James Richard Alsop III has had a distinguished and entrepreneurial career in architecture. Nearly two decades ago, he was founding president of Studio 9 Inc., a Charlotte firm specializing in remodeling projects across the southeastern United States. A graduate of UNC Charlotte and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Alsop went on to become a founding member and director of design at Charette Architects. In 2009, he moved to Springfield, Illinois, where he oversaw a $300 million budget in his role as architect of the Capitol.
Named last year as managing principal for the Charlotte architectural practice at HDR, Alsop believes strongly in mentoring and community involvement. He is secretary of the American Institute of Architects’ Charlotte chapter and has served as chairman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission as well as a member of its design review and survey committees. Alsop also serves on the UNC Charlotte School of Architecture’s advisory council.
Alsop, who lives in north Charlotte with his wife and two sons, recently sat down with The Mecklenburg Times to talk about his work, community involvement, and love of architecture.
What sparked your interest in architecture?
Initially, I was interested in a career in immunology. But the more I got into the health care environment, at least as a high school student, the more I felt that going into the medical profession wasn’t for me. My father is an architect who still practices. He always spoke, and continues to speak, about loving what he does, so that naturally had a large impact on my ultimate career path. I continue to fall in love with architecture both as a pursuit and a profession every day. In the end, I love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else.
Although you didn’t go into the medical profession, your work is still involved in healthcare, isn’t it? What other work does HDR in Charlotte do?
Yes, I’d say I’ve come full circle. HDR is the No. 1 health care firm in the world and does incredible work in that market, so while I’m not as close to (the medical field) as I would have been as a doctor, I would argue that designing innovative centers of healing is an equally noble pursuit. Outside of health care but still in our Charlotte office, we perform professional services for the federal government and are expanding our expertise in the education, science and technology market. There is a bond referendum going out to North Carolina voters in March that, if passed, will fund several science and technology projects across state university campuses. So I want to make sure, as a native interested in higher education and the managing principal of our office, that we are involved in many of these projects.
What issues are most important to you when designing a building?
By law, architects are obligated to protect the health, safety, and welfare of occupants in the buildings we design. That gets to the code compliance part of the profession. Outside of that, we must create things that are at once functional and beautiful. Those are as integral to what we do as code compliance and state statute. When you get all those components coming together, in my mind, that’s when you have a successful building.
What buildings and trends in Charlotte do you like or dislike?
I would have to talk about styles. But I’m a modernist at heart. I love steel, glass and concrete because they truly express their structure and form in the most basic elements. Charlotte has a vast range of buildings that touch many design styles, which is wonderful to see as it creates a diverse, rich and inclusive architectural culture. For example, a drive through Eastover and Myers Park generally finds a very conservative, formal and highly ordered style. Uptown, for the most part, challenges the conservative design philosophy with the recent structures that are being built. So to answer your question, I like them all because of what they do for the city. In the end, I like spaces that are designed well, no matter what the style is.
Is there any one building in Charlotte that you believe reflects the essence of the city?
No, because Charlotte has all sorts of architecture. The buildings outside my office are as much a part of Charlotte as everyone I pass on the way home. I don’t think I could point to one particular building and say it is the epitome of Charlotte because the buildings we create are as varied as the city itself.
You were a founding member and director of design at Charette Architects in 1999. What projects did you work on? Could you talk about what challenges you faced in starting up a business and any successes you had?
Charette started out as Charette Architects, Engineers & Planners. Our expertise was industrial, laboratory, and high-technology projects. Shortly after, we narrowed our firm’s focus to architecture and shifted toward mixed use, commercial, and high-end residential and community developments in the Southeast. We became experts in the theme development of brand new communities as well as the design of their amenities, such as their manor houses, entry buildings, recreational structures and so on – all tied to a particular theme such as coastal cottage or vintage European. We helped write community covenants and restrictions, their architectural guidelines and their pattern books. We got to know these architectural styles very intimately, which gave our work an authenticity and historical accuracy that wasn’t being done anywhere else.
There are two large challenges to address when starting a design practice. The first is staff. Architecture is such a personal business and working with the right group of people is critical. Fortunately we worked with very talented and committed designers, so this challenge was easily overcome. The second challenge is financial. Most start-up companies struggle with this for at least the first year as they build a client base, reputation for great work, and expertise in the market. Supporting a young family in an entrepreneurial undertaking is daunting, but that challenge too was eventually overcome. We worked hard to make sure Charette was a healthy architectural practice for many years.
You were named architect of the Capitol, executive director and chief architect for the state of Illinois in 2009. What was that experience like?
It was an amazing experience, as I was working at the seat of state government, managing once-in-a-lifetime projects. My jurisdiction was the Capitol complex, which comprised 22 buildings, including the Capitol building that houses all of the constitutional officers and the General Assembly for the state of Illinois. I oversaw design, construction, historic preservation and renovation for the complex.
How big was your staff?
My staff was very, very small. It was me, a senior project manager, and an administrative assistant. We managed a $300 million budget and designed and managed highly complex projects, all with a staff of three. The office was highly efficient.
You are secretary of AIA’s Charlotte chapter. What issues are you passionate about?
Mentorship has always been a priority of mine. AIA is the largest professional organization that we as architects have, and it has a mission of ensuring that the public is aware of the value that architects add to society. The way that message becomes institutionalized year to year is through a mentorship process with young professionals that gives them the tools, guidance and experience they need to be leaders in the profession and successful in their careers.
You are now managing principal of HDR’s Charlotte architecture practice. What does that entail?
HDR is a global company, based out of Omaha, Nebraska, with about 10,000 employees. As a managing principal in Charlotte, I oversee an office with 28 staff members and focus primarily on business development. Part of my responsibility is ensuring that projects are staffed properly, performing well, and exceeding clients’ expectations. I also oversee office culture and the hiring of great talent. The ways HDR works is really different from most firms. We maintain global expertise across all of our market sectors and delivery projects locally. Health care experts in my office, for example, travel throughout the world consulting on projects while the HDR office in the project’s locale manages the team and the client deliverables.
Any favorite buildings around the world, and why?
This is a really great question because the answer is so subjective. There is no right or wrong. The first “building” that really affected me was I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid. It’s in the main courtyard of the Louvre Palace and serves as the main entrance to the Louvre Museum. I saw it in 1990 shortly after it was completed. What’s wonderful about it is the contrast of the classical styles evident in the Palace and the modern juxtaposition proposed by Pei. The Pyramid is both grand and deferential, simple in form and function yet theoretically complex. It is a one-of-a-kind response, meaning that no other architect would have likely proposed this same solution. Coupled with the fact that it works is what makes it so wonderful.
What would you like people to know about you?
Family first – anything else can wait until tomorrow.