Milwaukee's Emerging Talent: Grace La and PJ Murrill

Jan. 13, 2009
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Founded in 2000 by husband and wife team Grace La and James Dallman, La Dallman Architects is one of a handful of local practices challenging the stultifying output of many of the city’s corporate design firms. Since their formation they’ve won numerous honors, including several awards from the American Institute of Architects, and have been featured in prominent design periodicals like Architectural Record. La divides her time between her practice and her tenured teaching position at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning. She and one of La Dallman’s many young and talented recruits, 28-year-old North Carolina native PJ Murrill, talk about what it means to be a small, emerging practice in Milwaukee.

Do you still consider yourself an emerging architecture firm?
GRACE: I’d like to think so. As soon as an architecture firm begins to consider themselves established, I think they stop taking risks…The world of design is very broad and I hope we can continue thinking progressively—which I think is the hallmark of the emerging practice. In some ways, if we lose that we’re in trouble.

So in a way you hope always to be considered an emerging firm?
G: I hope so!

Tell me a bit about yourself PJ?
PJ: I worked at a large corporate firm throughout college and an internship at high school. I worked for them in the mixed-use studio for two years after graduating—primarily on large-scale projects. As I was working towards completing my IDP—Intern Development Program—I was seeking a bit more of a challenge, a broader range of things to work on. In the larger corporate architectural firm I felt I was being pigeonholed into doing very specific things.

How did you end up here?
PJ: I have family in Illinois and I love the Midwest. Also I had a long distance relationship—a girl brought me here. And I was looking for a lifestyle change and job experience…

Do you see yourself going back to a larger firm?
PJ: I really enjoy smaller firms. You have a lot more responsibilities but it’s more rewarding. In larger firms you tend to work on the same kind of projects over and over because they will group certain people in certain studios, whereas in a smaller firm I could be working on a student union one day and a bridge the following year. And with Grace’s tie to the university it brings a lot of new students and fresh ideas through here. I graduated in 2004 and it’s interesting to see some of the graduates and what they bring to the table. Some of the stuff they’re learning I didn’t have a chance to learn.

What sort of things?
PJ: There’s a lot of computer programs. Since I graduated a lot of the digital modeling programs have really hit the mainstream.

Do you use a lot of these programs in the office?
G: We have multiple platforms—different software running simultaneously, and sometimes its challenging keeping abreast of that. We thrive on keeping up there and making sure we’re always current. We ask ourselves: How effective are these design tools? Are they worth it? How do you manipulate them to create architecture? Some of them are very gimmicky – they don’t help you think more critically.

 Does having a lot of younger people in your design team help?
G: Absolutely. I think it’s very important to remain youthful in your sense of curiosity. If you can maintain that as an adult, learning new software is no big deal.

PJ: I see this job as a kind of continuation of my education because what you learn in school is very different to what I’m learning now…it keeps your ideas fresh and keeps you on the ball.

Tell me a bit about the experience of working on Levy House, one of your first projects?
PJ: It was interesting working on a project for a client who was truly interested in design, and not for a developer who was just interested in making money. Most of the projects I worked on in my previous firm were built to last for 10 to 15 years, like shopping centers. When I first came to work in a large firm I had the idea you could make a change and bring ideas to the table, but oftentimes because of the budget and a client disconnected with design and interested more in money, I soon became quite jaded. I was very motivated to work for a firm concerned with materiality, scale and buildings that last. I guess it just depends on the studio you work in because some are really geared towards high design…

G: there are only a handful of firms, in my opinion, who have maintained a high level of design on a larger scale. For example Herzog and De Meuron are up there with several hundred architects, which is just shocking considering where they’d started. I still remember when they were the little Swiss firm with 10 people! I think its possible to jump scales but it requires a very strong sense of leadership and people rowing in the boat together. Look at David Chipperfield from the UK, he’s also several hundred architects large but still, every project has an amazing high level of quality in terms of design and execution, which means to me there are very strong voices in that practice and people have ways of looking at the target and working towards it. I think when practice starts to create different studios within a corporate structure it becomes a problem. And I would imagine it would start to pit people against each other.

What are your future plans PJ? Will you stay in Milwaukee?

Yes, I love Milwaukee…blue collar, post-industrial city, very walkable—totally different from Charlotte, North Carolina, which is very car dependent and all the old buildings are torn down…I love it here.

G: See, I find that outlook very refreshing. I think Milwaukee is in the process of creating its identity for the 21st century. It takes a certain kind of optimism and energy to perceive change and the potential for identity of a city that is born out of people who have this idea—they’re not pessimistic or downtrodden, and don’t savor problems.

Do you think as transplants to the city you also offer a more critical view?
G: I think that has been one of the driving conditions of this practice, because we’ve always said if we’ve decided to stay here we have to have that critical perspective. That way, when we’re working on a project—whether it’s a house or a high-rise—we’re going to be asking ourselves what can be done here that can transform this place in way that’s not just driven by commercial instincts or aesthetic instincts. How do you reconcile all of those issues?

How do you think Milwaukee nurtures emerging talent?

G: In my role at the university that’s one of my most emotionally charged issues. I have the opportunity to see a good number of really talented people and sometimes I wish we as a practice could take in all of these people and give them a home where they can thrive. However, within our practice we have to always make sure we’re taking in the right work and can be intimately involved with the project so we don’t really aspire to being a large, hundred-person firm, but nonetheless I see the university and all these talented people and sometimes, because Milwaukee can’t always absorb them, they have to go elsewhere.  Which is bad, because I don’t want there to be a brain drain. I would love there to be more practices doing work at an extremely high level…but right now we’re only working with one hand. I don’t want to pooh pooh what other design firms are doing… but I would love it if the city would develop a design culture that could support itself.

Do you think a greater design culture has developed over the last decade?
G: Well its very interesting to see how discussions on design are more on people’s tongues now. It’s partly to do with the incredible expression of the Art Museum. Whatever one’s critique of the Calatrava, it has done that and gotten Milwaukee noticed by the international community. It speaks of the local community’s ability to support design. We just need to be more responsive to drawing out that potential. We remain hopeful.

PJ: I was really impressed when the Mayor contacted approached the dean of UWM about the Macarthur Square project. Things like that don’t happen where I come from.

G:  The Norquist era too—here are two administrations that are really unique. And the school of architecture here is very young but its faculty have been rowing hard for a very long time toward the goal of making architects who are really great designers…

At the beginning of April the gallery at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning will be presenting an exhibit of La Dallman’s titled “Fabricated Lanscapes.” More details will follow. To see examples of their work go to www.ladallman.com.

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