Cuban food and connecting the dots with Carlos Martinez

Written by Brianne Garcia

Thing of Wonder

Carlos Martinez

Any business coach or keen observer will tell you: the eyes are not the windows to the soul; it is body language that reveals everything.

Carlos Martinez is a man whose body language gives him away. He sits like he enjoys the very act of it. He speaks with assurance, and punctuates his freeflow answers with hand gestures. He makes direct eye contact. He does not fidget. He listens.

Focus and competition are par for the course in architecture, from undergrad to grad school to active practice. The path is flanked with a scrupulous admissions process, years of study, and consecutive all-nighters that do not end at university. For some, confidence and clarity are earned as part of this rigorous process, possibly at the expense of other traits like individuality or spontaneity. For Carlos, confidence in the way his mind works, and clarity in what he values, seemed to have defined his path from day one. He knew from a young age, when he used to organize his bedroom just so, that his future involved working within “built environments”.

Yet even with his profession selected since elementary school, he never squelched that fire-in the-belly quality that leads one to, say, walk up to a map blindfolded, index finger out, to select the city and university in which to complete a degree. Or audit six classes consecutively because the professor was inspiring. Or teach design classes at The Art Institute of Chicago for 26 years in order to keep up with the pace of students’ habits and changes in cultural preferences.

After having lived in Chicago for the last quarter of a century, Carlos has finally found his way to New York, a city that has been luring him in since graduate school. Carlos has landed in this city – known for its jaded inhabitants who are hard to please and even harder to excite – with eyes wide open, and a belly full of fire…and Cuban food. He has been discovering a new Cuban restaurant every week.

There is always much more here than meets the eye, of course, if only you seek. Carlos will seek, and he will find.

What kind of kid were you?

I was a quiet kid. My mother said that I was one of those easy kids; I didn’t cause any trouble.

I learned over time that I probably had a little bit of a learning disability, which was that I had to be careful not to be distracted when I was in school. There were classes I would take, and all of a sudden, I would be the best kid in the class. But in the same subject, the next year, I would take it, and I would be remedial.

If I had a really compelling professor, one who really had the ability to connect and make lessons very experiential, then the world dissolved and I was completely in. I would absorb everything that was said. If the professor wasn’t that way, and was just someone who was going through the motions, I would then completely disconnect, and when I didn’t connect, everything in the environment around me became a distraction. I would be paying attention, but I would be paying more attention to how things in the room were organized. I would be looking at the windows, or the tiles in the ceiling, and I would probably be counting; “seven seats, three aisles”, which was disruptive because then I couldn’t absorb anything in class.

After many years of being an architect, now I walk into a place and instantly know the structural system, what the base structure is, what is aligned, what is misaligned, and that’s sort of a component of framework. I have to immediately understand what the organizing structure behind everything.  Now, I channel that.


What is your first memory of architecture? What about it felt right to you?

I always wanted to be an architect since I was a young kid. My mother always used to say that when I was very young, and I had my own room, that I had everything all laid out just right. I asked my mother “Can I put these shelves here?” and things like that. She always used to walk in and say, “You know, you’re going to live in a museum one day.” And I didn’t know what she meant by that, but I think it was just her reflecting on the fact that I wasn’t the typical kid. I was very organized, and I also had a very clear understanding of how I wanted things to be within the built environment. I, all the way through high school, I always knew I wanted to be an architect. I graduated, I went to architecture school, I went to grad school. It was a done deal. I was always very clear about that.

Who did you learn from, gravitate towards, or discover during this early period? How has your style or inspiration evolved since you were a kid?

That’s a really good question because it probably speaks a lot to my personal journey, and my professional journey.

I went to school to study architecture – I got my undergraduate and graduate degree in architecture – and then I practiced architecture for five years. And then a friend of mine introduced me to a company that specialized in what was then called interior architecture, which was an emerging discipline that was concentrating on the environment but from an architectural point of view. It wasn’t interiors from a decorative or interior design mentality, it was more about what we call creating negative space, and that became, to me, an interesting point. That is when I realized that what I was attracted to in architecture was not necessarily what architecture was being defined as a profession. Because architecture can be about “base building”: you actually design the envelope of a building, and you design the systems, the core, but the rest is then all left to be developed, which is what interior architects do.

