i+D - November/December 2019 - 47

ICONic Profile: Ray Calabro - By Ambrose Clancy

Ray Calabro, a principal in the Seattle office of
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, is known for the variety
of his exceptional work. He is celebrated for his
innovative, groundbreaking work designing visitors
centers and museums, including the spectacular
building that welcomes visitors to the Grand Teton
National Park in Wyoming, the Craig Thomas
Grand Teton Discovery & Visitor Center. But, he
also has left the mark of his unique visions on
corporate headquarters, academic facilities, and
residences across the United States and Canada.
His work extends to Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's
publishing wing, with such extraordinary books
as The Nature of Circumstance; Listening: Houses
2009-2015; and the soon-to-be-released Gathering.
Calabro also is a sought-after speaker at regional,
national, and international conferences, and serves
as a design juror at leading architecture schools.
He grew up in the Pittsburgh area and received a
degree in architecture from Virginia Polytechnic
and State University (Virginia Tech).
i+D spoke to Calabro from his office in Seattle.
i+D: Everyone I've ever known who's been from
Pittsburgh has a great attachment to the city.
Calabro: Boy, that's a loaded question.
i+D: The best kind, right?
Calabro: (Laughing) I grew up in the area and
my whole family's still there. But, I was interested
in seeing more of the world. I went out of state
to school. I then worked at Bohlin Cywinski
Jackson in Pittsburgh for a couple of years and then
went to another practice, but I stayed in touch with
Peter Bohlin. When the firm's office here in Seattle
was growing, we got a contract for a museum
and visitors center in northern California. Peter
called and asked if I'd be interested in moving.
Seattle seemed to be the frontier. I've been here
25 years now. It's hard to believe.
i+D: That's unusual, 25 years in the same
firm. Is this a lack of imagination, or a case of
finding your place?
Calabro: (Laughing) I had this great experience
early in my career working on extraordinary
projects. Each time I'd take a breath and reassess,
explore other possibilities, something else
interesting came along. For example, when the
museum project in California finished, I started
working on a house in Hawaii and, when that
finished, I started working on the visitors center
in the Grand Tetons, and then...

Image: Danilo Agutoli

i+D: The firm has kept you fresh.
Calabro: We do such a wide range of work.
We've never specialized.

i+D: Peter Bohlin is a mentor you prize.
What are the methods of a successful mentor?
Is it all "watch what I do"?
Calabro: Watching Peter has had a big influence
on me. He's had a long career working with
high-powered, inventive clients. What's meaningful
is when we're doing a design review, the
conversation around the table is an open dialogue.
Someone who is junior in experience always has an
opportunity to contribute, to float an idea. I was
taught this is how to work, collaboratively and
i+D: Did you find your profession, or did
it find you?
Calabro: A bit of both. I lived in a small town
30 miles south of Pittsburgh. Neither of my
parents were artistically inclined. Yet, at an early
age I could draw really well, and they noticed
this and supported me, enrolling me in art classes
in downtown Pittsburgh. This was the early
1970s, in the middle of the energy crisis, and they
were driving me 30 miles each way to classes.
That was the seed, where I had an exposure to
another world. And, when I was in Catholic high
school thinking about what I might study, I had
a wonderful teacher, Sister Dorothy Ransil, who
encouraged me to think about architecture.
She's still teaching by the way, which is great.
i+D: Are there similarities to planning
a book and a building?
Calabro: They're so similar. In some of the
best buildings, you're trying to tell a story.
In both cases, we're interested in the nature of
people, the particular quality of places, and in
materials and craft. These ingredients are present
in making books and buildings.
i+D: What do you always have with you?
Calabro: A little canvas scroll of pencils, made by
a Japanese company, DELFONICS. I can roll it
up and there's a string around it. No matter what,
I can pull it out and sketch something.
i+D: You've said you prefer hand drawing
to computer sketching, since there's
"emotion" involved.
Calabro: It's a direct line from your brain to
your hand to the paper. I'm in awe of what can
be done with computers. But, if I'm working
with another architect in the office and we're
sketching and talking, illustrating in real time,
it's a powerful experience.
i+D: What's the most difficult part of
managing people?
Calabro: Understanding what each person
needs from me. Sometimes, it's checking in with
them every day, or every other day. Sometimes,
it's backing off. It's different for each person.
That's the challenge, finding the right method
for the individual. How do you put them
in a position to succeed?

i+D - November/December 2019

i+D: What makes you laugh?
Calabro: Pratfalls. I'm a sucker for a really good
pratfall. In a movie, a video. Gets me every single time.
i+D: How often do you travel?
Calabro: Let's see, I just returned from Calgary,
[Alberta, Canada,] visiting a project under
construction. Last week, I was in the Midwest.
I'd say two or three times a month.
i+D: If there is such a thing as a guilty
pleasure, what's yours when traveling?
Calabro: I love to listen to music when traveling.
Working on the plane, or walking between places,
or driving places, I have to have music.
i+D: What's the music you can't live without?
Calabro: I'm into new wave/alternative from
the '80s. But, lately my focus is on a band from
Ohio called The National. Compelling lyrics
and a sense of not taking themselves too seriously.
i+D: Peter Bohlin has spoken about architects
being like "diviners." I thought of the image
of a man with a forked stick in a field looking
for water.
Calabro: At the site of a project, Peter soaks
it all in and has an immediate response. Divining
is finding water underground that you can't see,
and architecture is visualizing something about the
site, where it's a view or a particular way light
will come into a building, or imagining people
moving. That's divining.
i+D: What do you see when you look up
from your desk?
Calabro: I look north and west out over Elliott
Bay toward Bainbridge Island and the Olympic
Mountains beyond.
i+D: It must never get old.
Calabro: It's always changing. Today, it's misty,
like a pearl gray. Sometimes, the sunsets are so
vivid, everyone gets out their phones and goes to
the window and takes photos.
i+D: What advice would you give someone
entering the profession that you wish
you'd received?
Calabro: For those in school, don't be afraid to
take risks in your design work. You don't have
to worry about so many other things. Use your
freedom to explore.
i+D: When you wake in the morning, how long
is it before you think about work?
Calabro: We're on the West Coast and we have four
offices on the East Coast, so I check texts and email
right away. And then, I walk my dog for 40 minutes.
My rule is no phone while walking the dog.
is the editor of the Shelter Island Reporter
and a novelist, nonfiction author, and
journalist. His work has appeared in GQ,
The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.



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