Pinay at the Cutting Edge

First Posted 13:50:00 10/16/2006

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?What do you want to be when you grow up?? a nun once asked a first grader in the School of the Holy Spirit. "An architect," the kid answered without hesitation. Twenty-five years later, that?s precisely what Lira V. Luis has become ? and how.

She?s the first Filipino graduate of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture founded in Arizona in 1937. She remembers well ? her global trajectory began in admiration for a London-trained professor at the University of Sto. Tomas, ?who seemed to know everything happening in architecture.? Then, in casual conversation, a college friend dropped the name ?Taliesin.?

Looking it up, Lira discovered the word to be Welsh for "?shining brow? ? a metaphor for tents and shelters built with sensitive respect for human scale at the brow of the McDowell Mountains in the Sonoran Desert of Scottsdale, Arizona.? Taliesin?s founder was her idol Frank Lloyd Wright, a 20th century master of organic architecture as seminal to his field as Martha Graham was to dance.

Lira?s application for further study in Taliesin in 1996 was accepted a year later, one of only ten in more than a hundred applications from all over the world. By then she already had a Bachelor of Science in Architecture, Cum Laude from UST, and experience as assistant project architect for Ayala Land?s residential and commercial high-rise projects. Taliesin turned out to be something else again.

?I was living a corporate lifestyle, with power lunches and stilettos at Ayala. Then I arrived at Taliesin - they hand me a canvas tent and point to a 9-foot square concrete base in the middle of the desert, where I was supposed to anchor my new home. I told myself, ?You gotta be kidding.? They weren?t.? Soon enough, she ?recognized the critical necessity to subtract myself from my initial reaction.?

It was in fact her first Taliesin lesson ??as an architect, I would learn to co-exist with the desert elements and understand the environment in a pragmatic way?- something that could never happen in only ?a utopian classroom.? Lira in her early 20s had begun paying her dues for ?learning-by-doing? the Frank Lloyd Wright way.

That tent was only the beginning. By the second year, she was building her own shelter to stay in till the end of a three-year degree program. ?These dwellings were transient in nature, subject to weather and aesthetic improvements by subsequent students,? she says. There weren?t only the natural elements to learn and master. There, too, was the goad of pride in leaving behind worthy design for the next batch of the chosen.

A Masters Degree in Architecture from Taliesin is therefore no empty name-dropping mantra to impress clients, award-giving bodies and the hometown crowd. Skipping no steps to get there in 2000, Lira?s originality and creative passion could now grow lushly on cutting-edge vision with the ballast of experience. ?That unique hands-on architectural laboratory really opened doors for me,? she muses.

A modernist state of mind

There were projects large and small, all live with challenge, even before graduation. As staff apprentice architect for Taliesin Architects from 1997 to 2000, she was part of a design team for Arizona?s Spirit in the Desert Dining Facility, and then the American System Built Homes in New Jersey.

Next a staff architect for the Orcutt-Winslow Partnership for two years, she was part of the team for Arizona?s $3-M George Washington Carver Museum; the $9-M Valley Christian High School Addition, and the $12-M Humboldt High School Gym & Administration Building. The variety was rich. Next a graduate professional for the Durrant Group from 2003 to 2004, she helped design a $27-M Crime Lab for the city of Phoenix.

Testing parameters was how sweet professional recognition in competitive America began for Lira. In canine-loving country, her ?sustainable doghouse? entry in Scottsdale?s Pawchitecture Design Competition won the People?s Choice Award in 2002. (This piece of Americana has been exhibited at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art). Next she was a finalist in South Carolina?s HOME House Project Design Competition in 2003, then runner-up winner in the NEXT Generation Design Competition sponsored by New York?s Metropolis Magazine in 2004.

That, too, was the year a growing reputation got Lira Luis an EB-2 Green Card for ?foreigners with exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, or business.? She had by then decided to stay in Arizona, not only because she?d ?come to know the natural desert environment.? Phoenix, she says, is also ?one of America?s top 10 fast-growing cities, with more opportunities to build from the ground up? than the traditional Filipino immigrant cities of San Francisco, L.A, New York, Chicago, and Boston of late ? all ?too densely built-up? to offer a rising architect many new design possibilities.

