- By wpengine
Bravura Corp. has been behind some major developments in Louisville over the years, such as Waterfront Park, Fourth Street Live, Iroquois Amphitheater and the Old Forester Distillery, just to name a few.
But the architect behind the firm is much more modest than that list of projects would lead you to believe.
Jim Walters always liked to draw and watch people build things as a kid, but he never considered a career in architecture until he participated a job-shadowing program as a student at Elkhart High School in Elkhart, Ind. He visited a local architect’s office and thought it seemed “pretty cool.” Then, a friend from church invited Walters to visit the University of Cincinnati architecture school.
It was a great opportunity, Walters said, because the school had a co-op program that would allow him to work and make some money while still receiving credit hours.
“I didn’t consider myself an artist, although I really enjoyed drawing. I thought I was pretty good, but then I got to school and figured out that there were 80 other people that were better than me,” he said.
Walters quickly developed those initial drawing skills and combined them with his studies in design, engineering and physics before graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1968.
After college, he spent a couple years in California in public health service before returning to Cincinnati to work for Sullivan, Isaacs & Sullivan, an architecture firm that primarily designed hospitals and medical facilities.
He worked there for several years, taking on a client called Extendicare Inc., a precursor to Humana Inc., he said.
As fate would have it, Louisville-based Humana offered Walters the opportunity to work in the company’s design and construction department in 1973. By 1980, he was named a vice president of design and construction.
Just two years later, Humana set out to make its own mark on the Louisville skyline and picked famous architect Michael Graves to design the Humana Building. As vice president, Walters not only helped evaluate the submitted designs, but also coordinated the building project and saw it through to completion in 1985.
In addition to all of the practical uses for the building, Walters said Humana wanted a building that could capture the imagination of the public.
While at Humana, Walters began to dabble in community projects like the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts and Churchill Downs’ Derby Museum. He said as Humana started transitioning from the hospital business to insurance, he decided to leave and start his own firm in 1991.
“I loved the work and the company, but they were changing,” he continued. “While doing these other community projects, I just got a taste for more diversity — medical facilities were not much of an intellectual or design challenge anymore.”
Walters formed Bravura with the intent of being a fresh force for good design and creative ideas. Nearly 30 years later, that’s still the firm’s mission.
The firm aims to raise the bar for “good design” in Louisville, Walters continued, as well as raise awareness as to what architecture can do for businesses and the city as a whole.
“We try to do things that are innovative and not just conventional wisdom,” he said. “We have been able to do projects that have enabled us to do just that.”
Within that time span, technology has rapidly changed. Walters remembers when computers first debuted, and it took hours just to transfer files.
“Computers were minimally used because they were just really awkward, big and crazy expensive to work with,” he said.
But now, technology is at the forefront for architects, with both technical building plans created with computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) systems and high-quality renderings of what the space will look like.
“In a way, [technology] sort of controls your design process,” Walters said. “I think a lot of things have been lost in the move from old-fashioned drawings. There are also certain things you gain from it — you couldn’t build the buildings they’re building now without it.”
Walters admits that he still adheres to the old-fashioned method of design by putting pen to paper, before having one of his associates plug it into CADD.
Although as president of the Bravura, Walters doesn’t often draw up ideas or plans of his own volition. Instead, he acts as a critic and mentor to the other architects and designers. Bravura comes in at No. 15 on our list of largest Louisville architecture firms with three local registered architects.
At one time, the company had 16 staffers, but Walters said Bravura has since scaled back to focus exclusively on architecture. Over the years, the company employed several consultants in other industries, like urban planning and interior design. Now, the firm has eight employees.
“There have been a lot of people that have worked here — a lot of talented people have contributed, each in their own way, to every one of these projects,” he said. “I don’t single-handedly turn these things out.”
Walters said his leadership style is more collaborative rather than authoritative. Instead of telling his employees how they should to do something, he said he attempts to be a facilitator of ideas and assists them with seeing the big picture.
“I operate on the concept of the big idea: You’ve come up with the organizing idea, the theology, the metaphor —whatever it is, you have to stick to it. Don’t just be intuitive and say, ‘Oh this is nice to do that way,’ but think about how does this decision about that color fit with the overall concept?”
To illustrate this, Walters described his firm’s inspiration behind the Parklands of Floyds Fork.
“Rather than just doing park buildings, we spent a lot of time thinking about what it is about the Kentucky landscape that is so pleasant and satisfying for people that enjoy that environment — it’s tobacco barns, it’s farms, bluegrass and stone fences,” he said.
The buildings at the Parklands are all different but are tied together through the original vision of tobacco barns and Kentucky scenery.
“The buildings all have an element of a pole barn, they’ve all got vertical openings, dark sides and the tin roofs,” Walters continued. “The unity of all that within the landscape gave the Parklands a sense of its brand.”
There’s more from Walters in the Q&A below:
If you could give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would you say?
Learn to know when “good enough” is good enough. Striving for perfection is noble, but there are times when it can become self-defeating when it comes to achieving your goals.
Balance that drive with a good sense of when practical, social or political limitations need to be considered.
Where do you find your biggest inspiration?
In the people I work with. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with many bright, gifted and highly qualified people at Bravura. We often say that our ultimate design solutions emerge from the “swamp of ideas” where we work together.
I don’t mean to suggest it is a mishmash, but rather a continued honing of a mutually endorsed “big idea” into something quite creative and carefully detailed.
My role has been that of the ultimate critic guiding the product through these very talented and committed people.
What’s your favorite building in Louisville and why?
The Humana Building. Even though born out of the postmodern era, I think it has stood the test of time very well and remains as something uniquely iconic about Louisville’s downtown.
What’s the best way to spend a nice afternoon without spending much money?
Well … this is going to be a pitch for my latest project. For the past two years, I have been directing work on the Woodland Garden in Broad Run Park at the Parklands of Floyds Fork.
It was a great experience to be in the woods, hand-crafting stone paths, bridges, overlooks, ravines and installing thousands of trees and plants. It was inspiring to spend so much time there, and the result is amazingly beautiful.
It is convenient to the Bardstown Road entrance, with good restrooms and parking nearby. And it is free. Go see it and hike or bike the Parklands while you are at it.
We talked a lot about you leading your company as a mentor. Who was your top mentor and how did they help you?
My longtime attorney and good friend Marvin Hirn gave me wise counsel over many years. I learned to face adverse situations in a more measured and calm way than was my instinct.
He was an honest and honorable fellow — a good model for dealing with one’s daily business affairs.
Title: President, Bravura Corp.
Hometown: Elkhart, Ind.
Recent career history: Founded Bravura in 1991; previously, vice president of design and construction with Humana Inc. for 17 years
Education: Bachelor of science in architecture, University of Cincinnati
Family: Wife Joyce; daughter, Jennifer Petry; son, Nathan Walters; stepdaughter, Sandi Ryan; stepson, David Pressburger; and seven grandchildren, ages 4 to 11
Hobbies: Family, travel, reading, cooking