Hon. AIA Dallas
Dialogue: International Architects in Dallas
Nate Eudaly, Hon. AIA Dallas discusses perspectives on practice in Dallas with three distinguished firm leaders—Maria Gomez, AIA, Eurico Francisco, AIA, and Christian Lehmkuhl—each of whom started their architectural journey in another country.
NATE: First, tell us where you grew up and about your childhood years. Did you attend high school and college in your native country? And when and what prompted you to become an architect?
MARIA: I grew up and went to school, including university, in Colombia. I was there until I moved here to Dallas. Since I was very young, traveling was one of my favorite things. I think that was something that my parents instilled in my sister and me. Every time we traveled somewhere, I would always think how impressive all of the museums and buildings that we visited were and how they had been there for, in some cases, thousands of years. And they were still there, and they were so permanent, and they were so much a part of the culture. So that’s when I started thinking about architecture specifically.
EURICO: I grew up in Brazil, in São Paulo, a gigantic city. It was a bit of a shock when I moved here, growing up in São Paulo, with 20 million-plus people, and came to Boston. Boston can be provincial, even though it’s one of our largest American cities, full of history, and it didn’t feel the same. Growing up, my interests were not necessarily architecture. I was interested in cinema. I was also interested in motorcycles, old cars. Then I realized whenever we were driving around the city, sometimes my mother would point out: Look at that building, at that other building — isn’t it interesting? And I started paying attention to those beauties. That was the spark. To the big disappointment of my family. We had the doctors and dentists but no architects. When I announced architecture, they were deeply disappointed.
CHRISTIAN: I was growing up in East Germany, and when the wall came down, I think I was 11. I remember both the United Germany and East Germany, but my memories of East Germany are all black and white. East Germany didn’t have a lot of offerings in terms of entertainment, so whatever you wanted to do, you had to make it yourself. That’s a good lesson from growing up in that society: If you want to have something, you have to create it. One thing that Maria said, you admire this kind of permanence of the buildings. I remember the permanence of the East German architecture being an obstacle or something that I really resented. Because particularly after the second world war, in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’ 70s, when there was a housing shortage in East Germany, they had all these precast concrete buildings to slab buildings. They built these all over the Warsaw Pact countries. They were all built in the satellite cities, and every single building was the same, like a sixstory version, an eight-story version, but all the apartments are the same. So I had this idea that I need to rebel against this monotony and against this permanence of these buildings. Just funny it came to me that permanence can be a bad thing.
MARIA: Yes, you’re absolutely right. In the context that I was talking about permanence was visiting the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China and those sort of buildings that have been there so long. But I totally agree with what you just said. It happens in every city where we’re thinking, God, I wish that could come down and be replaced by something more.
NATE: Christian, at what point did you decide to become an architect?
CHRISTIAN: My parents were both civil engineers. So I had been around planning ideas. When I was small and kind of drawing on that, I was always interested in kind of creating culture. Yeah, I don’t think it was a snap moment. It just felt right. And I didn’t try anything else. So far, it’s worked OK.
NATE: Let’s move into your architectural studies or training. If you studied architecture in your native country, how do you compare that to how architecture is taught United States?
CHRISTIAN: I studied in both countries and a couple other countries. I studied in Germany, and I received an architecture engineering degree. I would say it’s probably a little broader in its educational approach. There’s a big emphasis on structures. There’s emphasis on economics, all aspects of it. And the idea is that when you leave the university, you’re actually ready to build something, right? That might be true or not true, but that’s the aspiration they have. Then I studied a couple of semesters in different countries, including New Zealand and China, which were completely different, particularly China. Then I went to Boston and did the postgraduate master’s at MIT, which was more technically inclined because it was MIT. I remember very harsh critiques in Germany, like on design studios. I remember tears. I remember morale broken apart by professors.
