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Ayers Saint Gross currently counts two AIA chapter presidents in its ranks. Ann Powell serves as the president of AIA Baltimore, leading one of the nation’s largest and oldest AIA chapters in our firm’s hometown. Dan Henderer recently became president of AIA Middle East, a relatively young AIA chapter, as he enters his eighth year of living in Saudi Arabia as the leader of one of the firm’s most ambitious international projects. In this conversation, they discuss current projects, do some trend forecasting, and explain how to get more involved in AIA.

Q: How did you first get involved with your local AIA chapter?

DH: There was a conference in Riyadh in 2012 called Riyadh Design Days organized by the AIA which I attended. Previously I wasn’t aware there was a Middle East chapter, as I was still a member of the AIA DC chapter. I learned more and attended the first AIA ME Year End Conference in Dubai in 2013 which was great. I was encouraged to participate and became the AIA ME Country Representative for Saudi Arabia, and then served as the chapter secretary for two separate terms before becoming the chapter president in January.

AP: I moved from New York to Baltimore in 2004, and wanted to expand my professional network. I joined the Historic Resources Committee and became co-chair of the committee in 2010. I moved onto the Board of Directors in 2013.

Q: What are your goals as chapter president?

AP: Our goal is to help us find a new location where we can establish a Center for Architecture and Design. We have 1,000 members which makes us one of the 20 largest chapters in the country. That puts us in this AIA group called “Big Sibs.” Many of the Big Sibs have been able to elevate their position in their communities with Centers for Architecture and we want to bring this to our community. Most people are familiar with the Washington Design Center and the Center for Architecture in New York City. Right now, AIA Baltimore is in a townhouse in Mt. Vernon, and it’s very introverted. By moving to something that’s more like a storefront, we will have an external presence and hopefully be able to bring partners into a united co-working space for allied organizations like the Urban Land Institute and Baltimore Heritage. I want to be there when we sign that lease. That’s my goal.

DH: To maintain services and engaging activities for the members in our region, and continue the momentum of the chapter in creating awareness of the AIA. The AIA Middle East Year End Conference is our main event, bringing together members of the chapter, and we will focus a lot of energy on holding a successful event. We’ll announce the location soon, either in Lebanon or Bahrain. We are also working toward finalizing a partnership with Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, which will give us a physical address there and enable us to hire staff for the first time. 

Q: What’s unique about your region and chapter

DH: The Middle East chapter is unique first because of its area. We represent all of the Middle East and North Africa, which is a large area to maintain an active presence in all places. We have small membership in some countries, while others, like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have many members.

Secondly, it’s unique in that it can be a transient place for architects who, like myself, move to the region for a specific project or for a limited time.

Parts of the region have been booming for some time, with Saudi Arabia perhaps leading the way from the 1970s and 1980s, and the Gulf States since the 1990s.  When you visit a place like Dubai, it is truly astonishing to realize the amount of development in the past 20 years. There was a significant impact from the last global financial crisis, followed by a successful rebound, which has slowed again in some areas with lower oil and gas prices. It is an interesting place to be an architect because of the scale and ambition of many of the projects. Many projects are built to be landmarks and the clients are keen for signature architecture. Thankfully some of the large projects have been government-led educational and cultural institutions, not solely commercial. 

AP: Baltimore is still a unique city. When you look at the way retail has evolved, you walk into a Gap anywhere in the country and it’s the same merchandise. There’s so much homogenization that’s happened in our culture. But what I like about Baltimore is it’s a little bit understated on the East Coast, overlooked between DC and Philadelphia, and within that is a real opportunity to maintain a sense of place. We embrace that individualistic culture that we have, and you can see that in the projects in the area. We’re a major metropolitan area, and we have great big projects, but we also have lots of quirky little stuff going on and that’s what makes it exciting.

Q: What projects are you working on right now?

AP: I am working on an admissions and financial aid center for Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, which is in construction. Everything else I’m working on is for the Smithsonian. The addition at Udvar Hazy Center is in construction, Pod 6 at Museum Support Center is in design, and we’re doing some planning work at National Museum of American History.

DH: I have been working on the redevelopment of a historic site for over 10 years. The site is called Atturaif, which was the ruling center of the first Saudi era beginning in the 18th century. When we started it was a 58-acre site of ruined mud brick palaces and defensive walls which had been excavated and surveyed, but was largely untouched since the siege of the city in 1818. Atturaif achieved UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2010, and conservation and construction began in late 2010. The plan has been to conserve the archeological finds and remaining architectural heritage, as well as to redevelop the site to promote visitation and education. New, modern museums have been inserted into vacant areas, or integrated with buildings on the site. Ayers Saint Gross has led many of the designs for the visitors’ infrastructure, landscape, lighting, signage, modern museums buildings, and exhibition design.

Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in architecture as a profession in the last 10 years?

DH: The use of BIM and the predominance of sustainability are obvious movements which have become fairly standard in the profession in the past 10 years. There are more material choices and systems than ever.

There are also so many platforms and ways which architects can publish and share their work now. I think it has elevated the level of design everywhere. 