I realized that I wanted to do more. Over time, I realized what I really love about design is experience. I love what environments do in order to support an emotional experience. That is architecture to me. So over time I have started concentrating on this idea. A lot of my work is around storytelling, because storying is the narrative that allows an environment to support a dynamic where you have an emotional response to the space that tells you something about yourself or about the world. That is design to me. It is much broader, to me, than just putting this notion of architecture into this box of just, “buildings.”

Was there ever a person or idea that really lit you up and made you think differently about architecture, or about the world? Does this still influence you today?

There were so many. I met a teacher, whose prerequisite course I had to take. There were six courses actually: there was art history, and then architectural history, which was divided into two semesters. So there were six classes total. I took her class, and I was blown away by her. It was one of those situations in which her way of teaching, and her passion, made me so connected to what she was teaching. I audited all of her other classes at the same time, so I took all of the classes in one year, because I wanted all of it at once.

After that I transferred, and I went to another school, and there I had a professor of architecture who I think is the one who helped me cross the threshold. I realized that architecture was so much more than I ever imagined. He introduced me to the ideology of the narrative; the fact that this is all about a story. There’s a journey. Architecture is not just about something that is there; it is something that is there to engage you and communicate something, which is why I took that big trip across Europe. Because it was about being there and experiencing all these things.

Is there a project of yours during that time that reflects this new way of thinking you discovered?

I remember (for a class assignment) I had to design this airport, and this airport was all about the essence of air travel. Jet bridges were introduced into the world and became very efficient, but one of the things I loved most as a kid was walking on the tarmac and going up the steps of the plane. You had this realization that you are about to get into this massive machine, and you cannot have a much more real experience than that, versus the more sanitized version of going through a tube you have now. You’re in a lounge, and then all of the sudden, you’re in a chair, but there is no context.

That idea made me realize I wanted people to experience the beauty of air travel from the landing and the takeoff. So this regional airport was designed so that there was a berm that kind of hid all of the functions – all of the parking and that kind of stuff – so when you arrived, all you saw was this lawn, and at the top was this sort of concrete. It was just that image of the plane hitting or leaving the runway, and you didn’t see anything else. It was about the essence of the takeoff and the landing that was the most inspiring part of the airplane journey.

And from there everything had a deeper meaning, and research became very important to me. Like, what did I want to create so that someone could have an emotional reaction? And from that point, it became crystal clear for me.

I literally closed my eyes and walked up to a map of the U.S. with my finger pointed, and landed on Ohio. I ended up transferring to Ohio State University, to finish my degree in architecture.

You mention a few different schools. Can you explain your personal journey, and what led you to switch schools?

I left Cuba when I was three years old, but my mother decided not to live in the continental U.S., because she wanted to raise us in a culture more closely related to our own. So she decided to go to Puerto Rico, since it was a U.S. territory, and then some of her siblings relocated there to create a little bit of a network.

When I graduated high school, I wanted to go to Miami so I could learn English. The Miami experience was cool, but Miami was full of Cubans, and they had horrible English, and horrible Spanish (laughs). So I was like, “I’m not really in the U.S.” Because Miami is like the capital of Latin America. I was not learning English, and I was losing my Spanish, so after two years at Miami-Dade College, I decided to get out and go deeper.

I decided to apply to three schools: The University of Puerto Rico, which I knew had an incredible school of architecture, University of Idaho, and University of Montana. I applied to University of Puerto Rico more as a “what if?”, because it’s very hard to get in, and even harder to get in on the first try, and for some reason, I got into Puerto Rico. And that was such an honor, and I never expected that, so I decided to stay in Puerto Rico because the school has such an amazing reputation.