MARIA: Since I went to school in Colombia, I don’t know as much about how the education system works in the U.S. in terms of architecture. But what I sense, based on the discussions I’ve had with colleagues and friends who are architects, is it seems like architecture school in Colombia was incredibly focused. You started year one, and you were studying architecture from year one to year five. What I see here is that most people start college, and in their undergraduate phase they can switch around and go from one orientation to a different one. And that doesn’t happen in Colombia. So if I do one year of architecture school and I decide I want to want to do journalism, I’m starting over. It was very, very focused, very intense. And I’m sure there’s a lot of intensity here, too. I’ve always had the impression that there are a lot of people who started in one career and then ended up being architects.
EURICO: I went to the University of São Paulo and got my bachelor’s there. It’s a five-year program similar to Maria’s. And I have a master’s from Harvard. In Brazil, the education was broad. The school was called School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. In the U.S. culture, we understand we have architecture and we have landscape architecture, they have separate tracks, and planning is yet another specialty. I don’t think that we should dissociate those disciplines. Even if you decide to focus on one of those tracks, it’s very good and beneficial to be aware of other tracks that are running parallel to what you’re doing.
I do want to say that the particular building known as the School of Architecture was a revelation. The big decision moment was when I actually stepped foot in the School of Architecture building, designed by Villa Navarre, an important figure in Brazilian architecture and history. It’s a magnificent building designed in the early ’60s. It’s a cast-in-place concrete block elevated from the earth, and everything happens inside that blank block. It’s magnificent. One of my professors described it as a temple with no doors — Temple for Teaching and Learning Architecture with no doors. That’s the Brazil chapter. The Boston chapter, well, it’s radically different. Of course, the pace and the focus and the intensity really took me by surprise.
NATE: Is that at the GSD?
EURICO: The GSD. Wonderful professors. Everybody who had anything to say anywhere in the world would make a stop at the school. So the exposure that the school affords the students is incredible. And you know, all those names — Rem Koolhaas or Rogers — they would stop by, and I would actually see those guys and sometimes talk with those people. Sometimes Zaha Hadid stopped in. It changed my perspective coming from a country in South America.
NATE: What brought you to the United States and then Dallas?
EURICO: What brought me to the United States was graduate school. I knew that in this country, whoever is doing anything of interest will come by to teach, to practice, or to lecture. So that was the attraction.
I finished school in Boston, and I was happy as I could be. We bought a place, we loved the city and the culture, but a classmate had moved to Dallas. He claims he did extensive research, checked all the cities around the country, and Dallas was the place where everything was going to happen in the next 50 years. So he came here, he got a job. Immediately he started bugging me. And I kept him away for two, three, four years. Eventually I visited him and people at the office treated me extremely well. I was surprised by the type of work that I saw in the office. They were working in Asia, South America, all over this country from Dallas, and I asked how is it possible? Look, we have a wonderful airport, and we can go anywhere. We can get up, have a meeting, take the plane, have a meeting in New York, and be back home for dinner. It’s part of that Texan spirit, bigger than life. And the can-do attitude we have very much in Dallas.
CHRISTIAN: I worked in Germany for a bit and then in 2009, when the last economic crisis hit, the interesting projects were drying up. I thought, well, I might as well go back to school. I moved to Boston and did a two-year program. Then I just happened to stick around.
NATE: You were at MIT, correct?
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, I was at MIT. Initially I wanted to go back to Germany, but when you study here as a foreigner, they have this OPT program, so you’re allowed to work for a year. And then your company says, ‘Why don’t you stick around,’ like this seems to be working well. Now it has been 11 years. Originally, I worked from New York. Three years ago, we had a baby. New York is fantastic if you’re young, it’s a fantastic place if you’re an architect. It’s a horrible place if you’re a parent. We didn’t have any ties anywhere in the U.S.; we don’t have any relatives here. I embarked on a two week interview tour throughout the country, interviewing here at Gensler in Dallas, and it just immediately clicked.
