Transplants of Smart Design

The Firm

People are talking about architecture in Milwaukee. To be sure, the soon-to-open addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) by Santiago Calatrava has more than helped bring attention to good design. But while some in the city are banking on the MAM addition to be the next Guggenheim Bilbao or Sydney Opera House, the work of a couple fairly new to the city, Grace La and James Dallman, has broadened the discourse and opened a few eyes.

Milwaukeeans, especially well-established architects in the city, are taking notice of the widely varied projects of the husband-and-wife firm La Dallman Architects. Why? Grace and James moved to the city from Boston less than two years ago, and in that time they have received commissions for a pedestrian bridge, a pavilion for an environmental education center, a few houses for local philanthropists, a 30-story condominium tower, and exterior improvement to the city's Harry Weese-designed performing arts center. All this work for a couple that readily admit that they are not good at selling themselves. "We don't fancy ourselves as great marketers," says La. "I attribute the commissions we've received to people who were looking for architects who could produce a high level of design."

La and Dallman learned how to create that high level of design while studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), where they met in the early 1990s. Dallman, a native of Milwaukee, came to Harvard with a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee (UWM) and experience in Chicago with Stanley Tigerman and Margaret McCurry. La moved 13 times while growing up but had lived in Boston since age 14. She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Harvard in three years and immediately entered GSD. They worked together at Kohn Pedersen Fox's London office in summer 1992 and quickly formed a bond in which architecture was central to their lives. "It's really quite difficult to identify the moment we started to work together," La says, "because it was so much a part of our initial relationship."

Upon graduating from GSD, Dallman worked for nearly two years for Atelier Pichelmann in Vienna, Austria, and returned to Boston to work for Peter Rose for five years. With Rose, Dallman was project architect on a residence in Stowe, Vt., [RECORD houses, April 1998, page 116], and Brookside School at Cranbrook. La collaborated for a short time with Jonathan Levi, her thesis adviser and mentor, before joining Perry Dean Rogers & Partners. Shortly after turning 27, La became the youngest person to be named an associate in the nearly 80-year history of Perry Dean Rogers.

La and Dallman married five years ago, started on their own with small side projects, including furniture design, while keeping their day jobs with other firms. They acknowledged that taking that big step, from working for other architects to starting their own practice, was not easy. "I think you have to have a leap of faith and that moment is a very tense one," La says. "It's frightening, I'll tell you."

La was teaching as an adjunct at Roger Williams University when, in 1999, she accepted a teaching position at UWM that brought the couple to Milwaukee, the city Dallman had left 13 years before. They've built a practice with a five-person staff since fall 1999, and it is generating buzz in Milwaukee.

They are finding that working in Milwaukee, within driving distance to a number of building product manufacturers, is perfect for researching materials for their craft. "Because we have an avid interest in detailing and a high level of construction," La says, "I find it really advantageous that we have all these things at our fingertips."

What sets this firm apart from the others in the city? Perhaps Dallman has the answer: "We're interested in understanding site conditions and experiential qualities of a place—to find qualities that we can bring out of these conditions rather than impose some strategy."

In their latest commission, La Dallman Architects will examine the experiential qualities of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, a 1960s-era building by Harry Weese on the Milwaukee River that is home to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. La Dallman has been hired to design both a new entrance pavilion on the riverfront side of the building and an improved public plaza between the building and river.

The Marcus Center project, condominium tower, viewing pavilion, pedestrian bridge, and residential commissions add up to a rich, varied portfolio of work and chance for Grace and James to put their design philosophy to the test: "Architecture should be a modern progressive undertaking, while celebrating local patterns of craft, climate, urbanity, and landscape."

John E. Czarnecki, Assoc. AIA






Residential Addition
Martha's Vineyard, Mass., 2001

For a modest-scaled bedroom-and-office addition, La Dallman Architects used crisp Douglas fir interior detailing while embracing Cape Cod vernacular on the exterior. Cladding in cedar exterior shingles engages the vernacular tradition of the area. Subtle sectional shifts in the building amplify the connection of the building to the site. In their description of the addition, La Dallman say that, “the seemingly normative forms belie an active Modernist sensibility that is tempered by an attention to craft and materiality.”
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Pedestrian Bridge under Viaduct
Milwaukee, 2002

La Dallman Architects, with Crisman + Petrus Architects, has designed a pedestrian bridge that would be slung below an aging viaduct over the Milwaukee River. "We think it's going to be quite a different kind of urban space. Maybe it will serve as a critique or commentary on urban space in the United States at the moment," La says. "Not only is it about civic space, but its about civic collaboration."

Their client for this civic project includes the City of Milwaukee and an amalgam of public agencies and community groups. Milwaukee Mayor John O. Norquist, a former board member of the AIA, is a champion of good urban design. La believes it's important for architects to have experience in the public realm. "I think it's an important realm for architects to be engaged in," La says. "These projects are not big money-makers, believe me, but you do them for a different reason. You do them because you believe in urban space."
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Kilbourn Tower
Milwaukee, 2003

La Dallman Architects, with TDI Associates, won a city-sponsored competition for a 30-story, $60 million condominium tower. The slender tower, with a commanding view of Lake Michigan and the rest of downtown Milwaukee, will have 59 units ranging in price from approximately $500,000 to $2.5 million. Each unit will have views in at least three directions. Construction begins in 2002.

This was not a building type that La Dallman Architects was pursuing, yet the young firm could not give up the opportunity for the commission. Having never designed a high-rise tower before, according to Dallman, “kind of freed us up to think about it in a particular way that wasn’t based on precedents.

“We wanted a compositional strategy that broke down assumed relationships between base, middle, and top. The design could be thought of as a crystalline, faceted, interlocking set of volumes that create kind of a top and base, but not in a literal sense.”
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Schlitz Audubon Center Viewing Pavilion
Bayside, Wis., 2002

Sited within a ravine, this pavilion, which La Dallman Architects calls “an aperture in the landscape,” allows controlled views of nature at an environmental education center visited by more than 70,000 children annually.

In their description of the pavilion, La Dallman wrote: “Abutting a grove of spruce trees, the concrete, steel, and wood pavilion unfolds into a set of terraced platforms that offer a variety of resting places. At one edge, the pavilion floor splits and unravels into an undulate analogue of the ravine slope beneath, becoming a cradle. On the opposite side of the ravine, the pavilion roof, a steel wing forming a continuation of the adjacent land crest, will capture the rain, gathering it in a pool slipped beneath the deck. The roof funnels and directs water, much like the ravine itself, feeding the creek beyond. {The pavilion} suggests a model for insertion into nature, seeing the relationship between man and nature, between built form and landscape, as a seamless continuum.”
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