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Jason Foster, 54: Let’s Work Together

Architect and Salt Lake City native Jason Foster is cool, down-to-earth, and using design to improve everyday experiences. He discusses the life-changing power of mentorship, working collaboratively to “lift up neighborhoods,” and what he loves about his home city.

At a certain point in life we get to decide what we want to express to the world and the impact we wish to make. Jason Foster most definitely does not look like an architect; maybe more Rick Rubin savant. Architects have been known to be uptight; Jason is cool – really cool. Coming from a humble working-class upbringing in a mid-sized city he decided to make an impact on areas others may consider underprivileged or undesirable. For him, these were places that could use a helping hand in collaboratively designing buildings, creating improved neighborhoods that worked for everyone, rather than the sort of top-down design-by-command that often wrecks a neighborhood. 

Early on he was a beneficiary of mentoring; it changed his life, and he forgot it. Mentoring and interning are not the same as cheap labor; they should be about transmitting knowledge and skills, which is something that has been forgotten in many professions. If we don’t take the time to help and guide, who will? This is a responsibility our man Jason takes seriously, and from which he gains tremendous satisfaction. And who does not want a guy as cool as Jason to learn from?

Photo by David Harry Stewart.

How old are you?
I am a sublime 54 years old. 

Where are you from and where are you based?
I am a proud native of Salt Lake City, Utah – Rose Park represent! I reside in the City. My wife and I both have our businesses based in the City as well. My son is actually a fourth generation in our family to attend his public high school. 

We do believe travel outside of SLC is very important though… 

Have to ask about the beard. How long have you had it and how do you maintain it?
I have had some form of facial hair for 30 years. The beard in its present form evolved about eight years ago. While I do consider being well kempt an attribute, I would say the beard and I have reached a détente. I do seek the help of professionals for trimming and am always on the lookout for good products for face and beard.  

What are common mistakes people make when building or redoing a home?
There are many. So many… Of course it depends on the extent of “redoing.” I think the rise of HGTV is the same bane as social media. It gives edited content with no actual understanding of what is really involved. In the end, I think that, for most people, there is a disconnect between the idea of doing a project and executing a project. Unfortunately, budget is usually the thing that drives all decisions and usually without the benefit of good information to guide it. 

Oh yeah, shortcuts. Usually a bad idea and a guarantee of predictably bad outcomes.  

How did you become interested in architecture?
My high school tech drawing class. I had a great teacher that was super old school. Every  teacher in the Tech building was. But Mr. Tollstrup had the quality of a mentor. He connected me to a couple of former students in related professions that I could “shadow” briefly. However, the real transformative moment was getting accepted to a summer Ivy League program. I still had a year of high school. I spent the summer back east, experienced a whole different way of seeing the world and the built environment, found creativity, independence, and nothing was the same for me after that. 

Unfortunately, I was not in a position to continue that type of experience, but I relate that story frequently to students and younger people considering any design track.

Image from Atlas Architects.

“Despite a conservative cultural backdrop, the underbelly [Salt Lake City] spawned was equally counterweighted”

What was it like growing up in SLC?
It was beautiful and weird and I am grateful for it.  

This town has so many quirks – some quite obvious. But despite a conservative cultural  backdrop, the underbelly it spawned was equally counterweighted. I think this is a common  action/reaction to a given circumstance. My family had roots to first-arrival Mormon pioneer  stock, but by the time it got to my parents and me, it didn’t stick. I had a very typical ’70s/’80s childhood, like Stranger Things with fewer demons. The City was a stomping ground. I learned a lot from its nooks and crannies. My dad was a cop for the City police department and he grew to dislike the City, but his filter was different. By the time I hit high school (early ’80s), I went through a handful of different cliques, finally found a groove, but I still am shaped by my early experiences.  

