Q&A

Raul Rodriguez, principal of Rodriguez & Quiroga Architects, shares how his firm has endured and thrived.

 
 
Architect Raul Rodriguez on the 30th anniversary of his firm, Rodriguez & Quiroga in Coral Gables on Thursday, December 19, 2013.
Architect Raul Rodriguez on the 30th anniversary of his firm, Rodriguez & Quiroga in Coral Gables on Thursday, December 19, 2013.
AL DIAZ / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Raul L. Rodriguez

Age: 65

Born: Havana, Cuba

Business: Rodriguez & Quiroga Architects (www.rodriguezquiroga.com)

Title: Principal

Education: Bachelor’s of architecture from the University of Miami.


aviglucci@MiamiHerald.com

The firm of Rodriguez & Quiroga Architects, which is marking its 30th year, has long enjoyed a reputation as one of Miami’s premier studios for its versatility and its technical and design chops.

The firm’s architects are now tackling what principal Raul Rodriguez says is easily the most complex building ever attempted in South Florida: the new Miami Science Museum, which is under construction in downtown Miami’s Museum Park.

Rodriguez & Quiroga is associate architect to Britain’s Grimshaw, the design firm. That means the locals must sweat the nitty-gritty details of the high-tech, $275-million project, which includes a new planetarium, an aquarium and a panoply of built-in, eco-friendly elements.

Even before that, the Coral Gables-based firm had left an extensive imprint on South Florida, where its practice has focused on civic and collegiate buildings. Rodriguez has been its sole principal since co-founder Tony Quiroga retired a decade ago. Another original partner, Jorge Khuly, left in 1988 to go into practice with his wife, architect Maggie Khuly.

Equally conversant in traditional and modern styles, the firm has long been one of Miami-Dade College’s go-to architects, responsible for numerous MDC academic and athletic facilities as well as two compact urban campuses — Homestead and Interamerican in Little Havana. It also has designed buildings at Florida State, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and several private schools, including the University of Miami.

The firm’s range has extended from federal courthouses in Miami and Jacksonville to the main terminal at Miami International Airport, a 20-year improvement project that only recently wound up. Rodriguez & Quiroga also served as executive architect to Cesar Pelli’s firm at another highly complex project, the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. It also developed a sideline in the restoration of historic buildings, including the Freedom Tower and Ponce de Leon Middle School in Coral Gables.

Two long-stalled Rodriguez & Quiroga designs may now be nearing realization: a classically inspired city hall for Homestead and the Cuban Museum just off Coral Way.

We sat with Rodriguez in the Le Corbusier LC-series chairs at his Coral Gables office, where he told us how the firm has thrived in a notoriously cyclical, fickle field, and why he’s nowhere near ready for retirement.

Q: How did the firm get its start?

A. Tony and I were together at what was then Ferendino Grafton Spillis Candela. And the firm brought us in as partners when they changed to Spillis Candela and partners. I guess the easiest way to say it is that we didn’t like the terms. We would have had to sign a long-term noncompete agreement. And I was 35. What I thought at the time was, we must all leave the nest sometime. So we decided to strike out on our own.

Time has proven that we were right.

Q: How did you go about setting up the firm?

A. First of all, you had to go out and seek work. We didn’t leave with three contracts under our belt. So you very humbly, hat in hand, visit people that know you professionally. Those who chose to support us were obviously taking a risk; the fact that you can do [the work] nside of a large firm doesn’t guarantee that you can do it on your own. The most important thing that I remember, once we had some work coming in, was asking Tony, ‘Who should we hire?’ And he said something which I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘Raul, let’s hire responsible people. The rest we can train.’ And that remains a criteria that we use when we are hiring.

Q: What was your first project?

A. Our very first project was St. Thomas University Law School, which was awarded to us by [then-president] Father Pat O’Neill. We had done a bulding for Father Pat, which was the library, when were at the old firm. He heard that we were on our own. He actually sought us out.

There were other firsts. The very first complex project that we were awarded was the federal justice building in downtown Miami. And that’s when we brought Jim Palma into the firm. Jim went to UM with me . We had brought him over to the old firm. And he had worked with Tony before, so it was a perfect fit. He’s the one who has been our man at MIA for over 20 years, where we’ve been working on this terminal-wide project. He was also the project manager for the performing arts center whem we worked with Cesar Pelli. And he’s currently the project manager on the Miami Science Museum with Grimshaw. So he was a key person that we brought on.

