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Fall 2003

Vol. 04, No. 1


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Scale and light

In 1968, Dickinson, North Dakota, had a single architectural firm. One day a curly-haired boy of 10 walked in the door and asked to buy a kit so he could make a model of a building.

The architect gently informed the boy there is no such thing as a model-building kit. Professional architects use sticks, blocks of wood and cardboard to create models from scratch. The boy went home, gathered materials and glue, and built a replica of the dentist's office next door..

He built more models. He imagined majestic cityscapes and far away lands. He knew in his heart he wanted to shape the look of the larger world.

But first, the western Dakota landscape taught him about space. Farmsteads and ranches instructed him in design. And summers spent on his grandfather's farm near Minot, brought him closer to both.

He studied drafting in high school. On Saturdays he worked for an architect. And then, stretching as far from home as he thought he could, he enrolled 280 miles away at North Dakota State University in Fargo. When he graduated in 1980, Douglas D. Hanson was one step closer to the world of his dreams.

The architectural firm known as Hanson takes up a cluster of rooms in a modest office building at the corner of Westwood Boulevard and Tennessee Avenue. The main drag is palm-lined Pico Boulevard, extending west to the ocean and east into the pervasive tangle of Los Angeles.

Hanson's crisp dress shirt works like camouflage with the pristine walls of the front conference room. Against the white, his tanned face, sparkling blue eyes and curly hair stand out. When he looks you in the eye -- and he does look you in the eye -- his gaze is welcoming, curious, thoughtful. One gets the impression he's more comfortable listening than talking.

Walking through the open office area, he waves his hand over computer stations where young men manipulate images on oversized computer screens. Hanson prizes his five-person staff -- which includes his wife, creative director Donna Moragne Hanson -- as much for their inventiveness and outside artistic talents as their technical abilities.

Models of buildings and other structures cover tables and clutter shelves. From them one can detect Hanson's style: sleek, curvilinear, efficient, functional. "The spatiality and simplicity of the North Dakota landscape is still beautiful to me, and the farmsteads are so utilitarian, they are like wonderful little villages." Efficient, aesthetic and refreshingly un-designed, those farmsteads have a composition that works for Hanson.

Within the firm's intimate office space, Hanson's invitation to be creative extends beyond his staff. An itinerant screenwriter occasionally drops in to scribble his dialogue, while a resident preschooler builds block monuments that spill out the front door and into the open-air courtyard.

Like any artist, Hanson's work is inspired by the sum of his training, experience, surroundings and relationships. "I know what an architect does," Hanson said, "and I prefer to hang out with artists, writers, sculptors, painters. If your projects have these other influences, and you understand people's emotions, it connects your work to a bigger realm of people..

The firm exists because, at age 40, Hanson decided to captain his own ship. He'd worked for Bruce Graham and Frank Gehry -- two of the world's most respected architects -- and he wanted his own turn to design major buildings. "You step back to get a better leap forward," Hanson said. "At some point Graham and Gehry decided they could do this and they surrounded themselves with people who could help them get there. I had been one of those people and I decided I was up to the challenge of seeing who I was and what I could do."

The young man from western North Dakota always knew he wanted to design and build skyscrapers. So, in 1984, after attending graduate school in Denver, Hanson charted a course for Chicago..

Scale and light

Portfolio in hand, head full of dreams, he arrived in the city center at about 11:30 at night. "There were people everywhere; the streets were full. I got out and walked around. I loved the intensity and complexity of it," Hanson said. Here, he knew he could be happy. Here, he hoped to do great work. He began looking for jobs and applied to the very old, very prestigious firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. By the time he'd returned to Denver, Skidmore offered him a job..

It wasn't long before the international architectural scene Hanson envisioned as a child became his professional reality. But the brass ring wasn't quite what he'd expected.

"I went to Skidmore, Owings and Merrill thinking I was going to learn how to build big, important buildings, using the newest technology, but when I arrived I found out those people were all gone and this was the new generation. They put their energy into decorating the skin of the buildings and not developing traditional architectural elements, like scale and light," Hanson said..

Still, he benefited from the mentorship of Sears Tower-designer Bruce Graham, and -- in the early 1990s -- Skidmore, Owings and Merrill led him to Frank Gehry.

Graham and Gehry had both designed buildings for the Olympics in Barcelona. As project architect for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Hanson worked closely with Gehry, who was puzzling out how to build the round body of his Vila Olimpica Fish Sculpture. Gehry became the first to use computer-aided three-dimensional interactive application, or CATIA, in an architectural project. The computer program was originally developed for the French aerospace industry and is now an indispensable tool for producing curvilinear buildings.

The Olimpica Fish was the first of the complex, curvilinear structures that are now Gehry's trademark. Hanson's own penchant for sculptural forms is rooted in "rethinking how buildings are built. The curve in my work was a manifestation of that," Hanson said. "The whole challenge was trying to build it for the same money or less than everyone else was getting for a traditional building." Gehry proved it was possible.