The sad aspect of this question is that I don’t think that quality exists in SLC anymore. I have tried to express its essence to my kids as this is their City now. But, it’s hard to be authentically convincing. I have had many a drink over this topic, with friends and contemporaries, that the City has become too sanitized, too generic. We have been too quick to scrape our legacy places and fill them with nondescript buildings. 

The Saints were a different kind of “quirky” and the Heathens were way more interesting.  

“I think the profession of Architecture (capital ‘A’) has an identity crisis”

Architecture can be thought of as a rather incomprehensibly intellectual career, but you make it seem much more approachable. What are your thoughts on the craft of architecture?
Thank you for the compliment. If I’m being honest and painting with a broad brush, I think the profession of Architecture (capital ‘A’) has an identity crisis. It’s been reduced to “style” and perfunctory outcomes. Projects are driven by spreadsheets, not whether they have merit functionally, environmentally, or culturally. There are exceptions, of course, but I’m riffing here. I think I am on solid ground by stating that zoning policies and a lazy intellectual curiosity among the professions has led to many cities resembling one another. Maybe the silver lining is that when someone executes a quality work, it really stands out. 

Architects seem numb to their own reckoning. They really are now, and have long been, mired in an existential quandary. They have squandered the value they can bring to the work by acquiescing their expertise to others. Maybe it doesn’t matter as AI will soon tell us all what is “right”. 

Image from Atlas Architects.

“Design is meant to solve a problem; pure aesthetics is the realm of art”

What are your goals when designing a building?
Essentially, the opposite of what I stated in the previous question. In other words, purpose. 

In short, we don’t sell a “product” per se. You have to realize that you are putting something into the world that people have to live and interact with. I will repeat this until my end days: design is meant to solve a problem; pure aesthetics is the realm of art. First and foremost, we want to solve a problem effectively, thoughtfully, and aesthetically. Every building should be derived from its context. This can mean place, program, time, technology, culture, environment, etc. If we have met that criteria, we should also have a client that is thrilled with the result.

I am fully convinced that when you act conscientiously within the design determinants given, the project will have a beauty that is understood in its “correctness.” 

Salt Lake City is growing, but on the smaller side as far as cities go. What are some of the possibilities you see here that are not other places?
Difficult to say given our current trajectory. Perhaps the possibilities of transformative work in areas often ignored or lacking inclusion. Because of our moderately compact size (SLC  boundary proper), we should see sequential “halo” effects to incentivize doing things in  underprivileged areas since they are not physically that far removed from more mainstream improvement.  

“I do firmly believe we can lift up neighborhoods”

You helped discover and develop an underutilized section of town. What are your thoughts on building community through creating structures?
The people that have lived here for years might take umbrage with that. I think it might be fair to say re-discover and demonstrate to others the inherent qualities of this neighborhood. It’s funny how after all this time (12 years), there are people that have no idea where I am talking about  even though it’s probably the “hottest” market from a property standpoint. 

I believe some people get tripped up with the term gentrification. That’s fair enough given the typical method of development. What is often missed is that the trajectory of these places is often leading to a blighted wrecking-ball conclusion, rather than tapping into possibilities. I do firmly believe we can lift up neighborhoods. I grew up on the west side of town (meaning the lower income part of town). The area we looked at felt more familiar to me than many other parts of the larger and more affluent City. We had all the hallmarks of typical low income neighborhoods: prostitution, drugs, crime, abandonment. Some banks literally wouldn’t talk to us. Despite being a declared “Project Zone” by the City for 20 years – which meant incentives to build there – nobody was taking advantage of that opportunity.  

However, I was willing to put my meager savings and business on the line to get the ball rolling. I was fortunate enough to have a business partner willing to go down the rabbit hole with me. We’ve tried to do thoughtful, quality-constructed, and neighborhood-appropriate work. I think because of that, we have attracted some of the most talented, creative local businesses in town. Nobody’s a big shot and we have lots of interest from people looking at what we are doing.  

