Lisa Lamkin
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Profile: Maria Gomez, AIA

A conversation with the outgoing 2020 AIA Dallas president and principal with GFF on accomplishments, COVID-19, and what she sees ahead for our chapter.

You had a great conversation with the young professionals in 2019 and you talked a bit about your journey to Dallas. Do you have family ties in Colombia? Do you ever get to go back and visit?

Yes, absolutely. I only have one sister. My parents have already passed away, both of them. And my sister lives in Atlanta. So from that side, we have extended family. But on my husband’s side, he’s one of seven siblings. We try to go see them once a year or maybe every other year.

What kind of lessons or perspectives from your childhood in Colombia do you bring to your practice today?

When I started practicing here in the U.S., one of the things that was shocking was how sustainability was viewed 20 years ago.

Back then it wasn’t even a concept. But it was very strange to me that we were not looking at how to place a building in a site. It was more about the visibility, where the signage goes, not thinking about how an enormous amount of windows facing east and west have huge solar exposure. There’s so much that you do in Colombia that has to do with natural ventilation.

When did you decide you were going to be an architect? What lit that spark?

I had an uncle who was an architect. But when I was young, I was thinking I was going to be a physician like my dad. He sat me down when I was probably 11 or 12, and he started telling me about his experiences, how difficult it can be when you’re dealing with somebody who’s sick and perhaps they pass away, then you’re having to tell the family. I started really thinking about it in a more realistic way and that that's probably not going to be for me.

When I was about 14 or 15, my family took 45 days and went to Japan, China, Thailand, Nepal, a lot of different places in Asia. It was fascinating to me to see that, from all these different cultures that have come and gone, what stays behind is the architecture and the art. And that’s where I started thinking, “This might be something interesting to consider as a profession.” The Taj Mahal was certainly very impactful for me. That’s when I started focusing on architecture, and I never looked back.

After 20 years, what’s your favorite part of your job?

Some of the most exciting parts are when a client gets it, when we’re trying to do something that is the right thing from an architectural and design standpoint. With the type of work that we do at GFF, developers are very oriented toward the finance of how this is going to pan out. But every now and then, there’s one of those clients, even though they’re still developers, they get how much better a particular approach might be. And they understand it might cost more. You know, it’s been a great thing where I can come out of the meeting and know that the client understood it and that they’re willing to do the right thing.

From a professional standpoint, the collaborative part of our profession is so fun and interesting. Which is also part of what is difficult right now, with us working from home. Even though we can see each other on a video meeting, it’s not the same as having that contact and a more collaborative discussion.

You mentioned collaboration, in contrast to the Howard Roark myth of the individual architect making a statement with a design response — is that generational? Do you think your generation, as the second generation of principals at GFF, approaches practice differently now, or do you see it as more of a technological advance?

No, I think our generation is certainly taking things a little bit differently. I think that’s kind of human nature. We were all shaped by different experiences as we went to school and as we practiced, and things have changed. The natural progression is for a new generation of principals to do things a little bit differently.

From a collaborative standpoint, it is more on a personal level; some people tend to be more collaborative than others in our firm. But for me, it’s really important; I enjoy working with people where it’s not about ‘This is my idea, and this is the way we’re going to do it.’ It’s more about which one is the best idea, and it doesn’t matter who came up with it, as long as it’s making a project better.

Your résumé reflects an interesting duality. You engage directly in project design, collaboration, and firm leadership. But you’re also the director of technical resources. How did that combination come about, and what does that do for your design approach?

In Colombia, that’s the way we would approach the practice of architecture. You can’t just do one thing. A well-rounded architect, a well-rounded designer needs the entire experience. A person can’t do successful design if they’ve never been out in the field and they’ve never done the entire process. I’ve always liked to be involved in everything. I try to be diligent and disciplined about the quality of the work, and I guess it started catching other people’s attention. When the director of technical resources was retiring, the leadership decided I needed to be the one replacing that person. It wasn’t something that I was particularly pursuing, but the person who used to do it in my office, Lawrence Cosby, was my mentor; he influenced my approach.

As the 2020 chapter president, you certainly had your year quickly disrupted. How did that change or reinforce your original goals?

The original goals are still really strong, very applicable. There was certainly a huge shift to figuring out how we’re going to make sure that we take the chapter through this process in the right fiduciary way. We needed to react quickly because things were changing on a daily basis, and there was no way anybody could have expected that. So we needed to make sure that the board was looking at everything that we needed to be looking at it and understanding what might happen through the rest of the year so we could figure out how we’re going to approach it and make sure that the organization stays viable and financially afloat. We’re still doing a lot of the work to make progress on those original goals.

With tools such as Zoom, have we actually expanded the connections of members so we get more participation from a broader group?

Yeah, there have been plenty of silver linings. And that’s one of them. There are a lot of people who are able to make the time because now they’re not commuting. There’s so many of our members who work north of Dallas in Plano or Frisco, and they make the commute, but it’s tough. Now it’s so much easier to just finish a meeting and immediately jump on an event or a committee meeting than it was before.

What will define success for the chapter in your presidency as we look back on 2020?

I thought about that every month at our board meeting. There were a few things that I thought were particularly important to achieve. And we made so much progress in some of those areas, particularly the one where I had seen a very big disconnect between the Architecture and Design Foundation and the chapter.

