The successful practice of architecture requires an inquisitive nature and the desire to be in dialogue with others, explore the impact of design and ask the right questions.
A driven creator himself, Omar Garcia leverages all of these skills in his work and practice. Whether experimenting with architecture and design, working with different forms of media, or simply taking a bike ride down the mountains, Omar is always looking for an opportunity to learn and share architecture and all its wonder. His love of activity and design permeates every architectural project he tackles and often leads to innovative concepts. Omar sees architecture and multimedia as vehicles for impacting peoples’ lives and strives to find the most inspiring solution to any given project.
In our conversation, we discuss both his leadership in the AIA as a recent student and his thoughts on the exploration and exchange of ideas and conversations that move the profession forward and bring people together to design a better, more responsive world.
You can get to know more about Omar on his podcast Student Architect, and I know you’ll enjoy what he has to share in this episode!
Welcome to the Architects Possibility Podcast with David Bradley of Blueprint For Living Coaching each week, we connect with design professionals, just like you, who are using their creativity, leadership, and passion to make the world a better place in ways both big and small, every day. Now here’s the host of the Architect’s Possibility Podcast, architect and executive coach, David Bradley.
This is David Bradley, host of the Architects Possibility Podcast. And I am here today with Omar Garcia, who is the host of the Student Architect podcast. Omar is a fourth year architecture student at University of Illinois at Chicago, UIC, which is also my alma mater, and a student director for AIA Chicago, a couple of years back, and then followed up with student director at AIA, Illinois, and is currently an architectural intern at Marshall Architects in St. Charles, Illinois. Great to see you Omar! Thanks for joining me.
Thanks, David. I always appreciate a good conversation with you.
I am really glad to have you here, my friend. I, you know, you’ve got a unique perspective as a current student of architecture that I thought people might be really interested in and given your involvement at the leadership level with AIA representing students across the state and locally, and I’m curious how those experiences have formed your understanding of architecture as a profession.
Yeah, I think the experience that I had being student director and getting to talk to multiple students from various schools just in Illinois, I mean, I wish I could have gotten even farther. There’s so much variability in how we can teach architecture. You know, most people typically think of, well, there’s the technical side, the practical side, and then there’s the theoretical side, the abstract side. But what I really saw from the various schools that I was able to visit was there’s really not like there’s one sided sort of way of teaching. I think there is this different mixture of multiple perspectives. You know, it depends on the thought leader of that school. But it’s really nice to know that no matter what school you go to, you’re going to come out with probably at the, probably one of the best, one of the best senses of what architecture can be and be able to expand upon what’s going on in the industry today.
I think…I don’t think there’s…I don’t think there’s a single school where I felt like their program wasn’t strong and that, you know, the students that I were talking…I was talking to didn’t have something interesting to say, or even with their projects, you know, like every single one…every single student that shared a project with me…it was always just super intriguing to see how they went about it, you know, where they got these ideas from, what professors were influential. And just watching it all come together. It was really…it was really cool and really fun. So I think, yeah, that that’s something that I really got out of being in those positions, it was really great for me.
Did you feel that architects had…student architects have an adequate voice in leadership?
I would. That’s tough. Cause I was in two…I was in two positions. I would say mostly. Yes. They…I think, during… and then this actually happened during one of my meetings for AA, Illinois, where it’s, I think it’s just…there’s a lot of college students that grow up or start to…start to be put into roles like this and they still feel like, Oh, you know, like these are professionals, they know what they’re doing, you know, that their conversations are at a higher level. I’m just getting new to this. I guess it’s a, it’s a very humbling experience to be around such incredible people. But I think… I think I was fortunate enough to have a moment where I kind of realized after a few meetings like these people, you know, they’re not here to tell me that I’m wrong.