Mentorship

There are younger people in your office. Tell us a bit about your feelings on mentorship, up and down the age column.
I hope if you ask anyone I have worked with, they would tell you I take it very seriously. I  absolutely had mentors when I entered the profession and still do (though they may not know it). It is critical to pass on institutional knowledge, but that quickly faded for firms. Internships devolved into cheap labor. If Architecture is to survive and thrive, it had better get its act together on REALLY training its people and fostering young talent. I mean, like, REALLY… That teaching experience should absolutely go both ways. My wife refers to it as, “reverse mentorship”.

Do you have a design or architect hero?
The Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. There are many more, but that guy was something  else… 

What are your ambitions for the next 10 years?
Spend as much time as possible with my absolutely incredible wife, make sure my kids are on a path to happiness and personal success, and activate my next creative endeavor. Maybe add having the opportunity to answer that question, with clarity, for the next 50 years… 

Favorite building that is not one you designed?
Can’t do it. There is no absolute for me in this regard. 

Red Iguana

You mentioned the Red Iguana. What is that and what is the attraction?
Red Iguana is my favorite restaurant. If you come to town to visit, you will be going there. I love it for so many reasons but, for me, there is a nearly life-long arc. When I was young, my parents would occasionally take me to a restaurant called Casa Grande. This was a staple of Mexican food in SLC for years. Fast forward: the parents closed the restaurant but their son, Ramon, who was a bit of a character, started a new concept for the city called Red Iguana. It was a small diner type of space, with a limited menu, on the west edge of downtown. Shortly thereafter it moved to the proper Westside, where it exists now. Small, quirky, and killer food. 

Here’s the heart of the story for me. Ramon had started this with his father, but sadly met with an untimely death. As his sister, Lucy, tells it, her father was ready to shut it down again because you passed on the business to your son… Thank the gods Lucy was able to convince her father to not only let her take this on, but write down family recipes and train her in their preparation. Lucy (and full credit for her husband Bill) not only kept the business going, but made it thrive. It is a unique cultural touchstone for the City, but more importantly, for the Westside. I look at Lucy with tremendous respect as a fellow Westsider who overcame cultural biases, created a ridiculously successful restaurant, stayed true to her roots and neighborhood, and is genuinely a lovely person. She is a masterclass in how to be amazing.  

What are your thoughts on how a guy our age should dress?
I believe this has wide variability. Frankly, we’ve earned a wide berth for making it this far.  However, style is intrinsically tied to attitude. You have to own it, and it should be from an  authentic way of being. If you’re going to wear it, you better own the look and be confident in its appropriateness. Having said that, find the path that lets you thrive between bucking those who are incapable of getting out of their own way and being obnoxiously provocative. Frankly, I should be an Adidas ambassador – or at least sponsored…

“My [music] tastes are all over the map”

What music are you listening to?
My tastes are all over the map. My latest discovery is a band called Breathe. A seriously abbreviated list would also include:
Childish Gambino
Radiohead
Black Atlass
Meyhem Lauren/Action Bronson
Tricky
Massive Attack
Mos Def
Anderson .Paak
Billie Holiday
Roy Rogers
Beastie Boys (!)
Queens of the Stone Age
Eagles of Death Metal
Foo Fighters 

I also have nostalgia for ’80s alternative, big band, and some older hip hop, trip hop and metal. How’s that for a start? 

What are your 3 life non-negotiables?

  1. Do not disrespect my family, my friends, or me – but especially my family. You will not  recover from that. 
  2. Do not impose your beliefs on me or mine. 
  3. I will be loving when I choose and vengeful when I see fit. 

I know you said 3, but let me add a fourth… 

  1. Say “please” and “thank you” when appropriate… 

In that spirit, let me say thank you for taking an interest in my thoughts. JF 

Connect with Jason:
Atlas Architects
Instagram

Main image by David Harry Stewart.

See medical disclaimer below. ↓

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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.

AUTHOR

David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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