Curated Text by Jennifer Fillip, Sound Editing by Stephanie Absalon, Photography by Jennifer Fillip and Sherr Aspiras
Stephanie and I arrived at James Coffee in Little Italy early to set up equipment and claim a spot far away from the espresso machine. When we walked in, Barbara was already there catching up with an old coworker. We let them finish their conversation while we prepped for ours. As we found out later, Barbara lives in a Carrier Johnson-designed apartment building nearby with her husband, Carlos Hernandez, and Boston Terrier, Tallulah. The proximity and story behind the space makes the coffee shop a frequent stop for her.
Although we tried to avoid the espresso machine buzzing, we traded that background for the frequent planes overhead. During this Friday afternoon, the space was alive with small groups of friends, young children spending the afternoon with a parent, dogs pausing at the entrance for a pet, and regulars who were sprinkled throughout the shop engrossed in their laptops. As Barbara finished up her initial conversation, we settled in at a table near the entrance and pressed record.
Stephanie Absalon: Just to start out, could you give your name, where you live, and what you do for work?
Barbara Leon: My name is Barbara Leon. I moved to San Diego five years ago now. I’m originally from LA. Born and raised. We just decided that we needed a change of pace and to try out the scene down here [in San Diego]. I work at Carrier Johnson + CULTURE in downtown and I graduated from Southern California School of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in 2008. That’s where I met my husband, Carlos, who is also a graduate. He is running a separate design firm called Heleo +. The name of which is both of our names put together. We came down here to be closer to his family and we had a project in Mexico at the time.
SA: Which project was that?
BL: The project that brought us down here was a brewery in Tijuana. It’s called Insurgente Brewery and I think you’ve probably seen their beer. They have been growing a lot lately. They started about eight years ago literally brewing beer out of their garage and now they’ve grown to be an award-winning brewery. We had the chance to design their brewery and it’s finally completed this year actually.
SA: So we are in James Coffee in Little Italy right now. Why did you pick to meet up in this spot?
BL: We moved to Little Italy initially because where we lived in LA was out in the suburbs. We commuted a lot to get to our respective workplaces. When we moved to San Diego, we decided to try out living somewhere really close to the center of the city where we don’t have to drive too much. We wanted to walk to our favorite things, like going to a coffee shop or getting a bite to eat. We picked the part of Little Italy that we are right now. It’s called NoLi, North Little Italy. It just had a really cool vibe. It’s different from the original area of Little Italy with all the Italian restaurants. This area seemed to have a lot more artistic sense and creativity. This shop in particular used to be an empty warehouse and the owner just used to run the coffee mill in the middle of the space. There was nothing else. We met him, and he told us the story of how he built it up. He had this idea to do a little anti-mall. So he built each of the retail stores inside the warehouse. He also has a background with custom fabrication in metalwork. So he did all of these retail partitions, shelving, and pretty much everything built up in this warehouse. It’s a cool little spot where we can always get away from wherever we are. It’s nice to see how someone put this space together with their hands. And yeah, we like the vibe.
SA: With having different experiences in location, education, and work experience, how has your perspective on architecture evolved? I’m sure it’s changed.
BL: Yeah, definitely! That always changes. The thing about SCI-Arc is it’s a really creative school, and I think most would agree that it’s different from other schools that are more technically oriented. We were really well rounded with other things. For example, we had a photography class. We took a lot of urban studies classes. Even painting and cinematography. We expanded our artistic abilities in other ways. There is an assumption that graduates from SCI-Arc don’t know how to put together buildings and that we just do installations or things that don’t get built. But what I appreciate from that experience is that it taught us to really think outside of the box and push the boundaries. That being said, I like to challenge myself and others to bring into the conversation how a design actually happens and how does that get built. After I graduated, I had to chase that knowledge down to get a more technical expertise. Over the years, I’ve become a more practical designer. I think that happens to most people, but I try to not lose that spark of curiosity and thinking “what if”.
SA: How do you find time to continue to practice that creative side?
BL: I’ve always seen myself as a designer, and I’m pretty happy when I’m doing that. In the past few years, I’ve been focusing on growing more in technical aspects of work. Different firms function differently, but at Carrier Johnson, the typical structure is to have teams that focus on design and then separate teams that focus on production. Other offices have teams that stay with the project the entire way. I’ve been a part of both types of structures. What I do know is that now that I’m part of the production side, even though I’m doing a detail or putting together a set, I can still find ways to be creative within that. Details can still take creativity and different ways of thinking. Outside of architecture, I try to take on other projects or hobbies that help spark my interest. The more hobbies you have outside of architecture help keep you on your toes. I try to extract things from what I’m doing to help make the process a little more creative. I mean, a door schedule might not be the most exciting, but I can definitely geek out on how to make the most beautiful schedule on the sheet. Trying to find creativity in the little details help.