They’re here to encourage me to say at least one thing, to be like, you know, what we want to hear your perspective. And obviously they want me to say a lot more, but I felt like if I could just say one thing and sort of stir the pot in the conversation at what whether and whether in one direction or the other that I, that my voice was being properly heard and was being treated just as fairly as anybody else’s. There was this…there’s this one experience…I can’t remember what exactly we were talking, discussing…but I remember just saying like at the end of it, I was like, Oh, thank you guys. Thank you so much. I felt like in this meeting, which I think was like my third, that I had a really, really strong sense of being a part of the conversation.
I really wish, I really wish I could remember what we talked about. But you know, everybody was just so encouraging. It was like, we want to hear your guys’ voices more. This is why we have the position. We want to hear you guys. So it was a really encouraging environment. I think when it comes to other events that students are…they are invited to such as like, any of the parties. I think it’s a little more, I think it’s a lot more difficult for students to feel comfortable and feel like they can interact. And I think it’s just stemming from the fact that, you know, there’s only like four or five students, maybe six, they come from different schools, which is exciting. But it’s difficult to find that one person that’s already in the industry at a party that is just wanting to come up to students. I’ve been fortunate to have that happen a couple of times, but you know, every now and then I had to just push myself to be like, you know what, you know, there’s hundreds of people here that I don’t know, but I’m never, I’m never going to know anybody if I don’t decide to talk to at least one.
If you don’t step up. Right.
Yeah. So it was that, you know, that realization where I was like, if I’m going to get to know these people, I have to put one foot forward. Um, and that’s hard. I mean, I think I’m fortunate enough where I grew up not really, not really worrying about what people would think of me if I just came up and said, hello, you know, I’ve been, I’ve been very personable. I think that comes from my father. He’s one of the most personable guys I’ve ever met. He can make a friend from the gas station, you know, they’re filling up right next door. But you know, for some people that’s hard and I, I’m not sure what more they can really do. It’s not like these events are created to isolate anybody, but it’s tough from a student perspective just to sit there and be like, these are all…these are the people that I eventually hope to be in terms of what they’re doing. And I just don’t know where to start as, you know, it’s sort of what their mentality can be.
When you think about it, it’s actually great training for being an architect and eventually running your own firm. So you’re going to have to stand up and make your voice heard, connect with people that you’ve made feel uncomfortable around, or that you’re worried about being judged or whatever the fear thing is that comes up. So, yeah, I totally understand that though. What is the thing that you heard from most students in Illinois? What…so if you were representing the student body, that was basically your position, first of all, and at AIA Chicago was representing students in the Chicago chapter, which is – if memory serves me correctly – is about three quarters of the architects in the state. And then that was a two year term. And then you’ve followed up with your position on the AIA Illinois board representing students across the state.
Yes. Just to clarify, they were both one-year terms.
They were both one year terms. Okay. What… If there were one thing to…the students were wanting you to convey, that they wanted heard by leadership? Can you think of what that one thing might’ve been?
I see this one…this one’s interesting because I feel like this was something that I really felt like I had a good sense of, but had a hard time, you know, getting it into gear. I think students have a lot on their plate with their, with their own time. I mean, you know, as we’re developing time management skills and realizing, you know, what’s more valuable to do with our time. It becomes really difficult for an architecture…for an architecture student, a student of architecture to be able to socialize and create a network. And I think that’s something that a lot of students while they may be…while they, some of them, might have not even known that they were missing out, cause they were so focused on their…on all the work that they had.
But for those students that started to make time to socialize and to meet other students and to meet other professionals…They, I really saw them bloom into really strong, you know, like well-rounded people when it came to both having, you know, a good sense of design skills and then a great sense of communication skills and networking skills. I made sure. And I kind of found this out, I guess, just kind of testing it where I was invited by the AIAS IIT president my sophomore year to, just to like a little bowling event. They invited us and SAIC. And it was probably one of the…
School of the Art Institute at Chicago.