After two years, when that had run it’s course and I wanted more, I literally closed my eyes and walked up to a map of the U.S. with my finger pointed, and landed on Ohio. I ended up transferring to Ohio State University, to finish my degree in architecture, which is where I met this really influential professor, John McDermott. And he encouraged me to get my graduate degree in Chicago, and I trusted him implicitly, so I went to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I met my next inspiring professor, Stanley Tigerman, who was a very reputable architect. He taught me how to be a teacher.

My teaching has become so instrumental in my evolution as an architect. On the first day I always tell me students, “I’m here. I have a big burden for me, because I have a lot of clients and a big job. But I do it not because of what you’re going to get from me, it’s because of what I’m going to get from you.” And I have really learned so much. One of the things I do in my work is to understand and be very connected to cultural trends, especially in the area of demographics, and the kids were the ones who taught me how to adjust myself to the changing world.

If you could collaborate with anyone outside of architecture, in a totally different industry or medium, who would it be?

For a very long time, architects socialized with architects, they went to architect parties. Architecture school is really demanding, so you have no social life. Architecture students never get in trouble because they can’t, because you’re always in studio. You’re always pulling all nighters, which builds this very tight network, and you spend so much time with your classmates that when you graduate, you only hang out with them. There is somewhat of an insular mentality that has grown within the field of architecture, though that is changing with younger generations.

One of the fields I love working with most is anthropology, especially ethnographic researchers. You learn to understand behaviors of cultures so that when you design a house for a family, or a workplace for a company, or a district in a city, those are all communities; you are decoding social components. I feel like my work is so much better when I am collaborating in that kind of field.

How do you keep track of ideas or concepts for your work?

There is a famous joke that people make about Picasso, and I love it, because it is not really a joke. It is an amazing way of understanding how things work. And the joke goes like this: “There’s a woman who goes to Picasso and says, ‘I want you to do a portrait of me.’ And he said great, and he takes a piece of paper and in one minute, he does this really cool drawing, and he gives it to her, and she says, ‘well, how much is it?’ And he says, ‘A million dollars.’ And she says, ‘but it only took you a minute to do that.’ And he says ‘no, it took me my whole life to do that drawing.’”

That is how I see that connection to that question. Every job I do is the expression of what I was thinking before. When I design a project, it is the resolution of many things I’ve been calibrating, and tracking, and somehow processing, and responding to. I allow my expression to become the synthesis of all that. I think all that stuff is, to a certain degree, in my head. But if we’re getting tactical, in this day and age, I put everything in the cloud. At any moment in time, I have, in my pocket, on my phone, the reference I am looking for. As I said, I am a structured thinker, so everything is in its place, and I can go and reference the point. Dropbox seems to be the most agile for this, at the moment.

I realized what I really love about design is experience. I love what environments do in order to support an emotional experience. That is architecture to me.

Is there a book, magazine, or other written work that made your mind shift, or made you think a little differently about life?

A lot of people have asked my that, especially a lot of my friends who are publishers of magazines, and I actually don’t read curated magazines. I like to read news, and about things that are emerging. I start my day everyday with NPR, so I have it on in the bathroom, when I’m showering and shaving, and then I go into the bedroom to get dressed. The whole morning, before I leave, it’s about trying to capture what the stories are, and then I follow through on the many stories on my own. So the news is more meaningful to me. And then the other thing is Instagram, because I’m constantly visualizing and qualifying and saving all these different things I see in the world, but the world itself is the biggest source of influence for me.

Is there a city or place you’ve been, to which your mind or heart seems to return? Why?

There are a couple. This might be the obvious one, but Havana. I’ve been there twice since I left Cuba, and there is something very powerful about it. I’m sure part of it is the emotional side of it, but also I think the city itself, and the city’s history, I’m very drawn to. I wish I could go there more often.

Rome meant so much to me as a 19 year-old, when I spent the summer traveling as a student of architecture. And that city just blew my mind. I actually went to Rome all the way through grad school, almost every 6 or 9 months. It had such a pull; this is why I learned Italian. To a certain degree, it doesn’t have the same pull because I’ve grown so much since then. But there is just something about that city that I love.

