There’s a reason that Chris Dawson gets up at 4 a.m. every day.
Call it “passion.” Call it “curiosity.” Call it the attainment of “critical mass” in a historic city he has not only embraced but started to reshape.
Dawson is the reason that many buildings in the Burg, from apartments to eateries to offices, now feature just the right blend of lighting, space, materials and effective solutions to the challenges of modern living.
He is the founder of CDA, headquartered in the heart of downtown Harrisburg. Founded 11 years ago, his firm now has a staff of nine, with four certified architects who share his focus on creative problem solving.
Dawson, tall and graceful, sits in his office high above 2nd Street as classical music plays softly, pendant lighting hovers over large desks and a royal blue accent wall injects color into the room. He has a contemplative way of speaking about his craft.
”For every project, we look at it as a unique condition that we are trying to develop a solution for,” he said.
Dawson’s guiding philosophy shapes every design: architecture is art. That belief was solidified when a former employer had a difference of creative vision and argued, “Look, Chris, this is not an art.”
He disagreed, so much so that his own firm’s motto became, “Art is architecture.”
Dawson credits early childhood experiences for his choice of profession—from his Lego obsession to bike trips around the neighborhood to study interesting buildings. Ultimately, he attended Syracuse University for architecture, with additional training at Harvard and Cornell.
He graduated college in 1993 and found himself thrown into a slow job market. He bartended briefly before a Lancaster architectural firm picked him up. He went on to work for a firm in York before opting to open an office in Harrisburg. He and his wife Tracie hope to move downtown someday, after their two children finish school.
“Harrisburg has a lot of potential,” he said. “The Capitol complex is stunningly beautiful.”
Few places take you from a bustling urban center to the heart of rural America so rapidly, he noted. He also saw the “need for more contemporary design” in the capital city.
“There’s a hunger for it,” he said.
When he talks, the names of his favorite architects and buildings fall like rain: Philadelphia legend Louis Kahn, Italy’s Carlo Scarpa (“as good as it gets”).
Dawson’s work includes a list of notable local projects from the last few years: the Hershey Library, Elementary Coffee Co., the West Shore Theatre, the King Mansion, WebFX and Milton Hershey School. He hosted an exhibit in the Susquehanna Art Museum titled, “Towards a New/Old Architecture,” which spotlighted the challenge of meshing contemporary touches with aging buildings.
As a testament to his art, CDA was the first firm in Harrisburg to be awarded a Pennsylvania Design Excellence Award from the American Institute of Architects.
“It’s more than engineering,” he said. “It’s the artistic side.”
So, is there a trademark Dawson style?
He hopes not.
While he may have a contemporary flair, he emphasizes that the end product should be the client’s vision—a “collaboration” that “stands the test of time.”
“Budgets are a big driver in Pennsylvania,” he acknowledged. “A simpler, more streamlined aesthetic helps the budget as a whole.”
Going forward, Dawson has lined up a series of significant projects, among them Harrisburg’s MLK City Government Center. That project includes the renovation of City Council chambers, restrooms and elevators to make them more inviting and more accessible, with the first phase slated for completion by the end of 2020.
City officials lamented the lack of a true King presence there, other than his name and a small bust. So, plans include installation of a large image of King in the atrium, with an enlarged quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
CDA also is collaborating with Harristown Development Corp. on a proposed 10-story tower for the 300-block of Market Street, on the site of the former Rite Aid store. That building, still in the planning phase, will feature street-level retail, midlevel office and upper-level residential.
Dawson has already worked extensively with Harristown, including for the 2016 conversion of office space above El Sol on S. 3rd Street into residential units—Fifteen at 22, aka F@TT.
“We use Chris a lot,” Harristown CEO Brad Jones said. “Chris is very good with architectural imagery and schematic designs. He’s a very creative guy and a thoughtful problem-solver.”
Dawson also has completed projects in places like Ohio, Oklahoma and Europe. His staff includes Sara Sweeney, Jim White, Molly Mank and Allison Krichman.
Dawson, who just turned 50, notes that young people today expect good design, like they have in their high-tech iPhones.
“Good design should be built into their environment,” he said. “It’s not just what you put in your pocket.”
He laments buildings that are not “thoughtful.” Buildings that are slapped together “have no soul in them,” he said. So, he pours his soul into every space he envisions.
“Creating a beautiful space to live, work, eat and drink coffee has a tangible effect on people,” he said.
Chris Dawson Architect (CDA) is located at 300 N. 2nd St., Suite 701, Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-805-5090 or visit www.chrisdawsonarchitect.com.