Ali Honarkar, an architect and condominium developer, has been a forceful voice for modern architecture in Washington DC. Ali sat down with DCMud to speak about his projects, the state of architecture, design and, of course, shoe design.
DCMud: Tell us about Division 1
AH: Division 1 was something that me and my partner, Mustafa, started, at UMD, back when we were undergrads, it started as a side job, turned into what it is now. At the time we wanted to have something cutting edge. We were at a very conservative university, kind of the same thing we are doing now professionally, we came together we figured it was better to stick together. We started in '94, doing a lot of interior spaces and restaurants, which is the best way to get your work out there. We always wanted to get more into the residential market. It took us 6, 7 years to do that, but after doing a bunch of restaurants we were able to establish ourselves to get some of the larger, better projects.
DCMud: And you did Lima…
AH: Yeah, We’re not doing too many restaurants now. We did some of the more upscale Charlie Chiang's, which is now called Charlie Chiang’s Ping, one is in Shirlington, opened about a year ago, we do about one restaurant a year – by choice. We also did 18th St lounge, Dragonfly, Local 16.
DCMud: Who or what was your inspiration to become an architect?
AH: My family has been in construction for hundreds of years so…
AH: Yeah, back in Iran, where I’m originally from, about 300 years, so its in my blood. The rest of my family went into medicine, I stuck with it. Some of my influence, still, is Thom Mayne, who was an architect from the west coast, with Morphosis. An Austrian firm called coop-Himmelblau, some of the influences in the late 80’s, 90's, when I was in school. What they did - it was at the same time as grunge, it was part of a whole movement, everything was related: art, music, architecture.
DCMud: Why choose DC?
AH: My family moved here, after the revolution. You know, why not DC? I was just having a discussion with another architect, locally, who wasn’t really fond of what we do, in DC.
We’ve always been known have to fight for our clients, for our principals, you know, whether its historic preservation, ANC, etc. We don’t pick a fight, we just feel like there should more be diversity. People always want to label things, ‘this is historic,’ but across the street it's not historic. I think its because we’re such a young nation, we only have a couple hundred years of history. I come from somewhere where there’s thousands of years of history. So the question was asked, ‘why do you have to change DC? Why don’t you go somewhere else?” My answer was, we wanted change. We elected Obama for change, we didn’t ask him to go to another country; change needs to happen here. And we’re not alone, I think DC has great potential. There were a lot of things done, not in a good way, that people label as ‘modern.’ I think people, when they don’t understand, and they see glass, they think, modern architecture, and all architects have to take the blame for that. I like putting our own spin on the city.
DCMud: How do you label yourself?
AH: True modernist. I don’t pull into a colonial house - I live in the house I designed. It’s a whole lifestyle. Modern is being always on the cutting edge of what’s going on. In DC we are more traditionalist. I have no problem with preservation – its great – but you take a lot, and put something that belonged 200 years ago, that’s what I have an issue with. The thing with traditionalists, they always forget, everything was modern at one time, and it takes time for that to mature, like good wine. When the Victorian era came up, it was a departure, and now it’s protected. You’re starting to see things, not even as far back as Frank Lloyd Wright, 50s, 60s, getting historic.
DCMud: Any favorite buildings in DC?
AH: My favorite is the original German embassy, built in, I think 1964, that’s my favorite in DC
DCMud: With the exterior skeleton?
AH: Exactly. Imagine, that was 1964, that’s by far my favorite in DC.
DCMud: Tell us about some of your projects – you're working on the Lacey Condominiums right now.
