There’s a mystique to John McAllister’s offer as we stand on the third floor of our St. Louis office. John’s tone suggests meeting Ernesto is experiential. So I nod yes and follow him to the elevator.
We travel three floors down. “To the basement,” John says. And a few moments later the elevator doors open, we round a corner, and there’s Ernesto, CannonDesign’s Director of Visualization, surrounded by computer screens, headphones, VR goggles, laptops, power cords and more. He has the basement essentially to himself. There are Batcave vibes in the air.
Fast forward a few years. It’s Feb. 2021 and Ernesto and I are chatting via Zoom. We’ve worked together a bunch in the years since our first meet up, but I’ve never really had a chance to learn about Ernesto the person. I’m expecting a long chat on augmented reality, video games, computer chips…Batcave stuff. So admittedly, it’s a surprise when just a few minutes in we’re discussing avocado farms.
“My family, from my mother’s side, has an avocado grove back home in Mexico,” Ernesto says. “My grandfather participated in the Bracero Program during World War II. He left his town in Mexico and worked in the U.S. for six years. He saved all his money and, with my grandmother, purchased 25 acres in the beautiful mountains of Michoacan [midwest Mexico]. He returned to tend the avocado farm that my family still maintains.”
Born in Mexico City, raised in Villahermosa, Tabasco (a city in the southeast portion of the country just footsteps from beautiful beaches), Ernesto now calls St. Louis home. As our Director of Visualization, he helps our design teams and clients visualize their work with the leading-edge technology of our time. From virtual reality models, to augmented reality collaboration, gamification and more, Ernesto virtually brings design solutions to life before they’re built—leading to remarkable design experiences, better outcomes and innovation.
“I’ve never been to Mexico,” I tell him. “Can you help me visualize where you grew up?”
“Mexico is so vibrant and compelling,” he reflects as his eyes seem to look toward the distance. “Where I grew up, we were two hours from the Mayan City of Palenque. My parents would take us there multiple times each year. Those early experiences, walking the archeological complex, being amazed by the verticality and detail of the architecture, walking to the King’s Tomb down steep and incredibly small stair tunnels in which the heat would almost instantly vanish…it impacted me. Ignited my passion for architecture. It definitely influenced my film photography and architectural studies later in life.”
He continues, “Mexico is beautiful around every corner. The country has seven principal ecosystems each with its own distinct culinary region. The City of Villahermosa is full of amazing buildings. There is a stunning lagoon and rainforest that define the city’s main park, Tomas Garrido Canabal Park, which includes museums rich with Mayan and Olmec architecture and art. The place looks like something from Jurassic Park! It was a wonderful place to grow up.”
I am Googling the Mexican sites as he describes them. They are as beautiful and incredible as he suggests. “So, you could say, we have the Ancient Mayans to thank for your leading-edge work in architecture technology?”
“Well, not just the Mayans,” Ernesto smiles with humility. “You know it’s really interesting. My father, my sister, they are doctors. And, I was supposed to be a doctor. But It wasn’t for me. My father actually volunteered me for morgue duty at a local hospital my senior year of high school. I helped with a few autopsies, and immediately knew medicine wasn’t going to be my career. I have never looked back.
“Fortunately, my father befriended a local architect in our hometown. I loved looking at his drawings. I studied his work. I studied the buildings of southeast Mexico. We have a lot of brutalist design by architects like Teodoro Gonzales de Leon. Big buildings, iconic stairs, lots of concrete and marble floors. I would walk through these spaces every day to and from elementary school. Experiencing how light plays inside the Centro Administrativo Tabasco 2000 building really made me appreciate design at an early age. Eventually, I asked the architect if I could intern with him. He obliged and I spent one summer working with him, learning about design software, sketching. I was hooked.”
Then, Ernesto headed to college where he studied architecture and graphic design while also playing basketball.
“Life was great. After college, I decided to move to Miami with my girlfriend at the time and I started working for small firms. Life got busy from there, I had my daughter Kumari, relocated to Chicago and then St. Louis, eventually married my wonderful wife, Ashley, and found CannonDesign.”
“That’s two decades in three paragraphs,” I laugh with Ernesto. “And this whole time, you worked in design. Were you always on the cutting-edge of design technology?”
“I’ve always loved tech, whether it’s building computers or playing video games. It’s always been a passion of mine,” he responds. “But, I’ll be honest, it was when I worked in Chicago. The projects I worked on were admittedly kind of boring. But, I started really getting into visualization. It gave me the opportunity to pick up 3D modeling in AutoCAD, I’d just explore while also creating these massive renderings. That’s when I really found my niche in the design world. Since then, CannonDesign has really let me explore that at the highest of levels.”
