Friday, May 1, 2009
Presented by: Ron Altoon, FAIA, of Altoon + Porter Architects, and past president of the AIA.
What people want to learn: “At this point, we’re all looking to redefine ourselves.” Toni Lewis, AIA, of Lewis/Schoeplein Architects in Los Angeles.
Altoon’s session focused on the mindset and business strategies needed for international work, as understood through his own professional experiences. His firm began by designing high-end retail center projects for well-established developers. In 1988, he and his firm did a pro bono project in Spitak, Armenia after an earthquake devastated the city. This exposed him to how different cultures inform their building context and ignited a passion for international architecture. This experience prompted Altoon + Porter to refocus their firm towards a “context-driven design philosophy,” Altoon said. His professional “seven year itch” had him reposition his firm away from a boutique practice towards international, higher education, and public projects—all the while trying to maintain their current core competencies in the commercial retail design industry. Early on, Altoon joined the AIA’s International Committee, and eventually became the AIA president. He also wrote a book about international shopping center design that he said helped identify him in the retail design marketplace and allowed him to make more business connections to potential clients. His firm’s first international projects were in Indonesia and China. Eventually, his practice expanded across Asia and Europe. In 1997, they were the first US architecture firm to design a building in democratic Russia. Adding international, higher education, and public projects helped them balance their project portfolio much more. After 9/11, Altoon’s firm began to focus more on mixed-use projects. Today, Altoon + Porter are pursuing mass transit facilities.
What people thought: “We don’t live and work in a vacuum. There are other things going on in the world, and I think the global perspective that Ron brought was tremendous, especially for those of us working mostly in the States. We have obtained a client in Finland. [This helps us] look at it differently.” Mark Cipos, AIA, of the I & S Group in Mankato, Minn.
Best Practice Tips: When working overseas with a culture you’re not familiar with, your first visit should be to the museums that contain the country’s culture and historical legacy. This is the way to re-center your own cultural orientation and begin to understand the nuances of your client’s perspective. Always get paid in advance when working overseas. It’s also important to attend conferences that clients attend.