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Culture & Arts

Dakotah Apostolou and Impact Architecture: Design for Regenerative Systems

Dakotah Joseph Apostolou is a designer and entrepreneur focused on impact architecture. He was born in Heath, Massachusetts and grew up between the United States, Japan, and Europe and studied for his Masters of Architecture at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. After graduating he expanded the youth program, bringing architecture education to inner-city youth in Phoenix, Arizona. He later served as a leader in the American Institute of Architecture Students, hosting regional and national conferences; the National Architecture Accreditation Board, reviewing colleges of architecture both nationally and internationally; and as a board member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the FLLW Fellows. Before launching Avah, Dakotah worked with leading architecture firms Atelier 66, in Athens, Greece, and Olson Kundig, in Seattle, Washington.

Dakotah applies regenerative ecological and human-centric architecture to affordable housing developments, disaster relief, and redevelopments.
The National Herald: What led to your career?

Dakotah Joseph Apostolou: As a child with a speech impediment, I was drawn to expressing myself through building and drawing. My mother noticed this tendency, and as we traveled a lot, she cultivated these skills further, prioritizing my exposure to the great works of architecture.

TNH: What drove you to your path?

DJA: As we were growing up, education was always paramount. Although we were a family of limited means, my mother always prioritized tutors and additional studies. I started Latin and German in the 4th grade, for instance. My mother enrolled me in the Frank Lloyd Wright Youth Program at the age of 12 – which I later administered as a graduate of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. This was my formal introduction to the field of architecture.

TNH: What does designing give you?

DJA: Design excites me because it is a tangible way to empower the community, and in the words of Dr. Sidney Robinson, to “enhance, enable, and encourage a better way of living.”

TNH: What do you want to accomplish in your career?

DJA: To establish a development model focused on regenerating the health of the local community and ecology.

Currently, I am working on launching a self-financing disaster relief and recovery business. We use the nightly vacation rental business to quickly pay-off transportable buildings that are reused for disaster relief. In this way, we circumvent the instability of grants and leverage the efficiency of the private sector, creating a constant source of disaster relief financing. Our business model provides a way for vacation goers to help directly support their fellow citizens in need by staying in our vacation rental units while having a far superior hospitality experience.

TNH: What would you advise someone following your steps?

DJA: Just start and keep your momentum. The saying: “what you do today is what you do tomorrow,” seems to hold, especially for architecture. Don’t compromise your values by doing projects you don’t believe in. Like my mentor, Aris Georges once said, “the world has plenty of mediocre buildings, why contribute to one more?” Another mentor, Michael Johnson, milked rattlesnakes to pay bills rather than do subpar work. These teachers have profoundly influenced my design ethos.

TNH: What are the pros and cons in your line of work?

DJA: A proto architecture is that building is complex and thus exceptionally interesting. One has to think through numerous interrelated components as architecture is also deeply grounded in the human experience. I love that I get to contribute to people’s lives tangibly.

The con is that our culture values short term profit over investing in our long-term built environment. The practice of architecture is also largely antiquated, monotonous, and litigious.

TNH: Compared with Greece, what are the differences in the U.S. working scene?

DJA: I believe there are likely more similarities than differences, however, my Greek work experience is limited. 2012-2013 was a time of exceptional economic stress in Greece. The construction and architecture industry largely collapsed. Few firms had work. However, I was fortunate to work with one of the outstanding firms, Atelier 66, which was far more collaborative in nature than the average American firm. Lengthy conversations and debates characterized the firm. The principles, Dimitris and Suzana Antoniokakis, are pillars of contemporary Greek architecture. This shows in their design process, which is far more mature than most American firms I’ve worked with.

TNH: How do you deal with competition?

DJA: Architecture is my passion. It’s what I prefer doing over nearly everything else. Therefore, I have never found it relevant to think in terms of competition. A former professor, Max Underwood, said it well. “Just keep doing the work. Don’t worry about anything else. Don’t worry about fame.” That has really stuck with me and is something I see in Dimitris and Suzana. It seems to me that mastery emerges from passionate self-expression. My practice is focused on how to help balance the way we live with the carrying capacity of the Earth. I see that all architects are fundamentally on the same team.

TNH: In what way does your work differ?

DJA: My design method and principles are heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright taught specific methods for designing buildings. In the simplest of examples, use an underlying geometric grid to organize the structure. For wood construction, Wright would use a 16′ grid because plywood comes in 8′ sheets. Like music, an underlying ordering system is necessary to transform noise into music.

Wright strongly advocated that buildings grace the landscape. Each structure should be unique as it should be tailored to not only its time but also its environment. Wright was the grandfather of the later coined sustainability movement. He also strongly advocated for an American style of architecture in place of European mimicry.

My work is distinguished by the heavy use of geometric order coupled with integration into the landscape to create spaces that are tuned to connect people with each other and the land.

TNH: What is your biggest goal?

DJA: To help design regenerative cities by establishing a new economic development model that is widely replicated. To shift how we build our cities and elevate the public’s expectations of the built environment’s beauty and performance.

TNH: What is your foundation?

DJA: Respect, Joy, and Passion.

TNH: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

DJA: The world will be radically different in 10 years. The UN’s recent report outlines it thoroughly – albeit it is likely optimistic in my assessment. Disasters are exponentially increasing. I see myself working around the world on regenerative and ultra-resistant community developments.

TNH: What fulfills you in your career?

DJA: Contributing to the partnering of architecture and development economics to establish prototypical lifestyle solutions that assist in humanity’s ability to thrive inside a time of radical change. Fulfillment for me comes from seeing people who love their lives and community. I see architecture providing an armature for this to occur with greater ease.

TNH: What triggered you to get involved in your line of work?

DJA: I got involved with disaster relief housing because it is a growing need, and I believe we all have a responsibility to help our fellows in need. I also believe that through rigorous design thinking and teamwork, we can provide systemic solutions.

TNH: Which are the wisest words you were taught?

DJA: John Amarantides, the only Greek architect to apprentice directly with Frank Lloyd Wright, told me a few years before he passed: “Never lose your smile.” This has stuck with me as a reminder to keep focused on the joy and passion of my work. It seems familiar that a life of stress is created in the practice of architecture and in my experience that significantly hinders the quality of the work.

TNH: What governs your life?

DJA: To operate from my “why,” that which motivates me to create in the first place. I also operate from a belief that everything is going to work out better than I can possibly imagine. My worldview is heavily influenced by quantum mechanics. This has shown me that my reality is a reflection of my personal point of view. Having the expectation that things are unfolding with ease and grace helps create just that, in my experience.

TNH: What is the most substantial value your parents gave you?

DJA: Education and critical inquiry.

TNH: What makes you the proudest?

DJA: Whenever my family members are thriving.

TNH: If you could turn time back, what would you change?

DJA: With regard to architecture it would be reorient our culture’s emphasis on symbolism and mimicry that characterizes the vast majority of buildings into harmonizing buildings with the environment and minimizing energy use.

TNH: What is your strongest trait?

DJA: My motivation to grow and evolve.

TNH: What is your weakest?

DJA: My residual self-image, the collective stories and points of view of myself that I believe myself to be. These images of ourselves are often generated when we are children and often, regardless of our growth, continue to dictate our inner narrative. To distinguish and let go of these narratives has been incredibly empowering.

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