Cincinnati, Ohio: He claims to enjoy all the mundane realities of his job, such as filing paperwork and calculating taxes. He drives an old gray-green Mercury sedan that he calls his “rolling office.” He prefers high-maintenance clients, as long as they back their demands with aesthetic passion. Meet Kevin Kluender, architect.
Kevin, now 38, grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan in a very small community where, he claims, his family ranked as lower-middleclass because they could afford only a used boat. Wanting to try city life, he moved here for a six-year bachelor’s/cooperative architectural program at the University of Cincinnati, and stayed. Now a partner at Drawing Dept, Kevin has won “about a dozen awards” for his designs that range from an art gallery to a log home.
After fifteen years in the business, Kevin still enjoys the variety of projects. “One of the reasons I wanted to be an architect is that no two days are ever going to be the same,” he points out.
Collaborating with Clients Can Inspire or Backfire
What really irks Kevin is when clients do what he calls a “butcher job” to plans he’s spent two weeks designing, that he considers brilliant. His ego feels like “somebody let the air out of a balloon,” but moreover, the client’s re-draw “is just going to be a monster. It’s going to be terrible. You don’t want to put your name on it,” but you have to when they’re paying your bills.
Given that Kevin’s average project takes two years from design to build, and that he lives smack in the geographic middle of the residences and businesses on which he’s worked, Kevin has to face these monsters for a really long time.
He says he’s trying to learn to be more aggressive during the design phase—“to hold onto our vision”—so he won’t have to put his name on a “pile of sh@*.”
He shakes his head. “There’s a difference,” he says, “between collaboration and just sort of being told what to draw.”
Worst and Best Projects
The worst project of Kevin’s career involved ripping out beautiful early-20th-century elements such as carved woodwork and iron trellises, to replace them with a generic storefront—“basically just thousands of square feet of glass, black-tinted windows.” The way he describes the building sounds like someone tore down the Eiffel Tower and put up a Walmart. When he says that his heart breaks a little bit every time he has to drive past this building, I believe him.
The best design so far, he tells me, is his work-in-progress on a mixed-use residential program for families of pediatric cancer and bone-marrow-transplant patients, called The Landing. He’s working closely with the nonprofit sponsor, The Dragonfly Foundation, whose founder Christine Neitzke marvels, “We talk and he listens—and then he just turns my ideas into sketches.”
Together, Kevin and Christine have dreamed up a space where “kids with compromised immune systems can just be kids,” Kevin remarks. “Christine had spent years gathering ideation about this project,” he says.
Before he set to work, Kevin also spent a great deal of time interviewing the families served by Dragonfly—and watching their kids play at the current center. He’s particularly fond of the front elevation of the main building, that has a wide double-gable “vaguely reminiscent of a human face.” Interiors use subtle patterning that reflects the wings of a dragonfly.
Designing a Residential Resort That Supports Kids with Cancer
The Landing will include walking trails, a clubhouse, and a boutique hotel. Of its two hundred apartments, fifty will be reserved for Dragonfly families, and the remainder will support the nonprofit through non-Dragonfly rents. The Cincinnati Business Courier says it will be the first of its kind in the U.S.
Kevin says his firm barely made it through the Great Recession. “When the recession happened, everyone kind of hit the reset button. You started everything all at once.” Now, however, Drawing Dept can’t add employees fast enough to handle all the incoming work. The rush of projects has left him out of balance. This year, Kevin says, he bought a house with his girlfriend Christi (also an architect) and wants to spend time remodeling it, cooking in the kitchen, and relaxing on the couch. “2015 is the year of working 40 hours a week,” he resolves.
Shaking his hand in thanks for the interview, I turn to leave his office. “Good luck with that,” I mumble, maybe as much to myself as to him.
Cover photograph courtesy of Drawing Dept.