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An Interview With: Hal Davis

Washington, D.C.
An Interview With: Hal Davis

An Interview With: Hal Davis

Hal Davis likes the word “contextual.” The managing director of the mid-Atlantic office of SmithGroup, one of the country’s biggest architecture firms, uses it often when he talks about architecture, building materials, even working relationships. Everything, to Davis, needs context, even Davis himself, who long ago shrugged off any boyhood dreams of becoming a world-renowned, “named” architect in favor of working in team environments.“ I think every architect who graduates from school has the aspiration or idea in your mind to be a signature designer,” he says. “Then, practicality sets in. There are only a few architects who can really do that. Some do it well. Some do it and have very few repeat customers because it forces that architect’s will on the client. The bottom line is that in the end, you don’t have to be a signature architect to do great design.”

Even when pressed – “C’mon, don’t you ever dream of being that architect?” – Davis holds his ground. “Helping a client meet their own personal goals, to me, has terrific power and meaning,” he says.

Davis traces his team spirit to his undergraduate years at Clemson University, where second-, third-, and fourth-year students worked together, rather than separately, on design projects. The Memphis- native’s design style was cemented during his time at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his master’s degree and studied under Louis Kahn, one of the greatest architects of the 20th century and the inspiration behind the 2003 documentary “My Architect.”

Davis worked in Philadelphia until 1975 when a classmate encouraged him to try DC, and the pair started a home-based firm, designing houses in Great Falls. When his partner moved into the building industry, Davis faced a choice: Should he stay, or should he go? He stayed, working first for Metcalf & Associates, which became Metcalf Tobey Davis and then Tobey + Davis before merging in 2000 under the umbrella of SmithGroup. The result? While Davis may not be a “signature architect,” Smithgroup is behind myriad signature buildings in the DC area, including the Torpedo Factory, Terrell Place (the Hecht’s-turned-lux condo downtown), the Shakespeare Theater building, the Marvin Student Center at George Washington University and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Philip Merrill Environmental Center, the first building to get a platinum rating from the U.S Green Building Council Leadership in Environmental Engineering Design (LEED) program.

Mary Westbrook, for Bisnow on Business: Do you have a philosophy about architecture or about being an architect?
Kahn was quite influential. The design premises he put forward were really critical to me. I believe you need to listen to your clients, you need to understand them and really find the solution that answers the question. That’s been the pattern under which I’ve tried to practice.

When you see a Frank Gehry, you know it’s a Frank Gehry. That’s a signature. Our design tends to be more responsive to clients. We always design with a Modern sense, but we work to meet the demands of our clients. That’s not to say we don’t want to push the edge of design. We’re always encouraging clients to be creatists.

What did you think about the cancellation of Frank Gehry's Corcoran Gallery of Art expansion project?
We’re doing the renovation of the existing Corcoran, and when the Gehry building stopped, a lot of momentum was lost. I respect the Corcoran for bringing in a named architect to do a great design, but for me, personally, I’m not sure it was going to be a great addition. It certainly would have been a tour de force for that location, but it would have been iconic, not contextual. I don’t know that it was necessary, but they had courage.

Which of your recent projects push the design edge in DC?
The Marvin Center at George Washington University was built in the late ‘60s, and it never really had an entrance. We formed a whole new entrance – all glass and metal – that acts like a welcoming lamp to the student center. Another project, Mount Vernon Square, involves a new, modern addition that couples itself to an old, historic church. We’re also doing a wonderful little theater project for Montgomery College on their Tacoma Park campus. It’s going to have a wonderful transparency to the street of some of the activities that go on in the theater. I think people will really enjoy it. I think it will be an award-winner.

Why was the new entrance at the Marvin Center so important?
Every building needs a wonderful entry, the feeling that “this is right” and that it all comes together. Everybody has those kinds of reactions when you walk into a well-designed space and you feel, “there’s a warmth here, there’s a beauty.” Whatever the building is, if it doesn’t have those attributes, I don’t think it was a success.

Which style of architecture do you least admire?
I’m glad Post-Modernism is gone. It was an interesting approach, but I’ve always been a Modernist. Post-Modernism was popular in Washington because it fit in well with the Federalist style. Good work was done, but…

It wasn’t for you?
No, it wasn’t for me.

How is architecture in DC changing?
It’s always been somewhat of a Federalist city. It certainly hasn’t been a Mecca for architecture. But, there’s a lot of really good planning going on in the District. And with the Anacostia Waterfront and the new stadium, there’s tremendous opportunity to make design the forefront of southeast DC. I’m excited about that. Overall, DC is at the beginning of a Modernist movement. There are so many things going on right now that are a wonderful combination of disciplines. The profession is moving toward a more integrated design, getting the big ideas in the mix up front, including sustainability. Global warming is real, and the manner in which we use our resources is going to have a huge impact on that. Even if the owner of a building doesn’t want to got for LEED certification, we believe sustainability is just good design.

How much time do you actually spend designing?
Not much anymore, but I spend a lot of time reacting to others’ designs. I spend a lot of time with clients and managing the office.
Do you miss being on the frontline of the design aspect?
I can’t say that I truly miss it. We all evolve. Some days I wish had time to sit down and draw. Some days I wish I had more time to sit down and manage the office. I enjoy what I do, and the mix is wonderful.

What would you say to a room of young architects?
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to young architects. I talk about their aspirations and passions – what are they really happy doing, and where do they want to be? The reality is most everybody has talents and most of us take those talents for granted. If something comes easily to you, you think, “Well I’m not being challenged.” But everybody has to come to a realization about where their talents are, and their passion needs to be applied to those talents. If we all tried to do that as individuals – and not try to all be this or that – it would be a phenomenal world. People would be working in their strengths and talent base.

Do you have advice for homeowners who are building new homes?
If you have a choice on a limited budget, always build the most space that you think you might need. You can add the craftsmanship later. It’s easier to go back and fill in the details than to add more space. Everybody has a reaction to space -- you feel good or are depressed, etc. Architects tend to look at the details, the materials of a design, and we probably are more critical of our own work than others.

Are your friends afraid to have you over for dinner?
[Laughs] Our friends are not worried that I’m being critical of their homes, but they do ask for advice. I live near Reston in a home my wife and I bought 25 years ago when we were starting a family. It fit our budget at the time, and we always thought we’d build our own place, someday. We’ve made a lot of modifications of course, but we’re still in the same house!

[This interview conducted by Mary Westbrook for Bisnow on Business.]