thank you for publishing this article!! I am really thinking of going into food science and Kirsten really gives a good insight on the type of jobs in the field and how the program is structured! Being a culinary graduate in pastry, I am much more interested in developing new products and the reasoning behind observed reactions. thank you!