At Home with Matt Davis of Davis Urban Architecture
FF: Was there an early experience you had with a work of architecture or an architect that had an impact on you? Or that influenced your design style?
MD: I grew up in northern Indiana, not far from Chicago, and our family would make a few trips a year into the city. I recall those trips being magical, certainly because of the many great works of architecture, but even more so because of the amazing energy of the city. As I got older, I recall specific buildings in more detail, including the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in nearby Oak Park. While these experiences were seminal, I believe the most important early experience was probably watching my parents build our home. I was five or six years old, and I have such vivid memories of the construction process, and then the subsequent additions as our family grew.
The house is certainly not a notable piece of architecture; however, it was pretty awesome. I’ll describe it as hippie modern, but more notable was that my parents were both young teachers who knew very little about construction, and yet did not hesitate to embark on this daunting task, and to top it off they built the house in less than six months. Living through this experience inspired my lifelong passion to build, but more importantly, the willingness to be bold and take risks. I’m still inspired by what they were able to accomplish, and currently, the home is still in the family.
FF: What propelled you to go out on your own and start your firm?
MD: From the early days of my education and working in various offices, I knew that I wanted to have my own practice someday. In the early 2000’s I started a firm with two brilliant guys who were close college friends. The firm was called Bothwell Davis George and I’m pretty sure we started the firm without a single project, with the attitude if you build it they will come. We were a bit naive, to say the least, but we managed to make it work and over the course of nearly a decade built some great projects.
Perhaps the most notable was a project for a visionary oil and gas company in LODO. A year or two after starting our studio we received a call from a young oil and gas company whose owner had recently worked with Lake Flato on his residence, and he was looking for a local architect to collaborate with Lake Flato. My recollection is the owner called, an hour later he was in the office, and an hour later we had the job. He was going out on a limb for sure hiring this new young Denver firm, but the whole process was amazing. The collaboration with Lake Flato was fantastic and our client was a fabulous collaborator every step of the way.
Unfortunately, later that decade the world fell apart in the recession and we were forced to go our separate ways, which led to the current firm which is now just over 10 years old. When we started Davis Urban, we decided in addition to design services, we would also actively pursue our own developments and construction projects. Over the last decade we have probably built 10-20 projects ourselves. Some were active collaborations with other developers, and some were all us. Like those early days watching my parents build a home, I feel these experiences in the field are so essential to an architect’s education.
FF: Is there a design aspect or area of a project that you would never compromise on?
MD: Design and construction can certainly be challenging, and I don't believe there is a single aspect or area of a project that should never be compromised. As each project is unique and often evolves throughout the construction process, some level of flexibility and compromise are necessary to ensure the best outcome. While the initial drawings and vision are important, they are not set in stone and should be open to evolution and improvement. Collaboration with the tradespeople involved in the construction process can and often lead to new ideas and solutions that often enhance the project. While there are limits to this approach, I believe that an openness to compromise and adjustment can ultimately lead to a better final product.
FF: What’s one of your favorite built projects and why?
MD: Choosing a favorite project is very difficult, but most of the time I would say it is whatever we’re currently engaged in. I am tremendously proud of the work our firm has completed over the last decade or so, but the design process and client interactions allow us to focus and celebrate the current design problem rather than focus too much on the past. We learn so much from completed work, which allows us to grow as designers, but at a broad level one of the things I’m most proud of is not a single project, but rather the variety of our project types, and hopefully the uniqueness of each design solution.
We have been fortunate to have worked with some visionary clients, some of whom have significant resources, which have allowed us to build some really special buildings. However, we also do a lot of work closer to home, in our neighborhoods, often with much more modest budgets. I certainly feel these projects are every bit as important as our more celebrated work and we choose to make them a priority of our firm. Too often these smaller urban infill projects are executed poorly with whatever the design flavor of the day is, doomed to be mediocre for decades to come. For this reason, a significant portion of our design work, and development work, focuses on these smaller more modest project types.
Learn more about Davis Urban's work by visiting, www.DavisUrban.com.