It’s hard not to love El Dorado, for being smart, ethical, attractive, well-built ... and that’s just the architecture. El Dorado is practical: The 12 people who make up the Kansas City, Mo.–based practice see design as being less about the creation of beautiful objects—though they do that very well—and more about the solving of clients’ problems. El Dorado is hard-working, producing an average of 15 projects a year while also maintaining a fabrication shop where the firm builds out many of the details of its projects. And its leaders are humble, having figured out how to grow a practice without taking themselves too seriously or letting their work cross the line between well-crafted and precious.
Oh, yeah, and they’re funny. Depending on who you ask, the name El Dorado either came about because of a shared love of the story of Don Quixote; an ill-advised evening stopover in Eldorado, Texas; “because we could have been Skid Plate”—or any other obscure part on a Cadillac Eldorado, for that matter; or (in the by-the-book, albeit tongue-in-cheek version) because the name suggests a serious but lighthearted quest for the indefinable “something more” in architecture.
The practice began as a hobby when, in 1996, three employees of BNIM—Douglas Stockman, Dan Maginn, and Jamie Darnell—and some like-minded colleagues, leased 10,000 square feet in Kansas City’s waning industrial district, the Crossroads. Their plan was to make a place where they and other architects could get back in touch with craft in the off hours. Half of the space was dedicated to a gallery, called El Dorado, for the display of the furniture and other fabrications that they and their friends had made. The other 5,000 square feet, in the basement, were devoted to a workshop—a dicey proposition, considering that low wood-beam ceilings and welding sparks are a nail-biting combination.
In 1997, the gallery closed its doors and, after a soul-searching moment and some good advice from their mentors, the three principals transitioned to a full-time practice by the same name. “I went to ask for a leave of absence [from BNIM],” Maginn says. “And instead of denying me, they said, ‘Go. You have to do this.’?” In 1998, David Dowell joined as a principal, and Josh Shelton followed in 2002. At first, the firm underwent a bit of an identity crisis: With a growing number of commissions for furniture, were they fabricators or were they architects? And they suffered the typical growing pains of figuring out how to run a business: “[Stockman] is our director of finance, because at the time, he was the only one who balanced his check book,” Shelton says. But they quickly realized that if the things they cared about—fabrication, public art, design—were funneled through architecture, they could create a solid brand.
El Dorado approaches each new project with a discovery phase, listening to the client’s needs and then repeating them back so that the client is certain of the direction. “We are continually surprised by how right the client is,” Maginn says. “But we would run into problems if we tried to project onto them what is right.” When the time comes for design, a project team made up of two principals (with one as a lead) and staff designers will boil down the client’s complex problem to a first move. “We’ve developed a bit of intuition,” Maginn says. “Intuition and intellect help us to make decisions, but the underlying theme is always striving for simplicity.”
Now, 12 years after it started, El Dorado has made a name for itself in Kansas City. The firm has done so many projects in the Crossroads neighborhood that walking to get a coffee is like flipping through the firm’s portfolio. From one street corner, one can see El Dorado’s exterior rehabilitation of the TWA Corporate Headquarters; Pizzabella, a restaurant interior the firm designed; and a spec office building where it collaborated on a light installation with artist James Woodfill. The architects are proud of their prominent role in transforming the neighborhood, but they never come across as complacent.
Describing their practice as “post-pubescent,” the four principals (Darnell left earlier this year) outline a clear goal for the future: to diversify their geographical portfolio and move on to bigger-scaled projects, while maintaining a thorough and thoughtful approach to their work. To that end, the firm has opened a satellite office in Wichita, Kan., to pursue public works projects. “Wichita is going through its urban renewal,” Stockman says. “There is an arts community there that is isolated within their downtown, but it is easy for our clients to hire us because of our experience [with the Crossroads redevelopment in Kansas City].” A map of proposals sent out in the last month show projects as far away as Arlington, Va. However far the firm expands, its projects are worth following. And not just because we love El Dorado, but because you should, too.