(Friday, February 12th, 2010)

Dan Kirby

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Dan Kirby

“How did you hear about me?” I asked. He didn’t remember exactly. This interview was unique in that Dan sought me out for the opportunity.

“I think that I was googling creative projects in Orlando,” he answered, hesitantly. “But I’m not sure.”

I was intrigued by this statement. Is it possible  this little blog is gaining a voice in this city? Do I know longer need to pay my friends to keep reading? Who else is reading this thing? Kelly Ripa? Ellen? Oprah?

“I’ve been following you for some time now,” said the Nils Schweizer Community Service award winner. “I like what you have going on there.”

Little did I know then, that later I’d be returning to him the same compliment about his involvement in the AIA.

Dan is a man of many titles, and also a member of many boards and services. He has an incredible passion for our city, especially when it comes to Orlando’s future. His latest achievement, and also what he is most excited to talk about, is winning the location for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Convention that will be held in 2019. The convention will not only bring 20,000 visiting architects and their spending money to Orlando, it’s going to give Kirby the chance to show off his city, our city, and not just the parts that are related to fantasy. In less than ten years, he believes Orlando will transform into THE place to be. That’s good news for us that live and thrive here.

Dan: Architecture was hit really hard by the economy. There are a lot of young people, and very creative people, that are out of work right now. That comes as no surprise but it’s important to us, those a part of the AIA, to support the profession. I think what gets lost by some people is what someone with an architectural education can do, which is a lot. We, architects, learn a process that we can apply to any problem. There are theorists out there right now—there is a thing called design activism where people are getting engaged and learning how to solve problems through design—and these theorists say that every problem is a design problem. So if you could figure out a way to design something the right way, you can fix a problem whether it be a planning issue or issue like not having enough drinking water. I understand that design can have a great impact, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to do here.
Jana: Tell me more about the art of architecture?
Dan: It’s a lot of things. It’s a feeling felt by all your senses. It’s, of course, visual. It’s light. It’s sound. It’s a way of life. It’s how you feel. Emotion. It’s all those things that you experience. Architecture is also a tangible thing. There are walls, there are doorways, there are columns, and there are things that take up space. But a lot of architecture is intangible in terms of it’s about the experience, how you feel and how you react. There are a lot of things that are inertly experienced as well.

Do you think architecture is something that is under-appreciated?
[Pauses] I think people like things about architecture and they like things about buildings—and when I say people I mean lay people—but they don’t understand why. Why some spaces appeal much more to us than others is the experience of place.

How can you educate people about this art form?
The number one thing is awareness and exposure. You can’t have any appreciation for the opera if you’ve never been.  I can be a casual observer and I get it. But to go is to know something about the story that goes into that place—the stories of people.

The connection of architecture is this connection of history of a place and of experience. So if you know something about the story of the family that lived in your house before you did, you know that there is a history there. When I mark the doorway of my daughters height every year, that’s a permanent imposition of our experience of that place. That makes the experience of place much more rich.

One advantage I imagine architects have is that design is everywhere. Not everyone may go to an opera, but everyone, for the most part, has experienced being in a city.
You can’t escape the experience of architecture. But how well do you make that connection? My wife is an assistant principal of a high school. I’ll get into these discussions with her about education. It’s one thing for me to talk as someone that has went to school, but she’s the real educator. She has insight because of her training, things that I don’t get right away. I might react to a situation, say that its right or wrong, but I won’t understand the complexity of the situation until I talk it through with her. It gets back to why people like the things they like, without knowing exactly why they like them. The danger of that is not having good counsel for the people like us that are put in position to make decisions. There are examples of that all around us.

Another thing we’re trying to do (through AIA Orlando) is to reach kids early … there was this project up in Jacksonville called Box City.  In Box City, middle school kids come in and create buildings out of boxes. It’s an effort to explain to kids the planning process of how buildings all relate to each other. That’s hands on.  We want to encourage that sort of thing.

Why is it important to you, that you be involved in our urban planning?
I’ve been a student of cities all my life. What draws me is being able to create places that have engagement. I also feel a sense of responsibility because I have this training and understanding.  I ought to be engaged. That’s a big part of what the organization is trying to do, engage architects and decision-making.

Unfortunately, for a lot of decisions that architects should be involved in, we’re not present at the table. AIS is a program called the sense of architect program, where they encourage people to be involved and on community boards. It’s important to be in the room when decisions are being made.

What cities are your favorite models?
[Pauses] I’m searching my memory bank because there are a lot of different cities that I think are key role models. Overall, places like Chicago are extraordinarily good and dynamic in some senses. A lot of people in Chicago get it in terms of urban thought. It’s not to say all architecture in Chicago is good because it certainly isn’t. But there is a value placed certainly within the architectural community on trying to good work, and also this history of the Chicago plan, something celebrated in its significance.

