Thursday, February 28, 2013


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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Architectural Pantheon

I am a one word professional: architect, so the inevitable cocktail party question has a simple answer. Over the years, my list of professional interests has expanded. I've done work in graphic design, photography, furniture design, exhibit and event design, product design and textile design. Add writing to this mix and now you know what I've been doing for almost thirty years.

That for all this time I've used the one word expletive is primarily because it's accurate, mixed in with a healthy dose of snobbery. Architecture is one of the classical fine arts, an ancient and noble profession, which somehow confers the self-imparted right to turn one’s nose sharply up at other applied arts, the likes of those I also practice. I think the attitude starts with the educational process.

 Research shows the nose will appear to curl up higher when the mouth is pulled back. 
Photo courtesy of So You Want to Be A Snob?

I pursued a curriculum whereby I was immersed in the study of Architecture, first at the University of Puerto Rico and then at Cornell University. My education followed the model set by the Bauhaus School at the turn of the 20th century, the epicenter of which was the Design studio where we spent a dozen of so hours week with our Studio critics and innumerable evenings and weekends. Well before the term became popular, the Studio was 24/7.

Professors doubled as gatekeepers to the Pantheon of Architects, where openings were scarce and competition to enter fierce. I was in awe of most of them and loathed the rest, even if it's from the latter that I likely learned the most. Attrition was high and even the most gifted had to work hard. Time after time I was required to present my work and be subject to scathing remarks of the Professors and guest critics up to the day I finished my thesis project and was told: "you passed."

Diploma in hand I moved to Washington, DC and started working. What I soon found out is I got to start out all over again and pay a new set of dues. Three years later I took the Architectural Registration Exam and fortunately I got through all nine parts and thirty-six hours of examination the first time around.

That other areas of design are not held to the fire to the same extent as architects contributes to the conceit of being above the rest. In the end, my lot misses out on much and perpetrates the notion we are unapproachable and intimidating, much to the profession’s detriment. I wonder if we are in part to blame we are underpaid and underused.

Because of my areas of involvement, I’ve acquired another handful of professional descriptors: graphic designer, photographer, interior designer, event designer and occasionally, decorator. I’m fine with all of them if it means I get to do what I want, which is one of the reasons I founded Studio Santalla in 2001. That the office provides all of these services in tandem is what sets us apart from most other firms.

I’m not too worried about being excused from the Architectural Pantheon because I comply with the requirements to keep my membership and I’m called a snob often enough. 

Now a catholic church, the Pantheon, or temple to all Gods, built  in Rome in 126 AD

What I am concerned about is how to fill the breach between public perception that design professionals are a luxury and the reality that qualified design professionals are needed more than ever to shape the built environment.

Comments encouraged.

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Studio Santalla won a "Best Of Houzz 2013 award

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Objects of Our Desire

When you need a check up, call a doctor, but when you have a toothache, call the dentist. When buying property or in need of a will, there will be a lawyer involved. When the plumbing malfunctions, call the plumber and when the car breaks, take it to the mechanic.

In a world of must haves, why doesn't everyone have an architect? In fact, most of the built environment is not the work of architects. What's interesting, in an article published by Metropolis in 2008 suggests it's largely due to architect elitism. If 98% of architects are unwilling to design for the middle income sector, the vast majority of the population is underserved. If that's accurate, there's a huge untapped market out there. Something here isn't adding up, is it?

With the Industrial Revolution a paradigm shift occurred whereby mass production democratized the availability of goods to an ever increasing population. Supply and demand and competition created greater accessibility and to a great extent, much of what we surrounds ourselves with now can be traced to mechanization. Assembly lines produce objects.

My premise is we are and object oriented society and as such we readily relate and ascribe value to objects. Architecture is space oriented. I'll give an example to make my case; the Eiffel Tower.

As one of the most recognizable symbols in the world, it has become synonymous with Paris. The vast majority of the world's population is fascinated by the object, whereby I am most enamored of the setting, starting at the Tocadéro, site of the modernist Chaillot Palace and gardens which step down to the bridge crossing the Seine leading to the plaza which serves as a platform for the tower.

This image is taken from the Eiffel Tower. A glimpse of the bridge is in the foreground and the  Chaillot Palace is a "gateway" to the city in the rear. That's not Oz in the background, it's La Défense.

This image is taken from the Chaillot Palace.

The experience of visiting the world's most visited (paid) monument isn't over once you've ascended the tower or even had a meal at the restaurant. The plaza where the tower is sited on offers another vantage point of the city.

A view of the gold dome of Les Invalides from the Eiffel Tower.

But it's not over yet. This plaza connects to the Champs de Mars, the site of the Exposition Universelle, aka World's Fair, for which the Eiffel Tower was built in 1899 as the entrance.

We can think of the Eiffel Tower as the leading actress, the object of our desire. The public spaces are the set, with a vision crafted by the production team under the masterful perspective of the Director. One does not exist without the other.

In the film of your life, where you play the leading role and have millions of choices for filling the set, but who is designing that set for you? Do you accept a phone or a car that kind-of works? No, so why should you accept to live and work in spaces that were kind-of designed?

Comments are encouraged.

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Here's a recent publication on me in The Georgetowner.

For examples of the spaces I design, go to

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fashionista Architecture

I like fashion, for which I have officially joined the ranks of the frivolous as far as many serious professionals are concerned. That I like clothes is no secret to those who know me, but couture is not a subject frequently discussed by the intellectual elite. In my opinion, however, fashion has much in common with architecture and the fine arts.

Scientists estimate our ancestors started wearing clothes around 100,000 BC from the evidence of body lice on humans. The fur from hunted animals was used to cover the body and served as functional shelter from the elements.

