Chris Whitcomb
Chris Whitcomb
September 19, 2021

Architecture Feels Like Breathing: The ABCs of Arjun Bhat

Chris Whitcomb
Chris Whitcomb

There’s a razor-sharp duality to Arjun Bhat you can sense as soon as you speak with him. 

Here’s a young architect, who has led some of the largest, most complex and sophisticated design projects in our firm in recent years. You can just sense his ability to decipher intricate challenges with speed and clarity. But at the same time, he possesses cool simplicity and straightforwardness. “Let’s do this,” he says as he appears on my Zoom screen to chat.

What follows is a fun 60-minute conversation where Arjun details his life, work and passions. And somewhere along the way, I realize it’s a story best told in alphabetic form.

Architecture. When I was a child, I just decided I wanted to be an architect. I think I thought about being an astronaut and then an archaeologist, but it was really always architecture. I guess I just never explored many professions in the dictionary beyond the letter A. But honestly, it’s been a wonderful journey. They say things are never as simple as they seem – but this has been. I love architecture. It feels like breathing.

Building. In high school, I built sets for our theater group. That was fun and an early way for me to exercise my passion for architecture and design. I took every shop class I could. I took architectural drafting and drawing. Some of the sketches from back then, they make me laugh a bit at their…..lack of sophistication, but that’s where it all started.

Cities. I’ve always tried to bring city design ideas to buildings. I want to create urban systems and realities at the building scale. What are the trajectories people will take through this space, just like the trajectories they take through the city? How can they work, play, relax, socialize, eat and live in different ways at different times during their day. The way cities develop, the accretion of people and buildings, how it all grows and decays – it reflects our values as a society.  I feel like buildings can too. That approach fuels my work.

Decisions. My father is a scientist, and he and my mother moved from India to the United States when he took a postdoctoral position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York. We lived there a few years, my parents and I, then we moved to St. Louis. 

So much of my family still lives in India though. And it’s really crazy. Had I grown up there, my career would have been decided for me. I’d have been a doctor or scientist. Living here enabled me to choose architecture, to decide to be an architect. I’m grateful for that. It could have easily been the other way.

Epicurean. My girlfriend and I recently discovered an Eater.com article that profiled 20 of the best restaurants in St. Louis and we’ve made it our mission to try them all. Just last week, we visited our 8th on the list. It’s been fun. I’m comfortable saying that the St. Louis food scene is such a hidden gem, it rivals any other city I’ve lived in. Some of my favorite places are Brennan’s ; Lucky Accomplice ; and Planter’s House. But, I could go on and on…. There’s so many great places.

The love of food is kind of in my genes.  My great grandfather was a pretty notable chef in the village he came from and my grandfather owned a very successful restaurant. Their love of cooking and food touches every corner of my family. We’re food obsessed. Every aunt, cousin and/or uncle has a dish or two they are known for that we all love.

Family. When I was younger, we’d visit India every other summer and we still travel there often. The pandemic has changed that for the time being, and I can’t wait to see my extended family when it’s safe. My mother is the youngest of six and my father is the youngest of eight, so we just have this incredibly huge family back there.  In St Louis, it’s just my parents and my brother and me. I’ve always wanted to be able to show my extended family our hometown (almost none of them have visited the US), so maybe that can happen once travel becomes safer and people start moving around again.

Golf. I play preppy sports. I would have shied away from the label when I was younger, but I’ve come to terms with it. I picked up golf in college, but I’ve played tennis my entire life (since I was old enough to hold my dad’s wooden Slazenger racquet, but not quite old enough to swing it without falling over). Maybe I’ll take up polo or hai-lai next. Who knows. 

Home. I’ve lived in St. Louis – the Chesterfield suburbs – the majority of my life. When my father moved here for work, I’m pretty sure he spoke with other Indian immigrants who told him Chesterfield, MO would be a good spot, so that’s where we moved. I did my undergrad at University of Kansas, then my graduate studies at MIT. My first job was in San Francisco. So I left and moved around a bit, but I’ve been back in STL for eight years now. Family brought me back and it keeps me here.