Yeah. Right. Yeah. I always, I always forget, like to shorten and be like that just SAIC. So we were, we were all invited and it was a really enlightening moment because that was sort of what kind of got me to understand, like there, there’s so much more to architecture than just specifically my school, you know, there, there is a bunch of other thought leaders, a bunch of other ideas, a bunch of other ways of learning and teaching this really, this really wide, wide range of skills that you need to be a good architect.
And as I went to more of these events or as, as we created more of these events, I should say, I wanted to make sure that we were, you know, inviting other schools, you know, reaching out to…not just IIT and SAIC, but Judson, since they were, since they were all so close, you know. I wish I could have invited more, they happen to be farther South. But you know, it’s really nice to have. It’s a sense of encouragement. I would say. It’s very encouraging to know that there are other students going to other schools that you might’ve thought you wanted to go to. But ended up picking one and then thought to yourself, I don’t know what I’m missing. You know, what am I missing that I might’ve learned at this other school that I might not be learning here. And, and I think you, as you start to interact with other people from other schools, you really get their perspective and you actually can learn maybe not as thoroughly as them, but still be able to get a good sense of what is going on over there and, gain a new perspective in terms of your learning.
Well, and there is so many different types of architectural programs out there, different philosophies, different programs, different ways of teaching, as you mentioned just within the state of Illinois itself, depending on where you go, you’re going to get a very, very different perspective.
Yes. And, and that’s, you know, that’s a really great thing, you know, especially as you graduate, and then you start going into firms, and obviously what we want is to have diversity of thought. That’s probably the best thing that makes us the strongest. But to circle back, I guess…So I came in with that perspective of, I see a lot of people enjoying…get interactions with other students. And I brought that sense into the positions that I was fortunate enough to be a part of at AIA Chicago and AIA Illinois. So much so that I actually see now that it’s getting a little bit stronger. I just got an email a couple of weeks ago from the new president at Judson University asking me like, Hey, you know, I remember you, you know, always being there, like wanting to push us to go.
And obviously we get well, you know, it wasn’t like we couldn’t make it every time, but I want to try and encourage that more and more. I feel like it was a lot of fun and getting to know other people and that felt really great just to know that, like, I was able to make an impact like that and be able to encourage this social networking that I feel like a lot of students do miss out because of just, you know, just how much that they end up having to do. And that, and that was, I continue to push and those programs it’s one of the combinations, which I think is one of the funniest nights was the, um, what did we call it? And it was, it was basically like a ballroom gathering. I can’t remember the name of it.
But it was four different schools. No, no, it was more – it was eight different schools, not even necessarily specifically focused on architecture students. There were students from other parts of the… Of similar industries. I came to this gathering and people had a great time. People were walking around and they were having conversations. They were really open and happy to have, you know, just all these people around them talking, Obviously this was before all this March stuff happened where we could get together like this, but it was really beautiful to see. And I think that was one of the tipping points, like one of the peaks of watching this push for more interaction between students to thrive. So that was really fun. That’s a great memory that I hold and I cherish.
What do you think are some of the greatest challenges facing students these days?
Um, specifically in the education department, like when it comes to schooling?
Sure. Or generally
I think so. I tried to tackle at least one of them early on when I was president at UIC’s AIAS. Your first year in architecture school is totally bewildering. You, you come in with, what you think is, you know, is architecture. You get that, you have this idea. And as you, as you walk in those doors, most students are not ready to let go of that and be open to, you know, whatever the school is showing them. And because of that they really struggle to grasp some of the basic concepts early on. Like I guess to use me as an example, I remember before I went to architecture school, I was like, Oh, okay, cool. I’m going to learn how to build a house. I’m going to learn how to build a building. That’s what it’s about. I’m going to learn math.
