By Christina Sturdivant Sani
Charles C. Almonte, AIA, has two decades of professional experience in architecture, interior design, and historic preservation. He received a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines and a Master of Science in historic preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 2001, he moved to Washington D.C. and worked for Oehrlein & Associate Architects before starting his own firm in 2008. Almonte is also a co-founder of the DC Design Collective (DCDC), an organization dedicated to providing industry-wide support for people of color and promoting racial diversity within the interior design industry.
We chatted with him about how his background and identity have shaped his professional interests and experiences.
Why did you decide to study architecture?
It was something I was always drawn to. As a kid, I had a whole bunch of Lego sets, and I'd rather play with those than play basketball or something like that.
In college, I was looking into engineering school, but a couple of the colleges that I applied for had architecture [programs]. Even though I had a creative mind, I didn't feel like I was one of the best drawers, so I was a little hesitant going into architecture school. But I told myself, ‘I'll see how comfortable I am during my freshman year, and if I like it, then I'll stay on.' And I did.
Where did your interest in historic preservation come from?
I was born and raised in the Philippines in Manila. We are the most Catholic country in Asia—history-wise—because we were colonized by Spain who introduced us to Catholicism. Because of that, we have a lot of churches of different styles dating back to the 1500s.
So, when I was in college in architecture school, there were a couple of professors who encouraged acknowledging historic architecture in the Philippines—even though the historic preservation movement is not really big there. It's a developing country, so the primary goal of the government is usually, "Let's build new buildings to attract investors that show them that this is all shiny and new."
But because we are a very Catholic country, a lot of people are respectful of these churches. So I wanted to be part of that movement to help preserve the history of these churches and old structures. The initial goal was for me to go to grad school in Chicago and then go back home and teach historic preservation.
But instead, you ended up coming to D.C. after grad school in Chicago?
Yes. Being an international student, I was given an option to practice the subject that I took on in grad school. I worked for a little bit with an architecture firm in Chicago, but then my partner decided we would move to D.C. Luckily with my credentials and background in historic preservation, I got a job in D.C. And 20-odd years later, I'm still here.
When you came to the U.S. from the Philippines, did you analyze or compare the styles of buildings and structures?
Yes, I did. There are different styles, but I think the concept is the same. One of the first things I learned in historic preservation is it’s not just about age—if it's an old building, that doesn't necessarily mean it's historic. It has to have significance, whether it's a historically significant event, a person, or a movement. It's all about looking into the history and fabric of a particular building.
So obviously the architectural styles from the Philippines and here are very different, but the concept of historic preservation is still the same.
What was your path to interior design?
When I moved here from the Philippines, my architecture registration did not transfer here. I had a colleague and mentor who suggested that I take the interior design exams first and if I’m comfortable with [those], I should take the architecture exam. So that's what I did.
How did the architecture exam in the Philippines compare to the U.S. exam?
The subjects are pretty much the same for architecture. But we were taught the metric system in the Philippines—so coming here, it was inches and feet. So, I had to relearn the whole thing, and it took me a while to adjust to that. But AIA offered classes and material, so that helped refresh my memory.
Are most of your projects architecture, interior design, or a bit of both?
A bit of both. I'm doing a condo lobby right now and part of that renovation is the main entrance, which is outside of the building. So I designed a canopy over the entrance door. We took out all the old windows and put in new storefront windows and doors that kind of transitioned into this contemporary lobby space.
From attending school to working in the industry, how has your experience been as a person of color?
It's interesting because I feet it has worked to my advantage in some sense. Depending on the client, they see me as someone different—whether it's because they know that I'm gay or because I'm Asian. There's a sort of appeal. And if there's been a negative incident, I probably did not notice it.
So do you think people are more drawn to your difference in terms of sexuality than race?
That's a very good question. Maybe? It's like if you're buying a wedding dress and you see a Christian Siriano dress, do you buy it because he designed it or do you buy it because you like the dress itself? Or both?
Is there a stereotype in the interior design industry that if you’re a male, you’re likely gay?
There is that stereotype, unfortunately, in interior design. Of course, that's the flip side in architecture, which is very straight white male-dominated.
How does it feel working among a lot of cis white men in architecture?
I've gone to many job sites when it's all males and I haven't had any negative experiences. I think it's the way you project yourself. Respect others’ opinions and walk in a meeting or job site without any hang-ups or throwing your weight around. I think everybody wants the project to be done well.
Has the recent spate of hate crimes against Asian Americans impacted you personally or professionally?
Once in a while, it gives me pause, like I probably shouldn't be walking here. You can be careful as much as you want, but these attacks are so random. This woman was walking to church in New York and suddenly this person hits her on the head. I get emotional thinking about it sometimes because that could be my mom or my grandma.
But fortunately, I have not experienced any of those violent reactions. And so far, the clients and people that I've interacted with have been very respectful as well. And the demographics of my client base are varied.
Of course, it comes with the practice that sometimes I don't get the project. I don’t know if my being Asian is part of that. It's unfortunate if they would have this preconceived notion that just because I'm Asian, I'm not the person they're looking for. But that's why we need to start having these conversations.