Antonio Gomez-Palacio of DIALOG: Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As An Architect

An Interview With Jason Hartman

Jason Hartman
Authority Magazine

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Find your own path. Architecture is an incredibly varied field and there is no one right way to practice. When I look at the people I studied with, they are doing very different things and are successful. Approach architecture as a way of thinking, wherever you go. Some of my friends have become historians, or politicians, or teachers and they are all better for their architectural background.

As a part of my series about the ‘Five Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful Career As An Architect,’ I had the pleasure of interviewing Antonio Gómez-Palacio.

Antonio Gomez-Palacio is a Partner and Chair at DIALOG, an international, multidisciplinary practice focused on creative design interventions that find solutions to the world’s biggest problems. Antonio has nearly 30 years of architecture and design experience across Canada, the US and beyond with a specialty towards designing Master Plans for downtowns and universities, Light Rail Transit (LRT) projects and undertaking environmental and cultural studies. He has built a career traveling the world to discuss emerging industry trends, innovative design approaches and interventions that support users, and facilitating partnerships across sectors that create strong and necessary solutions-based ways to reimagine how we can live better.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this particular career path?

There are really two key threads to my backstory.

The first is architecture and urbanism. To put it simply, I love cities. I enjoy getting lost in back alleys; I love watching the light play on a wall; it fascinates me to wonder why two old ladies picked their particular bench or why children play where they do. I truly love the craft of designing and giving physical form to an aspiration and seeing it come alive.

The second is purpose. Where am I able to employ my skills with intentionality? I think of it as seeing a problem in the world and running towards it.

These threads really weave together when I think about it. In my early days as an architect in Mexico, I was asking questions related to affordability, sustainability and equity. I soon realized that these were matters that expanded to include the urban scale, so I sought graduate studies in urban planning and political science.

Thirty-five years later, I still have more questions than answers. It’s a journey. Lots of experimentation, learning and receding horizons. Ultimately, I have never seen my career as defined by the job titles along the way, but rather by the gnarly problems encountered and the people whose lives have been changed — starting with mine.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away, you took out of that story?

There are many. My practice took over the Capital Theater in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada for three days. We argued for saving the hutongs in Beijing in the early 2000s. We worked with beekeepers in northern Greece and have spent quality time with the artist of Thunder Bay, Ontario and the families of the inmates of the former Kingston penitentiary.

But I’ll tell a story of designing the town square for Iqaluit, Nunavut and presenting it to the Council of Elders. During the first presentation, it became clear that our normal panels and materials were useless. We ended up casting them aside and asking the elders to tell us stories, which they did. We returned a month later with designs that matched each one of the stories. They picked one, and that is what we designed. I am constantly learning how and why it matters to begin by listening.

Do you have a favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share a story or example of how that was relevant to you in your life?

My grandmother used to tell me: “Occupy yourself, don’t preoccupy yourself.” I have carried this mantra throughout my entire life. I interpret it to help me focus optimistically on finding a solution, rather than be daunted by the problem. The magnitude of problems like climate change, social polarization or community well-being, can leave us immobilized. However, if I listen to the voice of my grandmother, I am able to roll up my sleeves and start working at the challenge at hand. That is what we have chosen to do as a firm — to tackle the big world problems with optimism, hope and lots of energy and passion.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

In my role as DIALOG Chair, I get to engage with many of our teams on a variety of projects. We are doing a lot of work these days pushing the envelope on aspects related to embodied carbon, as well as new horizons related to accessibility and wellbeing. One notable aspect of our practice that we are committed to is working with Indigenous Peoples. This has led us to engage with and relearn the history of the land and its current, systemic dynamics. We are fortunate to have the members of many Nations mentoring us on this journey — including many who are now our clients as well as among our staff. Our work will be better for this. And hopefully, we will help build a world that future generations will thrive upon.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

A focus on impact, which might sound overly simple. At our core, we pick our clients, projects and team members based on the ability for us to “meaningfully improve the well-being of communities and the environment we all share.” If we can do so, if our contribution is meaningful, if we can add value, then we will get involved.