Meanwhile the media had already noticed. Lira Luis has been featured in Discovery Channel?s Travel Daily, AZ Family Channel 3, and this website. Her work has also been published in Architectural Record Magazine, Metropolis Magazine, Wisconsin River Valley Journal, Arizona Republic, Phoenix Magazine, Bluprint Magazine ? and the Inquirer, the Star, and the Bulletin on home ground.

Style and substance are currency anywhere in the world, but this young architect is also clear about strategy. ?Strategic positioning is key for an architect competing in the current global market,? she says. ?I need to position myself where the center of cutting-edge architecture is. I?ll go wherever architectural possibilities are happening. That can be anywhere ? the US, the Netherlands, or the Philippines.?

Loving travel, new people and experiences, she?s ?always excited about great design and fascinated with new ideas.? On that trajectory is where she?s found herself ?crossing paths? with more of her ?architectural heroes,? the likes of Frank Gehry (designer of the famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain,)
Santiago Calatrava, Winnie Maas, Moshe Safdie, Peter Eisenman, and Paolo Soleri.

In this ?dynamic and judicious architectural circle,? Lira now travels to New York City every two months. In 2005, teamed up with Frank Gehry?s protg Gordon Kipping, she won another prize in the Emerging New York Architects? collaborative Mentoring beyond the IDP (Intern Development Program). With Kipping and Zaha Hadid?s protg Markus Dochantschi, again she was in Manhattan as a panel speaker in the Center for Architecture workshop-lecture series.

Meanwhile her architecture rises to peaks of originality. Of late, a stunning Lira Luis mall inspired by the design and ?thermal comfort? of a Philippine bahay kubo (nipa hut) opened in the Sonoran desert ? another ?sublime solution arrived at from exhaustive trade-off training.?

Nor is her creativity confined to buildings. Last summer Lira launched the audio book ?Frankly Speaking: It?s the Wright Way?. This she describes as ?part organic architecture, part inspirational, part romance, and part rock and roll.? illustrating ways we can make our dreams come true for our personal life and the built and natural environments.? She confesses, ?This book is the most personal thing I?ve opened myself to, telling the story of a Filipino architect?s trajectory to international stature.?

Mixed and digitally mastered by the top British music producer Wade Martin, it includes an audio of Frank Lloyd Wright - the master himself - speaking of Taliesin like the Fellowship of the Ring. Lira has good reason to consider this book as ?my gift to emerging Filipino architects, to share what I?ve learned.?

It?s no mean gift. In 1991 Frank Lloyd Wright?s building called ?Fallingwater? in Bear Run, Pennsylvania was voted by the American Institute of Architects, ?the best all-time work of American architecture? ?a prime example of how this man has ?changed the way the world looks at the relationship between Nature and architecture.?

There was also Lira?s earlier gift to country in her Metropolitan Magazine winner ? ?Portable Transient Shelter Pods, a housing solution for the homeless and disaster victims in the Philippines and Asia.? It?s another statement of both imagination and conviction: ?Architecture can play a major role in our lives, where we see the value in sustainability, eco-friendliness, and social connection ? a modernist?s state of mind, a way of seeing and thinking about the world that?s not myopic.?

Atelier Lira Luis opened in Phoenix in 2004 and now has satellite offices in New York, New York and Alabang, Metro Manila. The latter is already busy with production work outsourced from the US. Needless to say, it uses computer technology for ?virtual information modeling to allow the initial stage of conceptual development in three-dimensions that clients can easily visualize.?

So, besides all that, is this lovely Filipina of classic kayumanggi also married now? ?No, I take marriage very seriously,? she says. ?I?m constantly pursuing forward-thinking trajectories in my profession that would have been difficult to achieve if I were married.? Considering the prevailing 50% divorce rate, she?ll get there when she?s good and ready.

Besides, ?I feel that each of the buildings I design is like my child ? you see it formed and completed the way you watch children grow. Buildings are like a creation of a mortal monument to posterity.?

Right now, ?global Maria Clara? suits Lira V. Luis just fine ? a ?free-spirit confidently stepping out of my comfort zone to learn from divergent cultures and backgrounds.? Throw in ?highly competent and technologically-savvy, with Internet, e-mail, and VoIP to keep in touch with Europe, USA, and Asia,? add ?spiritually-grounded in The Giver of my talent? ? and what we have is another winner born and raised in a global nation.

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