oBD 001: Larry Sykes, AIA, NOMA

Spending time with my family is important to me—there’s a history of workaholics in architecture, but I think it’s possible to be a devoted designer who has a life beyond design.

I was first introduced to Larry almost two years ago, now that I think about it. At the time he was working at a well-respected firm here in Denver and we started getting together for lunch just to connect and talk architecture. Eventually, Larry mentioned that he was interested in going out on his own, which I, of course, found very exciting. I was happy for him for pursuing his dream. I remember vividly those days when I first went out on my own. Now, I’m happy to have Larry tell his story…

About yourself – What’s a bit of your story?

Thank you for including me in this project! Probably the central thing about me is that I’ve always been fascinated with how things are put together, from buildings and cars to social structures, and I was lucky to land in a profession where I could make a living from that curiosity.

Growing up, my dad worked as a drafter at architecture and engineering firms; as a child I was indoor-oriented and unpopular enough to have plenty of time to read through his architectural drafting school textbooks. Sitting at home drawing plans and perspectives was a joy to me, and in high school I cajoled my dad into teaching me CAD and worked with my carpenter stepdad for a summer installing siding on tract homes.

I went straight into an architecture program in college, and found an internship with an instructor’s firm, where I ended up working for 12 years designing mostly energy-efficient modern houses.

And your business – How long ago did you start? What motivated you to go out on your own?

My practice is very new—I started at the beginning of 2020. As far back as architecture school, I’d wanted to have my own practice, but as I gained experience in the profession the idea became more and more intimidating. I only felt comfortable enough to seriously think about it after I’d clocked over a decade of experience, had become licensed and spent a year working at a firm doing larger work to broaden my experience. I realized then that I love the small scale and more personal client and builder relationships involved with designing houses, and was ready to start a practice focused on that. I was lucky enough to have a good project come my way just as I was putting the pieces in place to start the business.

What about your business is uniquely you? How are you following your own path?

A couple of things: one is scale—I want to keep the practice small and local, not necessarily chasing big, flashy projects. Partly that’s just my personality, and partly it’s a sense that smaller houses and adapting existing houses is an important part of responding to the climate crisis.

The other “me” aspect is a focus on calm, unobtrusive design solutions. I started my journey in architecture as a fan of modernist and minimalist design, and the idea that everything from a doorknob to an entire house can do its job in a quiet but engaging way continues to be central for me. That doesn’t necessarily dictate an aesthetic (I’m working on a variety of projects, from a new modern house to a Victorian addition/renovation with traditional details), rather it steers me toward a sensitive collaboration with the context I’m designing in. Sometimes that context is the feel of a neighborhood, sometimes a natural landscape, sometimes an existing house itself.

What are you looking forward to achieving as a business owner? What are you looking to achieve in your profession or field?

Beyond not collapsing financially (which didn’t feel guaranteed when the pandemic first hit), I hope to just be able to maintain a semblance of work/life balance and keep the practice small as a result. I want to remain a solo practice for the time being. Spending time with my family is important to me—there’s a history of workaholics in architecture, but I think it’s possible to be a devoted designer who has a life beyond design. Already I’m taking on a bit more than I thought I would in the first year; I’m learning how to navigate that balance.

I’ve also spent the past two years volunteering in the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects on equity, diversity and inclusion in the profession. I’m one of only 16 licensed Black architects in Colorado, far below one percent of architects in the state (for context, Colorado has a 4.6% Black population). A Denver chapter of NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) just started and I’m looking forward to getting involved.

I love being an architect, but our profession badly needs to contend with its history of serving the same interests that brought redlining, so-called urban renewal, and gentrification to communities of color. There’s been a serious effort in the field to listen to the voices of architects of color following George Floyd, and I hope it doesn’t prove to be a passing fad.

Where do you find inspiration? Who or what inspires you?

My anchor is definitely modernist architecture from the 1920s through the 70s: composed asymmetry, abstraction of forms, sculpting of natural light. All of this was rooted in the creative freedom and rich ideas Western architects saw in African, Asian and Indigenous American art and design. A lot of my favorite architects were/are in Latin America: Oscar Niemeyer, João Vilanova Artigas and Paulo Mendes da Rocha in Brazil, Eladio Dieste in Uruguay, and especially Luis Barragan in Mexico. I also can’t help but admire the work of Le Corbusier, even though his legacy deserves harsh scrutiny.

I’ve also found inspiration in the tenacity of the largely uncelebrated Black American architects of the 20th century: Paul R. Williams, Max Bond, Denver’s own John Henderson, and CU-Boulder graduate Henry Wilcots, who helped Louis Kahn realize his masterpiece Dhaka National Assembly in Bangladesh. Their resilience changed the scope of possibilities for people like me.

On a different note, I’m also very inspired by the technical direction architecture is moving in as a response to climate change. Mass timber structures for mid-size buildings, the spread of Passive House techniques (buildings so well-insulated and airtight they only need small heating and cooling systems), and the move away from problematic materials like foams, non-recyclable composites, noxious finishes, etc. Architecture culture is full of complex, esoteric theories, but what we need to focus on now is quite simple: making solid, well-performing buildings that last.

Thanks, Larry! I wish you all the best as you work to grow Sykes Projects. And thank you for helping kick off this series. on Black Design is an occasional series that profiles black creatives who are also small business owners. If you enjoyed this post, please send me an email and let me know. Or better yet, visit my guest’s site directly and see what they’re up to.

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