One example is when the City of Toronto was looking for someone to write guidelines for future-proofing public spaces for the extreme weather events anticipated with climate change. We further raised the bar by suggesting we would bring an equity lens to the analysis and the prioritization of initiatives. Long story short, we are doing the work and it is starting to make a difference.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Someone who really stands out to me was a former teacher of mine, Oscar Hagerman. A fond memory I have is that we had spent two days in a jeep climbing the winding roads of Mexico’s central mountain range. We finally reached an isolated community that was struggling with adjusting to the polarizing economics of modernity. The self-construction techniques that had worked for centuries were incompatible with contemporary needs and resources. Oscar, who led our expedition of self-assured architects, gave me a lesson in humility I will never forget. He spent the next several days going from home to home listening, connecting, laughing and sharing meals. Before leaving, Oscar showed me all the idiosyncratic, creative ways in which people were solving their housing needs. Piping made with hoses or a translucent canopy to bring light to a kitchen. Oscar had a tremendous impact, by simply empowering people to do what they do best. That was over three decades ago, and I’m still trying to walk in his footsteps.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. A safety net. I cannot underestimate the privilege it has been to have the ability to fail. I have a caring family and network that has my back. I’m extremely lucky but unfortunately, not everyone does. I have been able to take risks, try my luck in different countries and start a business, knowing there was a family home back in Mexico that I could fall back to.

2. Naiveté and gumption. I have done many things — start a business, chase work around the world — because I was ignorant (or willfully ignorant) of all the reasons why I shouldn’t do so. A good dose of optimism and ‘can do’ goes a long way.

3. Translocation. This one may require an explanation. For most of my professional life I have been a foreigner, an immigrant, an outsider. I see this as a strength. I have benefited tremendously by having a different point of view or a different vantage point from where to look at a problem. A unique perspective that provides a fresh angle. As an example, when I arrived in Canada, the professional pathways of architects and urban planners were typically separate. Yet, in Mexico, these are typically intertwined. So, without knowing it, I was occupying a rarefied space from where I was able to build a practice. To this day, I find great value in inviting fresh perspectives, crossing disciplinary boundaries, and forming teams from diverse backgrounds.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Can you share 3 things that most excite you about architecture and the Real Estate industry in general? If you can please share a story or example.

Three things that excite me about these industries are:

1. Materiality. When the onset of steel construction, reinforced concrete, elevators, and eventually motorized transportation started to become the general building practice, the construction industry underwent a major transformation — then nothing changed for a long long time. Today, there is a pent-up demand for innovations, further spurred by parallel environmental, social, and economic imperatives. Climate change is obliging us to rethink everything from the carbon that is embodied in materials and their sourcing methods to the recycling of building components.

2. Process. Who participates matters. The voices of the disenfranchised, the underrepresented, of users, matter. Design is no longer simply about the outcomes, it is also about the process. The role of the designer is also one of a facilitator, of an enabler.

3. Wellbeing. We are increasingly knowledgeable about how the design of the built environment can contribute to healthy lifestyles and a preventative approach to public health. Topics such as mental health, social wellbeing, and quality of life are permeating the design process.

Prior to the pandemic, it was difficult to talk about equity or mental health. Now, these topics have entered our common lexicon and the discussions about design. In a recent project in Ottawa, following research that we conducted in partnership with the Conference Board of Canada, the community was able to contribute to discussions about creating opportunities for socialization, instilling a sense of belonging, creating environments that are welcoming to people from different backgrounds, and providing the support systems different people need. Each of these exemplary indicators are the basis of the Community Wellbeing Framework, a study of the relationship between the built environment and the wellbeing of people. The Framework helped to result in the largest affordable housing project approved in Ottawa’s history.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest? Please share stories or examples if possible.

Three things I’m most concerned about within our industry include:

  1. Complacency. The cognitive dissonance that enables a status quo way of being from rising to meet the challenges of the day.
  2. Siloing. Different disciplines, sectors and industries narrowly focused on tactical issues,missing the bigger picture, which requires collaboration, integration, and diversity of thinking.
  3. Time. Or rather, the lack of time. We need a sense of urgency to spur action. As Greta Thunberg reminds us: “the house is on fire.” We cannot procrastinate.

I remember when we were doing the master plan for the University of Calgary’s Development Trust. They had set a high bar for the design. After more than 200 public meetings the plan achieved LEED-ND Platinum — the first in Canada of its size — and many other high-standard benchmarks. When the pandemic hit, compounded in Alberta by the economic downturn of the Oil and Gas industry, this was the only development in Calgary that continued to thrive. For the vast majority of development in the city (as throughout most of Canada), it continues to be status quo, resulting in sprawling, unsustainable growth. Unfortunately, it is often the problem-solving projects that are still overshadowed by the abundance of problem-causing developments. This should concern all of us.

Ok, here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share with our readers the “Five Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful Career As An Architect?” If you can, please give a story or an example for each?

