December 1, 2007
Mary Ann Travis
Photographs and Renderings Courtesy of TVS and Behr Champana
Competitors at architectural firms around the world were lurking, waiting, trying to get their feet in the door. Behr Champana-Gagneron looked deep within himself for a metaphor. The client, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, wanted an iconic building unlike any other in the world. The design had to be innovative, something never seen before. It had to grab him emotionally. It had to tell a story. The building would be a symbol for the forward-looking Dubai—the Dubai that The New York Times says exudes “an ethos of tolerance,” where “social harmony is part of the marketing plan.”
The design team led by Champana, vice president and principal of the Atlanta-based TVS (Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates) International, had had dozens of design schemes rejected by the Dubai ruler.
Champana was getting worried that his firm might lose the opportunity to design an architectural wonder in Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates.
Then the inspiration came to him: A candle to light the region.
At an eleventh-hour TVS design team meeting, Champana approached a sheet of poster paper hanging on a wall and began to sketch buildings in the shape of flickering candles— candlelight moving in the wind.
At first, Champana’s design team members laughed at the candle-flame building. When Champana’s top designer, Howard Chen, quit laughing, however, he began to see the possibilities in the idea. Within two days, Chen made a computerized model of buildings sculpted as candle flames.
The client accepted the design, and the Dubai Towers are now under construction and will be completed by 2010.
A massive undertaking, the Dubai Towers are a spiritual expression of an inspirational man—Behr Champana.
“I'm an architect to be able to dream,” says Champana. “I’m an architect for creative purposes.”
Champana swears that he couldn’t have been anything else in his life but an architect. Architecture is a means to self-expression and a way to share with humanity, he says.
“The driving soul, the truth about architecture is that it is about creativity and mentoring people. This is what drives me,” says Champana.
He has designed hotels, offices, retail malls, residential buildings and convention centers in the United States, Latin America (including his native Puerto Rico), Europe, Russia, Asia, China and the Middle East. He and his Dubai partners have led TVS in planning projects in Lebanon, Oman, Libya, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, India as well as the United Arab Emirates. Always on the go and dressed to the nines (often in stylish black leather), Champana shakes everyone’s hand and hugs his friends as soon as he enters a room.
Gary Fowler, who graduated from Tulane in 1978 with a master of architecture degree, is a colleague of Champana’s and a principal at TVS. Fowler recalls that when Champana was newly hired straight from Tulane, he would exuberantly squeeze people on the scruff of their necks.
“He’d pick up whatever we were working on, and say, ‘Gary, Gary, Gary. What do I need to do now?’ ”
Champana is energetic and “an incredible, positive force. He’s everything we’d want a Tulanian to be. He represents the school awesomely,” says Fowler.
Fowler, who was the lead architect for the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, points out that TVS is accustomed to designing big buildings, but Champana’s international ambitions for the firm are almost beyond belief— and beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
What’s being built in Dubai are “the pyramids of our era,” says Fowler. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity. And Behr made it happen. He dreamed it. He brought all of us along out of our comfortable little world. I couldn’t dream that big, but he could.”
There's a saying they have at TVS: working on a project with Champana, you have to give the “Behr minimum.”
The “Behr minimum” is about raising the bar above the standard effort. Not a minimum at all, it’s the maximum.
“I don’t like to tell people what to do because if I do I cannot have their soul in the project,” says Champana. “I cannot get the best out of them.”
His team of designers is incredible, he says. He’s their biggest fan but he will push them and challenge them to do more than they ever thought they could. He’ll listen to anyone who has an idea and can draw.
“Behr taught us how to dream,” says Manny Dominguez, a TVS principal, who has worked with Champana for almost a decade.
“I always wanted to be original,” says Champana, who as a child applied his early talent to drawing his own comic books. “I was always dreaming about the future and thinking about where technology would take you to.”
