Profile: Arturo Del Castillo, AIA

Profile: Arturo Del Castillo, AIA

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Contributed by:
Ezra Loh
Assoc. AIA

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Profile: Arturo Del Castillo, AIA

[Editor’s note: Italicized portions did not previously appear in the print version of Columns magazine.]

In 2009, the CityDesign Studio was created with a primary focus on neighborhoods and development along the Trinity River. Housed within Dallas City Hall, the team leverages social, economic, and environmental design strategies that impact the surrounding communities and culture of Dallas. They envision the city’s potential to become a more connected, vibrant, and livable city. Arturo Del Castillo, AIA, is the lead urban designer for CityDesign Studio. An architect as well, Del Castillo understands the importance of what good and sensible design can bring to a community and its future development.

What are the main focuses of the CityDesign Studio?

Our work varies greatly in terms of scope and approach. A lot of what we do deals with advancing and providing input on policy initiatives. We also provide urban design and concept design strategies for future projects as an in-house design consultancy for the City of Dallas. The largest part of what we do is called the Urban Design Program that caters to work involving urban design for large areas of town and addressing key development issues facing the city to help shape its form.

What are some projects you consider a huge success for the CityDesign Studio since it began in 2009?

We were successful in getting the West Dallas urban structure and guidelines approved as policy in March 2011. It has become a model project, and signifies the way we want to work in the city with both community and stakeholders going forward. Currently, we continue to work on implementation strategies for development that maintains the integrity of the vision for West Dallas.

Can you talk a bit about the Connected CityDesign Challenge you have been involved in?

As part of a larger area project, we recently hosted a series of public lectures associated with the Connected CityDesign Challenge. This was an open call for bold urban design strategies that seek to build awareness of urban design solutions capable of connecting our downtown and river.

What is your role as lead urban designer for CityDesign Studio?

We are a small shop, with four full-time employees, so we all wear many hats. Brent Brown, our studio director is a part-time contractor with the city. David Whitley is our assistant director, Evan Sheets our urban planner and Chalonda Jackson our community engagement coordinator. Our role, simply put, is to elevate the design consciousness and culture of Dallas and we do this in many ways. I tend to focus most on drawing and writing that supports, translates, and guides the city, community, and stakeholders’ vision for a particular area.

You have detailed and yet captivating hand-drawn urban design and architectural drawings. Can you talk a bit about the process and ideas behind the drawings?

We have a mantra in the studio: “Listen, draw, repeat.” When working with the community, we often deal with our drawings in layers. Many of these sketches are basically the initial diagram for the site that evolves out of us asking questions like “What if…?” “What would I worry about?” and “What needs to happen?” The La Bajada neighborhood, west of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge for example, allowed us to listen to the community and hear the residents’ concerns and dreams for their neighborhood. We then put these ideas and visions on paper and revised them incrementally as the project developed. This was the starting point and it dictated what aspects would drive the rest of the project forward. Our guidelines and drawings are not meant to be an absolute. They are meant to be flexible and change over time: adapt to changing markets and conditions and the way people change. The key points and concepts should stay the same as they oftentimes gain the support from community leaders, residents, and stakeholders.

You are also a licensed architect. How does that shape or influence the decisions you make or create as an urban designer for Dallas?

I worked as an architect and urban designer in the private sector a long time before making the switch to what I do now. My experience—working on many types and scales of projects for various public and private clients—affords me the ability to better understand challenges in solving unique and demanding development issues from the perspective of a developer and end user. On the other hand, it’s important to also think about how good architecture can contribute to the “public face” of our city by the way buildings are sited and how the lower floors address and influence the public realm. We often advise developers, owners, and city agencies how design influences the success of not only their own development(s) but that of our downtown, river, and neighborhoods … how design can ultimately help build a more walkable, welcoming, and attractive city.

From an urbanist’s point of view, what are some current model cities that Dallas has the potential to become more like?

We all have our views on what makes up a model city. We think of cities with loads of history, streetcar cities with charm and texture, cities uniquely identifiable by their natural features. We think of Barcelona, Lisbon, San Francisco, or Paris—prosperous cities with history and culture, blessed with physical features, offering mobility, access, and the capacity to enjoy a vital urban life. Dallas can develop and become uniquely Dallas while dealing with today’s challenge of mega-scale and its dehumanizing effects, and offering choices for mobility, housing, livability, and participation in public life with the qualities we seek in smaller vibrant cities of the past.

What are some of the key components of these cities that Dallas currently lacks?

Cities that are not loved, that are badly designed, are generally this way because they are not designed at all. Cities that allow growth to occur unchecked and driven by the market alone generally result in concentrated areas of poverty, congestion, lack of open space, and a compromise of their natural features to the deficit of the public. Economic growth and a rising standard of living, greater social justice, cultural and economic vitality, and good, thoughtful design are the essential ingredients and among the critical aspects we can take from model cities to forge our own unique and vibrant city.

What are your favorite place(s) to hang out in Dallas? … Favorite neighborhood or district in the city that you consider a “model” neighborhood for these aspects we have been discussing?

I enjoy spending my free time in the denser, livelier parts of our city that offer diverse experiences day and night and where street patterns and design of space are best understood at the pedestrian scale. I also have a great love for our open spaces and enjoy using the growing network of trails that take me to and around White Rock Lake, to the Trinity River, and down the edge of uptown, for example.

What are some of the most distinct urban challenges we face in transforming Dallas into a more connected and urban environment?

We are a city primarily built for the automobile and we know it will always be a part of our DNA. However, it doesn’t mean that our city building design decisions should be dominated by it. Our streets will continue to serve the automobile, but they should also give equal priority to the pedestrian, the bicyclist, and public transportation—a sentiment that has recently manifested itself into the city’s Complete Streets Design Manual. We must understand that as goes our streets and public spaces, so goes our city.

What hobbies or other interests do you have?

I enjoy traveling with my family when we have a chance. As you might guess, cities that offer unique urban experiences and can be easily accessed are at the top of our list. I also enjoy endurance sports. The planning, dedication, determination, and attention to detail required to achieve a rewarding long run or ride are necessary ingredients in realizing good city-building.

Interviewed by Ezra Loh, Assoc. AIA, with Michael Malone Architects Inc.