Here are five things I believe will help those seeking to have a successful career as an architect:

  1. Find your own path. Architecture is an incredibly varied field and there is no one right way to practice. When I look at the people I studied with, they are doing very different things and are successful. Approach architecture as a way of thinking, wherever you go. Some of my friends have become historians, or politicians, or teachers and they are all better for their architectural background.
  2. Travel. The world is your textbook. Observe. Listen. Learn from cities, talk to people, read the history, ask why. I love this about our profession. Things I learned in Hong Kong in the early 90s have helped conceptualize affordable housing projects in Canada and Mexico. Things I learned talking to communities in Halifax have helped me develop contemporary approaches to heritage in other cities.
  3. Collaborate. Despite popular narratives, this is not a solo profession. Architecture requires multiple voices around the table working hand in hand. Different disciplines, clients, stakeholders, neighbors, activists, etc. The job of an architect is also one of a facilitator. Your job is not only to develop a great project, but it is also to position it for successful implementation. As an example, when we did the University of Victoria campus plan, we unknowingly walked into a decade-long stalemate situation where people had been chaining themselves to trees. By the end, we had unanimous support, and today the plan is moving forward with several buildings already built.
  4. Share what you learn broadly. As you do so, our industries will become better. Your thought leadership will be noted. When I worked on the Community Wellbeing Framework here at DIALOG, we put it out there for all to share. If a community somewhere can download this Framework and implement it to meaningfully improve their own well-being, our mission is served. Ultimately, in my experience, if you put the best you have to share out there, your ability to practice what you preach will be improved.
  5. Care. This is what it’s all about. Do things that matter deeply to you. You will pour your heart and soul into the project. By extension, you will build teams that position people to work on what they are passionate about.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Embrace genuineness. I’ve witnessed countless individuals attempting to construct a resume or enterprise based on perceived expectations. Predictably, it transforms into a burdensome task. Few endeavors are as potent (yet deceptively straightforward) as investing time in pursuits that genuinely captivate you. Leverage your chosen expertise to leave an imprint. Each of us harbors the potential to effect change in our distinct manners.

It’s also incredibly important to learn how to listen. Too many times I have seen people hastily dive into work with solutions before comprehending the basic question. Tune in to your inner voice. Attend to the perspectives of others. Pose questions. Engage, exchange thoughts, and take part in conversations. Gradually, a tailor-made strategy will surface, with tactics molded around the proficiencies of those gathered. There is no universally correct solution. Thus, possessing the modesty and humbleness to listen, along with the adeptness to pose insightful questions wields considerable influence.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We are always publishing content on our website https://dialogdesign.ca/ and our social media pages:

X: DIALOG

Instagram: @dialogdesign

LinkedIn: DIALOG

I also frequently post on my personal LinkedIn page.

Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: Jason Hartman is the Founder and CEO of Empowered Investor. Jason has been involved in several thousand real estate transactions and has owned income properties in 11 states and 17 cities. Empowered Investor helps people achieve The American Dream of financial freedom by purchasing income property in prudent markets nationwide. Jason’s Complete Solution for Real Estate Investors™ is a comprehensive system providing real estate investors with education, research, resources and technology to deal with all areas of their income property investment needs. Through Jason’s podcasts, educational events, referrals, mentoring and software to track your investments, investors can easily locate, finance and purchase properties in these exceptional markets with confidence and peace of mind.

Starting with very little, Jason, while still in college at the age of 19, embarked on a career in real estate. While brokering properties for clients, he was investing in his own portfolio along the way. Through creativity, persistence and hard work, he earned a number of prestigious industry awards and became a young multi-millionaire. Jason purchased a California real estate brokerage firm that was later acquired by Coldwell Banker. He combined his dedication and business talents to become a successful entrepreneur, public speaker, author, and media personality. Over the years he developed his Complete Solution for Real Estate Investors™ where his innovative firm educates and assists investors in acquiring prudent investments nationwide for their portfolio. Jason’s sought after educational events, speaking engagements, and his popular “Creating Wealth Podcast” inspire and empower hundreds of thousands of people in 189 countries worldwide.

While running his successful real estate and media businesses, Jason also believes that giving back to the community plays an important role in building strong personal relationships. He established The Jason Hartman Foundation in 2005 to provide financial literacy education to young adults providing the all-important real world skills not taught in school which are the key to the financial stability and success of future generations. We’re in a global monetary crisis caused by decades of misguided policies and the cycle of financial dependence has to be broken, literacy and self-reliance are a good start. Visit JasonHartman.com for free materials and resources.

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Jason Hartman
Authority Magazine

Author | Speaker | Financial Guru | Podcast Rockstar