Champana earned his master of architecture degree from Tulane in 1981. In architecture design studio, if another student had an idea similar to Champana’s, he would start over again with a new model. Even if the project assignment date were near, he’d work throughout the night to produce something different.
Highly skilled at drawing, Champana won freehand drawing prizes in the School of Architecture where two of his entries tied for first place. He also won the Lawrence Traveling Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to South America in his fourth year at Tulane.
The first day in Phelps Hall after arriving alone on campus from Puerto Rico with a “big, fat suitcase,” Champana met his roommates— one from Texas and one from Florida. They bestowed on him something he never had as a kid—a nickname. Gilbert—a French name because his parents are from the French Antilles—is Champana’s real first name. Pronounced jìl / bér, the name was too difficult for the roommates to say. They said, let’s call you “Behr.” And they even spelled it for him. And it’s the name that Champana has gone by ever since.
Dubai today is a center of architectural marvels. A $200 billion building boom has more than 200 skyscrapers under construction and an equal number expected to get under way in the next few years.
TVS International has completed the master plan for 70 million square feet (larger than downtown Atlanta) for “The Lagoons” on Dubai Creek, which flows from the Persian Gulf. Seven islands or “pearls” in the lagoons represent the seven emirates.
Champana’s Dubai Towers comprise residential units, office space and hotels. They are connected at the base by a marina and mall and range from 54 to 82 stories high.
It is a history-making project in terms of structure, construction material, mechanical systems and vision—and by the fact that most people never saw it as a building but the client and a handful of his closest colleagues, says Champana. He has spent 80 percent of his working time since 2004 in Dubai, where in one year he put in more than 2,000 overtime hours.
But it’s also a project that Champana now has had to pull back from.
In April, Champana got an alarming diagnosis. Doctors told him he was in stage four of lymphoma, the final stage of an aggressive blood cancer disease.
True to his energetic, inspirational, spiritual self, though, Champana says having cancer for him is a positive thing. “It has helped me reconnect with my inner self in a way that I needed.”
“He will tell you it’s not an illness,” says Dominguez. “He’ll tell you it’s a wonderful opportunity to reevaluate the strategy.”
My illness is an incredible journey,” says Champana. He’s delved into meditation, reaching higher and higher states of consciousness. He’s tapped into a spiritual dimension in himself that had been dormant but that he’d experienced before at Catholic retreats when he was in high school.
To cope with his illness, “I had to go within myself,” he says.
On Oct. 13, his colleagues at TVS participated in a “Light the Night” walk to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in Atlanta. More than 140 TVS people participated, wearing T-shirts with images of the candlelight Dubai Towers framed by a red balloon, the lymphoma society’s symbol.
The shirts were emblazoned with an inspirational quote from Champana: “I have learned that life is not about me, and it’s not about you either. You cannot live a full life if you cannot share and give to others.”
Champana prays and meditates between rigorous rounds of chemotherapy treatments. He says that he is enlightened by what he keeps learning from his illness.
“What silence and breathing can do for you is unbelievable.”
He recounts experiencing serene clarity in meditative states, and his vibes have reached worldwide. A friend in Mexico had a dream (he often seems to have that effect on people) that Champana was in trouble.
When the friend contacted Champana he told her that he has had visions during the course of his illness that he will design orphanages in the future. He foresees this new career path as a way to give poor and abandoned children a better way of life. He wants to fulfill this destiny in gratitude for his own happy childhood as the youngest of six children blessed with wonderful parents.
Soon after their moving conversation, the friend encountered nuns running an orphanage in Mexico, and she put them in touch with Champana. The 70 children in the orphanage now pray for Champana and send him small gifts, which has amazed and humbled him.
“This illness has made me realize that I needed to stop and to shift my gears to start giving,” he says. “Believe me, I’m ready for that.”
Champana’s parallel destinies—as a spiritual man reaching intense heights of metaphysical awareness and as an architect dealing in concrete reality—await him.
Mary Ann Travis is editor of Tulanian and a senior editor in the Office of University Publications.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org