I like parts of so many cities—Savannah, Philadelphia, Boston, parts of New Orleans. There are parts of Orlando that I think are absolutely wonderful.

Do you consider Orlando still a blank canvas?
No. There’s more history here than people think. Our problem is Orlando is known for—and not very good at—celebrating other places, places that are fantasy. We’re real good at re-creating parts of other places. Look at Epcot center. Let’s take people deep into a childhood fantasy. Let’s give the people this amazing immersive experience so that they forget their everyday problems. We’ve gotten really good at that.

In fact, so good at it that we run the risk of overshadowing the history that is here. There was a lot going on in the Florida peninsula before Disney was here. Certainly, Disney transformed Central Florida—that goes without saying—but it’s not the only thing going on here.  From my experience, which I think is the same for many central Floridians, is that when people come here to visit—they may have been to the theme parks already maybe eight or nine times—you say, “Why don’t you just come to my home to visit me. I live in a historic neighborhood where there are bookstores and shops and cafes.” They look at me like, “Are you pulling my leg?” We need to shed some of that image.

Did you watch American Idol when it came to Orlando? I don’t think the city was presented well.  If you watch that episode, and I did because my wife watches American Idol …

[Laughs] Whatever, you know you love it too.
Alright. That’s right. [Laughs] If you look at the cities before they came here, they sat the judges in windows that showcased an urban scene. The window here looked out over a golf course. I thought, “What a completely missed opportunity.” At least if they had done it at one of the theme parks, or they had done at City Walk, there would have been activity behind it. There was one shot of Cinderella’s castle, the parking garage of the new Amway Arena, but for the most part all the shots on camera were of a resort.

People are looking more and more for authentic experiences. It’s not to say that the fantasy is bad. The fantasy stuff is good. People should come here, enjoy that and leave with great experiences. But when people come back, they come back for the people. We have that to offer.

But do these people that go straight to theme parks even know that a downtown Orlando exists?
I’ll tell you one of my concerns, and I hope we get it right because I’ve supported it, but it’s getting high-speed rails here. We as a state need it. If it’s built though, it needs a connection to Orlando’s urban core.  The danger is if it becomes more convenient for someone to hop on it and go to downtown Lakeland, or downtown Tampa, then it is to get to downtown Orlando.

How do you think having public transportation is going to impact downtown Orlando?
Public transportation is often presented as “we can choose not to do this so that we can save money.” That’s a false introduction of the issue. It’s kind of like healthcare; we have to think of the cost of maintaining the status quo as compared to providing additional options for people. In an economic sense, the pay back for the added mobility makes it worth it. Roads are subsidized. So why would someone think there wouldn’t be subsidized public transportation?

What kind of buildings and structures do you foresee our city building?
[Pauses] I hope we continue to value, and I believe we will, but continue to value our historic resources. I served on the Historic Preservation Board for the city and the Urban Design Commission for Orange County and I think that there is importance to having historic buildings be a part of the fabric. But I do hope we do have buildings downtown that are appropriate for the current time and place, and that we aren’t trying to mock or re-create historic models. We need to do things that relate to our human scale. I hope we do some more exciting things. I think that when the performing arts center went out to get a world class architect, it was good because it placed importance on the fact that the facility deserved a world-class design, however, there is a ton of talent right here in Orlando. We don’t need to go half way around the world chasing talent. There’s remarkable talent here.

One of things that is neat about Orlando is what’s going on with the simulation and technology. We couldn’t be in a better place for architect’s realizing that technology is going to change our profession. We will correct a building virtually before we do in a real sense. Those virtual creations are getting more and more complex to where that now we can do virtual walk throughs and immersive experiences and know what someone’s experience will be. Technology has everything to do with being able to convey that message to a client effectively. So that puts us at the vanguard of our profession because all of these things are happening here.

In the initiative you sent me, Forbes named Orlando a best city for “technology jobs.” Now how do you suppose we get those technology job seekers here? There are a lot of empty condo buildings out there.
We got slammed as a region, obviously, whether housing is desirable or undesirable. Prices went down so much that even if you wanted to invest in living in the urban core, you’d be getting so much more of a deal seeking shelter elsewhere. It drove the whole market down, but I see that coming back.

How do we get people here? Well, one, we need to grow people and keep them here. UCF alone, a huge institution in terms of its size, is attracting people here. If we could get those people to stay here, gosh that’d be a tremendous effect. In generations past, we’ve lost people. People are also attracted to where other people like them are. So growing and keeping people will attract more people.