MARIA: When I finished university, I worked for a year at a firm and then started my own office with one of my best friends from college. I got married, but there was a lot of violence going on in Colombia. My husband and I had thought we might go somewhere else. My husband, who worked in a company that had a joint venture with an American company, talked to the owner of the Colombian company about our desire. The owner told my husband that the vice president of the American company was coming for a visit that week. Sure enough, my husband talked to him, and within a week he had a job offer. That was incredible because if you’re not a U.S. citizen, you can’t just apply for a job. You’ve got to get a sponsor, and it’s a long, tedious, and expensive process. The company is an elevator company, and their headquarters was near Chicago. They also had a big office here in Allen, and they gave him the option of Chicago or Allen. We realized, being from such a tropical area as Colombia, that Chicago might be too much of a change. We got here, and there was a big shock in many ways. But people here have been so welcoming. We’re just really thankful that it turned out that way.
NATE: Describe what you thought Dallas would be like. And once you arrived, how were those first impressions confirmed or modified?
MARIA: I had been in many cities in the U.S., but I had never been to Texas. I was a little shocked that it was so flat. There were no mountains, there were no trees. It was the landscape that was so different than what I was used to. Medellin was a medium-size city of about 3 million people, but it was fairly urban with mass transportation everywhere. You could walk anywhere, and one of the things that was shocking to me was that there were so many areas in Dallas where you couldn’t walk from one place to the other — you would have to drive. Dallas was incredibly oriented to highways and cars, which was difficult for me to accept. But there have been so many changes and improvements over the past 20 years that are moving us in the right direction.
EURICO: This place has changed dramatically. When I arrived here in December 1997, we rented a nice place close to the Quadrangle. The firm’s office was at the Quadrangle at the time. Of course, I walked to work.
I had a colleague who lived one block closer to the office, and, I kid you not, I would see him driving his car out of the garage to drive to the office and park his car in the garage. We would arrive at the same time, with me walking three blocks and his driving two blocks. Many times, I would walk that three-block trek and wouldn’t cross anyone on the sidewalks. One time I was on the sidewalk, and on the other end of the block I saw a young woman walking a dog, and the dog starts barking like mad. As we walked by each other, I could hear her talking to her dog, “Don’t worry, it’s just a person.” As if the dog had never seen another person before on the sidewalk.
Downtown was dead 20 years ago. When RTKL moved to downtown, we were the first architecture office in the area, so things have changed a lot. Downtown is coming alive, and Uptown changes all the time. It’s a good thing that for us, as architects, we like to see things being built, things changing. And we see that happening in Dallas.
NATE: So Christian, you’re the relative newcomer of the group. What were your first impressions of Dallas, with your background in Germany, then Boston and New York. What do you think about Dallas now?
CHRISTIAN: In Germany, strangely enough, when I was growing up the TV series Dallas was running and was also popular on German TV. My ideas of Dallas were from pop culture. I remember two things that I that I was surprised about. I think Rem Koolhaas said that it seems like the human consensus is beige. And it kind of reminded me of Dallas — yeah, everything is beige. The landscape was beige, a lot of the architecture was beige, interiors were beige. And whenever we do projects, I refuse to use any kind of brown tone in any project. The other thing that was interesting, and that speaks to what Eurico just said, is that this is the least walkable city I’ve lived in. New York, Boston, and European cities are walkable. I live in downtown Dallas. And when I walk around here, I’m kind of the odd person. Others look at me like, “Why? Why is this person walking here?”
EURICO: Like, “What’s wrong with you?”
CHRISTIAN: I know! And when we moved here from New York, we didn’t have a car because it doesn’t make sense in New York. It took me eight weeks to buy a car out of necessity. If you don’t have a vehicle, you see sides of the city that most people don’t really see.
NATE: How would you compare the political and civic leadership in Dallas to what it was in your native country?
CHRISTIAN: A lot of the art, culture, and architecture here is supported by philanthropy, which is interesting because in Germany we don’t have that. In Germany, you also don’t have this cultural divide of the super-rich and the super-poor, with the superrich creating a legacy of philanthropy. In Germany, if you’re rich, you’re almost embarrassed and try to hide it. There’s nobody going out to give back to the city like happens in Dallas.
The issue of philanthropy raises questions of influence from a few people on the cultural landscape of the whole area. But it comes with a lot of opportunities. There’s a lot of money here to achieve great things.
