June 14, 2021
New Talent: Common Works Builds a Fresh Legacy in Oklahoma
Founded on simplicity and practicality, a home-grown firm is helping define Oklahoma City’s creative identity.
It’s a common predicament: 18-year-olds leave home and, given the pressure of familial and societal expectations, find themselves facing a decision on what they want to do. For Asa Highsmith, founder of Oklahoma City–based architecture and design studio Common Works, the path wasn’t so clear. Previously enrolled in the pharmacy program at the University of Oklahoma, he says, “I kind of had an early-life crisis and was like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ ” Always drawn to creative practices such as music but fearing they weren’t a “viable career choice,” Highsmith eventually switched majors to architecture as a way to exercise his creativity. “It wasn’t an initial passion for me, but I grew into it and it became a passion as I worked at it.”
Graduating in 2008, Highsmith was able to find work at a local firm and “clung tightly to it for five years to ride out the recession.” He’d been born in Oklahoma, and his roots were firmly planted, but he sought new ways to contribute to the city’s burgeoning arts and design scene. To veer away from the ego and hierarchy often associated with top-down production-style firms, Highsmith made the leap to start his own studio in 2015 after a client approached him to design an ambitious addition to The Academy of Classical Christian Studies that would fetch a fee larger than his salary. It was only one project, but after years of making connections in the local design community, it seemed like a risk worth taking.
“Frankly, I was a little naive in considering what size job I could do,” he says regarding his first contract designing the academy. “It was a fairly difficult project to be our first. I quickly realized I needed to hire some people.” So he hired two other designers, and holds the intention that everyone he hires can become a partner. He says, “I don’t want to bring anyone on that doesn’t have that opportunity.”
The experience taught him skills that were critical in founding his own firm, such as designing in a more collaborative work environment and developing a distinct visual language within the city’s unique context. Common Works’ design was an upgrade for the institution: The 18,000-square-foot educational complex doubled the school’s capacity, expanded the size of classrooms, and provided students with a new chapel characterized by warm woods and angelic daylighting. The building has an elegant clarity of form that now resonates throughout the firm’s portfolio of residences, restaurants, and public space projects.
For Highsmith, good design isn’t about grand, “budget-breaking” concepts or sculptural gestures. “It’s about starting as simply as possible,” he explains. “Most of our projects are basically rectangular boxes that we then make decisions from as we go.”
This formal refinement along with restrained use of materials—primarily brick, metal panels, and cement board—is evident in the studio’s residential designs. 612 Northwest Sixth Street, one of two spec homes built in the city’s Cottage District, collides two gabled brick volumes, a move that positions views toward the downtown skyline, while translating traditional architectural elements into a contemporary design.
Oklahoma City is shaped by architect I.M. Pei’s disaster of a 1960s urban redevelopment plan, a context that designers are forced to work within. The Pei Plan called for the demolition of hundreds of historic structures but failed to follow through with new infill, leaving the downtown full of “missing teeth” construction sites and a lack of a local vernacular to draw on. The Sixth Street Homes gracefully sit on a large plot of land that sat empty for years. Because of this, Common Works dedicates as much of its budget as possible toward landscaping. “The experience of arrival and the space outside a building is just as important to me as the building itself,” Highsmith says.
Despite its challenges, Oklahoma City has undergone a rich period of transformation in recent years in terms of fostering the arts and developing a creative identity through recent projects such as the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center and the immersive work of art collective Factory Obscura. “There’s been growing pains of starting to find a voice in what local creativity means,” says Highsmith. “I see a lot of value in the architectural community in these efforts.” Common Works is betting big on its future in a vision of what Oklahoma design can be.
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