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An Interview With: Darrel Rippeteau

Washington DC
An Interview With: Darrel Rippeteau

An Interview With: Darrel Rippeteau

Rippeteau, 57, from Watertown, New York, grew up skating, skiing, fishing, hunting, and running track and cross country. He served in the Army in Vietnam in 1970-71, then graduated from Syracuse University in 1973 in architecture. He came to DC in 1975 to Arthur Cotton Moore Associates, where among other projects he worked on the Old Post Office competition and the conversion of 2029 Connecticut Avenue. In 1977 he began his own architectural practice is his basement, but by 1986 had purchased 1530 14th Street and moved his office there. In 2004, he demolished that structure and built a new mixed-use one. He has been President of the Washington Building Congress and has been actively involved in the biennial Builders Ball, which he is chairing this year. To cap it off, he even created a little company 15 years ago called “Archifetti” that makes silk neckties and scarfs featuring the great buildings of America, available at the Capitol, Supreme Court, and National Building Museum gift shops and even presidential libraries around the country.

Bisnow: You’re a great architect. What are you doing making neckties?
Well, one of my clients was watching me draw in my sketchbook, and said, “You ought to turn those into something you can sell.” It’s just a hobby.

Do you wear them?
I wear nothing but.

You're chairman of the Builders’ Ball, which is November 4 this year at the National Building Museum. See, we’re giving it free publicity! But what’s it all about?
It’s got many parts to it. First, it’s a charity ball so that the design and construction industry can share their wealth. Just look at the cover of Engineering News Record from last November, where they made predictions for 2006. The title on the cover is: “Relentless Growth.” The point is that our industry of design construction, real estate development, and infrastructure is booming. It has been booming, and it will continue to boom. The ball gives companies large and small a way to share some of this success with those in need. Second, it’s an exercise in cooperation because it’s put on by approximately twenty associations: architects, builders, suppliers, subcontractors, everyone who’s involved in the building process. Third, it’s public relations, to demonstrate that we care, that we can work together for a common social good. And finally, it’s a lot a fun and that’s why people go. There’s dancing, and networking, and good food. And I hope this year it will be more of a party than in the past, less of a sit down dinner.

How many people will attend?
We hope that it’s over a thousand. And I’m personally hopeful that we will maybe top 1,400. Attendance is important because it’s excellent for networking for people in our business. And younger people can run into some of the great names in design and construction and development.

And how to you go about getting your 1,400 bodies? What are you going to do between now and November?
There are twenty associations that gather together to do this. We meet once a month, and each association sends one or two representatives. And so through that collaboration there are many people connected right there. Then we develop fundraising and seek sponsors. We expect to have, as we have in the past, forty or maybe fifty sponsors. You know what? You and all your readers ought to come on March 15 to our initial Builders’ Ball reception which we’re holding at the Associated General Contractors new headquarters [2300 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington]. It’s a way to raise consciousness about the ball and get people focused and go after sponsors. This will have an announcement of a celebrity contest, but that’s as much as I’m permitted to say. Be there or be square. There will be some celebrities who are unveiled.

That sounds so mysterious.
We have a super secret committee putting this together. It ties into our fundraising and is kind of a competition. It’s free of charge, a gift to celebrate the sponsors, and the sponsors are giving prizes. I think Bell Boyd and Lloyd, the law firm, is giving some Heat versus Wizards tickets. And Al Storm of DBI Architects chipped in some big stuff, and so on. Should be several hundred people there. Great for networking. But even though I’m the ball chairman, I’m in the dark about some of the plans. Mindy Lyle and Cherie Pleasant are the co-chairs of the festivities committee, and they’re planning big things.

Is there a theme?
There is. The theme has to do with representations of historical times, but I can’t tell you more. Mindy and Cherie want it to be a surprise. But on the 15th, the nature of the ball and the celebrity thing will be revealed.

