Monday, August 12, 2013

Design Should Mean Something: An Interview with Architect Wes Featherston

If you've been reading the local blogs/newspapers lately, you've probably heard the name Wes Featherston. Wes, with founding partner of Process Architecture James Cornetet, is responsible for the renovation of the old Cameo Theatre space in the Mills50 district, the Tako Cheena strip on Mills, is an active member of Mills50 Main Street District Design Committee, and is one of the people behind the Urban Art Museum project, which recently gained national attention with its successful Kickstarter campaign (ending August 22nd, so don't miss your chance to get engraved into the artwork!).

We caught up with Wes for a chat about art, architecture, and the future of Orlando.

How did the Urban Art Museum idea come about? How did you pick the spot of the first installation?

When we were working on 934-936 N Mills Ave with our client Jorge (George) Boone, we noticed that there was this 10-inch space between us and the neighboring building (Tako Cheena, also Jorge’s). In talking with our friend and colleague artist Marcos Cruz, we thought this could be a great opportunity for public art to both solve the problem of urban blight and support the district-wide brand of Mills50. Up until then, the gap between the buildings was regularly filled with garbage and generally a forsaken space.

In an effort to provide the community at large with the opportunity to invest in such a project, we decided to fund it through Kickstarter. As we were putting that together, we thought that if we're fortunate and this takes off, why not take it the next level and try to create organized public art in which the entire community (residents and business owners) could be invested in.  It becomes a wayfinding element. On top of that, it could assist in supporting the Mills50 brand and local commerce, thus becoming an economic driver to the area.

What types of art can we expect?

It’s all about context and site. Our first installation took advantage of a 10-inch gap between buildings. What form the work takes is all dependent on the site. "Site-specificity" as we say in architecture. Sculptural forms, the space between things, building components, even temporal installations may be seen in the future.

You've been working on the renovation of the old Cameo Theatre building in the Mills 50 district and we heard you were having trouble finding a historic photo of the Cameo theater. In a recent article you said "Jokingly, it was like the Holy Grail, because we didn't think it existed." Be honest, did you do a happy dance when the amateur historian found a picture of the Cameo? What are the plans for that space?

No happy dance, but I was impressed with how in less than 24 hours a photo was located. We and the reporter from the Sentinel scoured all local resources and couldn’t come up with anything. Funny thing: the photo was located in the archives of the Sentinel.

The ground floor space was just leased to SNAP! Orlando run by Patrick Kahn. He has plans for studio and exhibiting space which we believe brings a tremendously valuable cultural component to the neighborhood. Patrick has alliances with galleries overseas in the Netherlands and Miami. We are excited to have him as a neighbor (our office is on the 2nd floor). [More info about the new tenants here.]

Are you solely focusing on Mills50, or are you looking to eventually branch out?

This project being the first of its kind locally, we want to do it right. So, yes would like to expand the UAM to other areas but first we want to set up the proper infrastructure for the program and at least have several installations under our belt before we branch out. Jai Gallery downtown has been an important partner in terms of setting up the proper infrastructure for such a program. They are serving as a curator for the UAM in addition to assisting us in setting up the agreements with property/business owners participating in the project.

Imagine: You're given an unlimited amount of money to purchase and restore a building in Orlando. Which building would it be? 

These are great questions. Unfortunately, the building I’d love to restore was razed to make way for new development. The Daniel T. McCarty State Office Building formerly on Morse Blvd in Winter Park was a beautiful example of mid-century modern architecture that was still entirely relevant to this day. Its straightforward and honest expression of structure and form combined with a genuine connection to the immediate site made for a great space for work, be it a library or modern office.

 The former Daniel T. McCarty State Office Building
Of all of the work you've done with students of architecture, what idea or project do you think would be the most beneficial to Orlando?

In my most recent studio with University of Florida graduate students at City Lab Orlando, we studied the benefits of working with existing building stock (much of it mid-century). Many of these structures are still relevant to this day and with proper financial analysis, branding, and, in the right instances, through the creation of branded environments, we can realize opportunity in creating structures that support local business and that generate revenue for their tenants and owners. Architecture has an obligation to support capitalism and there is tremendous opportunity for that to support not only great design, but local commerce.

What's your favorite local spot in Orlando?

I am naturally biased when I mention the Mills50 area. Like I said before, the organic storefront-by-storefront growth of this area is serious and worth paying attention to when it comes to studying similar areas. But personally, one of my favorite experiences in Orlando does come through the in-between; the space between things, whether you are walking from one place to another in Mills 50, or standing in the alley adjacent to the Cameo Theater. We have a lot of exciting existing urban spaces in Orlando that are just now getting recognized for their power to unite the community and provide just plain, good urban space.

Wes contemplates urbanism...

What are you most excited about in Orlando?

This might sound strange, but there is a lot about Orlando that I love and hate equally. I think that provides us--citizens and architects--with a lot of opportunity to engage the community at-large in the development of relevant, sustainable solutions that solve problems, promote local business, and that continue to beautify The City Beautiful. These opportunities come in many scales and are not always at the scale of events venues, but can also be seen in the organic storefront-by-storefront growth of Mills50, which is already functioning as a "creative village" of sorts. Sometimes, these opportunities can be realized with just a coat of paint and a new shade canopy, or even with the addition of a park bench.  The solution can be very simple at times, which gets us excited because it makes it that much more accessible to the public.


  1. Great Q&A with a fellow who's definitely working to make Orlando a more interesting place. Kudos, Orlandoan!

  2. Very useful information provided in very simple language. Keep up the good work!
    bath renovation financing nj