India. I wouldn’t say my Indian heritage and family directly influence the visual components of my design work, but it definitely shapes my perspective. Having traveled there, you realize life can be so different for people simply based on where they were born. The flip of a coin.

When I was eight years old, I’d travel from St. Louis to India and I would see kids my age in destitute poverty. It makes you grateful. It makes you appreciate what you have. It makes you want to strive for positive change in the world. I’m proud to possess  that perspective.

Junior Board. Outside of work, I serve on the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum’s Junior Board. We help the museum organize events and raise funds that support local art programs and the museum operations. CannonDesign also supports and partners with them for various events. When I moved back to St. Louis from San Francisco, I wanted to ensure I connected with local artists and creatives, and this has been a fun way to do that.

University of Kansas (KU) is a special place for me. I remain engaged with their design programs through reviews and career fairs…I chaired the 2019 alumni symposium. I want to give back to the next generation and help them with the same opportunities KU provided me. I also love the town and the professors– it was such a formative time of my life.

Landscape. I’ve always been really driven to create architecture that makes the most of its landscape. I worked for a landscape design firm in San Francisco out of school, so I’m sure that imprinted my approach, but I think so often that buildings don’t take nearly as much advantage of their landscapes as they could. It’s one of the easiest, cheapest, most natural ways to enhance our built environment.

There’s clear evidence that integrating nature and landscape into our work has positive impacts on human health. It’s common sense, but we still don’t do it nearly enough. We need to think about space more holistically. Let’s create great places to be, to come together, to live… and then buildings can happen.

Mount Sinai. The Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Skolnick Surgical Tower and ED is a project I’m really proud to have worked on. Sitting on the Miami Beach, FL coast, it’s designed to reflect the culture and vibrancy of that region. It’s uniquely shaped, visually stunning, and impactful for the community.

It’s also a great example of integrating landscape and architecture. The design makes the most of the coastal views, and blue interiors inside reflect the water outside. One of my favorite aspects of the project is these berms positioned outside the building. The berms help us obscure the views of a necessary parking space we needed to have on the site, and they’ve also become spaces for socialization and respite. When the sun isn’t full-on, families and staff sit there to talk, relax, or take a phone call. There’s a privacy, an intimacy, a wonder to the space that wouldn’t exist without them.

NEXT. I served on CannonDesign’s NEXT Council from 2016 – 2018. When I describe it to people outside our company, I say it’s like a junior advisory board for the executive leadership of the company – part think tank, part emerging leaders group.

I’ll be honest, initially I was extremely skeptical of joining. It just didn’t seem like something I’d be interested in. But, Allison Mendez in our office kept pushing me to apply, so I did, and I’m glad I took her advice. I’ve always believed you shouldn’t complain until you’ve exhausted every avenue to affect the change you want to see – joining NEXT seemed like a logical extension of that motto. I gained a lot of perspective from that experience that has impacted my development. I’d encourage anyone (skeptic or not, but especially skeptics) to apply to NEXT Council. I think those are exactly the sort of people any think tank needs to function best.

O’Reilly. The Missouri State O’Reilly Clinical Health Sciences Center is another key project in my career. The whole building is planned around this central plaza that then feeds into essentially a street ascending the entire building. It’s another example of creating a building with urban design concepts. Students from all disciplines come here to study, work, research. We don’t often create buildings with as much “free space” where people can come together to share ideas and connect as we did with this building. The multitude of disciplines, the cross-pollination of ideas – it’s been a huge success.

Purpose. Family is the main reason I returned to St. Louis, but I also wanted to do more meaningful work. A lot of the projects I touched in San Francisco were residential, sometimes second homes or vacation homes – isolated projects that didn’t seem to impact anyone outside of the family or person we designed them for.  And that was fine for a time – I was able to learn a lot through that experience, but…I just wanted my career to have a larger impact on the communities where they were located– to design projects that had a greater purpose. 

