Faculty Spotlight: Héctor M. Pérez on How Global Experiences Shape Our Local Impact

Associate Professor Héctor M. Pérez has long been an active voice in shaping architecture and development in San Diego and across Southern California. Principal at De-Arc – an unorthodox design studio in La Jolla, CA, he has created projects that push the boundaries of art, architecture and academia. With a diverse background teaching, studying and working around the world, Héctor has a global lens through which he designs each project and influences larger development trends. We recently caught up with Héctor to discuss his background and how his experiences have shaped the Designer-Developer-Builder he is today.

Interview with Héctor M. Pérez

Why did you choose to study architecture?

My decision to study architecture was fueled by my obsessive interest in drawing as a kid. During my formative years in primary school my drawings of objects, people and buildings would fill sketchbooks and eventually those drawings evolved into more complex recordings of scenes real and imagined.

As the mimetic quality of my pencil and pen drawings improved, in high school I began to experiment with different image making techniques and materials (collage, photography and ceramics) and eventually the combination of my intensifying interest in image constructions and 3-d ceramic explorations prompted me to choose architecture as my field of study.

To this day my interest in image-making continues to inform my professional work and academic explorations.

You have a diverse background working and studying around the world, including teaching throughout Mexico and Latin America. How does this global context shape your work?

The aggregate experiences of having migrated to the United States from Mexico as a teenager followed by a transformative year studying upper division design courses in Italy and subsequent travels throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America as a professional athlete, prompted me to seek meaningful academic relationships with architecture schools across the Americas.

The lectures, symposia, workshops and exchanges afforded by these academic relationships have expanded my pedagogical interest across cultural boundaries, individuals and academic institutions. Subsequently, the exposure to foreign lands, people and cultures has allowed me to better understand the intricate relationships between architecture (the purposeful configuration of material for human habitation,) culture (the social, political and artistic dynamics that shape the built environment) and ultimately the economic drivers that underpin the financing of all construction projects. Ultimately, the lessons and practical knowledge afforded by these global experiences inform my professional practice as Designer-Developer-Builder.

You have a background working on a wide range of professional projects; what do you believe is the relationship between academia and practice?

I believe that it is an intrinsic duty for every professor to bridge the gap between academia and practice.

The promotion of a two-directional flow of information between design schools and the profession should ideally attempt to test and implement the experimentation afforded by academic freedom while the practical rules and limitations of the profession should serve as departure point of reference for the investigations conducted in the context of academic design studios.

Additionally, over the course of my career I have come to the realization that the unique experiences afforded to us as academics-practitioners allows us to serve as mediators and promoters of progressive ideas not only with our students but equally important with the governmental agencies that prescribe and manage the regulations that we follow to build better cities one project at a time.

You’ve seen San Diego grow and develop. With firsthand experience as a developer and bringing projects to life, how do you see construction and real estate development evolving over the coming years?

Since my arrival to San Diego in 1993 I have witnessed major changes in the urban center, primarily detonated by the construction of the Padres Ballpark Stadium and concurrent Redevelopment of downtown into dense high-end residential and commercial towers. The type and intensity of those developments have been praised by city officials and private developers but as unintended consequence, this same development displaced the thriving artistic community that preceded it.

Over the last 10-15 years a more granular and neighborhood-friendly kind development has emerged in San Diego. Spearheaded by Woodbury’s MS Arch RED Faculty and alumni, some of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods like Little Italy, North Park, El Cajon, South Park and Barrio Logan have embraced and benefited from the construction of small infill housing and mixed-use projects that provide much needed market rate affordable units while helping reactivate those neighborhoods and help make a better city one lot at a time.

The scale and scope of our small infill projects avoid the negative impacts of more traditional large developments that often consolidate multiple properties to create a ½ block or full-block project often resulting in indiscriminate erasure and displacement of longtime residents in those communities.

I believe that our focus and commitment to continue making small infill projects and market rate affordable housing are key elements for the balanced and respectful future redevelopment of our San Diego neighborhoods.

Architects often face questions of narrowing project scopes. With changes in climate, technology, and construction techniques, how do you think architects and designers will adapt ways of practicing to advance the profession?

The growing challenges presented by climate change, compounded by the severe shortages & affordability of housing in Southern California and across the nation, and most recently the evolving urban, architectural and economic challenges caused by the ongoing pandemic and social unrest will require that architects become more involved in resolving those massive problems rather than recede to lesser roles.

In the context of my design studios and in my practice, I advocate for frugality and resourcefulness in our projects, I foment the deployment of the most basic passive environmental strategies through optimal orientation and appropriate fenestration to promote the natural circulation of air and light. I advocate for higher densities, more inclusive programmatic mixes, smaller buildings with better passive and sustainable design strategies in an attempt to promote wider availability of thoughtful design for a more inclusive and equitable housing market.

Most recently, I have become interested in modular building technologies and prefabricated building strategies to minimize construction waste and expedite construction times. Both of these outcomes potentially minimize negative environmental impact, reduce cost and increase housing availability. It remains to be seen how this nascent interest is manifested in my academic and professional activities.

What projects have you enjoyed working on most in your career?

The two most enjoyable projects I have had the pleasure to work on are the La Jolla Shores Lifeguard Station and La Esquina Mixed-Use. Together these two buildings exemplify the wide range of projects in my portfolio and my divergent methods of work.

While on one end, the lifeguard station was the result of a productive collaboration with RNT Architects that required intense public input and deep scrutiny by governmental agencies because of its public funding sources and sensitive beachfront location. Ultimately the final design solution to the complex program and sensitive site demands resulted in an iconic Lifeguard Station that is widely admired by the community. (Recipient of the People’s Choice Award by the San Diego Architectural Foundation O&O as well as a Merit Award for Design Excellence from San Diego AIA Chapter.)

On the other end, La Esquina Mixed-Use was my first solo development project which afforded complete control and manipulation of every aspect of design, financing and construction. Beyond the architectural merits and financial success of La Esquina, its most relevant aspect is that the residents of La Esquina have turned the building into a creative incubator and meaningful contributor to Barrio Logan’s Artistic Community (Recipient of an Orchid Award by the San Diego Architectural Foundation).

What advice would you give to students who aspire to follow a similar career path?

There is no simple formula or was there ever a clear plan of where I wanted to take my practice. It all evolved very organically and continues to morph as I grow and mature.

A few lessons and ‘ingredients’ for success and happiness that I have learned in my journey are:
– good work ethic and discipline are a must
– curiosity and inquisitiveness a big plus
– passion and commitment improve chances of enjoyment and sense of fulfillment
– compassion and willingness to share yield more rewarding results for all

What three words would you use to describe Woodbury?

Inclusive. Engaged. Entrepreneurial.



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