AH: Yeah, the Lacey was a great opportunity for us, the client found us from our house around the corner, the W Street residence we did. It’s the largest ground-up building we’ve done. We’ve done a full city block in Silver Spring, with a lot of renovation, but this was the first ground-up. The design, inspiration comes from the client. The history that place has, being right next to the Florida Avenue Grill – the parking lot for the Grill. That started in 1944, just the idea of an African American business in 1944, it was so progressive thinking, we wanted a tribute to Lacey Wilson Sr., and Junior, who bought the place from his dad. It doesn’t mimic anything around it, its not contextual, but we found the best way to pay tribute in the same spirit of what he did in 1944, for us to do in 2009, yeah, we wanted to do something that honored that. We need to be able to educate the developer, its okay to do a little more, it will come back to you. We feel that everyone that’s bought there, they’re paying for it because of the design. We designed in some social issues there – you want the neighbors to be able to engage each other, you don’t just walk in to a long corridor, and go into your own space, and never see anybody. This forces people to know each other – the atrium spaces, the common spaces.
DCMud: So its all about the Social Element.
AH: Yeah, absolutely, you engage with your neighbors. Its not for everybody, more of a European feel to it, where people can come right outside and be able to socialize. I think that’s what we do – outdoor spaces push that idea.
DCMud: Tell me how exterior came about.
AH: It looks like a simple building but there’s a lot more to it. A lot of people use zoning and height restrictions as a way of limiting themselves. We went the other way. We looked at all the guidelines, what could or couldn’t be done, we maxed out everything. I hear that a lot, ‘we had to max out the area, so we couldn’t do much with it.’ We made a lot of double story spaces; that was the idea behind having indoor-outdoor spaces coexisting. The exteriors stairs, we made that into part of the design element; you need the two forms of egress, but it became for us the design showcase, it becomes this whole volume of its own and brings a different dimension to the building.
DCMud: Lacey has gotten attention inside DC, but also outside DC. What do you attribute that to?
AH: Yeah, I don’t know! (laughs). We designed it to get attention, that’s what you do. We’re not going to write a hit song and apologize, you want it to be played. Actually we’re getting more national than local attention. I’m a little disappointed with the local media, and I think it may be driven by sponsors, this very conservative southern town. You would think the Washington Post, as local media, should know what’s going on around here. We’ve seen the Lacey in New York blogs, LA blogs, and architecture blogs, and I’m always amazed how they find us. But they don’t have to find you here, we’re here, they should know what’s in their back yard. I‘m a little disappointed, not with smaller magazines, but the Washington Post spends so much time covering other things, they should cover more locally.
DCMud: Thinking about next projects, do you have anything new coming up?
AH: We have some commercial projects, one of the projects I’m very excited about is that we’re doing a single-family in Dupont, a great client that really wanted to do green, but for all the right reasons, not cashbacks, but to do the right thing. They’re not even going to live there, it will be a rental initially. We were very excited by that, it’s a small project, but its already been approved by historic preservation. We’ve gotten to learn so much more about alternative heating, cooling, really incorporates everything into 2000 square feet of space. And we have an office building that’s ready for completion in about 4 or 5 months, very exciting, in Silver Spring, its been about 7 years in the works. Its a complicated design, there were a lot of major modifications, to the point that the county didn’t understand it anymore, they just said, ‘alright, just do it.’ We have an existing shell that we’re keeping, and putting a whole new modern building in it. We also have the Drost, a 4 unit condo building, we’re hoping to start in the spring, we’ll see.
DCMud: If you had an ideal client right now, who would that be, what would they be building?
AH: I’m probably more interested in designing a shoe right now (laughs), that would be the ideal thing, to do something different, we consider ourselves designers not just architects.
DCMud: A shoe?
AH: A different design challenge.
DCMud: I didn’t expect that answer.
AH: I’m being honest, I’d love to do something along that line.
DCMud: So green is not cheap, design is not cheap, how do you combine those two goods, and still make it affordable?
