Without Arlan Kay’s intervention, Quivey’s Grove, the old Fess Hotel (now the Great Dane Downtown), the Cardinal Bar and many other Madison buildings would have met the wrecking ball.
Kay sold his firm, Architecture Network, to Kontext Architects last July, and this year, after a 49-year career in Madison, Kay will slowly hand the firm’s day-to-day operations to Kontext’s principal architect, Kelly Thompson.
Kay doesn’t like to call it retirement; he said he’s “shifting gears,” and he’ll continue to work for Kontext as a consultant on a limited basis.
“You don’t retire from architecture,” he said.
Thompson worked for Kay 19 years ago before starting his own firm. Aside from the obvious differences — “He does outweigh me by 100 pounds” — Thompson said he has a different managerial style and design philosophy than his former boss, but is focused on meeting Kay’s clients’ needs as operations change hands.
The two architects’ different managerial styles are captured in their answers to the question, “What was your favorite project?”
Kay always replies, “The next one.”
Thompson would rather rephrase the question. He prefers to answer, “Who’s my next favorite client?”
Kay’s firm has primarily focused on restoring old and historic buildings and catered mostly to private clients, while Thompson’s firm focuses on the public sector. “Systematically, that brings a different approach,” Thompson said.
The choice to acquire Kay’s firm and pick up more capabilities in the private sector was intentional, Thompson said. “Now that the economy is picking up and doing better,” he said, “my private work is picking up. The public work is slowing down a little bit.”
Thompson thinks his firm’s experience with public projects will transfer to the private industry. Kontext is used to government jobs, which require extensive planning, and he says his staff’s strength is understanding their clients’ needs.
Thompson said he’ll continue to leverage Kay’s network and his gift for design to make sure Kontext is equipped to take on Architecture Network’s clients. However, he said, “The way we manage things may be different.”
Kay was born in Iowa, third in line for the family farm. He said his love for architecture grew from a love of the dirt. And although he jokes that he’s won more trophies for 4-H pigs than for architecture, he’s had a knack for design since he was young.
Kay’s family-farm upbringing shines through in his design. For example, he was tasked with converting the buildings at Quivey’s Grove Inn to a restaurant in the late 1970s.
“A restaurant is something joyful,” he said. “It is theater.”
So, he decided to turn the barn into a bar and waiting area. The farmhouse was turned into a place for fine dining, with the main entrance through the back. “Every farmhouse, you never go in the front door, you always go in the back door,” Kay said.
There’s a tunnel that connects the barn to the farmhouse, which urban legend says was built as a part of the Underground Railroad.
“We built that,” Kay said, “Shh.”
He asked, “When you’re going from spaces to spaces, how do you have something that’s a little bit of an adventure, and part of that dining experience?” He said the tunnel did just that.
Basic building layout is “dead, dumb, simple,” he said. “Now, turn it into theater, turn it into movement. ... That’s music.”
Thompson appreciates Kay’s flair for design theatrics, but he’s primarily drawn to small details and buildings that bring communities together. One of his favorite designs, he said, was for a ticket booth at a high school football field. He marveled, “How many people would pass through those gates?”
Thompson, who describes himself as “a man of deep, deep faith,” said he grew up poor. His father was a coal miner and a truck driver, and often built things around the house. His mother was an artist.
He said he sees architecture as a reflection of community values. For example, the suburban house implies face-to-face interactions are not important, he said. “The garage sits out front. You pull into your driveway,” he said, “and it would be rare if you ran into your neighbors. It’s not important to us.”
Thompson said his designs, however, convey the message that community is important. He’s built mixed-use apartment complexes with large common spaces, a small park shelter and a prison visiting room.
“We are more interested in community than kingdom building,” Thompson said. He said he’d prefer to meet his clients needs than draft an award-winning design.
Kay will continue to mentor architects at Kontext as he transitions out of managing the firm. He’s working as a consultant as Kontext refurbishes Nichols Station, an apartment building on East Gorham Street that was previously a pump house in the early 1900s.