And what’s the cause?
We have a committee that selects target charities each year, and it’s competitive based on how cost effective the organizations are. The chair this time around is Michelle Monnet with DMJM, one of the biggest architecture firms. Her committee assiduously solicits proposals and has selected three charities. The first is the Arlington Housing Corporation that builds affordable housing in Arlington, Va. Another is the Green Door, on 16th Street in DC, which mainstream people who have troubles, helping people live in society, very important to all of us. And then there’s Martha’s Table, which essentially is a day care and family support organization that takes care of 300 children every day after school, and has a wonderfully successful clothing program called Martha’s Outfitters.. Then we also give money to “Canstruction,” which goes to the food bank. Are you familiar with Canstruction?

What is that?
It’s the most remarkable thing. You’ve got to come and see it once a year. Teams of architects and sometimes contractors and engineers build sculptures out of canned food. And they vie for design awards. It’s most recently taken place in the atrium at 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue, an office building owned by George Washington University. So structures are built, some of them with a thousand or more cans of food. And all kinds of themes. But every single can goes to the food bank. The purpose is to stock the food bank.

How long does it take for people to construct these?
The planning and designing and accruing of the cans take a few months. But the buildout takes one evening. We’ve been doing it in Washington for about ten years. It is also done in other cities and there’s a web site. The next Canstruction will be in September ’06 during architecture week.

Now, let’s get personal. You’re from Watertown New York. How did you get an interest in architecture?
My father is a retired architect. I used to go with him on construction sites and had a great time. There was so much to see. You see big machines, you see dirt, you see steel. I used to see the steel rigors running along on the beams. Anyway, it was all very exciting.

And you went to Syracuse University School of Architecture. What does one learn in a School of Architecture?
You can learn a lot. In fact architectural education is a wonderful experience because you have to learn about so many different things. You don’t really become a specialist. You become a generalist.

What was your favorite course?
Drawing and design.

It’s like playing. I mean it’s fun. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s fun, engaging and interesting. Did you ever play with clay?

Yeah. What did your father think about going into architecture? Did he think, “This is wonderful son is following in my footsteps”? Or did he try to warn you away?
He did not try to warn me away. He’s always been very supportive. He’s been such a fountain of knowledge and help. Even though I went a completely different route, didn’t follow him into his firm or anything. Came to Washington and started all over. But my father’s always been so helpful.

When you say didn’t follow in his footsteps, how is what he does much different from what you do?
My father is much more capable, and became the managing partner of a large firm in Syracuse. He is able to manage large groups of people and so forth. He has many skills that I lack. I have a small firm. Sometimes called a boutique. And we’re very much a niche design firm. I mean there’s only six of us in Rippeteau Architects.

Six architects?
Six all together including my office manager. Although we do large projects, we put teams together. For instance, on Potomac Mills we have five consultants. And we coordinate the whole team.

And what is your niche?
It is primarily retail. And it is primarily alterations and improvements to existing structures. And we have a motto, which is: “Places for human interaction.” It’s actually a true motto. It’s what we like to do. Anything that involves places where people get together and do things together. And the retail world is probably the most exciting area.

So give me a couple of your most colorful examples of projects where you have create the human interaction thing.
Well, the museum store at the National Cathedral, believe it or not. When you go down into the cellar of the Cathedral under the nave, you’re in this stone and plaster hall. But it’s very tight with big big pillars and so forth. And we redid the store a couple of years ago with lights and color and with some reductive kind of activities where we took away floor polish and revealed the structure and made it into a place that’s like a festival rather than a dark catacomb. And it’s correct to do that. It’s like a colorful booth adjacent to a big church in the Middle Ages. There’s a combination of a larger purpose—the purpose of the church—and then the natural necessary activity of human commerce. So I like all that. And it’s fun to do it in a context where perhaps you wouldn’t intuit that the cellar of a church is a great place for a lively and bright retail experience.

