USC Architecture Professor Valéry Augustin Embraces Adaptive Reuse and Narrative-Rich Design and Explores 'Errors and Omissions' in Design Representations in an Upcoming April 12 Lecture & Exhibition.

Valéry Augustin is the founding principal of DNA Architecture + Design, Inc. (DNA A+D), a Los Angeles-based architecture and design firm, and Associate Professor of Practice at the USC School of Architecture.

Valéry's work has been exhibited at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in North Carolina, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and galleries in Los Angeles and Miami. His professional experience covers a wide range of project types such as museums, airports, galleries, restaurants, multi-family housing, and single-family residential. He is a licensed architect in California, Florida, and Texas. DNA A+D currently has active projects in Los Angeles and other parts of the U.S.

On April 12, 2024 Valéry will give a talk titled “Errors and Omissions: Adventures in Architectural (Mis)representations,” that examines the role of drawing and architectural representation for contemporary practice. The discussion will be accompanied by an exhibition of speculative drawings and models produced by DNA A+D alongside images from other USC School of Architecture faculty.

In an in-depth interview, Valéry tells us about his inspiring journey and his upcoming lecture and innovative projects.

Q: What led you to a professional and academic career in architecture?

I am a first-generation American born in Brooklyn, New York to parents who immigrated from Haiti. The early years of my life were spent in New York and small-town Massachusetts before moving to Florida at the age of eight. As a child, I was obsessed with drawing, reading, painting, and making things, which makes sense in hindsight looking back over my trajectory. I was also a big fan of graphic novels, comic books, and animation as a kid, and still am now.

Architecture was never on my radar until I got to college. Originally, I enrolled to study civil engineering but didn't even last a day! I will be forever indebted to the college advisor who suggested I check out the architecture school. It was love at first sight and I’ve never looked back. After completing my undergrad studies at the University of Miami, I worked in Miami for a couple of years before moving to London in 1998. In 2000, I moved to Los Angeles to study at UCLA where I obtained my Master of Architecture degree. After working for Frederick Fisher and Partners, I launched my practice, DNA Architecture + Design, Inc. in 2009.

Q: Tell us about some of your current projects.

Sure. Currently, we’re working on a variety of project types including some single-family residences, interim housing, commercial mixed-use, and artist collaborations.

We just started construction on the 54,000-square-foot motel conversion in the City of El Monte, California. The completed project will have 84 units, plus amenity spaces, new landscaping, and a new commercial kitchen that will serve several sites. These types of projects are challenging because as architects we must balance lean budgets with our belief that everyone deserves the benefit of good design.

Recently, we’ve worked on several adaptive reuse projects including some interim housing. Trebek Center - in partnership with Hope of the Mission – is a project that was part of former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “A Bridge Home” initiative, which created a mechanism for converting unused industrial buildings into temporary shelters for the unhoused.

Hope of the Mission purchased Skateland, a 23,000 Square-foot roller rink that had fallen victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. The building closed at the start of 2020 and had sat empty for two years. We designed the conversion of the building into a 107-bed shelter named the Trebek Center in honor of the late Jeopardy host Alex Trebek who was a major donor to the project.

This project follows in the footsteps of the work we did with Hope of the Mission in 2020 in which we designed The Raymer Street Homeless Shelter to serve Los Angeles’ unhoused population in North Hollywood. The shelter provides 85 beds and social services for residents and the surrounding community. In addition, the converted warehouse houses office space for Hope the Mission staff and volunteers. The project received the Merit Award - Temporary Housing - 2021 AIA LA Residential Architecture Awards.

Despite the unique challenges these projects present, it’s incredibly rewarding to see our design skills benefit a marginalized segment of our population. It also highlights the dramatic inequalities in our built environment and the housing insecurity faced by far too many in our cities. Through our work on these projects, we’ve heard countless stories from residents who ended up on the streets through changes in circumstances that could happen to any of us.

Other adaptive reuse projects we are currently working on include the conversion of an old TGI Friday’s restaurant in Ontario, California, into an EV charging station, co-working space, and café. The site will provide charging for 70+ vehicles and the design will allow the building to draw power from the vehicles when there is excess energy.

From both a professional and practical standpoint, engaging in adaptive reuse projects is particularly fulfilling. It not only aligns with sustainability goals but also extends the narrative of a building by creating a new chapter. The embodied energy in existing buildings provides a unique opportunity to start a design project. As a designer, it’s also fun to engage with the context of the original structure to create new stories.

Q: You work on such a variety of innovative projects that you approach in unconventional ways. Tell us a bit more about those.

We’ve been fortunate to collaborate with a Queer Nonbinary multidisciplinary artist and futurist on a mobile performance space. The vessel will be part of a live performance art piece that will debut at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles before traveling to other international venues. It’s been exciting because most of the lessons learned from creating buildings fly out the window. We’ve worked closely with the artist and fabricators to design an object that can be disassembled and reassembled easily while also enduring the rigors of travel.

As part of this process, we worked with the artist to test some of the initial ideas in a prototype used as part of their residency at EMPAC, an experimental performance venue at RPI. The performance’s goal was to “visualize darkness” while also allowing for the seamless integration of immersive VR, projection, and spatial audio. The spaceship cradles performers and witnesses in encounters, collectivity, medicines, and invisibilities.

We’re also designing a chapel project in Louisiana. Our client approached us about creating a space on a property in central Louisiana, about one hour north of New Orleans. The client wasn’t interested in a typical “chapel” but rather a space that would generate and inspire meaningful dialogues about the important topics of race, culture, spirituality, religion, and identity.

Our starting point was researching religious practices in pre-colonial Africa that predated Christianity. Our goal was to ground the project in people’s stories and histories. We studied a variety of belief systems including several that were rooted in nature that instilled a reverence for all living things including the Earth, plants, trees, and the sky.

This research shaped the contextual narrative of our design, and we ended up extrapolating a pattern from the constellation of Ursa Minor, aka the Little Dipper. This was an intentional choice because slaves escaping from the South used Polaris, the North Star of the Little Dipper to navigate themselves to the North. Incorporating this latent symbolism into our design was important to us.

The “chapel” is an example of how we look to bring stories forward in our work, and how research informs what we design at different levels. What we discover during our research process may not always appear overtly in the final design itself, but research is a vehicle we use to weave these narratives into the built work. We view narrative as a material much like concrete, wood, steel, or glass. It is essential for the final product.

Q: We’re excited for your upcoming lecture and exhibition. Can you share a brief preview of that?

Yes, on April 12, 2024, I will host a special lecture and exhibition titled “Errors and Omissions: Adventures in Architectural (Mis)representation.”

This original premise refers to “errors or omissions” insurance that architects carry to protect themselves in the event of a mistake (error) or missing information (omission) on a set of construction drawings. The real interest, however, is the “happy accidents” that we discover only through the act of drawing and the meaning behind the choices of what is left out in the production of architectural images. We will talk about what drawing means to our practice; how we draw things, who we draw for, why we draw, and hopefully scratch the surface of the inherent meaning behind architectural representation.


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