I’m gonna learn, you know, like, material, building materials, wood, metal, like, I’m going to learn those things. And as I walked through those doors at UIC, and every day I start to walk in more and more and more, um, especially at UIC It was very, very theoretical and for good reason, they were really pushing for us to get a good understanding of design through other means than just aesthetics. You know, they really pushed for sensations. They really pushed for, you know, the interaction between your piece of architecture and the rest of the world, the environment, you know, how does your creation interact with the infrastructure? You know, how does it change social circles? And when you’re starting off that’s not something you think about at all.
You’re just thinking to yourself, I want to learn how to build a house. Cause I like homes, or I want to learn how to build a highrise because I, you know, I want to build a skyscraper one day and be…and if you’re not open to it, I think you miss out early on to get these basic ideas in your belt and be able to thrive from there and push them and, you know, gather more information underneath those little categories. And so I think that’s something that I really try to help out with. I had created a mentoring program where I had second-, third- and fourth-years volunteer their time to help out first-years. And I was a director of it for the first year and we would pair the first years with, you know, an older student and exchange information and be able to have that good sense of community between the group and let them be able to sit in an environment where they could ask these questions that, you know, I didn’t get a chance to…you know, the students older than me didn’t get a chance to.
And it was great because they, those 10 – I think it was 10 of us – and so those ten first-years, you could notice a huge difference in the way that they thought right away. It was like, okay. I came in here with a specific idea and I can hold on to that idea as long as I want, but it’s not necessarily going to let me grow holding onto that idea of what architecture is. So as we sort of, like, pushed and pulled and, you know, worked with them, had conversations with ’em, you know, look things up together, like, you know, did research, did a lot of studying, they really were able to open up to these ideas of what architecture could be a lot quicker. And because of that, they just became really real. They had a good sensation, or a good sensitivity to all these other ideas, and they were very much open to it, their mind…where their minds were a lot more open and interested in these other topics.
Do you have a mentor of your own?
Uh, no. Not formally. I had a lot of informal mentors. I’ve always been the person to ask people questions. I…just the other day I went to a client’s house and he had this gorgeous house and I just asked him, I was like, Hey, you know, what did you have to sacrifice in your life? What did you have to…how much work did you have to put in to get to where you’re at today? And he just opened up and he started talking to me. And I don’t know if it’s just the way I, you know, can…the way I’m perceived by others, but people are really open to having conversations with me, but very quickly I can just…I have the ability to just…Oh, you know, just ask a simple question and every now and then just get a really great answer.
So I had a really great conversation with, you know, some, one of our clients just a couple of days ago. So I’ve…I, you know, formally, no, I’ve never had a formal mentor. I bet it’d be nice. I have a lot of professors that I still keep in contact with. So in some ways they kind of feel like mentors. Cause I mean, they do incredible work and I would love to be in their shoes doing the stuff that they do. But no, I guess I’ve never formally had a mentor.
Maybe it’s time.
Well, you know, you talk about your openness and how people just kind of open up to you. So it makes absolute total sense that you’d be starting a podcast and you’ve been running the Student Architect Podcast now for, I believe a year.
Yeah. A year and a year in five months. It says,
What’s that experience been like putting yourself out there and how has it impacted your view of the profession?
Yeah, I think I hit the jackpot with this cause I’m all about having conversations. I’m, you know, I have a lot of friends and especially at our age, you know, I’m 23. We want to go out to the bars. We want have a good time. And yet I sit there and I’m like, I enjoy the moments where we’re just sitting next to each other and just having these deep conversations about life, about what we do. I enjoy those significantly more than anything else that I do, you know. I love going out in mountain biking. I love, you know, weight lifting. I’m big on exercise. I love, you know, reading books, but there’s, there’s something that I thoroughly enjoy about those personal connections and diving deep into somebody else’s perspective that just keeps me going and keeps me wanting to have more conversations.