AP: Technology makes start-up costs more expensive, so it’s harder for small firms to get started and to stay afloat. It’s a barrier on many levels, because you need technical expertise in the software in order to do drawings. I think it’s important to keep it real and balanced among the technological piece, communicating with clients, and what we need to do to build a project. Those are the three skills that need to be balanced. Technology gains so much emphasis that you worry that it obliterates those two other components. Using software is an introverted act, but we still need to make sure we can communicate to clients. It’s a tool. It doesn’t replace these other things.

On the upside, there are great things that are coming out of tech improvements that are really awesome. Using the cloud to host software to have multiple offices working on BIM models that are linked together, that is hugely helpful. We do mark-up sessions on Bluebeam Studio, which is cloud-based so all the consultants are using one unified set of drawings. So the advancement in technology is huge, but you can’t lose focus on what it is to be an architect.

Q: What does it mean to you to be an architect?

DH: I think it means many things to many people, and it takes many kinds of architects to make places and buildings. To me, fundamentally, the role of the architect is to design the physical environment to achieve the functionality the users need, while bringing creativity to the process of planning and design. 

AP: We’re problem solvers through a lot of different avenues, and design is just one aspect of it. Contract negotiation is problem solving. Going through construction is all problem solving. It’s balancing your technical understanding and your design knowledge with your communication skills, and using them all together.

Q: What will the biggest change to the architecture profession be in the next 10 years?

DH: The trends I see are the increase in use of the digital modeling assets which architects create to enable a more direct relationship with the fabrication and construction of buildings.

Also, the areas of biophilic design and biomimicry are very interesting to me from material use to larger systems as they become more used and proven.  Sustainability and occupant well-being will continue to increase in profile and value. 

AP: I heard this statistic that really blew my mind. I’m Generation X, and we’ve always been behind the Baby Boomers, who were so much larger than us. And the Millennials are so much bigger than the Gen Xers, coupled with the fact that a whole bunch of people left the profession during the recessions of late 1980s and the late aughts. But effectively within the workplace, because the Boomers are retiring and the Millennials are entering, the Millennials will be larger in number than the Boomers and the Gen Xers really soon. So that’s a huge shift. Culturally, the generations are different and we’re always working to reconcile that in both directions. But the sheer volume of the Millennials is really going to change the culture of the workplace. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. I just know that it’s coming.

Q: What drew you to architecture?

AP: I majored in Economics and English in college, and that was a lot of talking about stuff. Interesting stuff, but I really liked this idea that you started with nothing and end up with a completed project. It’s why I like to cook. I go to the grocery store, I fill up my cart with things that don’t even look like they go together, and we have a delicious meal. And architecture is the same way. And that’s what’s most gratifying to me about it.

As I worked in the profession and figured out what kind of architecture I really liked, because I’ve done a little bit of everything, what I gravitated to at Ayers Saint Gross was two things. One, we’re going to be doing projects that are going to be around for a long time. The decisions being made aren’t for the next five years. We’re building buildings that we expect to be around in 50 years and that is in line with my value system. Secondly, I like that we’re working with professional clients. I like the professionalism of the relationships, and the fact that they are long-term. I like the buildings. I like the long view.

DH: There have been a number of architects in my family so it sort of seemed like a normal profession, but in the end I liked creating things. Architecture combines problem solving with technical and creative aspects in a satisfying way. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about design?

DH: The most enjoyable aspect to me is seeing designs come to fruition as buildings and places. Something that you helped to create at your desk or in your office becomes a massive living, breathing thing that will impact people for many years. 

AP: Agreed. I like sitting back when it’s all over and looking at it. A good design solution, seeing it all come together, is the best.

Q: What’s your favorite building in your current city?

AP: In a previous job, I worked on the American Brewery renovation for the nonprofit Humanim. One, it’s a great building, a crazy Victorian mishmash folly building. It was all designed to wrap the brewing process. The form is really driven out of the original brewing process. But you wouldn’t guess that by looking at it. And it’s in a super-blighted neighborhood, and Humanim moved there to be closer to the people that they served. The idea was that this project, which had been such a blight on the neighborhood, could help it come back and be a catalyst to redevelopment. That’s a perfect story, right? Taking something great and bringing it back and making it relevant in such a powerful way. The best part of a project is taking something that was ignored and making it relevant again. It is no longer an underutilized building – it’s home to a nonprofit in the community that it’s trying to help.

DH: In Riyadh, my favorite building is Tuwaiq Palace. It was executed in the 1980s as a clubhouse for the diplomatic quarter. It is made of sloped Riyadh limestone walls which curve to create courtyards and has lightweight cable suspended tents for function areas. The building is very sculptural and fits into the landscape beautifully. 

Q: What would be your suggestion to somebody who’s thinking about getting involved in their local AIA chapter and doesn’t know where to start?

DH: I would suggest attending events to start, and getting in contact with some of the local leaders. There are always ways to participate or contribute and you will get more out of the AIA if you participate.

AP: That was me in 2004, the person who wanted to get involved. I had no idea but instead of feeling like I had to go find out all the answers I said, “Well, I’m going to look through this list of committees and join one and see what it’s about.” And that’s what I did.

Within that, even if you get to a committee and it’s not working exactly how you want it to be, that’s fine too. The whole idea is that we are a composite of our membership and the important part is to find a way to get engaged. And if you aren’t satisfied with what that picture looks like, change it.

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