Gehry eventually persuaded Hanson to leave his beloved Chicago and move to California. As a senior associate in Gehry's office, Hanson led a number of projects as either project architect or senior designer, including the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain; the Samsung Museum of Modern Art in Seoul, South Korea; and Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

When Hanson made the pivotal decision to design his own buildings, he said good-bye to Gehry and joined forces with a smaller California firm. But it turned out to be a transitional relationship..

So, the Hansons moved to Fort Collins, Colo., but the chemistry wasn't right; not for their firm and not for family. So Doug and Donna Hanson and their four young sons moved back to Los Angeles to re-establish a home and their own business..

Place is important to the Hansons. Donna, also an architect (she was one of Doug's officemates in Chicago), grew up in Chicago and -- like her husband -- prefers an urban lifestyle. They've also found Los Angeles to be a good place to raise Jordan, 11; Dillon, 9; Kylan Justis, 8; and Cameron, 4..

When Donna stops in the office with Cameron to pick up some work, her husband is using a polished wood stick to point out key features of current and recent Hanson projects. It's evident the firm has been busy.

Scale and light

Hanson is one of three architectural firms working on a $370 million-project for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Plans are to raze the current structure and replace it with a new one in Golden Gate Park. Hanson wrote the building program and designed the interiors of the administrative and research areas. Lead design architect is Renzo Piano and his Building Workshop, based in Paris and Genoa, Italy.

Hanson designed the academy's research areas so visitors can observe scientists at work. "Part of it was to show that the academy is more than just the public floor. In the new academy, there will be more transparency," Hanson is quoted in an article in the Marin Independent Journal. As a prelude to the renovation project, Hanson designed an exhibit for the academy titled "150 Years of Science: Exploring Nature's Wonders," which is on display through December..

The one thing Hanson's clients can count on is that he will listen to them and he will draw on the expertise of a wide range of people to accomplish the clients' goals. He's completely devoted to the idea of collaboration, to the point that it might seem like he's the one doing the hiring, not the client. "For me, one of the most important things is working with people who 'get it,' who are willing to be risky and are willing to share. The way I work is emotional. I need to work with people who are willing to share their emotions." That doesn't mean Hanson holds hands and chants; it does mean he wants to spend time with his clients. "Doug is certainly the most personable of all the architects we've dealt with," said Dave Kavanaugh, director of research at the California Academy of Sciences. "That's not to say the others are awful, but Doug is always very friendly and easy to talk with, and usually you will see what you talked about reflected in the next iteration of his designs. You don't always get that from others..

When Hanson was asked to transform a former furniture-cushion-manufacturing-house-turned restaurant/night club in Denver into an edgy, efficient advertising office, he spent nearly a month observing and interviewing the staff. Hanson's approach was perfect for an organization that emphasizes collaboration, said former.

Barnhart/CMI Advertising president Dan Igoe..

The end result was "fabulous," Igoe said. "He took this non-functional basement and turned it into the nicest space in the building. Using light wells, he brought in a lot of natural light and connected the three floors to encourage staff interaction." A Bismarck native and Hanson's freshman roommate at NDSU, Igoe is now president of Denver-based Pure Brand Communications.

Hanson's collaborative energy spills into the construction phase of his projects as well. He credits his experiences in Spain for teaching him to value the centuries-old tradition of architect as builder. Every night he dined with those who built the Guggenheim Bilbao, and that made a difference. In Denver, his down-and-dirty approach allowed him to convince skeptical contractors his blueprints would translate easily into real materials. "When Doug showed them very simply how it would work -- and save money at the same time -- the contractors really got into it," Igoe said. Within 120 days Barnhart/CMI was open for business in a new space.

Hanson is ready to tackle international, large-scale projects. He's done it as a design team member. Now he's eager to do it with his own staff. "There is something interesting about the complexity and the diversity those kinds of projects afford.".

The opportunity to work overseas may be close at hand. The firm is engaged in its first major residential project, a $1.5-million home in Beverly Hills. Hanson met the client while working for Frank Gehry in Seoul and he thinks this project could lead to more projects in Korea.

Another past connection, which may change Hanson's future, involves former colleagues in Chicago. They have proposed a partnership. With more than 100 on the payroll in Illinois, Hanson said it would be a quick way for his firm to grow. Issues to be worked out include compatibility and how the companies would merge portfolios. One thing that would not change is the location of Hanson's office. He and Donna will continue to work out of Los Angeles..

Although Hanson can see himself retiring in Chicago someday -- to a John Hancock Building apartment designed by his mentor Bruce Graham -- for now California is the place he and his family want to be. They've settled in and have developed roots, especially in the area's ball diamonds. The three elder boys are all All-Star baseball pitchers. Depending on whether the boys are assigned to the same teams, from March to August the Hansons can have up to six practices and six games a week. Donna is often the designated driver.

At this point, the son who seems most likely to follow in his father's footsteps is Cameron, the industrious block builder. But he'd better get going, because in another 20 years, his dad could be leaving some big prints. "You get so much better at architecture as you grow old. The really good architects are in their 60s," Hanson said. "That's when you do great work."

-- C. Jelsing

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.