SA: You’ve worked on both large-scale projects and small-scale. I wanted to pick your brain a little on the differences between the two in your experiences.
BL: So that project in TJ was our first project not working for anyone else. That was exciting! Our client was our same age. We were all pretty young and a little naive. I think it was a good thing to think that you can accomplish all these things. That client is one of Carlos’ childhood friends actually. They had a pretty close bond already and that was pretty special. We had a lot of freedom in terms of the design and what we could do just because of that naivete. Also, when it comes to designing things that you want, there are a lot less limitations in TJ that come into play from code, zoning laws, and construction methods. In San Diego for the last few years, I’ve been working on high rise residential projects that tend to be Type IA, so that has been a different type of construction experience for me. I like that I’ve been able to get both sides of the spectrum it that sense. That project in Mexico allowed us to look at things in a much smaller scale and was a lot more of an interior design exercise. With projects in San Diego, I’m in a larger firm where I have a bigger team and I only do one aspect of that building. For instance, I’ll be in charge of coordinating the overall building systems and not really get down to a unit and all the finishes in there. That would be someone else’s job. Having our own project has really given us the opportunity to be really zoomed in to all the details and have every aspect belong to us. That was something that was really fun and fulfilling.
SA: What was that first project like though? I’m sure scary, right?
BL: It was exciting more than scary I think. We did work with a licensed architect in Mexico who helped us with all the permitting. We had that guidance in terms of what we could do with the zoning and what setbacks we needed. So it wasn’t super intimidating in that sense. That helped us feel a little more assertive about the design and feel comfortable with what we were proposing. Basically, it was done in two phases, the first being the construction of the structural shell and everything needed for beer production, and the second being the interiors, furniture and fixtures to make it open to the public. For the first phase we worked with the local architect to provide them with Design Development level drawings and had all the design intent in there. They developed construction documents and helped us pull all the permits. With that architect, we structured a three entity contract with the client. Then in the second phase came back in as the sole design entity to complete all the interiors and guide the contractor through construction. That was really interesting going through all those phases. Especially Construction Administration was so different in Mexico too than in the United States. It was great to learn from that.
SA: With everything you learned on that project, do you wish that more technical skills were taught in school?
BL: One hundred percent. I believe that those technical skills should be incorporated into architectural education. The one opinion is that you’ll learn to become a designer in school, but they don’t want to bother teaching technical aspects because they don’t want to take the time out of becoming a designer. Most schools feel that you will pick that up eventually at work. But I think having technical experience in school will only help you become a better designer. Not that it’s going to hold us back, but it will help us make more informed decisions. There is the architecture school in Tijuana, Escuela Libre, and I’ve seen curriculum include actual construction site visits and I think that’s super important. Taking students out to what they are studying, incorporating construction focused classes into curriculum, and having the strength in design is super valuable. I wish I had that when I was in school.
SA: With the architectural education focuses being different in San Diego and Tijuana, do you see these communities designing differently? What kind of similarities do you see between the two?
BL: Both sides feed off each other. There is a lot of culture that is being brought from San Diego in to TJ and vice versa, but probably more so from San Diego into TJ. But I think there are many more opportunities for that type of activity to happen in Tijuana because of the circumstances. For example, the beer culture. There are so many different eateries, bars, and breweries popping up in the last few years in Tijuana. That is a strong culture brought over from San Diego. There are so many designers really pushing the boundaries in TJ trying to get to a level of design that hasn’t been there before. You can see a lot of the new places opening up feel like they could be anywhere in the world and not just in Tijuana. I think there are definitely differences in that food and bar scene. Tijuana has that freer feel where designers are a little less limited and can experiment a little more.
SA: Can you touch on your different experiences in construction?
BL: In the U.S. the model we use is to figure out all the details before as much as possible. Right? We want to detail every part of construction and that informs the contractor so we have to do as little Construction Administration as possible. Whereas in Mexico, it’s kind of the opposite. The architect’s role in Mexico has traditionally also been the contractor. That’s one of the biggest contrasts. The architect is also the builder so they don’t need to detail everything out in design because they already know they’re going to figure it out in construction. They could start digging their hole and building the foundations before the whole building is even detailed. We see this as a way to make things go faster. There aren’t as many rules in place that you have to check off before you start. That’s why Escuela Libre has so many construction classes in their curriculum. They’ll show students how to mix concrete and put together a masonry wall. So they already go into it knowing a little about construction and how to be a good designer. That really is one of the key differences. For Insurgente, it wasn’t fully detailed either. They started with what they had. They at least know where the grid lines are and where columns are going to go. After the building was up and before the interior was finished out, we still had quite a ways to go in terms of detailing.