Every job I do is the expression of what I was thinking before. When I design a project, it is the resolution of many things I’ve been calibrating, and tracking, and somehow processing, and responding to.

What quality do you value most in yourself?

I am the ultimate optimist, and that is such an important part of who I am, at multiple levels. That level of optimism is very key for me and what I do. I imagine that is what people might think.

What quality do you value most in others?

Authenticity. People who are who they are, and that that really defines them. Maybe there’s a better way to say it, but I can’t stand people who are not authentic. In this day and age, when everything is trying to be so homogeneous, everything is the same, everywhere. The beauty of people is that we are all different – we all come from different backgrounds and have different experiences. People that tend to be authentic, what they’re doing is they’re giving you access to the uniqueness of who they are, versus people who try to fit the mold of what they think people want. And all of a sudden, they become, another.

People that tend to be authentic, what they’re doing is they’re giving you access to the uniqueness of who they are, versus people who try to fit the mold of what they think people want.

Is there a musician or album that inspires you?

It’s hard for me to always pinpoint one thing, but one person who comes to mind, who is not necessarily the most important – and certainly not the only one – but I have always been very inspired by the progressive music that came out of the Cuban Revolution, which is kind of surprising to a lot of people. You would think that, “well he’s a Cuban immigrant,” so the last thing that I would find inspiring is the music of the revolution.

There is term that defines that genre of music that is called La Nueva Cancion Latinoamericana, or “The New Latin American Song,” and I think the spirit of that is really about communicating this perspective, and optimism, of an idea. If you take the politics aside and you look at the sentiment of why, for some of the individuals, the revolution was important, is because it was about going forward and making something better. It didn’t pan out that way, but I think that the poetry that exists within that, particularly with Sylvio Rodriguez – probably Cuba’s most famous revolutionary composer – and then Pablo Milane´s. I listen to them, and there is something so transformative about their music. Part of it is the lyrics, and the lyrics that are founded in the legacy in Cuban music. I just can’t get tired of listening to this music.

Is food of importance to you? If so, describe your ideal meal or culinary destination.

I love Cuban food. One of the great things about being in New York is that every month I discover a new Cuban restaurant that is as good as the one I just went to. And when I go visit my parents who live in Miami, the first thing we do is go have Cuban food. I love that kind of comfort food.

Is there a film that, for whatever reason – perhaps the way it was shot, or the setting it was in – was a big inspiration to you?

Yes. There is a film by the director Jacques Tati, and the movie is called “Playtime.” And I have to say, that is my favorite movie. Jacques Tati was known for creating these films that, to a certain degree, the dialogue was not important. It was like a collage of imagery.

It was a sort of juxtaposition of things that ended up having a connection, but it wasn’t necessarily tied together with a dialogue or a clear story line. This particular movie, “Playtime”, is very different from all of his other movies, and the movie only exists in international style environments. Because he uses humor, there was a criticism about Modernism, but it was more like an observation. The film starts in the Orly airport, and then it kind of goes through the journey, almost like from the perspective of a visitor in Paris. Nothing is out of the context of international style except two times in the movie towards the end, where a reflection on the glass door points to a classic French landmark. It was obviously intentional, as was everything else. And it is that moment, and that perspective, of articulating a story that uses no language, that relates to me, because my job is to tell stories without language.

What are you most excited about right now?

I love what I’m doing here in New York right now. I am really excited to have transferred here, from the Chicago office of Gensler. I am excited about the people I work with. And I am really, really excited about New York. I am one of those people who my friends are probably going to get tired of, because I am soaking up everything in New York, and taking advantage of everything the city has to offer. I love it here.

I am the ultimate optimist, and that is such an important part of who I am, at multiple levels.

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Explore the things that have inspired us and made our minds shift



Jacques Tati

Pablo Picasso

Artboard 7

Sylvio Rodriguez

Cuban Food

Rome, Italy

Havana, Cuba


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