This article is part of our series of profiles on The Architectural League of New York’s 2023 Emerging Voices winners published in the March/April issue of AN. The full list of winners can be found here.
Located in Oklahoma City, Common Works Architects is currently a team of three led by Asa Highsmith, who grew up in Tishomingo, a small, three-stoplight town near the state’s border with Texas. He later studied architecture at The University of Oklahoma in Norman. Common Works is a small practice, and that’s the point. “We’re always going to be a small firm,” Highsmith told AN. “I turn things down simply for my own happiness. I have limitations. It’s hard to come up with new ideas when you’re inundated by the firehose that is modern media.”
When one thinks of architecture and Oklahoma, the first thought is of the American School as defined by Bruce Goff and later practitioners like Rand Elliott—an adventurous, zany strand of “organic” modernism indebted to Frank Lloyd Wright, but much more twisted. However, the vast majority of buildings in the state are rather banal, defined by strip malls and tract housing. Common Works engages with this bland context to develop an architecture that is quiet, connected to place, and accessible to normal people, while being elevated enough to appear in the upper echelon of design publications.
“In America in general, especially in the middle and the West, we haven’t been around enough to develop a vernacular,” Highsmith said. “You’re in the parking lot of a Best Buy, looking around, and there’s nothing worth caring about. For me it was figuring out where can a vernacular come from. The things that interest me the most, though they’re simulations of simulations, are our Sears, Roebuck housing and all these British/French Tudor–inspired pre-war buildings. To me they speak from an era of more hope and positivity than we live in today. Some of the detailing and thoughtfulness that’s there has always resonated with me more than other things I see in our local context.”
One of the most surprising successes of Common Works’ portfolio is the many strong multifamily projects the firm has to its credit—a notoriously difficult typology to do well, especially in this region, but one that is greatly needed. “Oklahoma is affected by the housing crisis. There’s just not enough,” Highsmith said. “We need to ensure that the homes that are here will increase in value and ensure that we create the economic conditions that will enable people to build social connections and capital in the city.” To pull these projects off, Highsmith has teamed with young, first-time developers. “The missing middle is interesting to me,” he said, “and they’re looking to do smaller multifamily development. It’s been perfect to find those people.”