April 24, 2014

The “Legos Kid” Keeps on Building

Modern man: Matt Kragh, owner of MHK Architecture and Planning, brings a cool, modern design sense to the humid, Mediterranean design climate of Southwest Florida. His projects include renovating classic cottages to building corporate headquarters.A pile of Legos.

That’s how everything started for Matthew Kragh.

In truth, it wasn’t even a particularly nice pile of Legos. No, what put Kragh on his path to architectural success was a bucket of odds-and-ends handed down from an older brother. But Kragh quickly learned what he could do with those mismatched pieces of brightly colored plastic.

And if you take a drive around town, you’ll soon spot the creative touch of this self-proclaimed “Legos kid.” The Indiana native moved to Southwest Florida in 1998 after an internship with one of the most prestigious architectural firms in the country, Chicago’s Murphy/Jahn, and went to work with Architectural Network Inc.

Just three years later, he was tapped for a big promotion, and the company was renamed PK Studios—P for Rey Pezeshkan, K for Kragh—to reflect the important role played by its young partner.

Southwest Florida was in a building boom, and PK Studios was flush with new projects. His portfolio swelled, and Kragh stretched his creative muscles on projects that included Naples Bay Resort, the Kraft Construction headquarters, Lely’s Paseo community and numerous Fifth Avenue South building projects, including the Northern Trust and Bank of America buildings. 

Finally, at the end of 2009, Kragh went out on his own and started MHK Architecture & Planning. Having his own firm allows him to own the architectural process from start to finish, he says, and to be 100 percent responsible for what he does from permitting process to champagne pop. He’s also taking on more different kinds of projects than ever before—historical home renovations and pro bono jobs for the City of Naples.

Some of these jobs present unusual challenges. A new medical building project must be created with special consideration for the environmental exposure. Others, such as older home updates, require simple architectural savvy.

But Kragh isn’t the kind of architect who revels in unfettered freedom.

 “A blank canvas is much harder to work with because you can go in any direction,” he says. “Restrictions create opportunities.”

 

Design without fear

Kragh’s downtown Naples office is sleek, sparse and very, very clean, much as you might expect from a man who dreams in glass and steel.

On the wall hangs Wham, a signed, 1963 Roy Lichtenstein lithograph; it’s one of Kragh’s favorite possessions. But the piece that he points to when he talks about his inspiration is a framed portrait of German architect Mies van der Rohe. He fell in love with the pioneering minimalistic work of the Modernist master when he was a graduate student at Illinois Institute of Technology.

If school introduced him to the talents of such architectural luminaries as van der Rohe, it was his internship at Murphy/Jahn that truly showed Kragh the way architecture works in the real world. Murphy/Jahn was an intense environment, complete with heavy-hitting global clients and leadership that had little patience for anything less than perfection.

That may sound exhausting, but instead it proved exhilarating. One of the things that drew Kragh to van der Rohe was his intense perfectionism. Lines on the floor needed to align perfectly with lines on the ceiling.

“If they weren’t perfect, Mies would have things ripped up in the middle of construction,” he says. “That classic perfection speaks to me.”

Kragh’s personal design style definitely trends to the minimalism of modern architecture, such as van der Rohe’s masterpieces—the Seagram Building in New York and the Chicago Federal Center. But there isn’t a lot of opportunity for that kind of work in Naples.

Still he slips it in where he can. Take his favorite personal design, the Kraft building off Pine Ridge Road. From the start, challenges were evident. The building was straddling two separate lots, so it is really two buildings connected by a second-floor walkway.

Because they were going to be relatively boxy buildings, Kragh set them each slightly askew so that they create a V-shaped opening between them. “All buildings look better in perspective,” he says of the choice.

While the building itself varies greatly from the standard faux-Mediterranean look of so much Southwest Florida architecture, the real brilliance is inside the front door. The lobby looks more like the inside of one of van der Rohe’s skyscrapers, with dark wood, shiny marble and a single-pour concrete staircase enclosed in glass walls.

“I was in D.C. for a conference, and a speaker was talking about how architects were responsible for America’s obesity problem,” he says while drawing a simple building on a piece of paper. “We always design buildings with the elevator bank in the center and the staircases, for fire escapes, on the outsides. We don’t give people a reason to use the stairs.

“When I came back I told (Kraft chairman Fred Pezeshkan) we needed stairs in the lobby.”

 

Designing between the lines: Kragh’s favorite projects are those with built-in limitations, which force him to think creatively. This if his design for a Naples medical complex uses an arcade structure to mute the sun’s rays.Creative Solutions

“There’s really no project that scares me,” he says.