Archaeological findings reveal that textiles and needles dating from prehistoric times, which were likely used to manufacture clothing. Depictions abound of uniformity in dress, which implies mass production, but clothing has and continues to be used as a sign of hierarchy, class and distinction and has a language of it's own to the present day.

A reconstruction in the British Museum of headgear and necklaces worn by women in some Sumerian graves. Versions of both are worn to this day, sans daffodils.

A detail of the Coronation of Napoleon as depicted by Jacques-Louis David. This Emperor certainly knew how to wear his clothes!

Wasn't it Madonna who started the notion that "underwear is outwear?" This particular iteration, however, is often attributed to prisons, but for all I know it's an urban myth.

The fine arts, which include Architecture, in part represent the zeitgeist, or the spirit of the times. I think that few would contend that fashion, or the prevalent style of clothing of an era does not contribute.

Ancient Greek Sculpture, to which is attributed the first depiction of figures in movement, is also credited for the the first realistic depiction of draping, as in, what the figure is wearing.

This is a detail from a parapet of the temple of Athena Nike in Athens, where the goddess is adjusting her sandals. The mastery of the carving recreates draping so thin it reveals the contours of the body. Remember Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof? The Greek Goddess dress she wore for most of the movie was no coincidence. It was chosen for what it represented.

Architecture is of its time. Some of it transcends the test of time and is passed down through the ages, but when recreating images of the past, the people and their style of dress is of the essence, which is one of the reasons why depictions of time travel are so much fun because the people are wearing clothes from another era.

In my architectural design work I address issues of structure, form,  function, materials, proportion, details, balance, hierarchy and many others as they relate to the creation of space. These same concepts apply to the design of a garment, the difference being the end result.

The fashion industry is huge and visions of what we should aspire to look like flash before our eyes constantly. I'd like to see a similar emphasis on architectural design as far as depicting a built environment that is likely within our means to produce.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Architectural Shopping Cart 2013

Visualization is key. If you can see it, you can achieve it, self-empowerment gurus are quick to say. Well believe it, because I've been seeing it for a long time, insofar that I spend my days thinking about the visual world as I experience life in the city, buildings, interior spaces, and so on.

As I experience this visual world I love, there are projects that would become welcome additions to that cocktail book in progress on my work. I've added them to my "cart." In no particular order...

This is a view of the renovated lobby at the Public House, an Ian Schrager hotel in Chicago, designed by Yabu Pushelberg. I saw it this past summer and was blown away. The renovation is done with artistry, restraint and exquisite taste. It epitomizes "cool" because it's not trying, it just is.

Residential contemporary architecture is finally thriving in Washington, DC. This row house renovation and addition by David Jameson Architects is a fine example. The massing, proportions and use of materials is expertly executed by one of DC's top architects.

This is the interior of a Chanel Boutique designed by Peter Marino. Regardless of how beautiful each item for sale may be, it doesn't stand half a chance without the perfect stage. There is so much to be made and lost in this industry that to maintain the brand name, the environment in which they are presented is key to perception. In retail, there is the need to push the limits, and Marino knows how to incorporate that notion with style, elegance and sophistication.

I'll keep my project wish list at these. The phone's started ringing off the hook.
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Thursday, January 3, 2013


I started using a cell phone on a regular basis around 1998. As all it did was make phone calls and as battery life was poor, I'd turn it on and off whenever I needed it. A number of years later, texting was introduced and for that I had no need, to say the least of a camera. Eventually, I learned to appreciate and embrace new and useful technologies

In 2007, shortly after the iPhone was introduced, I was in Paris, I had a moment when a number of things I am passionate about came together: travel, shopping, writing, photography and graphic design merged with the romantic at heart. Fabulous, a self-published booklet came out of that.

My little book came at a turning point in my life, both personally and professionally. I still have copies to give away, so if you'd like to receive one send an email with your name and address to and it will be yours.

Every year is good. Regardless of what happens, it's part of the journey to this point.

Studio Santalla is on Facebook and we appreciate new likes. The same goes for Ernesto Santalla Photography.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Arrivederci Prima Donna

I have a new banker. He visited the office last week to introduce himself and to begin our meet and greet session he asked "you're and interior decorator, right?" Long silence and then, "no, I'm an architect." Truth be known, it wasn't a first, it won't be the last, but frankly, does it matter? I realize my knee-jerk reaction is part of an education rooted in the Bauhaus school, which eschewed decoration, but this gentleman's perception is worth exploring.

Stereotypes, which depict extremes will help explain what I do exactly. One end of the spectrum has the architect,

And the other, the decorator...

Truth be known, architect and decorator alike are often perceived as Prima Donna, and the battle is over who wins the title, which I think is a loosing proposition for all because life occurs somewhere in between what both of these design professionals do. It is my belief that Studio Santalla's work exists in that zone and so I present the evidence.

This space, the Lobby of the Dupont East condominium in Washington, DC, is a very architectural space, complemented by the choice of furniture and accessories. Other views of the space show how the lighting, while functional, creates a decorative pattern on the ceiling.

In this home in Potomac, Maryland, the Living Room was infrequently used, so the client claimed it as her own. To that effect, we created a "softer," more "feminine" aesthetic. The custom carpet is based on a photo of a dogwood flower.

The Clubhouse for Treetops, a residential community in West Chester, Pennsylvania is in an old barn. The stair and second floor are new, as is everything except the original exterior walls of the building. Regardless of how great the space may be architecturally, it wouldn't serve all its functions if it was not properly lit, furnished and had the right artwork and accessories.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed the furnishings, light fixtures, and accessories for his homes and other buildings. For some of his clients, he designed dresses to complement the space. Nobody looks down on him for this, so why should I be worried about questions of being a decorator?

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