As we celebrate the completion of Siler Yard: Arts and Creativity Center this month, we reconnect with the project’s lead architect Shawn Evans, the Principal and Director of Preservation and Cultural Projects for AOS Architects.
Always redefining boundaries and expectations of how things are done, Shawn is disrupting the world of preservation architecture. An advocate of “future-oriented preservation,” he unabashedly questions policies that prioritize the calcification of buildings and things over the wellness of the people whose cultures such policies claim to honor.
“I really don’t like being called a preservation architect. First of all, our work encompasses much more than that. Preservation is a significant part of the scope, but our project slate also includes a substantial amount of new buildings. I also find “preservation” to be too much about the past. I see my work as sustaining places. My job is to help my clients interrogate the fullness of their heritage—whether it be an old building or a new building on an old site. Buildings and sites tell stories. They express our values. I help my clients define the values they want their buildings and sites to embody,” says Shawn.
Under Shawn’s leadership, the Santa Fe office of AOS Architects has garnered many recent awards. The latest accolade is the 2021 Firm of the Year from the American Institute of Architects New Mexico. This award celebrates the firm’s collaborative and place-based approach that is rooted in community values.
“We have collaborated with so many extraordinary clients and consultants on inspiring projects that question what a 21st century New Mexico might be,” says Shawn. “We haven’t found a single answer of course, for there are many. Now more than ever we are committed to balancing the past with a collective future, grounded in sustainability and equity.”
Shawn inspires us beyond the bounds of his professional practice. In a recently published cover story in Prime Time, he courageously shares how he is counteracting Parkinson’s Disease, a diagnosis he received at the age of 47. “That day when I left the doctor’s office, I sat in my car and wept. I was afraid.” Shawn shares. “The pandemic gave me the space to take care of my physical and psychological health. After working with my personal trainer David Wargo of Movement 360 for the last three years, I am more fit at 50 than I have ever been. I am not embarrassed by my diagnosis, because I am not defined by it. This personal experience helped me interrogate my own future—which I can confidently say—is bright and hopeful.”
Learn more about Shawn Evans and his work in our recent interview—
How did you get into your work?
On my ninth birthday, my family moved from a small town outside of Cleveland to Dallas, where skyscrapers were growing like weeds. This profound change in my environment set me on the path towards architecture and I’ve never looked back. Growing up in Dallas, I was immersed in the new, rarely encountering the past. I had the opportunity to study architecture in Italy in college, where I discovered deep human heritage for the first time. Inspired by the range of possibilities for melding the future with the past, I pivoted my path and moved to Philadelphia to study historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. For the first time in my life, I was living in neighborhoods older than me—quite older, in fact—the home where my wife, Kelly, and I began our life together was built in 1740.
I joined AOS Architects in 1995. When AOS opened our Santa Fe branch office ten years later, I began spending six to eight weeks a year in Santa Fe, developing the preservation plan for our first big project—the preservation of the historic homes and plazas at Ohkay Owingeh—a project which is still ongoing. This work changed my understanding of how architects can collaborate with community. I moved to Santa Fe in 2012 with my family to broaden this work. Whereas our previous work allowed us as the architects to be the experts in realizing a client’s goals, the preservation of a timeless Pueblo village required the recognition of our community partners as the experts. We fight for their cultural values to be held up as paramount, even when they are in conflict with federal standards and guidelines. This project taught us to fully and deeply examine (I often say “interrogate,” but with a positive connotation) both the past and future of the places where we build, preserve, change, and reinvent. All of our work has benefited from this approach.
What are some challenges you see in our community that you are trying to help solve?
The felling of the obelisk and reactions to it has exposed rifts between communities and cultures that have existed here for centuries but that had been boiling under the surface. Much of this distrust comes from the appropriative manner in which the “Santa Fe Style” was codified and the gentrification that followed. Santa Fe has over-regulated the built environment and forced a false historic aesthetic throughout our neighborhoods. Who is empowered to make the rules governing historic and new buildings? We must recognize these aesthetic controls as colonialist. They serve capitalism and wealth protection, concealing the much more important issues of gentrification and affordable housing which have severely harmed the cultures that made this place centuries ago. I have been advocating for a preservation and design ethic that focuses more on the intangible heritage of Northern New Mexico and provides room for expression of both deep heritage and contemporary culture. Our focus on a “future-oriented preservation” aims to empower community voices and values that are too often ignored.
What are your hopes and dreams for our city?
I look forward to a network of vibrant communities that is unafraid of the future. I look forward to a city that places more emphasis on the hopes and dreams of the incredible diversity of its own people, rather than the expectations of tourists. I look forward to a Santa Fe that has the self confidence to permit our varied communities to carry their cultures into the future in a myriad of ways, and that inspires both our own selves and our visitors to interrogate our individual and collective relationship with the past and the future. I look forward to a Santa Fe in which we work together to perpetuate the resilient mix of cultures that have collided and collaborated here for centuries. I look forward to a place that recognizes that preservation and gentrification has caused historical trauma that we are obligated to heal through reconciliation, preservation reform, and housing policy that helps guarantee families the possibility that they can remain here for generations.
Which creative/changemaker in our city do you admire and why?
There are so many, it’s not reasonable to pick just one! I’ll mention two in the broader region with whom I’ve been fortunate to partner with on significant housing projects.
Tomasita Duran, Executive Director of the Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority, has been a stalwart champion for self-determination in housing policy and design for Native American communities. She led her own Pueblo community through years of community meetings to help develop protocols for preservation and new construction in the historic village that are specific to the traditional values of her people. She has welcomed indigenous visitors from around the world to see this unprecedented effort to perpetuate culture through a careful balancing of the past, present, and future.
Daniel Werwath, Executive Director of New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing, is a relentless advocate for affordable housing in Santa Fe. In partnership with Creative Santa Fe, he created the vision for the recently completed Siler Yard: Santa Fe Arts + Community Center, a 65-unit, net-zero energy, affordable housing development focused on the creative community. Through his work with the Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition and his media presence, he has long been raising awareness and educating the public on the critical state of housing and sustainable design in Santa Fe. He makes advocacy look easy (it is not!), and he also follows up the talk with realized developments that are making a tremendous impact on the lives of families. The completion of Siler Yard is a tremendous accomplishment, but he will be the first to say it is a start, and much work remains to be done.