Until recently, I didn’t really understand much about the foundation because I wasn’t involved in it. And it’s such a different organization than our chapter is. But what was clear to me is that they were intentionally separated, but that we have gone too far. Now we’re trying to bring them back together so that there’s more collaboration between the two organizations and we can leverage efforts that both are making.

You’ve been here for 20 years, all with one firm. And that firm has more than doubled to 120. So what’s success is the next 20 years for your business? For Dallas?

One of the things that GFF has been striving to do, and the new leadership has taken it on, but we really want to move in the direction to be more design oriented, if you will. Then service oriented. We were talking earlier about one of those things that is motivating for me is when there’s a client who is usually not interested in architecture, they’re more interested in their financial perspective. And you’re able to educate that client on why good design is so important. That’s what it’s all about. As a practice, if we’re moving GFF from a more business-oriented practice to a practice-oriented practice, I think that’s going be a great push forward. We’ve been making, in my view, quite a bit of progress there.

We need to continue to grow the firm, obviously. Growth doesn’t necessarily mean more people. There are other components about growth that we’re looking at that are not necessarily additional revenue and additional people.

In terms of the city, we got here 21 years ago, 1991, and I look back and see the big shift from everything being about the car to now the cities are talking about urban design. Of course we’ve been talking about it forever, but it fell on deaf ears. I think a lot of the shift has to do with the millennial generation because they’re the ones driving the markets. And they said, “We’re not interested in having a long commute from home to the office.” They're the ones who’ve made the developers realize you’re going to have to change your mindset to stay relevant.

I've seen that transformation, and Klyde Warren Park is a great example of how important it is to use resources from the city and from the private sector to bridge neighborhoods that were broken up because of all the highways. Everything, everything was done around transportation and how many cars can we get from point A to point B as quickly as possible? So I think Dallas is going through a great transformation. It’s been doing that for the last 15 years, and I think it’s going to continue because there’s so much momentum. The developers have realized that if they don’t get on that bus, they’ve missed the mark. I can’t wait to see in 10 years when we can have another discussion about this, what else has evolved.

You’ve touched on many themes that AIA supports practices with, in terms of how design matters and why architects are critical to public health and well-being. Do you imagine yourself continuing in AIA service? Or community service? What’s next on your radar?

I’ll be continued to be involved in AIA. I love the organization, and it’s done so much for me that I'm very grateful. It's very important for all of us to be backers as much as we can. I’ve always been involved in different types of organizations. I served about 10 years on the zoning ordinance advisory committee for the city of Dallas and the special sign district advisory committee as well. We’ve talked about it a lot with our public policy groups. With Norm Alston, FAIA, particular, as the director of advocacy, it’s so important to have people engaged in those committees. Some committees require architects to be on them so the ordinance is actually correctly set up, and we just need to make sure that we have the right people there to represent what we think are the right issues.

But there are other committees where an architect is not required. And one of the things that Norm and the public policy committee this year have been working really hard at is making sure that we do have architects who are AIA architects, who are engaged and keeping tabs on what’s going on in each of these areas. We’ve made some progress on that. And it’s not just about the city of Dallas. Our metroplex has members all over, Plano, Frisco, so we are considering everybody in those conversations and not just Dallas.

You have talked about the joy of travel. What's left on your bucket list. Where are you going next?

One of the things we were planning to do in 2020 was September in Greece. And I hadn’t bought the tickets when this [COVID-19] whole thing started. We have a couple of friends who live in Florida — she’s my best friend from when we were little and we like to travel together. In previous years we’ve been to Peru and Australia, we’ve done these phenomenal trips. But we do have a very, very long list, and it's just hard to pick one. There are so many wonderful places in South America where we want to go. Chile, Argentina — we haven't been to Argentina — Galapagos.

You mentioned countries and environments more than you mentioned cities. A lot of architects will list all the big cities they need to see.

Yeah, I mean it’s hard to pin down just one city though because like, for example, Peru, you know, Lima is a great city. That’s some of the best restaurants in the world. But how do you not go to Machu Picchu or Cusco? I mean, there are so many other fascinating places around it. There are some instances where we say, OK, we want to go to this city, and we’re going to stay there for a week and get to know everything about it. But in other instances, we like to explore a little bit beyond the particular cities.

What else should our readers know about you?

It’s always been hard for me getting in front of a big crowd and talking. That was something that was giving me a little bit of stress at the beginning of this whole process [of chapter president]. In December when the hat was passed on, it kind of, for some reason, went away. I guess I've been preparing for it enough. I know a lot of people who struggle with a lot of those kinds of issues. And I want them to know you shouldn’t worry about it, you shouldn’t let that hold you back or make a decision to not do something because it makes you uncomfortable. One of the things that I’ve really learned about myself is there are so many instances where I’ve put myself outside of my comfort zone, and it’s those areas where I really have grown in my career.

Any parting comments for our young professionals who will be president in 20 years or in 15 years or 10 years?

I’m so looking forward to that generation because they are so confident and have so many great ideas. We have a few young professionals serving on the board, and I love how many creative solutions they’re coming up with, and they’re not fearful of saying something that people frown upon. AIA, as an organization, has evolved quite a bit. We have been very purposeful on including diverse people on our board and making sure that it feels comfortable expressing ideas and thoughts and feelings about different topics.


This interview, conducted by Lisa Lamkin, FAIA, principal at BRW Architects, has been edited for brevity and clarity.