One good part is having control over the quality of the work. In Southern California, you have all these very formal rules in place about when a contractor deviates from the drawings or when they make an error they have to pay for it. Things like that. A lot of that structure is already set up. But in our experience on this project, we would draw something and we would think that it was very clear and communicative, but that wasn’t always the case. In one instance, we developed a series of detailed sections and axonometrics for some retail millwork, and the carpenters had a hard time reading the drawings regardless. They would interpret them a different way or just go into it on their own not really asking a lot of questions. We thought the more we drew, the less explaining we would have to do in the field. But at the end of the day, nothing replaced being there in person and having the human touch for getting the job done. That’s when it’s helpful for architects in Mexico to also be there throughout construction to oversee the process and give that verbal direction, collaborate, and figure it out as they go. That was a big learning experience for us. It’s part of what makes it exciting! Not knowing exactly what’s going to happen sometimes.
SA: I know that you recently became a registered architect. What other achievements and skills are you most proud of?
BL: Well that one was pretty much at the top of my list for many years! I’d been saying since I was a kid that I wanted to become an architect. Being able to have my own completed projects was such a huge accomplishment as well. But there’s definitely been these milestones. Licensure was a really big part of that. We have so many things we want to do. Sometimes we do too much, but every step of the way is a way to grow. I’ve always loved to design products. Designing anything around me is a passion of mine. Seeing how our skills can be applied to product design, the objects around us, and making people’s lives better is the next goal that I aspire to. We’ll continue architecture as well. Getting that licensure was a big goal, but as my mom said “you’re just getting started”! That was actually the easy part! I’m sure other things will top that eventually.
SA: What things are you dappling in with product design? What interests do you have there?
BL: That’s been an interest of ours for a few years. Also just a way to diversify ourselves and not be fully invested in architecture. I mean, we’re both architects and we’re married. If there was another recession, it would be good to have another source of income that doesn’t solely depend on architecture. I’ve always dappled in making things for myself, even when I was younger. I’ve made several handbags for myself or created furniture. There’s been so many times also when I’ve been looking for something that I need as a designer, like a light fixture or something like that. I just can’t find it and I wish that I could create it. We have so many ideas as designers and architects that it wouldn’t be something that’s hard to get into for us and branch out into. Because we do have great ideas. It’s just actually going through with the motions. If you can do that, it’s something that we’d really like to explore and continue more.
SA: When you are collaborating with your husband, what is the dynamic like?
BL: There are a lot of architecture couples out there. We’ve always wondered how they did it because there are some days that we just wanna strangle each other and then there are other days when we just work so well. We make a really good team. We’ve been able to create a lot of things together. It’s weird because we were in the same studio at SCI-Arc but we never actually collaborated on any project together while there. It wasn’t until after we graduated that we started to do things together. Once we realized that we made a great team on other things that weren’t architectural projects, we both knew that we wanted to work on a bigger project and on an architectural project together. Carlos has always been a great idea generator where he can brainstorm up a million things that I could never think of. I tend to have more of a safer route. He’s more of a risk taker in terms of ideas and really takes it out there. I kind of bring it back down to reality and think of more the technical side. I’m a planner at the root of my personality. That’s where both of our strengths play well together. I have listened to other architect couples that have worked together and I think an important thing is to have really defined roles of who’s going to do what so that you’re not stepping on each other’s toes. But like any other couple, there’s always going to be arguments, but having that good relationship as a base is always going to be our advantage.
SA: I know that you’re a big traveler. You two have traveled to quite a few places, right?
BL: That’s what my grandmother says! That I travel too much!
SA: I think that’s great! How do you find the time?
BL: For Carlos and I, we both have the same mindset that we’d rather have experiences than things. We would still rather have a trip than buy our living room furniture that we still need! And while we have the opportunity, we’re going to want to travel as much as we can. We have a lot of curiosity about other places. One of the bigger things now looking back is that the way we think and the things we’ve designed and the way we design has been influenced by our travels, what we’ve seen other places, what we feel in those places. Wherever we go, we always bring back a little piece of that and it’s not always apparent right away. It’s definitely been a big influence. Traveling truly is self-education. You learn about other cultures and how other countries deal with certain problems and have different solutions. I mean we would love to travel year-round, but we do what we can. We travel as much as we can even if it’s small little weekend trips. If we have friends that live abroad, we try to visit them. They can be your local guide. Take advantage of having those people around the world to help you know those places better.
SA: Do you ever choose the places you want to go to based on architecture or design?
BL: Yeah, we do! We choose based on two things: architecture and design and then the food that we’re going to eat. But yeah we definitely do. But not just architecture, also nature. We like to go to places that have a super different geography or environment. The next trip that we’re planning is to northern Spain in May. It’s not going to be a very urban trip. We are going to be seeing a little bit of San Sebastian and Bilbao, but most of it is going to be countryside and just a very natural setting. And maybe we’ll see some medieval architecture. So we hope to come back a little more enriched from that trip.
