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Raising the Barr: Continuum partner helps to keep architectural firm on the map

Robert Barr (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Robert Barr (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

If he had to trace his roots as an architect, Robert Barr would probably track them to the U.S. Bank building in Milwaukee.

He was just a kid in daycare. But from the patio of the old YWCA building downtown, he had a front row seat to the biggest building spectacle of its time: a 42-story behemoth some in the community still call the First Wisconsin building.

“We would play while they erected the building, which was the largest building in Wisconsin at the time. That’s probably where the seed got planted,” Barr said.

As a founding partner and principal at Milwaukee-based Continuum Architects + Planners, Barr has had his own opportunities to shape the city’s map. Most recently, he oversaw the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences and he’s working on the school’s Lubar Center for Entrepreneurship, which will be the institution’s official welcome center when it opens by 2018.

“One of the real pleasures of working close to home is you get to influence your city,” said Barr, a Milwaukee native who attended Milwaukee Public Schools before going on to Dominican High School and earning his architecture degree from UWM.

It’s a chance Barr might never have had if he hadn’t given into youthful moxie when he started Continuum with partners and co-founders Ursula Twombly and Falamak Nourzad in 1996.

“We had all worked together (at another firm), but they were getting frustrated and approached me to join them as equal partners. I’ve always been kind of adventurous, but I didn’t want to do it on my own. So, off we went. We were young enough to think we knew better,” said Barr, who at the time had been in architecture about five years.

Twenty years later, the firm has moved beyond its upstart roots to become one of the major players in Milwaukee architecture.

“It’s been a struggle every day, like anyone’s business,” Barr admitted. “But our portfolio has grown tremendously, and we don’t have to play the small guy versus big guy game anymore.”

The partners still run Continuum like the underdog it once was.

“We’re not just hiring a huge staff and assigning the work out. Obviously, that limits your growth potential, right?” Barr asked. “Our firm has been really successful at figuring out how big we should be, and it’s built around that idea of our partners being engaged. That’s a hallmark of our firm; we don’t have any partners who act as a figurehead principal in charge, come to the meetings and disappear. We’re architects. We do the work every single day.”

The Daily Reporter: When you have a bad day, what keeps you coming back to work?
Bob Barr: I think the reality probably is I always know tomorrow is going to be different because the one thing that really is true in the architecture-design business is we never do the same thing twice. The projects we take on are all one-of-a-kind, individual designs; so one thing that’s always really exciting is every day is different. And, if you like a challenge and you like solving problems, you will have a different one every day. So, if you have a bad day today, tomorrow there will be new obstacles, new challenges, new opportunities to move onto. It’s a burden on the one hand, because it makes you stay at the top of your game constantly, but it’s also a pleasure.

TDR: What is the most useful thing you’ve learned since starting your job?
Barr: I think, for me, there’s that old saying: Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today. That’s really useful. You’re always better off doing things today, whether they’re positive or negative. If you push them off, they never go away; they just get worse. It’s better to face them head-on. And opportunities are the same way; if you don’t move today on your opportunities, those do go away and disappear.

TDR: What is the one luxury item you cannot live without?
Barr: Heated car seat. That’s probably it. Otherwise, I’m a pretty practical Milwaukee kind of guy. I don’t surround myself in a lot of luxury.

TDR: What do you miss most about your childhood?
Barr: Freedom from responsibility. You think back on being a kid, just going non-stop without any fear, having the confidence and the youth to just drive ahead without worrying about anything. That’s a great freedom. It’s born of ignorance, but it’s a nice feeling when I watch my kids do it.

TDR: What was your first concert?
Barr: First, like, big concert I think it was freshman year in high school. Me and a bunch of friends, we made a road trip to Alpine Valley to see the Eagles play. I always still remember it.

TDR: What song is in heavy rotation for you right now?
Barr: I tend to turn on Pandora and let it roll. I kind of like everything. Whatever mood I’m in, I just let it roll and rarely push that little thumbs down button.

TDR: What do you consider your biggest achievement?
Barr: Professionally, obviously the biggest achievement was to go ahead and take that risk as a young guy with my partners and do something on our own. It’s 20 years old now, and that’s really been a challenge in Milwaukee. In our industry, Milwaukee is a very competitive place for architects. There are a lot of architects here, and the city over the last 20 years has been low-growth. But through the downturns in the economy we’ve been really stable, so we’ve had some great opportunities to add to Milwaukee’s footprint.

Personally, I guess it always drops back to raising your kids. My daughter is a freshman in college and my son is going to follow her in two years. They’re doing wonderfully, and I know they’re going to have wonderful lives.

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