Norman Ward’s Joy-Filled Life

Written by: Gaile Robinson

In December, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects presented Norman Ward with its highest honor, the Charles R. Adams Award for Design Excellence. “It’s not a lifetime achievement. The award recognizes a body of work over a sustained period of time, as opposed to individual projects that dazzle,” says Greg Ibañez, chairman of the AIA Fort Worth’s honor committee.

The awardee — and there have been only a handful of them — doesn’t have to be doddering or have landed a monster commission. The Adams is given for an exceptional portfolio, and colleagues say Ward was due. “Overdue,” corrects Ibañez.

Ward designed the interiors of Artspace111 and the Community Arts Center in downtown Fort Worth. Artist Dan Blagg, who worked with him on both project, notes that Ward doesn’t let his ego get in the way of anything, even changes or revisions. “We worked together on rough sketches and ways of cutting up the space,” Blag explains, “and he was always able and eager to redo or redraw.”

Not flashy, Ward’s work is sensitive and extremely well-crafted, which seems to fly in the face of most building projects. He has a two-person practice that he operates out of his house in Cresson. His employee, Ernest Curry, who builds the exquisite models and helps with the design process, lives and works in Dallas. They communicate electronically about the projects, which are primarily residential.

The award-winning architect voices a simplistic, straightforward approach that seems to come through in everything he does. “My whole idea of work is the joy of making,” he says. “I don’t build a house. It’s the joy of making a house.”

Ward’s own home was built in a recently developed area of Cresson with winding streets and multistoried builder homes fronted by elaborate facades on enormous, flattened lots. In contrast, his simple, modernist house sits at the end of the road, situated to embrace the view of hilltop scrub and expansive sky. It hasn’t turned its back on the neighborhood, but it certainly isn’t paying any attention to it either. The home has been turned sideways to allow an easy view of 100-year-old oak trees and a spring-fed creek.

“Most modernism in neighborhoods tends to be bombastic; his are not,” says Max Levy, a Dallas architect who also has a thriving residential practice. “His are generally thoughtful and easy on the eye. The scale does not overwhelm and the materials are generally warm. That may sound like mild praise, but in an era of bombast, those qualities are needed.

“He’s a wonderful nest-builder,” Levy adds, noting that Ward’s modest and soft-spoken demeanor suits his building type and also appeals to clients. “They want to ask an architect to build their nest. They don’t want someone who is going to bully and intimidate them. He has a caring and gentle way.”
Taking an almost childlike glee in his work, Ward surrounds himself with toys he has made, drawings that reflect books he has read and people he admires. He begins each project with simple, seemingly-naive drawings that might seem more suitable for a children’s book than a client presentation. Yet, these are the bedrock from which all else emanates. A look back through photographs of finished houses, elevation drawings and first sketches reveals the role these charming little drawings played in encapsulating the big picture.

“His drawing are very unique among architects,” says Levy. “Most architectural illustration incorporates atmospherics and drama. What is dramatic about Norman’s is they so thoroughly depart from the norm. They are visually joyous about the creation all around us, the life around us, and he takes pleasure in that. He has a personal vocabulary of signs and symbols, and his drawings usually tell a story about some architectural idea. You can see those ideas in his buildings.”

A visit to Ward’s home reveals another delight: His toys and sculptures look remarkably like his drawings — like little machines that might plow or fly. They look like they are meant for work: They all do something, and they win things. A sculptural piece that has won several awards, Water From Heaven for Rikki Lynn, was made to explain to children how architects depict a three-dimensional structure on a two-dimensional surface. Another piece that has won graphic design awards is a Lucite box with three small books inside that use his models and drawings. His houses have received Honor or Merit awards from the local AIA chapter eight of the past 12 years.

Ward would never offer a treatise on his architectural theories or explain his architectural philosophy to his clients. “That is a monologue,” he says. “We need to have a relationship.
“We start with those little drawings,” he adds. “Then we start solving problems from the standpoint of the envelope, not from the floor plan. The floor plan is a generator and people get caught up in the floor plan, which is an organizational tool. I don’t want to solve it that way. I start with the envelope. That way the idea is embedded.”

Even Levy, who is known for his own artful sketching, is in awe of Ward’s initial drawings. “Overall, I think his drawings are cheerful, dashing, dramatic and cooler than you could ever be. It’s a little intimidating.”
This fall, Ward handed out some of his small sketches at Arts Goggle under the tent set up by the AIA chapter. Under the banner “Ask an Architect,” he gave away his drawings to any child who asked him a question. Those little freebies are worth keeping, framing and protecting.

Currently, he has several projects in various stages of completion. Among them: a house in Cedar Hill for pharmacist Katharine Huynh that is based on feng shui principles. “She told me, ‘Don’t read any books about feng shui. I’ll tell you everything you need to know,’ and she has,” he says.
Another is a small house in Monticello, and he is in the final design stages for a house on Lake Worth for Gelasia Bennett. “From the get-go, I wanted a house with modern architecture that was soft and comfortable on the inside,” Bennett says. She also wanted color in the design, so Ward is incorporating panels of colored glass into the exterior that will throw color onto the inside walls as the sun moves across the sky.

Ward’s amenable attitude is often cited by his clients and admirers, perhaps because Ward says business is all about relationships. “You can call it business if you want to,” he explains, “but, in a way, you are still choosing clients, and they are choosing you. Clients are not only looking for a good architect: they want a type of relationship, because it’s about time.

“As an architect I’d be very sad if I designed a house for someone, and even if it was beautiful, they said ‘I didn’t get what I wanted.’ I want to hear ‘Not only is it what I wanted, it’s good architecture.’ That, to me, is joy.”