What we know about the economy is that people aren’t moving to the jobs, jobs are moving to where the people are. So …

We need more companies to move here? Outside of our theme parks that pull specialized talent, where else are people to go?
Part of that is a perception issue. In the report I gave you, there is not much difference in the numbers of tourism employees and those employed in the technology field. In fact, there are more people employed in those high-tech, creative, health and life sciences jobs, and that was according to the numbers I got from the Orlando Regional Chamber.

The perception problem is that people think nothing is going on here. Again, it’s what we want to address. We want people to think of more than one thing when they think of Orlando.  It’s okay if they’re first thought is …

Mickey mouse?
Yeah. Like, “Gosh, Orlando, they have great theme parks there.” But we want the second thought to be, “By the way, when you’re in Orlando go checkout the architecture, “ “Orlando has a great art scene,” and “Don’t forget to check out some live music while you’re there.” We want those thoughts to be there as well.

Orlando was awarded the AIA Convention for 2019. What does this mean for our city?
First of all, in terms of having over 20,000 participants, it’s a huge win for us in terms of the size of this convention. We have people here, staying in hotel rooms, and spending money. Our goal is to use the time we have in front of us to create more of an impact. We want to expose all the architects and people related to architecture to the other parts of Orlando, and to experience something different, whether it be a great restaurant, play or experience. But also, we want to expose the citizens of Orlando, to world class architects and architecture because we see virtual connections in terms of meeting. We can take this to a global phase.

Globally, we seem to already have a great draw of tourism. However, the people seem to never make it downtown because their busy in the outskirts of our city. Do you think the urban sprawl of our city is a great disadvantage?
Yes. It is a disadvantage. It’s unfortunately one that we can’t change. The physical spaces are where they are. We’re not going to relocate the convention district, but we have to make it more pedestrian friendly and more compact. So that if someone wants to have a pedestrian experience, they can.  A lot of our visitors are used to that.

As a planner, this is what I think about. I worked for a firm that was involved in the design and citing of the original phase one of the Orange County Convention center. It also happens to be the building where my high school graduation was held. In going through their archives, after grad school and eight years later when I worked for that firm again in working on the convention center expansion, I studied everything that went on. When they citied the convention center, there was a debate about where to site it, downtown or on I-drive.  The thought was that there was nothing really downtown for visitors and so why not a place in between here and the theme parks. In those thoughts back then, that probably made sense, but not so much now.
Imagine if you will, that convention center straddling one end of downtown. Or what if part of the UCF campus had been located downtown?  People would have to experience downtown. Suddenly, all the activity you’d see on the streets—well, there’d be even more of that.

One thing I think our downtown needs is a shopping district. There’s barely any retail here. Do you agree?
It certainly would be good to have more retail experiences. I wouldn’t go as far to say that we need a stand alone shopping district. There’s entertainment, and coffee shops. We need more of those things, but I don’t think we need to be known only for retail. It just needs to be a part of the mix.

What else is going to drive people downtown in the daytime?
[Sits back and thinks]

If people are here in the day, chances are they’ll stay until night, go to dinner, catch a show, and so on. Don’t you think?
We do need more authentic experiences like the stuff in Loch Haven Park and Antique Row of Ivanhoe. I think the Downtown Arts District will help with that as well.  Hang on a second, I need to take this call. [He takes the call and leaves for a few minutes.] Sorry, about that. I’m going to have to travel, probably leaving tomorrow.

No problem. Let me ask you this: Are you a straight-line kind of guy, or do you like arcs and curves?
I’m absolutely not a straight-line kind of guy. All of those things have to be purposeful. I’m also not one for ornamentation for ornamentation sake. I’m very big on light and texture and proper use of materials, and scale—those are things that are important to me.

Is it an urban legend that we can’t build tall buildings due to sand?
We can certainly build tall buildings in Central Florida, though the soil is different. The way that you have to support these buildings is different than other locales, but there is structural technology to do it. Look what they’re doing in Abu Dhabi. [Laughs] None of those structures are going down over there.

There are so many titles that follow your name. Which one are you most proud of?
You see, this is a bad question because I run the danger of upsetting half of my colleagues. It’s like trying to pick between two of your own children. Let me answer it this way, I am proud to be an architect and a planner.  That was intentional. Together, those two professions are greater than the sum of their parts.

Is that how you got the title of Orlando Business Journal’s top 40 under 40?
[Laughs] I’ll leave that to the people that were doing the nominating and choosing.  I can’t answer that … [Laughs]

Describe our future city in ten words.
Creative. Dynamic. Cosmopolitan. Leading Edge. [Pauses] Wired. Healthy. Complex.  Loved. Diverse.

And where will you be?
I hope to be right here in Orlando, right in the middle of all of it.

*Interview Date: January 26, 2010

To learn more about the American Institute of Architects, go to aia.org.

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