Architect José García Builds a New Kind of Connection

José García grabbed our attention with his design for Lightborne’s headquarters, and he continues to produce noteworthy structures.

Quietly, for 30-plus years now, architect José García has been making an indelible mark on the greater Cincinnati built landscape. He came here in 1985 from Argentina to study at the University of Cincinnati and, 12 years later, he officially grabbed the attention of local design fans with Lightborne’s 14th Street building. The then-groundbreaking exploration of metal, concrete, and glass with a freestanding concrete staircase that looks remarkably like a human spine was undeniably his.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

The building would impress Lightborne CEO (and local photographer and businessman) Tom Schiff so much, he would commission García to renovate his own Hyde Park home—a deteriorating white Ray Roush–designed structure Schiff had recently purchased. Other architects might have advocated for restoring it or tearing it down, but García, armed with Schiff’s thought that “it needed a bit of color,” chose to give it new life.

When he was finished, the home’s footprint would remain the same, but its look would be dramatically altered. In fact, García’s work set the tone for his career moving forward. He renovated the home using building materials no one else in Cincinnati had thought to use together before: zinc exterior tile cladding; mahogany; perforated metal panels; veined marble inside and out; woven ribbons of stainless steel; cobalt blue glass—even a concrete sink with oak support timbers that García designed and hand-made himself. “When you think about the variety of materials, they sound like a hodgepodge,” says Schiff. “But all those things worked together. It’s really quite striking.”

Coming on the heels of the Lightborne project, that bold remake of the Roush house launched García’s career as one of the most notable local architects of our time. Now, nearly 45 undeniably unique built projects later, García is best described as a true creative—ever exploring, always pushing boundaries, and continually seeking to learn more. Never imitating what’s out there already, or conforming to the status quo. Just passionately forging ahead on a personal quest to keep architecture beautiful, innovative, and more relevant than ever.

Born and raised at the tip of South America, in Argentina’s Patagonia region, “I grew up in a little bit of an idyllic situation,” says García. “It was small. It was safe. I think I grew up eating organic food without knowing it was organic.” Maybe more relevant to his future career, he grew up half a block away from “one of the best carpenter companies, still today, that I’ve ever seen,” says García.

“Walking to school and back, seeing all those huge boards being air-dried, smelling the wood and hearing the saws—it came into my system by association, by being present,” says García, who was amazed by the carpenters’ handiwork. “I would see how these guys would handcraft dovetails—there were no machines or anything. The joints and the precision and the care—it was a different world.”

When it came time for college, that respect for the built environment stayed with him. Though García had initially planned to study medicine, he switched at the last minute to architecture. His first job after school (and required military service) was with an Argentinian design-build firm, where he learned about the entire building process, from development through design and construction. (Traditional architecture firms design buildings but don’t always handle development and construction work.) When friends returned from the U.S., talking about all they’d learned while studying at UC, García signed up to do the same because post-graduate education “did not exist” then in Argentina, he says.

In late 1985, he, his wife, Cora, and their firstborn daughter, Julia—then 2 months old—moved to Cincinnati with little more than $500 to their names. “My God we were poor!” García says, thinking back. After graduating from UC, he still wanted to learn more, so the family moved to New Jersey, where García studied at Princeton—“I was extremely hungry there for absorbing things,” he says—and worked briefly with “starchitect” (and Strauss & Roush protégé) Michael Graves. After graduation, the Garcías returned to Cincinnati “with the idea that we were only going to be here for a couple years.” Three decades and three more kids later, he says, “we never left, and now this is home—like really home.”

In his early post-Princeton days, García worked with several firms here in town and spent about six years, on and off, teaching at Miami University. A second experience with a design-build firm, this time Al. Neyer, cemented his preference for working in that more holistic way. Meantime, circa 1991, he also began “guerilla practicing” on the side, he says—designing homes for individual clients. In fact, it was an encounter with budget realities in one of those side projects that led him to start hand-crafting some parts of his projects himself, like the powder room sink he’d eventually make for Schiff. “I designed a few things,” says García, but “as we priced them, they came back outrageously expensive. I was really determined, and I thought: If I have to do it myself, we’re gonna do what we want.”

Eventually, in 2006, he formally founded his own design-build firm, José García Design. Of the roughly 120 unique projects he has designed since then, 45 of them have been built, most here in greater Cincinnati. “It’s been very busy, but not all the projects came to realization,” says García. “Nature of the beast.” His work—which Schiff calls both “meaningful and very significant”—is so different from anything else locally it touches people almost immediately, in a very visceral way. They, in turn, want to touch it: sleek marble panels backlit at night so they appear translucent; concrete columns that look more like tree trunks with roots; prim horizontal wood slats that form a staircase banister; tall panels of green glass to accent the exterior corners of a stone-and-zinc-clad home.

When he can’t make things by hand himself, “we go to the actual source, not the final vendor. That’s how we get more for the money—a lot more,” says García (materials like rough-hewn wood beams; weathered shingles; subway-shaped zinc tiles; pallets of white brick). And, unlike so many in design today, García sees beauty in the natural aging process of materials.

“Wood eventually will decay if you don’t take care of it,” says García. “There’s dirt that will get in there. In the world of abstraction, dirt or natural decay destroy the idea, right?” But in the real world, he says, materials exist “in the wind and the rain and sun. I’m trying to welcome that. It’s a mix of beauty and science.”

García spends a lot of time in general thinking about the trade-offs evolution brings, especially as technology becomes an increasingly integral part of our lives. Air-conditioning is a great example, he says. “Look at the office buildings. They have no operable windows; you’re closed off in your cell. As stupid as that may sound, there is a connection that goes to your human core between climate, weather, and your self—as in your being.” That, he concludes, is the “price you pay.” The people working inside are less connected to both the earth and to each other. Architecture, of course, has the ability to either enable that growing disconnect or serve as a sort of antidote.

One way his industry can keep people more connected and grounded in the here-and-now, he says, is by encouraging future generations of architects to be more hands-on and involved in the entire building process. In fact, he strongly regrets “not having done [all of] that a long, long time ago.” As a former educator, he also wishes university-level architecture programs would focus less on teaching and more on training. “I would suggest a better way of approaching it is not from a school standpoint,” he says, “but more like the apprentice relationship.”

As for García’s personal future, more amazing houses are in the works, always. But also expect multiple small development projects “in sectors of the market not normally served by high design,” he says, plus separate projects aimed at “trying to use the enormous amount of trash generated on job sites.” Soon, he’ll open a new office in Bond Hill, near the former Cincinnati Gardens site. Through all of this, two things seem certain: Each of these projects will involve an unexpected or innovative use of materials and García will be thoroughly immersed in the process.

As the interview for this story wraps up, García adds one last thought to the conversation. “We never talked about all the failures along the way,” he says, laughing. “I read a beautiful book once about business. On average, top CEOs of very successful companies failed—like flat-on-your-face-failed—an average of 10 times. These people were like, Bomb! Busted! So that gives you kind of hope.” And maybe serves as a strong reminder to fellow creatives everywhere: If you aren’t failing, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.

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