MARIA: I really appreciate the philanthropy that you see here. There are so many families and people who support the arts. With the Dallas Architecture Forum, there are a lot of people interested in supporting not just the museums, but the opera and architecture. There are civic leaders trying to do the right thing and push the city into a better place from an architectural standpoint. Whether it’s more insular or national versus international, it’s different.
Medellin is so different in the way the government works. To me, it was very interesting to learn how Dallas has council members representing their individual districts. And it’s also interesting that it’s not as politicized as I would have imagined. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. It’s about what their districts are trying to achieve. In terms of the architectural community, the big difference is that there was a lot of collaboration and camaraderie in the architectural community in Colombia. For us, a large firm was 30 people. A lot of small firms and people would pull together and collaborate and do all these incredibly interesting things with very little resources.
EURICO: Philanthropy is definitely different here from what I experienced in Brazil. Culture, arts, and the public good are the territory of the state in Brazil. Philanthropy happens at a much smaller scale than in this country and here in Dallas. If you think about it, it’s beautiful when you see things like the Meyerson Symphony Center, with a family that decided to put their money where their passion is. It shows commitment, it shows generosity and a sense of community. It’s a very different story between what I experienced in Brazil and what I experience here. I worked in Brazil maybe five years as an architect, and I have been working here for 25 years. I don’t know if I’m still a Brazilian architect or an American one.
In Brazil, architecture was a smaller community. We were more attuned to what was going on elsewhere, not only in our country, but also in Europe and United States. That’s part of living on the fringe. If you live on the fringe, you look toward the center. Here, we don’t pay as much attention to Brazil or Colombia as Colombia and Brazil pay attention to the United States. We could have stronger awareness of what is outside the U.S. borders, and that would make us all culturally richer.
CHRISTIAN: The first time I visited the U.S. from Germany, I was 14 or 15. Somebody asked me if we had televisions in Germany, so I guess not everybody is well informed about Germany either.
I want to discover the identity of North Texas — what is the architecture of North Texas? There’s obviously not that many international architects here. So maybe it could be beneficial for architects from this area to look outside the U.S. not necessarily to copy something else, but to define their own identity and understanding of who they are compared to what is happening internationally.
NATE: I think all three of you touched on something — there’s so much innovative work happening internationally that often Dallas designers are not looking at or knowledgeable about. I think it would be enriching for designers, personally and professionally, to do that.
One final question: Let’s say you are giving advice to a young international architect who’s just moved to Dallas. What words of wisdom would you share with them?
CHRISTIAN: I think what Dallas really has going for itself, like besides being a great place for a family, is opportunity. There’s a lot of opportunity to shape here. That may be more difficult in other cities. If you have ideas, if you make the right connection, and if you convince people, you can really change and influence things. One of the great things about architecture is that you can make a difference not only for yourself but also for others, and Dallas is a great place to achieve that.
MARIA: One recommendation I would give is to get involved in local organizations. The AIA provides many great opportunities to network, to learn from others, and to understand how things work. As somebody who came from a different country, it certainly has played a big role in my career. And not just the AIA, but other groups and organizations. Serving on a committee for the City of Dallas, you can learn how architects influence policymaking. That kind of networking expands your horizon. Connecting with people and understanding their priorities and understanding how the different organizations work and support each other — that has been really interesting and helpful for me in getting to know the right people to get to where I want it to be.
EURICO: Dallas is a place where you can achieve things because it is a young city and things are happening. You do have the chance to influence and be part of that change, which for an architect is the best thing ever. And I agree 100 percent with Maria — you do have to get involved. Try to not be a spectator. The city does offer you the organizations and the opportunities, and the city does welcome you. Get involved with the architecture school (CAPPA) at the University of Texas at Arlington — lots of good things happening there. It’s one of those best-kept secrets, a great school with great professors and good students coming out of that school.
Discussion moderated by Nate Eudaly, Hon. AIA Dallas, executive director of the Dallas Architecture Forum.