By Drew Allen, AIA, project architect at Perkins&Will and Editorial Committee Chair
In October of 2017, Perkins and Will officially gained a foothold in Denver by merging with longtime Denver firm Sink Combs Dethlefs. This sort of story has become somewhat commonplace in the Denver market, which has been one of the strongest in the country over the last decade. It has the usual pieces: large firm with worldwide acclaim merges with a local firm with a long and storied history, newly acquired employees navigate uncharted waters and manage the general uncertainty about what lies ahead. However, what differentiated this transition from the many others that are seen around the city is the addition of longtime Denver architect Robin Ault as Design Director of the Denver Studio.
Robin is a Colorado native and highly accomplished architect with stops along the way at acclaimed and reputable architecture practices. But, the challenge of helping guide an office through a transition period and into a mindset of design excellence and leadership is not a role he takes lightly. I had the chance to sit down with Robin and talk about this process, how the Denver architecture scene has changed over the last few decades, and the future he would like to be part of with Perkins and Will’s Denver studio.
(Note: the following has been edited and condensed for clarity)
Drew Allen: Let’s start with some basics. What does it mean to be the Design Director of a Perkins and Will studio?
Robin Ault: Really, it’s being part of a group of very talented architects among the twenty-five or so Design Directors across the Perkins and Will offices. I had the opportunity to get to know many of them a few months back when they were here in Denver for a few days. I got to know them individually during that time and to understand what the role means within each studio and how I can apply that role here in Denver.
If you are a Design Director at Perkins and Will, you really are at the forefront of design thinking in the profession. You look at the work of this firm and you see some incredibly forward-thinking and standout architecture is being led by these Design Directors. So really, they are responsible for pushing the projects that come out of their respective studios and helping make them as thoughtful and progressive as they can possibly be.
Drew: Is that the reason that you left Clutch Design Studio, where you were a founder, and came to Perkins and Will? Was there a reason you left a place where you were at the top and responsible for everything that the firm does to come to a place where you are part of a larger fabric, but maybe have a higher ceiling?
Robin: I think that’s part of it. I’ve had a Ralph Johnson book on my desk since, like, 1993 and I’ve always held this place in high regards because of the quality of the designs that they consistently produce. You look at some other worldwide firms and they may not have the design chops of someone like Perkins and Will. So, if you are someone like me and you get a call from a firm like that, you pick up the phone.
I think with my story, you have to look a little further back. I had the opportunity to work at a premier design firm before I even graduated from architecture school. So, at an early age, I was exposed to world famous work and competing with world famous architects for projects. I did that for eighteen years and once I felt like I had taken that as far as it could go, I set off with a group of friends to start doing our own thing. We were just getting started when Perkins and Will came calling and that sent me in a different direction.
I think one of the most attractive aspects of coming to a place like Perkins and Will is the amount of resources available. The resources aren’t unlimited, but there is a depth here that not many other places can compete with and, for me, that was a big draw. On top of that, the projects that we work on firmwide are some of the best projects in architecture and the range of scales and typologies that we get to work on isn’t really something that can be matched at a smaller firm.
Drew: You’ve been here for coming up on a year and Perkins and Will has had a presence here in Denver for almost two and a half years. Obviously, there was a long-standing culture here before the buyout and that transition is still a work in progress. What is your take on the transition from Sink Combs Dethlefs to Perkins and Will and how do you see your role in it?
Robin: I tend to think of architecture as the “slowest artform on the planet”. On top of that, you have a well-established Denver firm that is being run by a group of people that have worked together for basically their entire professional lives. And then, suddenly, they become Perkins and Will. You have to realize that that change isn’t going to just happen overnight and that it takes some time for all of us to get engrained in the new culture and adjust the mindset to being part of a large design-focused firm. I came into a situation that is a new role for me and, really, it’s a new role for the people that have been here. They aren’t used to someone my age coming in and trying to change an established workflow, so that’s taking a bit of getting used to for everyone. Really, we want to establish a culture here that is based on open discussions, pinning work up, and creating a “best idea wins” mentality. That’s the type of studio that I want to lead.
Drew: With new roles, both for you and other leadership, have there been a lot of hurdles for you to overcome during your time here? Have you experienced any pressure from outside the office, be that from higher up within Perkins and Will or from the Denver architecture community as a whole?
Robin: Most of my pressure is self-imposed. One of the challenges is just letting people know that we are here; that an office of one of the largest and most reputable design firms is open for business in Denver.
On the other hand, internally it’s been the exact opposite and there has been an incredible amount of support. Our CEO, Phil Harrison, really has his eye focused on success for Denver and being a major presence in this market. You also have the Design Leadership Council which has been very supportive and have been helpful with peer reviews and helping better establish a culture of design that’s working in their respective offices. As we grow and attract top talent, our goal is to be a true design force in Denver and, really, that’s why I decided to come here.
Drew: It seems like the sorts of design excellence that you reference haven’t been very prevalent here in Denver. You talk about being a true force in world class architecture and really driving it from here in Denver, when most of the time that seems to be driven from places like New York, Los Angeles, and other large cities with major architecture firms. So, since that is something that is so important to you, why did you decide to stay in Denver and spend your career in a place like this instead of a bigger city with a more established architectural influence?
Robin: You know I’ve traveled quite a bit and had the opportunity to work in places all over the world. But, the more I travel and the more I see, the happier I am that I was born and raised here. My family has been in Denver for four generations and I just have a connection with this place. I love going to places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, and Rome, but Colorado is my home. I think it’s great that Denver is maturing and getting the attention it deserves.
Drew: Do you think that that “maturing” is attracting these larger global firms to Denver? Do you think that these firms coming into Denver and becoming major players is a good thing?
Robin: I think it’s great. I believe that we will all benefit from it because these firms are producing some of the best work in the world and I think it is better for Denver in the long run. Ultimately, it raises the bar for everyone, and we will continue to create world class architecture here. Denver is absolutely primed for the next generation of architecture and I want us to be a major part of it.