Grace La and James Dallman: A Hunger to Build

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By Andrew Caruso

On September 20, 2011, the National Building Museum hosted Grace La and James Dallman of LA DALLMAN, for Spotlight on Design. National Building Museum Online. Contributor Andrew Caruso recently held a conversation with La and Dallman about their prominence among the country’s emerging design voices, their balance of strategy and serendipity, and their daily life as partners within and beyond the design studio.

Levy House by LA DALLMAN. Photo by Kevin Miyazaki.

National Building Museum Online (NBM Online): Beyond Grace’s invitation to join the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, what led you to establishing the practice in your hometown of Milwaukee?

James Dallman: After working in different firms in Boston, New York, London, Vienna, and Montréal, Grace and I realized that we wanted to build a practice together. Milwaukee has a real sense of openness; it doesn’t have a lot of closed doors. For example, we found ourselves meeting with the mayor on a significant project within a few months of arriving. Though the city is practical and not incredibly wealthy, it is incredibly open to participation and very transparent. We also wanted to dovetail our practice with teaching, not only as a way of balancing between the academic and the pragmatic, but also as a financial stabilizer.

NBM Online: Grace, you initially brought an outsider’s perspective to the firm’s work in Wisconsin. James, you returned to your home with fresh eyes and new skills. Did this contrast in your point of view help your design work?

Marsupial Bridge by LA DALLMAN. Photo by Jim Brozek.

Grace La: For both of us, it felt like exploring a new city. We were searching to do work that would be critical and would have an impact on the city. When we landed, we saw a lot of stones that we wanted to turn over. Within the first three months, we noticed an opportunity for a bridge—what would become the Marsupial Bridge project—and it was a chance to make a critical contribution to the city that would recognize its potential. We search for ways to contribute to this city that could be a model for how to transform other cities of similar type and scale.

Dallman: Coming on the heels of postmodernism, in which image is everything, there were a few architects in Milwaukee who paved the way for a more forward looking notion of “practice.” There was an opening for a higher level of pragmatism, at once more modern, more progressive, more projective, and more about architecture operating as an agent for change and transformation.

La: When we started in 1999, there was widening discourse in architectural practice. There were “programitists” (those interested in program generating architectural form), the aesthetes (architects focused on the aestheticizing of architecture as object), and the digital folks (those interested in generating forms through design computation). Our practice was borne of the notion that one needs to leverage the best of all these conditions.

NBM Online: Your work has been rooted in post-industrial, Rust Belt American cities such as Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Have you chosen to engage these hotbeds of urban renaissance as one of your firm’s strategic directions?

West End Bridge plan sketch by LA DALLMAN.

Dallman: Your question is right on. I’ve always been intuitively and emotionally interested in the act of making. Being part of a community with an industrial base infused with long-standing traditions of many skill sets is attractive. The connection between the work we do in the office and industrial fabrication techniques is something that intrigues us.

La: Pittsburgh and Milwaukee are like sister cities. Their conditions are not unlike many postindustrial cities that are trying to redefine their identity. I think those cities are drawn to us as much as we are to those cities.

It is also a very different type of client that is interested in urban transformation projects. The client teams are incredibly complex and architects have to be particularly skilled with the type of civic cooperation and navigation that needs to occur. These projects are so critical, yet they don’t attract the best minds in architecture and engineering because the civic cooperation aspect is so intense. They are projects that tend to be very long in the tooth.

NBM Online: Would it be fair to say these are the conditions under which coming generations of architects will be challenged to work?

La: I absolutely think so. For architects specifically interested in urban transformation, this kind of skill set is absolutely essential. In addition to all of the other things for which we are trained, architects must be very nimble to move seamlessly between political, economic, and very physical issues. And, there is an absolute need for this kind of architecture.

Dallman: Architecture is simultaneously an artistic discipline that’s internally driven by form and geometry, yet at the same time it is tempered by, and must act within the world. We are interested in the way that architecture as a discipline of geometry and fabrication can act upon found conditions to unleash their potential.

NBM Online: Tell us about the role of competitions in the way you’ve built your practice. What role do you see them playing for emerging design voices?

La: For a number of political and economic reasons, as well as the culture of practice in the U.S., competitions do not empower architects nearly enough. At their best, competitions allow very young practices to get essential commissions based on the merit of good ideas. Yet most commissions in the U.S. are given based on a firm’s track record, an authority of place. There are a couple of competitions for which we’ve earned second place and have laughed about it. Jury members explained that second place is really first because the ideas are so good but almost too ambitious. They default to the more pragmatic.

NBM Online: I would suggest that your work has repositioned architecture as a “constructed landscape.” What drives this?

Dallman: I’ll speak for myself (laughs). Grace and I often have conflicting views on this. I can’t think about this question without thinking about how we operate as a team. It grows out of a set of fascinations and interests that are personal, intuitive, and intellectual. I’ve tried to understand over time what fascinates me about architecture as spatial sequencing. Architecture can be understood at all times as a framing device, modulating the relationship between the viewer and the distant horizon to contextualize the city and the landscape.

La: We are also not particularly interested in an “architecture of spectacle.” We always strive to deeply embed the work in its context and to knit the building to its ground plane. Controlling the spatial relationships of the ground plane is really what has driven the work to engage the landscape by necessity.

NBM Online: Grace, you described the moment in 1999 when you hung out your shingle as a scary moment. Today, would you still describe your firm as a young or emerging practice? And, has it gotten any less scary?

La: Architecture practices can still be considered “emerging’’ 20 years in. In a way, I really enjoy the title “emerging practice,” and I hope that we will always be considered that way. I hope that we will continue to have this lively range because it keeps us young and unafraid to tackle challenging problems with an artistic voice.

There’s always a moment of trepidation when you strike out on your own. A bit of healthy fear is good, but you also must have enough gumption to jump in with two feet at the same time. We wanted to learn and we continue to be learners.

NBM Online: How would you say that being a husband-and-wife team has shaped your practice?

La: (laughs) Other than the fact that you can’t turn it off?

Dallman: It took us years to stop grabbing the pencil out of the other’s hand and learn to be civil with each other over differences of opinion, and to not get too heated over which direction we should take a project. It’s a nuanced thing. It takes time.

La: You could either say the project is your child, or it is both of your mistresses. We understand as a couple that we can’t turn it off, and that’s okay. We allow each other that latitude and have learned that a very blurred boundary between work life and personal life is actually okay.

We were also able to develop a method for working collaboratively with each other that has served us well with our office. Our relationship as husband and wife, as collaborators and as practitioners really extends to the studio as a macro way of working.

Dallman: Inevitably we make up for each other’s limitations. At least, Grace makes up for mine.

La: He obviously wants an ice cream cone or something.