Kevin Fennell: Architect
Director of Design & Construction at 21c Museum Hotels
WFU Class of 1999
Minor: Studio Art
Architect Kevin Fennell is very passionate about his hometown of Louisville. As Director of Design & Construction at 21c Museum Hotels, he is taking part in catalyzing the arts and culture wave in the American Midwest. We spoke with Kevin about how his career has unfolded since graduating from Wake Forest.
DeacLink: What did you study at Wake? How has your career unfolded since?
Kevin Fennell: I earned a BS in Biology at Wake, and I was actually on the premed track. However, I also had a minor in studio art. I had plans to go to med school, and when I graduated, I did medical research for two years with Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
As part of the studio art minor, I took an architectural history class. I was very excited about what I was learning, and thought it was something I might want to look into as a career. Instead of transitioning quickly, I wanted to continue on my path in the medical field. While in Chicago, I found a nontraditional architecture program at night. Archeworks is a socially driven architecture design school. Many of the students come from multidisciplinary backgrounds, and you work together as teams on a project that normally has a social focus. I worked on a project with an architect, business person and a product designer to develop a proposal for alternative care for alzheimer's. Other teams were working on products or things related to ADA design. It was structured so that you had year long projects with small teams, and it was a night school program so could maintain a full time job. This program convinced me to apply to architecture school.
I applied to programs that had two degree programs. I ended up at UPenn, where I received degrees in architecture and landscape architecture. The way it worked is that you apply for one program first (landscape architecture in my case), and spend a year in that program while applying for the other degree (architecture). You spend a year just in the second program, and then your courses are combined for the rest of the program.
After finishing my graduate degree at UPenn, I then applied to landscape and architecture firms, and I chose to pursue architecture. I worked for a firm in New York, SHoP Architects, for seven years. That was a fantastic experience and group of people, but my wife and I decided to leave and move to Louisville, where I had grown up. I took a job at an architecture firm (GBBN Architects) there, and in October of 2015 I left to join 21c Museum Hotels, which is a boutique hotel company and art museum. They are currently six properties, and we are about to open our seventh. They are a multi-venue museum with curated shows and gallery spaces.
DL: Would you mind telling me more about what you do at 21c?
KF: I am the Director of Design and Construction. For all intents and purposes, I work with the design team (architects, designers and interior designers) and I work with construction teams as we are building a project. I also work with the development team doing feasibility analyses. Since I have been in the office, we have opened Oklahoma City, and Nashville is about to open. Kansas City is currently under construction.
DL: How have you found the different jobs you've had?
KF: In the world of architecture and design, every year there is another class of people that is graduating. One of the great things about this industry is that on job training and apprenticeship is the norm. There are always opportunities as recent graduates to find a job. Firms have a process in place for hiring people without experience and training them. Part of working as an architect is training new people.
Design and architecture offices are always relying on interns and summer work. Firms gear up and prepare to bring people in the summer for special projects, and firms often hold competitions in the summertime when they have more staff. That’s when you do model making and renderings where students can learn a bit about the design and process of representing their ideas.
There are not high barriers to entry for this field other than having an advanced degree. Part of the profession is to bring people on and train them. Project teams have a hierarchy, and that is driven by the fact that people are supposed to come in learn the project, and then subsequently grow into running projects of their own.
DL: Architecture is not something most students think about as an undergrad. How do you think they could gain more exposure to the field while in school?
KF: I think that is a difficult question. I would have taken a very different path if it weren’t for a class I took the last semester of my college career. I wasn’t exposed to the things I need to be exposed to until it was too late. I think that it is good to try and offer people a snapshot into where people have landed. People’s expectations in college don’t always play out. Career choices get fine tuned.
In North Carolina, the other others schools with an architecture program are UNCC and UNC Greensboro. There’s always opportunities for partnership and independent study. Professors I had in biology and at Wake were very supportive of independent study. They helped me find the overlap between studio art and biology. Students should consider investigating ideas related to architecture, and seeing how they could leverage potential partnerships with other universities to explore these ideas.
The other thing to think about is internships. Students should try and get into a design office or something they’re interested in. It’s good to work 9-5, get foot in the door, and see if it’s something you want to pursue.
DL: How do you like living in Louisville? What is the art scene like there?
KF: Louisville is my hometown, and I have a great affection for it. I didn’t expect to be hack here for my career. However, it’s a boomerang town, people come back. It’s a very welcoming place. It’s also a place where you have a great lifestyle with parks, restaurants and bars. There’s great history with the different neighborhoods. Since coming back, I have met people who didn’t have any connections to Louisville who have moved here and have been blown away by it. It is a large small town or a small large city. It has a strong sense of arts and culture, and there is a broader Midwestern culture. The people here also have very different background and perspectives on things. It is a cultured city, the arts community is very supportive and active in outreach to all communities. That defines the city in a lot of ways.
21c is also reflection of the culture here. It is a window into the activity and things we are doing here. It is a brand that is growing from here to catalyze the art scene in other places.
DL: What advice do you have for students considering moving to Louisville?
KF: Louisville is a very welcoming city, but I would recommended having a job first before moving here. Also, there are a lot of different kinds of neighbors. Historic and new neighborhoods. You can find the lifestyle and living arrangement you like.
Louisville is also a city that is large enough that you have resources at your disposal. There are a large number of companies and businesses that are thriving. You can find a network of people to help you do what you want to do . Also the city is not so large that you are in a constant battle and squeezed out by competition. It’s the sort of city that is supportive of professional ambitions. People that have started things in Louisville have been very pleased by what they can do here because of the size of the market and the culture of business.
DL: What do you think Wake arts could do to better prepare students for life after graduation?
KF: I was not aware of exposure to a lot of career opportunities. In biology, if you were pre-med, it was assumed that you were pursuing more academics and going to medical school. In the arts, it was very similar; you go on to get your MA or MFA. There was always a vision for more school. I didn't have a lot of exposure to career opportunities, and I don't recall relying on anyone at Wake to help guide me into making connections or jobs after graduation.
WFU Students, plan your visit to the 21c Durham NC location today