There was another (key) individual, Ivan Bibas, who has been with us 29 years. Ivan has been the project manager for our work with Miami Dade College, which has been extensive. They are our best clients. We’ve always had something with the college to work on. They give you a lot of design freedom, which is not common. They don’t come with a style stamp. As long as you meet the budget and the program requirements, which are very specific and detailed, they figure that the architect is the best person to deal with the aesthetics. They figure these are buildings that are going to be around for at least 50 years, and indeed some of the earlier buildings are already 50 years old. And it continues to be their practice, which is refreshing.

Q: Do you think you have a brand? Is it college buildings?

A. It’s a good question because branding is the subject of the day. And there are many different definitions. One is the star architect. We have proven that we can work with them. It gives you an opportunity to work with some bright people on projects of high complexity. And they don’t pay me to say this, but the only local star architect is Arquitectonica.

There is another branding, which is what I call the alphabet firms, which are corporate. And these firms for example excel in health care, because they are dealing with corporate health care providers. .

We see ourselves as a boutique, not a department store. We sell services. Design is what we all call the fun part. I think we’ve proven over the years that we can do well in that subject. There’s only two kinds of architecture, good and bad, and there are a lot of things in common in different styles, and one of those is proportion. And another is how you handle the transition from indoor to outdoor, and in Florida that’s crucial. But we realized early on that if we were going to be a regional firm, we would have to be conversant in several architectural languages.

The fun part is to try execute the design that solves the programmatic brief for the project budget available, and the language that you use may be mandated by the owner, or it may be the location and context of the building. If you do a building in Miami Beach today, you would be hard-pressed not to want to do it in a modernist language. Conversely, if you do a building in Coral Gables today, you’re likely to design something in what they call Coral Gables Mediterranean. You have to be able to design in all these languages if you’re going to practice successfully in this region.

Q. As the business of architecture has gone up and down, has that been a key to your longevity as a firm?

A. Architecture is very competitive, and there is a lot of persuading involved before you even have a project. I think that the elements that are most important are, first and foremost, your reputation. You can finish a project and take a photograph and move on. Or you can stay as long as necessary to leave a good reference behind. And we’re very careful about that. One of the elements that has helped us get to 30 years has been repeat business from satisfied customers. And that’s hard to beat. If every project has to be a cold call, it can be quite insecure.

Q: Of all the projects, are there any you consider your signatures, or favorite children?

A. I’m very pleased that you mention them as children. We have a firm portfolio that we refer to as our baby book. Everyone in the firm refers to it like that. I don’t think there’s one project that defines the firm.

What defines a firm is the breadth of the work, the fact that we can compete for the restoration of a national landmark, which is the Freedom Tower, of which there are only four in Miami, and at the same time we can work on what I believe to be the most difficult, technologically difficult project to ever have been attempted in Miami, which is the Miami Science Museum, and work alongside a highly regarded and highly technical firm like Grimshaw. We like civic buildings.

In between all of that, the one thing we have left to others to do has been condos. The reason is very simple. The fees are very competitive. The work is very repetitive. And condominium associations are highly litigious. We’re not opposed to doing one, but we don’t pursue it.

Q: Your partner, Tony, has been retired for 10 years, but his name remains on the firm. Why?

A. It’s more than his name. He continues to be associated with us. His reason for retirement is he has Parkinson’s, which affects his motor skills but, thank God, not his mind. And of course, his influence and his professionalism are instilled in every one of our key personnel. He’s unable to come to work every day, but he’s not unable to contribute. He is always available to us. He wants to keep active in what’s going on.

Q: You’re 65. When do you plan to retire, and what’s the future of the firm?

A. The first answer is, not now . Anybody who knows mehas heard me say that architecture is not a sprint, but rather a marathon, and that architects hit their peak at 65. In architecture, any one project can take five, six, seven years. [But] it is so much fun. The last class that came from UM to visit, they asked, ‘What keeps you enthusiastic after 40 years in practice?’ And I mentioned the fact that translating people’s needs into a work of architecture is the most exciting part of the practice.

There are many exit strategies. One of them is merging, which is another work for selling, usually to a larger firm. Many local firms have done that, many successfully. We’ve had some offers. The other is to have the people in the firm carry on with the firm. We have some very good people here. We have a very good group of younger architects that are technically very competent and are design-wise very talented.

The question remains, always, where is the work going to come from? It’s a struggle, this business. ‘The good news is, I have a job today, the bad news is I need one in six months.’ It generally drives people into the merger position.

In summary, it’s fair to say that 65 is not the average retirement age for architects. The other factor is you have good people and continuing clients. And I believe, and Tony does as well, that as much as you’d like to, you can’t control everything. You have to leave a few unknowns on the table. It’s allowing for things to happen.

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