We spend a bit more time talking about his visualization work for our teams. He’s created a VR model of a college sports arena where people can shoot virtual hoops, he’s created incredibly rich animations for our ModularDesign+ team, he’s helped us lead multi-user Virtual Reality sessions with leading academic medical centers, health systems and colleges and universities.
“If you have an idea on how to unite architecture and gaming, you can find a way,” he smiles. “That’s the joy, that’s the challenge. My work unites so many of my passions. It’s exciting every day…truly.”
He tells me that cycling is one of many ways he fell in love with St. Louis. “I joined a cycling group called the WolfPack Hustle. They were intense. 30- and 60-mile rides on Sunday nights. It helped me learn the city and make a number of friends.”
“I started riding competitively,” he adds. St. Louis has Penrose Park, one of only a few velodromes in the midwest. “It was super fun competing and racing. I loved it, but my competitive career came to an end after a pretty significant accident and injury in the velodrome. Now I just ride all the time to stay fit, explore the city. I ride a lot with Andrew Petty[our firm BIM leader]. We ride in Forest Park, we ride along the river, we grab coffee…he doesn’t crash into me.”
We smile. And then I ask, “So if you’re not biking or working, is it fair to say you’re gaming?”
Ernesto’s eyes light up. “Gaming has been one of the biggest parts of my life. I remember when my dad brought home an Atari. We played Pac Man and I was hooked. Video games, it’s storytelling. I was inspired by the original 3D games like Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake and now there are games like Assassin’s Creed Origins, Red Dead Redemption 2, Death Stranding, they are so detailed, complex, and so immersive. I love playing them, yes, but I love the stories they tell. I love experiencing the architecture and environment, thinking about the time and work that went into the smallest of details.
“The gaming really blends with my love of anime and comics, too. I used to watch Anime shows like Thundercats, Mazinger Z, Voltron, and I read every DC and Marvel comic I could find, still do actually. I’ve always been enamored with the art. Todd McFarlane and Greg Capullo, those guys are my favorite comic book artists. They take it to another level.
My passion for sketching stems from comics. Before the pandemic I used to spend my Sunday mornings at Road Crew Coffee & Cycles sketching for hours. It gave me a chance to exercise those creative muscles and meet others passionate about art, design and innovation. Then I’d head to Apotheosis Comics & Lounge for a beer, board games or some alone time with a new graphic novel.
He pauses. “Gaming, comics, sketching, it all influences my work at CannonDesign, too. I think we’re getting to a point with VR and immersive technologies where we can really up the ante with gamification and experiential design. In the years ahead, there’s so much potential to gamify our work to make it more entertaining, effective, enjoyable, educational. Just like video games, we can tell incredible stories with our work.”
“My daughter plays video games too,” he continues. “She’s in college and has many of my same interests. She loves gaming, graphics, anime, sketching. My daughter, my wife, we all play video games together every week; we are really into Diablo 3 and Mario Kart 8, it gets super competitive.”
There’s so much to learn from Ernesto’s online presence. But I ask him if there’s anything I haven’t covered. Any other passion that might surprise me.
“Music,” he notes. “I love music, and my wife studied classical piano and voice growing up. Before the pandemic, we used to go to the St. Louis Symphony once a month. The musicians are so talented, so inspiring; it is a spiritual space for us. Powell Hall is an incredible building, too.”
“Music is also deeply embedded in my work,” he recounts. “When we’re creating an animation, the tempo helps drive the movement and story.”
I agree and ask him about his personal tastes in music. He loves Salsa: El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico; Jazz: Dizzy Gillespie; Afrobeat: Fela Kuti; Heavy Metal: Metallica; and Hip Hop: Tupac Shakur, Wu-tang Clan and MF DOOM. “Hip hop is one of the loves of my life,” he shares. “It speaks about the struggle of minorities in the land of the free. The way it blends poetry, storytelling, super heroes, verbal energy, aggressive language – the voice of the voiceless.”
I lament that we weren’t able to do this interview in person. A cycle around town, some Red Dead Redemption, a coffee at Road Crew, a beer at Apotheosis, Tupac’s Me Against the World playing in the background. Hanging out together in a different bat cave than I first imagined.
He agrees and shares his frustration with the pandemic. It has been two years since he traveled back to Mexico. He can’t wait to soon safely visit his mother, father, sister, grandfather and the rest of the family. I ask him if he thinks he’ll move back there someday later in life.
“In some fashion, for sure. I could see us splitting our time 50/50 between the U.S. and Mexico. I love living there, my family, the weather, the mountains, the beach, the archaeological sites. Someday.”
Just as Ernesto detailed two decades in three paragraphs, he’s now told me a life story in an hour. From the rainforests of Mexico to the streets of St. Louis, Ernesto is sketching a story as rich, vibrant, nuanced and incredible as the animations he creates and the video games he loves.