AH: Its hard, there are metropolitan cities, like NY would be the first, Chicago, San Francisco, LA, they have that. You put up a building anywhere in New York, they will still line up if its good. I think the DC culture, within the last 10 years has really changed, you see a lot more emphasis, not just on housing, but the restaurants, you see a lot more design, restaurants, bars, we’re getting there slowly but surely. We’re not very good at that, we just do it. There were so many ways to make the Lacy cheaper. But at the end of the day, the architect, the developer, have to be able to look back and be okay with it. The average life of a building is 25-30 years, we’d like to see the building there in a 100 years. Real estate is a long-term thing; we don’t do things for marketing purposes. With the whole green movement, nobody ever uses bad materials on purpose. Another way the AIA is using – you know when the record companies stopped using vinyl because it was no good – the same with the AIA, we achieved it in the Lacey, we’re doing it in a small residential project, you put a good project out there, people will follow.
DCMud: Any other architect out there in DC you really like?
AH: There are two guys are doing some great things, I guess they’re not really local. Sure, there are a lot of good architects here, many great single family residential architects. But I look to somebody like Jonathan Segal, Sebastian Mariscal, both San Diego architects, they inspire me. About 10 years ago he started, these guys also develop, so they practice what they preach. Its easy to design a $4m house, there’s not much risk. When you play with your own money, there's so much more risk. Developers are risk takers, when somebody has the guts to do that, its not just a business. If you put your name on it and try to sell it, that’s a whole new level.
DCMud: There aren’t a lot of architect-developers in DC.
AH: The way we look at ourselves, its not just the business, there are a lot of people that practice the business of architecture, but its different when you own it.
DCMud: No one local that you like?
AH: [Bill] Bonstra does some good work, but, some I don’t like. Take the Lincoln Condominiums in my neighborhood. Its brutal; it’s a big, stucco building, it represents nothing. I would rather stand for something. As an architect, you’re not sworn in, but you’ve got to give back to the community. I think Eric Colbert designed that, I wouldn’t have. Just don’t take the project. If you do and that's what you deliver, then you have to admit you’re in the business of architecture. You could be making shirts at that point. We get clients that come in and want to do certain things, and sometimes you just say ‘no thank you’, that’s not what we do. You can’t take every project. Especially at that scale – 10, 12 story buildings. You’re taking a big chunk of the block. It’s a crime to not care what you do, when it has such an effect on the city.
DCMud: What do you see as the future of architecture in DC?
AH: I’m always hopeful. When I was going to school there was not a lot of things you could walk up to and see; if you liked modern, you had to go to another city. But with the good, comes the bad, but I’d still take that, the diversity. Its art, you put it out there, its art, you just put it out there and let people decide.
DCMud: How do you compare DC regionally?
Well if you compare us to Wilmington, Delaware, we’re good. New York, well, there’s only one New York. But I’m hopeful. There are a lot of restrictions in DC. What upsets me is that we lose a lot of our talent, because there’s so many restrictions in DC. Some good talent starts here, then move to the west coast, or New York, so we’re pushing a lot of our talent out.
DCMud: Height restrictions and historic preservation?
AH: It’s partly that, but, no offense to attorneys, you do any work in DC, forget the ANC and historic preservation, but every other neighbor is an attorney. Its great to have pride in where you live, but people feel like they get to claim it, we see that all the time, we always feel like we don’t want to deal with it any more, but then we get a good client, who wants to do something different, and we say, okay, lets do this again. Its not historic preservation, I think its more the people in the neighborhoods that want to stop the process.
DCMud: Do you think the height limits are a good thing?
AH: I like them; I think you are most creative when you are challenged. DC is my favorite city, and you have New York for that. London, Paris, the scale is completely different, most European cities are like that. I like the height restriction where it is, we should just be a little more creative. We have suburbs to balance stuff out.
DCMud: Speaking of the process in DC, how would you change it if you could?
AH: If you go through third party review, it still has to go through DCRA at some point, it’s a little frustrating. I don’t see what the point is. Zoning, public space, transportation, should go through DCRA. But as far as electrical, mechanical and plumbing, I don’t see why it has to go back through the city. Third party review should be quicker, the process is very time consuming.