That’s evident in the roster of projects MHK Planning & Architecture currently has on their boards. One is a commercial medical building slated for the Naples downtown district at the corner of First Avenue South and Eighth Street South. When he talks about the project, Kragh’s excitement quickly builds.

“From our creative standpoint, we want to do something a little different, a little more dynamic in design, but at the same time meets the code and creates value for the owner,” Kragh says.

Still, the project posed creative conundrums: The building has western exposure, which means it will catch the harsh afternoon Southwest Florida sun. For a building in another location, that might not be an issue. But this one is across from athletic fields, meaning there are no other structures to shade it.

Kragh set out to create a window-lined building that would allow natural light to flood the internal space but also offer the structure some protection not already in place. The answer was to build a slim arcade on the front of the building and a sweeping overhang on the roof. Both serve as attractive architectural elements but also provide a much-needed environmental buffer for the building, too.

The inspiration came from getting lunch. Walking to the now-defunct sandwich shop Trixie’s just off Cambier Park in downtown Naples, Kragh noticed how hot the sun can be, even with a significant overhang on the building.

The resulting building doesn’t belong to any recognizable style, Kragh says. It’s an eclectic mix. It’s also something that he and his team believe could begin to set a new precedent in Neapolitan building.

 

A computer canvas

Scan Kragh’s office for that most traditional trapping of an architect—blueprints—and you might be a little surprised. There are a few, but they’re rolled up and bundled neatly away in a corner.

When Kragh works, he uses his Mac computer and the design program AutoCad. The program allows him to design in 3-D, which he prefers more than drawing out a two-dimensional floor plan and elevation design. It’s a complex and often time-consuming process—the medical building took some 70 hours to design—but it’s his preferred method of creation.

“When I grew up, I played outside. But if you look at kids today, they’re getting their adventure in this virtual world. It doesn’t make sense to sculpt architecture like artists would model with clay,” he says. “I can do this in a virtual world.”

Designing on a computer has given him the freedom to travel the world with his wife, Trista Sue.

“I get a lot of work done sitting in a hotel with my Macbook Pro,” he says. “A lot of architects take time to travel the world after school, but I’m doing more of that now than I ever did before.”

 

Travels with Trista Sue

Inspiration is everywhere for Kragh, but he’s especially fortunate to be able to explore far-flung architectural styles thanks to Trista Sue, who travels extensively. An ordained minister, Trista Sue lectures around the world and has been asked to speak on almost every continent, Kragh says.

He jokes that he tags along to make sure that she comes back in one piece—and, of course, takes his iPhone to snap a few photographs and continue his architectural education along the way.

“We make a pretty good team,” he says. “She teaches all over the world. We do an incredible amount of traveling.”

Italy’s Lake Como provided him with endless creative architectural fodder, he says. So too did New Zealand, which he describes as “off-the-charts amazing.” About six months ago, the couple went to Beirut, which Kragh likens to Miami Beach in its design style. Switzerland and Spain proved to be full of architectural gold, too.

Returning home means Kragh returns to work and to an architectural commitment to contributing to the local community.

His next pro bono project for the City of Naples is a design for South Greenway Park, a plan that will connect the city to Collier County’s greenway project. He is often nonchalant in speaking about the good work that he does; for example, he donated a kidney to a friend he met playing tennis at Cambier Park, but can’t exactly remember the year. He thinks it was seven years ago—but it might have been eight, he adds.

 

“A blank canvas is much harder to work with because you can go in any direction. Restrictions create opportunities.” Plans for a future park and water sports complex for the City of Naples.Passion for Beauty

Like his older brother before him, Kragh has long outgrown his Legos.

Yet when it comes to creating, he’s still got his youthful passion to build something of which he can be proud.

“That’s the whole architectural point,” he says, “to make it look beautiful.”

His dream building isn’t a van der Rohe style skyscraper or a Gehry-esque concert hall. He doesn’t long for the international fame of Calatrava.

“I want a client who has property out in the Everglades where I can build a house with glass walls,” he says. “It would have a big roof to protect it from the sun, but otherwise would be open.”

But until he can find that dream client, he’s perfectly content building other people’s dreams.

One of his newest projects is a beach-adjacent home in Old Naples. At about 7,000 square feet, the house will have countless amenities and glorious touches. But it still won’t have that perfect beach view.

So Kragh’s first order of business after he razes the existing structure is to get a lift, put it up to the highest roof height he’s allowed to build at and go searching for the most spectacular view of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Once we’ve found that, we can design the rest of the house around it,” he says.

Take the Legos you are given and make them into something spectacular.

                  —Jonathan Foerster contributed to this story.

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