Shawn manages our Santa Fe office, which he helped establish in 2005. As Director of Preservation and Cultural projects, Shawn has led many of our projects at historic sites and institutions including Cherokee Castle in Colorado, Ohkay Owingeh in New Mexico, Fort Apache in Arizona, as well as Eastern State Penitentiary and the Penn Museum in Pennsylvania. Shawn has also managed many of our higher education projects, including the recently completed campus master plan for Colorado College and the Corbett Center Student Union renovation at New Mexico State University. He is the recipient of the prestigious James Marston Fitch Mid-Career Grant from the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation, and is currently a board member of the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance. Shawn joined the firm in 1995, was named an Associate in 2003, and was named Associate Principal in 2015.
Much of his work is focused on the past, but he is most interested in how heritage enables the future. Read on to learn more about Shawn, his professional journey, and his thoughts on the firm.
What made you want to become an architect?
On my ninth birthday, my family moved from a quaint Victorian town outside of Cleveland to the bustling metropolis of Dallas, where skyscrapers were growing like weeds. The dramatic change – from an “old-time” town to what was obviously the future – set me on my path. Drawing and painting skyscrapers became an obsession. My birthday gift was the future. During my junior year at Texas A&M, I had the opportunity to spend a semester in Tuscany through which I found my love for the past. But it wasn’t just old things that grabbed my attention, it was the idea that the past and the future didn’t need to be separate places. I was drawn to the drama of Carlo Scarpa, particularly his work at the Castelvecchio in Verona, a place that was both deeply historic and courageously modern.
What classes in school did you enjoy the most?
In high school, it was calculus. It came naturally. Of course, it’s all long forgotten – I’d love to learn it again! In college, it was the philosophy of art. Studying architecture left few electives and although A&M was a huge university, there was remarkably little choice in the liberal arts. John McDermott’s class seemed an underground secret and it opened me up like nothing I’ve ever experienced. When I showed up at Penn for graduate school, I was delighted to see a new course being offered titled, “Metamorphosis: Transformations in Architecture.” This class in particular brought my life story together and its professor, Tony Atkin, the founder of this firm, became someone of profound influence.
Describe the top of your desk.
I won’t lie. It’s a mess. It can be overwhelming but it is also inspiring. From RFPs under consideration to contractor’s applications for payment, it is a display of all the little things that take up our days (and nights). But at least once a day, I try to take it all in and find inspiration in the amazing variety of work that we enjoy. We’re writing a proposal for a large new community center for the Jicarilla Apache, starting a strategic plan for Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, designing a major expansion of Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm, assisting with contractor selection for a religious education building at
Isleta Pueblo, processing closeout documents for the nearly completed Corbett Center Student Union at NMSU, and helping curators from a major design museum tell the story of our decade-long restoration efforts at Ohkay Owingeh. The drawings, photos, and papers on my desk give evidence of all these efforts.
What kinds of work interest you the most?
Certainly not the skyscrapers I once dreamed of! Isn’t it funny that life has instead led me to adobe preservation? It’s the variety of our practice that keeps my blood pumping. Our work with Native American communities has profoundly impacted my understanding of an architect’s role in society. In these projects, our role is not to give form to a design birthed in our own brains, but rather to give voice and vision to unique communities who may understand time and space in very different ways. We’re now taking lessons about community engagement from these “impact design” projects and applying them to all planning efforts. We recently finished the campus master plan for Colorado College and worked hard to develop tools for its faculty and students to assist us in envisioning the future. But of course, it’s also wonderful to have the opportunity to focus on designing a great contemporary building, something we’re really enjoying with the visitor center at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden.
You’re one of our few staff who have spent significant time in both of our offices. How do these practices compare?
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Philadelphia and Santa Fe are obviously very different places, but they have quite a bit in common. Each of these cities gives too much priority to the tourist gaze and too little to the needs of their own citizens. Santa Fe will always be defined by adobe and Philadelphia by brick, but they both need to better embrace the future.
I recently had the opportunity to give a 140-second talk at the Santa Fe Art Institute (Read more here). It was my first pass at what might become a manifesto for Santa Fe’s civic identity. It’s a question of balance, something each of our offices seeks out in the various projects we undertake. Be it restoration, infill construction, or new buildings, our work is shaped by context as well as the ambitions of our clients. Practicing from both cities has really enabled me to see these places anew. We’ve had a number of staff make visits from Philadelphia and it always results in great insights into what we’re doing. I’d like to make this more reciprocal.
While the larger questions that we wrestle with are similar, the cultures of the two offices are distinct. The Philadelphia office is located downtown and almost all of the staff walk or bike to work. This physical activity integrates the office more into the smaller geographic fabric and civic culture. The Santa Fe office is located a few miles from the plaza and nearly all the staff drive, some from Albuquerque. Several of our New Mexico staff are tribal members; through their families as well as our tribal clients, we are frequently invited to the ancient ceremonies throughout the region. There is also a deeper connection here to the outdoors. It’s been too long since our last office camping trip.
What are your five-year goals for the firm?
AOS will continue to assist communities in the development of self-determined revitalization approaches. I’d be honored to have the opportunity to continue our success in Pueblo communities and I’m very interested in expanding this planning into non-native traditional communities. We will also continue designing new and renovated facilities for higher education throughout the southwest and I’m very interested in growing the ecclesiastical work of the firm again. We’re going to continue to be leaders in the profession through publications and conferences, and I’m committed to ensuring that a broader spectrum of voices from the firm have the opportunities to be heard. I hope that we can collectively realize one of Tony’s near-term goals – there are many dream projects that he and I discussed – but I’m just as committed to completing projects he never envisioned. The most fruitful architectural practice is one that rewards careful planning but also remains nimble enough to make a beautiful and meaningful project from an unforeseen opportunity. I can’t wait to see what the future brings.