Profile: Nunzio DeSantis, FAIA

Profile: Nunzio DeSantis, FAIA

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Contributed by:
Nate Eudaly
Hon. AIA Dallas


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Profile: Nunzio DeSantis, FAIA

Meet Nunzio DeSantis, FAIA, the 2017 president of AIA Dallas. Nunzio’s experience as executive vice president at HKS Inc. includes leading the design of millions of square feet of office buildings, corporate campuses, and residential towers, but Nunzio DeSantis’ passion is one-of-a-kind hospitality hotels and resorts. Director of the HKS Hospitality Group, Nunzio and his team have completed projects totaling more than 55,000 hotel rooms located around the world. He himself grew up in El Paso, TX. Born to Italian parents, he and his five siblings are first-generation Americans. Today, he is a registered architect in 25 states, as well as a USGBC LEED® accredited professional. Nunzio earned both a bachelor of environmental design degree and a master’s of architecture from Texas A&M University.

Tell us about growing up in El Paso.

I enjoyed growing up in El Paso and a lot of my family still lives there. People in El Paso are honest, down-to-earth, and approachable. I liked the cultural influence from Mexico since El Paso is a border town, and of course enjoyed Mexican food along with my mom’s Italian cooking. My mother was extremely creative, and my father had a colorful and varied career as a coal miner, a switchman for the Santa Fe Railroad, and a small residential contractor. They both had a profound influence on me; my father’s strong work ethic and my mother’s ability to dream outside the box are gifts I carry with me to this day. My mom encouraged us to be creative and she demonstrated artistic skill by using everyday items around the house. While I was growing up my dad became a small residential contractor and I began to work at his job sites. My interest in construction started because of working for my dad.

What influenced you to attend A&M and become an architect?

As I mentioned, my mom was very creative and had a great eye. She did a lot of drawing and encouraged us to do the same. Since my dad was a contractor, I thought I would follow in his footsteps. After attending the University of Texas at El Paso, I transferred to Texas A&M since the school had a great reputation in construction management. One of my first courses at A&M was “Design Overview.” I did well in the course and it sparked my desire to be a part of the creative design process. I also visited New York City and saw the World Trade Center twin towers. The verticality of their design was very inspiring. These two key factors influenced my decision to become an architect and obtain my two degrees from A&M.

What brought you to Dallas and to HKS?

The founders of HKS—including Harwood K. Smith, FAIA—had deep ties to A&M. I did my senior project related to hotel design under Jack Yardley, FAIA, who was the design director at HKS. My professors at A&M also encouraged me to consider HKS. These factors worked hand-in-glove to get me to Dallas and HKS. I’ve been with HKS for 33 years—one of the best decisions I ever made.

What do you enjoy most in leading the HKS hospitality group?

Our hospitality group is able to do buildings that touch people. We design for how people live. I’m able to travel and see the world while doing this. My team and I stay on the forefront of trends in fashion, dining, and pampering. We have an amazing hospitality staff and collectively we get to “create the next great place.”

Photo credit: Daryl Shields

What are your primary goals for your AIA Dallas presidency?

AIA Dallas should be a strong voice in the community. We should help direct, craft, distill, and edit the forward direction of the city. We should also be a voice of reason, helping connect people and serving as cartilage between the community’s bones. My goal as president is to be inclusive and let our staff and members take ownership for their initiatives. As the AIA, we are responsible for developing initiatives that matter to our members, being accountable for transparency and inclusiveness, and for fulfilling our members’ expectations. We should strive to provide more clarity to our members. We also should “look inside out” and “retool outside in.”

What three words would you use to describe AIA Dallas?

I would describe AIA Dallas as purposeful, trustworthy, and relevant.

What are the greatest challenges facing the architecture profession?

I think a major challenge is for firms to find ways to pay better wages to their young associates. They come out of school with a lot of debt, so figuring out a way to do this is important. We also need to continue to inspire our teams to create “beauty from void” and meaningful “space between two black dots.” Finally, we have to keep in mind that the computer is a tool, not an end unto itself.

What are some of your favorite buildings or spaces other than the ones you designed?

One of my favorite spaces is [New York City’s] Central Park. It’s like a great old book—a space for everyone that is open to all.

What advice would you give to an architectural intern starting in practice?

Architectural interns should be demanding, should want it all, should be impatient, should be a sponge, should be participatory, should seek client interaction, should give input, and should always bring value.

Which architects, living or dead, do you most admire?

I like the vernacular of Texas architecture. Frank Welch, FAIA and O’Neil Ford, FAIA are masters of bringing the outdoors indoors, allowing their buildings to speak on their own terms. They also incorporate key elements of Texan, Spanish, and Mexican influence in their projects, which I appreciate.

What do you do in your (limited) spare time?

I like to spend time with my wife and visiting my kids in New York City. Favorite places to retreat are my lake house and my ranch. I enjoy fishing and hunting. Being outdoors, either on the water or at the ranch, helps keep things in proper perspective.

What guests, living or deceased, would you have at your ideal dinner party?

I would want to mix it up: Teddy Roosevelt to hear about his adventures, Ernest Hemingway for his take on romanticism, Mick Jagger, and Mother Teresa. It would be a lively and interesting evening.

What else should people know about you?

I’m never satisfied—there’s always more to do and more places to see. I have to balance this with a need to stop and take a breath and enjoy life.

What inspires you as an architect?

Innovation and design. I love to do hand-drawn sketches. I used them almost exclusively in designing my lake house. I also love a challenge and I’m a fixer of problems.

Interview by Nate Eudaly, Hon. AIA Dallas, executive director of the Dallas Architecture Forum.

Making His Mark(s)

View a sample of the creative sketches from the hand of Nunzio DeSantis here.