Globally recognized designer, developer, community activist, entrepreneur, creator of an AIA Home of the Year, father, husband, artist, spreader of Phoenix pride... there isn't much Chris Nieto doesn't do. In addition to all of that he is a dear friend of ours here at Bunky, and a pretty rocking landlord, too!
If you have ever wandered Downtown Phoenix, it's likely you have seen Nieto's work or been inside a building he designed. You may have even seen the 60ft mural of him on 1st Ave and Thomas Road.
A love for Phoenix and a belief in its opportunities and uniqueness is something a lot of us share with Nieto. To spread this affection, Chris designed the iconic Arizona Love design -a hand drawn map with a heart over the city of Phoenix- which you can find exclusively at Bunky Boutique.
Interview with Chris: Part I
Chris, what motivated you to get into Phoenix architect ventures?
It was all by chance of an Architect moving across the street from me, and me thinking what he did for a living was cool.
It is probably like any start-up story that you hear, mine starts with a new friendship. A young guy, Joe, moved across the street from me on East Hoover Avenue. We became friends, and over the course of about a year, we did a lot of talking.. I learned what he did for a living, he learned what I did for a living, we talked a lot about business and design, we hung out on our porches drinking and smoking, talking about how we would change the city one day. We would talk about Phoenix being ripe for change, a blank canvas for a couple of twenty-something’s to make an impact on the skyline… given enough time. Up until that point I guess I thought I would work for the family business. It wasn’t until my neighbor and I became friends that I started becoming passionate about design and truly believed that through design I could lead people, shape Phoenix’ destiny, even make history. It was the first time in my life I truly believed I was in such a position in time, and actually feared that if I didn’t act on my feelings I would miss out on the biggest opportunity of my life.
My conversations with Joe evolved pretty quickly. Within a year of us knowing each other I would ask him to quit his job and start a design company with me. At the time I was working for my father’s plumbing contracting business, where I learned and continue to learn business. At the time Joe was working for Wendell Burnette, who, if you know anything about people currently practicing Architecture in Arizona, you would know Wendell is a true master of his craft.
We started the Architecture practice, merzproject, in the summer of 2004, and for the first time I would part with my father to give my new business everything I had.
As merzproject, our first challenge was not having any work, any leads, or even proof we could pull something off in the event we talked somebody into giving us their money. This led to my wife and I becoming the first client of the company - we mortgaged our home and purchased a 6,000 square foot warehouse building on the intersection of 18th street and Washington to create the new headquarters of merzproject, and two other creative studio suites to lease out. At the time, I felt in doing all this I would gain insight in the architecture business, begin creating wealth for my family, and give our new architecture business additional time to land its first real commission. Fortunately for merzproject, we landed our first paying client prior to its completion. As an unintentional byproduct to being merzproject’s first client, in redeveloping 18th street and Washington, I my development and real-estate company, Nieto Development, and general contracting company, merzbuild, were born. I would go on to develop other properties, and build other projects, but merzproject would remain my main area of focus over the course of its life.
Our first substantial commission, the Max and Lucy Building, was more than we could have ever dreamed to be a part of. While working on the Max and Lucy Building we would meet Ed Gorman, who commissioned merz to design several projects for his company, Modus Development. merzproject was forced to triple in size over the course of its first year to manage our workload. We had no idea how lucky we were. Merzrpoject, took off! Over the next several years we would complete dozens of award-winning projects, and assemble the most talented collection of designers, architects, and artists in the United States. As merzproject grew, I sold my property on 18th street and Washington and reinvested my earnings in multiple merzproject-designed development projects, again becoming a client to the company. I would purchase a new building on 1st Street and McDowell along the lightrail corridor, giving merzproject a new (larger) home, as well as homes to Giant Coffee, Sterling Turquoise, and Rachel’s incredible Bunky Boutique; and I would build the Hoover House for my family.
In 2009, less than six years after opening our doors, merzproject was named by Architectural Record (the official AIA publication at the time) a “Vanguard Firm,” in its annual “Vanguard Firm Issue,” where the publication announces their pick of the top-ten emerging firms in the world. The year we were named a “Vanguard firm,” we were one of only three firms in the United States to be selected that year. Receiving that news was unreal.
It was through the experience being part of the merzproject design studio that I became involved in Design and Real Estate projects, a period of time that made me into the person I am today.
What is your favorite project to date?
My favorite project to date has to be the Hoover House. Hoover house was the most important building I ever built. It was the first ground up home I ever built, which is definitely its own reward. merzproject, was slow so I decided to bring a project into the office by commissioning it to design a home for my family. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it, but I pushed forward confidently believing nothing would get in my way – young and dumb working in my favor as the project materialized.
The Hoover House project kept my office busy and everyone got to touch it in some way. merzbuild, my construction company (me, others from my office, and the incredible craftsmen and trades who gave me their best work) went to work and we built the project as a team. No corners were cut, when something wasn’t right – we re-built it. Our mission was to go for it, to go all of the way, and achieve greatness out of the limited resources we had to work with. the year of hoover house’s completion, merzproject and merzbuild’s first home, we won 2008 AIA home of the year.
How does it feel seeing your own work in your city?
Seeing the buildings or spaces we created feels good! Of the buildings we created each come with different memories, some good, and some painful. During the recession, merzproject when through tough times and I had to sell my home for zero profit. Hoover House will always be one of my favorite projects, no matter how many I am fortunate enough to be part of in the future, but it comes with some of my most painful memories, self-doubt, a colossal let-down to my wife and young children.
One of the coolest things about built-work is that it has the potential to be around for a long time, in many cases outliving the occupants we created the space with and for. It leaves an imprint on the City, good or bad. It forever changes the urban landscape
I am a perfectionist when it comes to the work my office produces, so there are always moments when I wish we did something differently, but I am definitely proud of the work, and grateful for every minute I had the privilege to be part of it. Working with my merzproject team and the hero customers that invested in us was one of the most special times in my life so far. Back to talking about sometimes wishing we had done something differently, the thing is.. making buildings is a service and a business first and foremost. You only have so much time and money when it comes down to executing a project. There is no such thing as a perfect project. You have to make decisions quickly and always try to push the best idea forward, because there is a bottom line at the end of the day. It is a business transaction, it has a budget, and deadlines. All one can do is her best, and I know, from the bottom of my heart we gave people our best work.
The ideas that came to life and are now in built form are part of the city, and people live in them, or work out of them, or hang out in them. It’s neat to know, especially with more public environments, that many people will experience it, spend time in it, and the space will be a part of the occupants day, part of a memory. Making buildings are all about creating a unique human experience. Buildings are for people. during merzproject, our team was always especially excited about creating environments that would get a lot of human exposure.