Patron Magazine

June/July, 2014

A house is a “machine for living,” as Corbusier famously said. To that the sculptor Carl Andre added, “Art is about seizing and holding space.” This is what young architects in Dallas are doing if the seven discovered in this report can be seen as a reliable sample. Living against the grain, this gang is determined to seize the current moment, and render it in a way that tells the truth about our own times.

All of them were battered by the winds of wrath that blew in from Wall Street six years ago, changing the climate of their work from hot to cold, then tedious and tepid. All have persevered and landed safely in a brave new world where they have counted the cost of professional passion, and found it worth the struggle.

Josh Nimmo thought he would be with Lionel Morrison forever. He had discovered morrisonseifert-murphy on the Dallas website of AIA, and rushed to Dallas to join the bonanza. After Oklahoma State University and a bit of bouncing about, Josh couldn’t help but be captivated by the chance to work on big-league projects such as Lucy Billingsley’s International Office Park and One Arts Plaza.

Then it all fell apart, and Josh Nimmo departed. “I didn’t want to hang around and fight for the remaining scraps,” he said while admitting that to leave a semi-safe harbor “was not the smartest thing to do.” But he did it, and he needed a space to work. The perfect place was out there–an old White Star laundry he had “always loved,” on Greenville, near Mockingbird. He and interior designer Brant McFarlane leased the building and made the front part into an open office, to sublet.

Josh spends a lot less time running all that now though, because architecture has picked up for him again since Alan Kagan came along. Kagan, a developer with a modern sensibility, had been sitting out the crash, waiting for the final unfolding, when suddenly he saw a way back into the building business: smaller-scale projects, madly modern, with expenses slashed by 30 percent or more.

Alan Kagan joined forces with Josh Nimmo, and the first houses they did together, sleek and versatile, about a mile northeast of downtown, were sold before the final work was finished. Now Josh is designing the Old Range residence in Preston Hollow for the Kagan family. The two of them also are testing new ideas of density in their early territory near the central city, with four small houses on stilts, on a single lot.

Why the rush now to clean, spare lines, born more of Sparta than of Athens? Because, said Josh, “the economy shook things up. It changed people’s outlook. Their values changed. They wanted something. . . more authentic, that will last longer. They wanted the real reason behind things. They were looking for more depth. The values of fluff were gone.”

“We got more honest with ourselves,” he added. “It made us re-evaluate. It did for me.”

Signe and Jason Smith have never gone in for fluff, but they did go out on their own two years before the deluge. It was just as the storm was gathering that they began to overhaul my house, and everything that makes it sing came from them. When I set out to do this interview, not at my place but theirs, I found that smitharc, their firm, now has a nice office in the Meadows Building, on Greenville, a few blocks north of Josh Nimmo’s American Studio of Architecture. They too are back from the after-life they thought they were living.

The Smiths met at UT Austin just as Jason, who grew up in Dallas and Austin, was about to say goodbye to all that. Signe, fresh from Iowa, had chosen this Graduate School of Design over Boulder because the campus in Colorado seemed too happy. Austin was happy too, but happy-sad, happy with irony, the right approach for Signe, who is a realist.

When Jason left for Mexico, she assumed she had seen the last of him, but a serious accident shattered his shoulder, sending him back to Texas and the sensible ministrations of Signe, who knew how to shift gears yet again. After stints in Boston and Los Angeles, at the Getty, for her and six months in Europe for him, they got married and returned to Austin, only to be lured to Dallas by Emily Summers, who wanted her interiors closely informed by architecture.

Then they started smitharc, where Signe considers herself responsible for the business side of the firm while Jason devotes himself to radiant creativity. “My role in our work,” she explained, “is to ask: can we be successful?”

The answer is yes, as anyone can tell from their growing collection of houses, many of them for people who are new to the nation. “Ninety percent of our clients in the last few years,” Signe pointed out, “are first-or-second-generation immigrants—French, Korean, Chinese, Indian, Persian—who came here from California or the Northeast. ”

“These are people who want to write their own American story,” added Jason. “They’re not held back by tradition. They don’t have a tradition in this country. But they don’t want to lose where they’re from.” Even so, he said, “they want local materials…intimately tied to the site…a house that belongs here.” For a couple from Iran, the Smiths designed a home with geometric motifs and a sinuous metal screen—subtle echoes of their origins in Persia—mixed, of course, with modern restraint and Texas shell-stone full of fossils.

Far from fossilized herself, Signe Smith does triathlons which require swimming 2.4 miles, biking 114 miles, then running a marathon—all in 17 hours. She made it in 12 hours in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Jason went along to cheer her on. But he noted with a laugh, “I have a very healthy sense of self, and I don’t need that.” As for the partnership, if they didn’t work together, he once said, “life wouldn’t be as full.”

Bang Dang has found a full life of his own, working and living with two tiny long-haired chihuahuas named Zooey and Sigurd in a unit near the Katy Trail and Mort Meyerson’s Power House. Bang’s is a power house of its own, with a kitchen shelf full of intricate models. Made of spray paint and paper, like tiny houses for sophisticated dolls, they exude an intelligence so creative, so intrinsically ordered that chaos seems to recede before them, to be repelled from the magic of their magnetic field.

