Finding Inspiration, Authenticity, and Success through Balance, Transition, and Failure.

October 25, 2021

Finding Inspiration, Authenticity, and Success through Balance, Transition, and Failure.

May 29, 2023

“My name is Shawn and if you really really knew me, you would know that I am both ecstatic and terrified to be working with this organization that is rethinking what it means to be an elder.

Like many of us, my body seems to be aging quickly, right as my career is really taking off. I’m not just getting older, I have Parkinson’s disease and there’s no way to know where this transition is taking me.”

If you’ve spent any time at MEA, you know this “if you really knew me” exercise is an important part of the facilitated vulnerability. This is how I introduced myself to the MEA partners at our initial programming and design retreat for the new MEA campus at Saddleback Ranch outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I certainly hadn’t planned on disclosing this information, but it felt right and necessary.

My colleagues and I are involved in a wide variety of fascinating projects, but in this moment, MEA became deeply personal. What lessons am I learning in my transition that I can bring to the design of this place? How can my participation in its design positively impact my condition? Wait. Am I being selfish? This place isn’t about me; it is a place of deep time and movement, a place at the center of a once verdant valley that was home to tens of thousands of Pueblo people. Can it remain a place where these stories of those who came before are deeply felt, while also being a place that feels profoundly personal to all who will come here? I think it can be both. I think it MUST be both.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative neurological condition in which the brain cells that produce dopamine die at an accelerated rate. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that is released by the brain during pleasure. It does many things in our bodies including regulating fine muscle control, thus its absence eventually results in the body toggling between paralyzing stiffness and uncontrollable movement. I was diagnosed three years ago with a slight tremor in my thumb (along with a number of other symptoms). Being just a few years shy of 50, my condition was officially labeled “Young Onset Parkinson's Disease.” I may now be a wiggly modern elder, but I’ll always be young in this medical diagnosis.

I’ve always felt young. I was always among the youngest in my class. I always looked the youngest. Part of my continuing youth complex has to do with my career trajectory. I have wanted to be an architect since I was nine years old. Following a handful of summer jobs between high school, college, and graduate school, I was hired 26 years ago by the architectural firm that I am now an owner of. It’s been my only full-time job. Some days I still feel like that 24-year-old graduate that just walked through the office door. Most days I’m still that nine-year-old kid awash in wonder.

This ability to time travel is critical to our firm’s work. Much of our practice involves the preservation and reimagination of places with a complex relationship to time. We are currently involved with two historic house museums: Robert Oppenheimer’s home in Los Alamos, and the D.H. Lawrence Ranch north of Taos, where we are restoring these places to the precise look of their brief times in these places. These acts of restoration are rare; most of our projects resist a straight-forward chronological framework. We have been leading the rehabilitation of the 700-year-old traditional village of Ohkay Owingeh, where we are not restoring the homes to any particular historic appearance. Instead, we are collaborating with the community to preserve the essential and eternal character of this place as they understand it, while making the homes fully functional for modern life.

Time is an essential element of MEA’s nascent campus - both in its program and its place. The Galisteo Basin is an ancient place which faces both contemporary challenges and new opportunities. It is itself a modern elder, transitioning from the ways things have always been to a place that embraces technology and new ways of healing the land. The buildings will embrace the magic and romance of Santa Fe, while also inspiring those who come here to look beyond external appearances too often rooted in an appropriative taking of indigenous tradition. We are asking many questions. What is an authentic way to build in this place? How do we build with integrity in ways that honor the traditions of this land and the people who have lived here before, while being true to our own time and recognizing our own personal journeys of transition and change?

As my body and mind change day to day, I have embraced exercise. I was in a gym just once before I heard those life-changing words, “You have Parkinson’s Disease.” Exercise is the only thing known to be able to slow the progression of this disease, and I am fortunate to have found an extraordinary personal trainer who has led me on a journey to push the boundaries of neuroplasticity. Each week we seek new things that I am certain I cannot do. Most involve feats of balance designed to develop both mental focus and bodily strength.

Much like the symptoms of my disease, the work combines stillness and movement. Rather than toggling between these states, my growing mindfulness allows me to inhabit both places at once. My brain pulses with chemical surges where fear and strength embrace failure and exhaustion. Paradoxically, we have found the greatest successes lie in the failure to complete complex moves, when my brain and body are not in sync. Overcoming these moments is the medicine. There are indeed very satisfying moments of symbiosis between muscle and mind when I can suddenly do the impossible, but then it is time to move on and not revel in repetition. We introduce modifications that throw off my muscle-memory and require me to build new neural pathways. Through these failures I am improving and I am healing. I am not bold enough to say we are reversing the disease. My condition is slowly advancing, but I am fortunate that my prognosis remains excellent. For now, I can confidently say that this has been a gift.

Everyone carries baggage with them. We certainly all bring it to MEA, although guests should lug more mental baggage and less physical luggage. When I am balancing on my knees on an inflatable exercise ball while catching and tossing water-filled medicine balls, I am not forgetting or ignoring my Parkinson’s baggage, I am embracing it, turning it against itself, using it so that I can transcend it. I’m not just balancing my body, I’m figuring out how to balance both my old self and my new self, and I’m finding peace and acceptance. I suspect that some version of this is essential to all successful transitions.

As our designs for the new MEA campus are coming into form with a hoped-for 2023 opening, we are finding ways to balance traditional construction with modern technology. This place - buildings, spaces, and landscapes - will appear as if they’ve been here for ages while being simultaneously fresh. They will be light on the land, generate power, recharge the earth with water and nutrients, and exemplify how we learn from the past and mentor the future. This land and our time demand as much. In this place, we will support each other with our own personal stories, while honoring those whose stories preceded ours. We will inspire and empower each other, and we will thrive as we turn the page into our next chapters.

I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting many of you and you’ve brought me comfort and peace with where I am now and in the unknown places I’m heading. I can’t wait for this place to be real and for it to grow and change with us.

Shawn Evans, AIA, APT-RP, is Principal and Director of Preservation and Cultural Projects for AOS Architects, based in Santa Fe, NM and Philadelphia, PA. Recently named Firm of the Year by AIA New Mexico, AOS is a signatory to the AIA 2030 Commitment, and is dedicated to balancing sustainability with design, craft, and historical and ecological context.

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