And so when I realized that I could do this, I’m using a podcast format to talk about architecture. It totally changed the game for me. I’ve interviewed, I think, 20 people now. Um, and that’s 20 different perspectives. No matter what, I don’t think I’ll ever have an episode where I think to myself, Oh, I’ve had all these conversations before. It’s not the case. It’s not possible. People are just so, you know, they grew up in different environments and they meet different people and they have different events happen to them. And architecture is just as diverse as just as diverse of a topic. And I was fortunate enough to make that decision to say, I think an architecture podcast would be a great way and I, you know, early on, I didn’t know what it was going to be about, but I kind of know now would be a great way to spread these ideas, to spread these perspectives and share them with the, you know, with the architecture community and with students and with young architects and even, you know, people who have been in the industry for a long time, share these perspectives and see just how impactful people can be when you let them sit down and have a conversation.
You know, obviously when people are in the workplace, when people are in formal events, it’s a little hard to break through that initial wall that most people hold, you know, naturally, but some people, you know, you get them in an environment where they feel comfortable and they just open up and people, you know, people have a lot of great ideas. They have a lot of great perspectives about the world. And podcasting is one of the best platforms to be able to break that ice initially and just let people run with it. I have yet to have a negative experience at all. I think they’ve all been incredible and they’ve not only… It’s a win-win for everybody. Not only do you let people share their perspective in a comfortable manner, but at the same time, me hosting the podcast, I get to learn about all these different things and I get to implement them as much as I can in my own work, you know, as small as it is right now. But I can see how I can put all these great ideas to use and really get a well-rounded sense of design, and sense of a world. You know, the more people you talk to it reduces your chances of being in an echo chamber. And that’s something that I refuse to want to be in, is just being in this bubble where everybody agrees with me. It’s like, no, I want to hear your ideas. I want to hear what’s up. I want to know why you think this way about, you know, like, design or architecture or the industry, you know, cause if you blind yourself to it you’re at a disadvantage. Cause you know, the world moves quickly and the more people you talk to, the more, the better sense you have of what’s going on. And so I think it’s advantageous for people to listen to podcasts such as yours, where, you know, you get this stronger sense of what’s going on in the community and what’s going on in the industry.
Brilliant. What is… What’s next for you?
So that’s something that I’ve been really thinking a lot about. I am…so I bought a new home that I’m not living in at the moment.
Thank you very much. I am not in it at the moment. There’s a lot to be fixed. I see myself right now taking a break from the education side cause I graduated in May and I want to organically experience architecture without basically,… like you asked me if I had a mentor earlier…I kind of want to go just solo for a little bit and see what I can derive from my environment. I’m traveling a lot. I’m going to different towns as much as I can. I can’t, you know, obviously…traveling as much as I can in Illinois. Just, you know, learning about these little towns and their histories and the people, the people there, you know, the community.
And I want to try and focus more on being able to get a sense of what these communities are about. Not to say that you can’t get that at school, but it’s sort of my experiment while I wait to feel like I’m ready to go to get my Masters. I’m also really interested in other aspects of architecture. So I have been doing real estate interior, drone, videography, cause I’m also a big fan of videography. I’m a big fan of, you know, multimedia. I think it’s been a passion of mine for a while. So I love that. I was able to figure out how to connect it to architecture. But I’ve been doing a lot of interior drone videography for real estate agents. And you know, it’s been exciting to do that. It’s a different part, you know, it’s a different part of a similar industry. You know, we design the homes, people sell the homes, people live in the homes, people repair the homes, people build the homes, and not just homes, you know, any building, any structure, any infrastructure. But you know, obviously the home is the easiest thing to connect with. And so I’m learning about a different part of the industry that also excites me and gives me new perspectives of how people think about what we build. You know, I think one of the things that I really took away from school and I can’t remember which professor unfortunately told me this, but a lot of architects…if you don’t try and get yourself out there and have conversations with the communities, as much as you can, can create buildings that they believe they know how they’re going to be used.