I always say St. Louis is a cake that isn’t fully baked yet. You can still really invest here and change communities with relatively little capital. It’s much easier to feel relevant here, to change lives via design. I think it’s a great town for an architect to live in.

Quit. Not many people know this, but I actually interviewed to work at CannonDesign in 2008. I didn’t get the job, and I ultimately went to San Francisco. Five years later, when I was ready to come back home, things worked out perfectly. Keep doing what you love and the pieces fall in place. Don’t quit on your dreams as they say.

Ragamuffins. When I lived in San Francisco, some good college friends of mine that were out there asked me if I wanted to go on a bike ride, maybe camp a little, etc. – a few weekends after I first moved there. Gullible, optimistic, I said, “sure.” It ended up being a tortuous 25-mile mostly 10-15% grade climb up winding switchbacks in the middle of redwood forests. I hadn’t ridden a bike in years, and was painfully out of shape. Just totally ill-prepared for the whole thing. I must have fallen off my bike 4-5 times and I could barely breathe for most of the trip.

My friends all had a good laugh (at my expense). And because I’m a masochist, I kept going on future trips, even though everyone in the group thought I’d never get on a bike with them again.  That group of people ended up turning into a really close friend group of mine and I fell in love with our bike-camping weekends.  One day, someone made bike jerseys for us all that had the word “Ragamuffins” emblazoned on the front, and that’s what we called ourselves from then on.

Silos. Health, education…I’ve been lucky to work across all different markets in my career to date. Honestly, that’s intentional. There’s a great culture in our St. Louis office that actively works to eliminate silos. It’s very easy to become a widget in a large firm, but we ensure that doesn’t happen.

Teachers. There’s so many wonderful mentors in my career who have taught me so much. David Polzin and Tom Bergmann have been great influences. Not just when it comes to architecture, but how to be a professional, how to find my voice. Natalie Petzoldt also never stops empowering me. She’s helped me shape relationships with C-Suite leaders and she’s just an incredible advocate. Also, Craig Norman, he’s retired now, but he taught me so much in the world of technical architecture. There are others too. I’m lucky. I’m grateful to each and all of them.

Under 40. It was great when the St. Louis Business Journal selected me for their 40 Under 40 list. They highlighted the number of impactful organizations I’d been fortunate to work with, from Missouri State University to Dignity Health, University of Kansas Health, Mount Sinai, Franciscan St. Anthony Health. Like I said earlier, my career just kind of keeps falling in place. Architecture is still like breathing.

Venice Cafe.Hands down one of my favorite places in St. Louis. It’s in Benton Park, my favorite STL neighborhood, and my favorite thing to do on a summer night is to hang out on their back patio with friends, order some cheap drinks, and blow off some steam. If you ever go, a few things: First, bring cash. And second, don’t expect mixologists. But, you can expect live music and the most Burning-Man inspired aesthetic you’ve ever seen.

Waste. I talked about seeing those other children in India living in poverty. And then I think about the opportunities, the teachers, the decisions I’ve had in my life. I’ve been given a lot, I know you can’t waste these kinds of opportunities. I really want to leave a legacy of beautiful architecture and lives changed when it’s all said and done.

XYZ…. What’s next? I’m leading some really large projects right now including work at BJC here in St. Louis. Which is especially cool for me, as my little brother works in their Phase 1 tower as an anesthesiologist. I’ve done a lot of healthcare work in my career, but I’d still love to design a sports venue at some point. We submitted a proposal on St. Louis’ new MLS stadium a few years back but didn’t ultimately win the project. I would love to design that kind of venue, it’s a civic function I’ve never really touched. It would be so cool to design something that impacts a city on that many levels.

All photos of Arjun Bhat (not building photography) taken by Myrina Otey in St. Louis.