SA: When you are traveling do you and Carlos have any rituals
BL: I don’t know if it’s a ritual, but we try to not stay in hotels as much as possible. We don’t like feeling like tourists. That’s our number one thing. We try to feel like we’re local as much as possible and almost have the same experience as people who live there. I guess another ritual or pattern is that we like to walk or take metros around to get to know the city. I think that’s one of the best ways to get to know a city is to walk around. One quirky thing we do when we travel is to collect a lot of magnets.
SA: Refrigerator magnets?
BL: Yeah! We collect them everywhere we go. If we go to a museum that is a design museum, we’ll get one as a marker of that city or country we visited. So we’ve been collecting quite a few of these magnets.
SA: I know you studied in Kyoto, Japan. Can you talk about that a little?
BL: Yeah, that was in Undergrad. I lived in Japan for half a year in my fourth semester. SCI-Arc had a few exchange programs with a few international schools. One of them was Kyoto University. I always pictured myself studying abroad somewhere. Options were in Europe or Japan, and I kind of wanted to do something a little out of my comfort zone. I wanted to have a totally different experience where I don’t know the language and I don’t know the culture. There were four of us that had the exchange. We took all design studios in Japanese. I had some help with the professor, Kiyokazu Arai, who would translate some things for me. He was a part of the Morphosis studio early on. That was the connection to SCI-Arc. When he moved back to Japan, where he was from, he invited a lot of students to come to Kyoto. He was a great professor and we did some wacky projects. It was nice to see how architecture students in Japan think differently than architecture student in the U.S. This school had a very Zen way of thinking of architecture and creating spaces that spoke to people by using very simple forms. It wasn’t about trying to create the craziest form or structure in Maya. It was more about how things as simple as cubes and spheres could help create these really beautiful spaces. It was nice to have a lot of that thinking from Japanese architecture. We had the chance to study traditional Japanese architecture which I think ties in a lot with modernism with the clean lines, axis, and symmetry. That was such a great experience. It was one of the happiest times in my life. We got the chance to go last year and I was able to see it again after 10 years of not being there. Carlos went with me. That was his first time and he fell in love with Japan.
SA: Back tracking a little bit, what got you into architecture?
BL: As a kid, I was always really creative. I liked to draw and paint and make stuff. When I was a kid, I probably said I wanted to be a brain surgeon or an archeologist because they sounded cool, but I always loved to draw and paint. I have so many sketchbooks of my own. I also really liked to write and read, so I could’ve gone that direction. But I always like to make things around me beautiful and pretty. The first time I realized that I wanted to be part of making something look good was in grade school. We had to create these t-shirts for a class outing, I think some sort of field trip, and we had to pick the colors for our shirts and pick the font and sort of design the shirts. I was really adamant of what I thought it should look like, and they ended up picking that. It was really cool to see how my little decision was on everybody’s shirts. Then in high school, I got into this scholarship program in L.A. that’s part of Disney and USC. The program’s called Ryman Arts. It’s the equivalent to two years of an undergraduate fine arts degree for free for high school students. This scholarship provided all the classes and these were all at USC in their fine arts classrooms. They provide all the materials. We would do these on weekends and we met so many inspiring mentors there. Not just artists, but they would bring people from different design industries to come and talk to us and show us what we could do with these skills. I remember seeing my first architectural rendering. This architect came and he had this foam core board and he showed us these renderings of what the exterior of this building would look like and I thought that was really cool. I knew I liked to draw things and make things look beautiful, but I also knew I wanted to have what I create to be practical. I wanted it to be useful or make something better and have a purpose. Architecture was the one that spoke the most to me because the idea of the permanence of a building as opposed to an object. That just seemed like the ultimate way to leave your mark on this world. People suggested stage design, but I was like “No, that’s too temporary. I want it to be there forever!” That really solidified my decision.
SA: I know that you talked about product design, but what else is next for you?
BL: One aspect I haven’t talked about is that we want to build our own home soon.
SA: Here in San Diego?
BL: It could be. It would be Southern California or just south of the border. Somewhere nearby. So that’s kind of our next big bucket list item. And incorporate some sort of multi-unit aspect into it. We like the idea of our own home just for ourselves, but we also really like the idea making it a multi-family, small complex. We’re at the point where we might want to start a family soon, so I think we would want to build that before any little ones come along. I think it’s on a lot of architects’ bucket lists, but we definitely don’t want to wait too long to do that. We don’t want to wait until we’re super seasoned and we’ve figured everything out. I think we want to use this as a way to figure things out on our own.
SA: Well thank you Barbara for taking the time to talk to us!
BL: No problem! Thank you for having me and meeting. It was an honor to be a speaker.