You know, like, they design a library and they say, Oh, people are going to move like this and they’re going to want to grab books like this. But what one of my professors really instilled in me and that I remember is that when you design a space, the potential for it to be used the way you want is very minimal. And the way that people actually use it is going to vary. It’s going to be very organic. It’s going to change over time. It’s gonna have, you know, different amounts of occupation throughout the years. It’s going…it’s all changing. And so how do you design spaces that you can initially expect to be used in a specific way, but then also allow for them to be variable and to introduce interesting juxtapositions when it comes to programs or, you know, the types of people that go in there.
Yeah, allowing for human nature.
Yes, exactly. And that’s… I don’t… I mean, I don’t think that’s a new idea per se, but that’s something that is, I would argue, is really important to have when you’re designing whatever it is. So it’s just something really cool that I remember. It really just hit me hard. And so I think I’m trying to figure that out by looking at all these various communities, going into all these different towns and seeing how people have used these buildings over time and what they do with them and you know…what…why did they change the color and why did they add this addition and all that? It’s really exciting stuff.
I know you’re at the beginning of your career, right? And this may be a tough question to ask, or it may be completely natural, but what do you want your legacy to be?
See, I’m glad I forgot about this. Okay. You’re going to get a very organic response. Um, my legacy…my legacy…60 to 80 years from now… That’s a long time, David, and I think to myself every day, like, don’t forget about that moment cause it’s gonna happen, but do do as much as you can with your time. I would like to be known…and right now I hope it’s in architecture, but who knows, you know, people go into different industries. I would like to be known as the guy who was always open to people’s ideas was always open to people’s perspectives and was so…was so capable of inputting himself into a community because of the way I was able to take in…take in people’s perspectives. Personal relationships, I think are the most important things in life. One of the most important things in life – obviously your family – is the relationships that matter to you the most.
And then you have your friends and you have your outer community. And I think I cherish that to such a high degree that I hope people will see that, from all the people that I meet from every part of the world, I hope that they look at me and they say, this guy can understand our community really well and can help design or layout or build these structures that have spaces where more people can learn about others. In this time of the internet, we always hear about how, you know, we’re solely just losing our town squares, you know, where people came together and had a conversation and that’s one way of looking at it. But I think it is also thanks to technology that we have the ability to have moments like this, where you and I are sitting here having this one-on-one and being able to share it with so many others.
You know, every tool has its positives and negatives. And I think if you…if you’re aware of the negatives and you push hard to get the positives out, you are able to share so much more with the world. And so that’s at the end of the day, that’s really all I hope happens. I hope my buildings that I designed my…the structures…and I shouldn’t say mine, I should say that the community, you know, what I help input into the community spaces…what I hope at the end of the day, somebody will be able to come up to me and say, thank you so much for designing this. It helped me create…it helped me…It helped me…It helped me start a family. It helped me find my strong circle of friends. It helped me build a community that didn’t originally exist. And that’s all I can hope for.
I’d venture to say you’re already well on your way.
Omar. I thank you so much for letting me turn the tables on you. I know I got to be on your podcast a few months back, and that was the germ for starting my own. So thanks for being my mentor and getting this set up. And I aspire to being as successful with my podcasts as you were with yours. We’ll include for people who are listening…we’ll include links to all your social media, the podcast, everything in the show notes and people please go, listen! Omar is brilliant. And it’s really great to hear his take and the people that he’s bringing in and talking to – they’re great conversations, and they do a real service to the community. So, thank you.
Thank you so much for the kind words, David.
Absolutely. Well, I acknowledge you for your curiosity and your openness and for building relationships. It’s really just…it’s wonderful. So thanks so much. And I’ll see you soon.
Yeah, I’ll be sure to see you soon.
Alright. Bye bye, David.
Thanks for joining us this week on the Architects Possibility Podcast with architect and executive coach, David Bradley, produced by Blueprint For Living Coaching. Make sure to visit our website where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher, or via RSS so you’ll never miss a show. And be sure to tune in next week for our next episode of the Architects Possibility Podcast. Until then, keep celebrating the possibility in your life and make it a wonder-filled day!