Bang Dang was born in Saigon of Chinese parents who moved to Hong Kong when he was five, then to Dallas, joining other members of the family, and, finally, to Garland. His father arrived with no English and took a job for a time with a convenience store while his mother eventually went to work for a security company. His sister, a born Texan ten years younger, is a dietitian at UT Southwestern and wants to study further to become a physician assistant.

It’s a wonderful American story, and it shows in Bang Dang’s multifaceted taste. “In Hong Kong,” he explained, “the alleys were where you got good food, where everything happened. I moved from a high-rise to suburban Texas, with a front yard and a back yard. So I love urbanity and I also love nature. My designs at BangWorks reflect this.”

After UT Austin, Bang joined Gary Cunningham, whom he calls “an architect’s architect,” and had 10 productive years pursuing projects like Deedie and Rusty Rose’s Pump House. But he could not escape the Great Recession any more than Josh Nimmo could, or the Smiths. It was farewell to a happy situation and hello to unwelcome and premature maturity.

Bang made a sensible appraisal of himself, realized that he would love to teach, and set about to make that happen, with a Masters at UT Arlington. Now he runs a studio project for 18 students three days a week, usually in the morning, though sometimes afternoons as well.

The rest of the day and night are for Bang’s own work. His current excitement is a country-modern creation in Irving for Cole Blank, a home builder who is both client and contractor, and his wife Wendi.

Bang has spent two years perfecting that design, playing Bach, classical jazz, electronic/trip hop and country music all the while. He stokes himself with artichokes and pasta or yogurt and cocktail shrimp plus a Chinese dinner every Friday with his family. His big ambition, apart from making good design, is to play the guitar and harmonica at the same time. Why not?

The world of Dallas architecture is a village, or maybe a main street with connections at every crossing. Bang Dang knew Signe Smith at UT Austin as well as Braxton Werner with whom he also went to North Garland High School. Bang and Brax were together again at Gary Cunningham’s, along with Paul Field who turned up after Carleton University in Ottawa. “It was like an apprentice system,” said Bang, with delighted satisfaction.

Paul and Brax agreed. Gary Cunningham offered “big-firm-type projects but still a small office.” Brax left at one point to work in construction, experience that proved crucial when they ventured forth together to form wf2studio, less than three years before the crash.

It was the troubles that forced them into the business of design-and-build. On their first job they did a lot of the labor themselves, “swinging hammers,” as Brax Werner recalled. This discipline came easily to Paul Field who restored his own home near White Rock Lake, with corten steel siding and windows of various shapes that he scavenged from other sites. He also built furniture, including a long outdoor table from shiplap planks recycled from the house, and put in native plants such as salvia, Mexican plum, sabal palm and inland sea oats. All this can be seen from a backyard studio, where today Paul and Brax turn out more work then ever. For them, too, bad fortune has been reversed.

Werner and Field have a number of coups to their credit, from Glenwood to Beverly Drive, but it’s the lake house at Cedar Creek that has sealed their reputation. From tongue-in-groove teak to board-form concrete to elegant interiors by Emily Summers, this is a young masterpiece that Bang Dang called “one of the best houses I’ve ever seen.”

Leonardo Gonzalez has the swankiest digs of all. That’s because he’s with HKS in One Dallas Center. While he works in an open setting himself, there are plenty of cozy places to repair to for a private conversation, though on Saturday afternoon there’s no one to intrude except the security guard.

Leonardo came to Dallas from the Savannah College of Arts and Design. The “huge trees” there, dripping with Spanish moss, spreading “immense shade” over the hot Southern streets, were a shock after megalopolitan Mexico City, where he grew up. He joined HOK which soon shut down its Dallas office, sending Leonardo and some of his compatriots into a great fever of invention. They created Work Architecture and were happily busy until the crash smashed everything.

Plowing out from under the rubble, Leonardo found his way to HKS and also helped a colleague from Work Architectue, Brent Brown, set up the Design Studio at City Hall, where Leonardo still volunteers. Most of his daylight hours, however, go to the making of schools, mainly for Uplift Education, a charter operation reminiscent of the Community College District in its commitment to good architecture. Flooding a warehouse with sunshine from skylights overhead, breaking brick facades with playful corrugated metal panels, painting walls lime green, wrapping a roofline with a screen of bright blue—all this he has done to bring learning to life and life to learning.

On his own time, however, Leonardo designs houses. One on Glenwood, not far, no doubt, from an early triumph of Werner and Field, rises from a basement garage to three stories, with a deck on top. Draped in Ipe, white stucco and glass, it’s a duplex but you’d never know it. There is a unifying principle in the work of Leonardo Gonzales and that is simplicity, articulating only the most important points. Another, on Lovers Lane just west of Hillcrest, is a glass creation with an L-shaped façade in white stucco called the “sugar cube. ” I’ve admired it for many months. How lovely now to know the source.

How lovely, too, to see so much creative energy in Dallas despite the worst the fates could do to dismember it. Some achieve character. Some have character thrust upon them. This gang of seven is loaded with character, acquired in crisis and coupled with knowing confidence and the irresistible style of survivors.