How about an example at the other end of the scale?
That would be Potomac Mills, Sawgrass Mills, and other projects of that type where we make large open interior spaces and try to figure out all kinds of materials, and colors, and three-dimensional constructions to make the process of walking, viewing goods, buying, comparing, seeing, and being seen—all that stuff that makes the marketplace in every city—one of the most exciting places for people to go, to congregate.

What did you do at Potomac Mills exactly?
First we pretty much scraped away everything that was there. It’s about 1.8 million square feet. Our responsibility was to coordinate the design architecture structure, code compliance, and even the conveniences—the toilets, that is. In one entire package to make the place over from a 20-year-old and decidedly shop worn experience, to a fresh, bright, interesting interior space conducive to sales.

When was this?
We’re just finishing. Its taken place over the past two years. And we were substantially complete with construction almost four months ago.

And how were you selected?
On the basis of past years of service for the Mills Corporation on other projects.

What would such a big project use just a six-person firm?
Well, Mills Corporation, like others of our clients, has a sophisticated internal organization, which includes architects, project managers, buyers, in other words, people who know this business inside and out. They contract out for architecture, engineering, fire and life safety consulting, lighting design and stuff like that to firms like mine. But what they look for is value and ability and not necessarily size. That is, they want to get the job done, and they want it to done well, and they work with people they know and trust.

And what was the most fun and rewarding part of the work you did there, and what was the most challenging and frustrating?
It’s all fun, to tell you the truth. Even the toilet design. Ranging from working with David Ashton out of Baltimore on the design, the visual, the graphics and colors and so forth. To, at the other end, working with mechanical engineers on getting the toilet rooms squared away. To me it’s all good because all of the spaces are about helping people enjoy their time while they’re there. I know there’s stuff that seemed challenging. I just can’t think of what it is.

What other projects have you been known for over the years?
We’ve had good success with storefront renovation, rehabilitation in the city of Washington. Particularly on Georgia Avenue, Northwest. We did a block way up by Fern, up just north of Walter Reed, which was very successful and actually won a nice little award from the AIA. And we’re pursuing more of that work. We’re working now with the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation on a series of retail storefronts on Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road. This work I find very satisfying because it adds, with relatively small amounts of money, so much to the streetscape. It improves the appearance of neighborhoods where quite frankly many things are improving and coming along, but where architectural degradation can kind of linger because it takes a concerted effort to clean it up.

We’ve also done some stores around town, and some of them are really fun. Like the Alden shoe company on K Street. It’s one of the tiniest jobs on earth. It’s about 600 square feet. But it’s extraordinary. It’s very enjoyable for us because it’s highly visible. The company is very high quality. I’m wearing a pair of their shoes right now. They make their shoes by hand up in Massachusetts. We fixed up Canal Square a few years ago, the part that extends toward M Street. I don’t know if you’ve ever walked through the little alley way that connects Canal Square to M Street. But we took out brick opaque walls and put in glazing and occupiable space to help with the feeling of continuity. This is something about retail space and city space: It’s important to reinforce the continuous experience of passing by views of other people and of goods and so forth that keeps your experience engaging so that it’s memorable. And this was what this project was about. It’s what all these streetscape projects are about. It’s about making the experience of living while you’re on that sidewalk or walking through this passageway or that passageway. That you feel you’re part of a bona fide and beneficial human endeavor. It’s reinforcing.

Looking at the time that you’ve been in Washington observing architecture, what are the trends? What have you seen? Where are we now?
I think the trends are decidedly good, owing to really all of the other architects. I can’t claim to have been much of a leader on this. There are so many excellent architects in town who have entered since I arrived, who are completely unburdened by the conservatism or lack of imagination which seemed to prevail through the ‘70s. It may be that that was happening everywhere in the ‘70s, architecturally. But we have many wonderful new buildings going up in the city. And I personally benefit from it from my perch here on 14th Street. All around me high quality architecture is going up for new condominiums, and stores, and offices. Interesting buildings with lots of glass, lots of presentation to the street. Good urbanist architecture, I think, is the major trend of our time. Thank goodness. :)