For more than a quarter century, well-respected architect Gregory Etter ’72 has been involved in construction projects across a broad arc of the globe. During many of those years, he designed and developed buildings in the Middle East and North Africa, all during a period of intense turbulence for that region. Working and traveling in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria, he’s been an observant witness to the beauty and hardship of a fractured part of the world in the process of remaking itself. Along with his keen interest in language, Greg’s career as an architect continues to allow him to pursue his quest for lifelong learning, a passion he first acquired at Sewickley Academy.
Greg arrived at the Academy in 1968 through a unique scholarship program offered by a well-known local institution, the Scripps-Howard Foundation. An early morning paper courier for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Greg was invited to attend Sewickley Academy in Grade 9, his education funded through their generous support. Raised in a working-class household in nearby Emsworth, and with the encouragement of his parents and six siblings, Greg immediately recognized the value of such an offer. “It’s fairly certain my life would have followed a much different trajectory if I hadn’t attended the Academy. Growing up in close proximity to the steel mills of Pittsburgh with all of its industrial might, the son of a very practical mother and hard-working father, I likely would have pursued a more mechanically-oriented path,” he reflected. “The Academy’s focus on academic achievement revealed to me the joys to be found in intellectual exploration. This small inflection affected my life enormously, opening up new opportunities, and stoking my hunger for the unknown larger world out there still to be explored.”
Greg recalls a number of influential teachers at the Academy who were instrumental in his intellectual development. Senior School librarian Mrs. Margaret “Judy” Lackner made it her daily mission to introduce him to new authors not always found on course reading lists; history teacher and lacrosse coach Mr. Richard “Dick” Webster encouraged him to understand and embrace his philosophical principles well enough to rigorously defend them; and his first French teacher, Mr. Gil Levesque, taught him how to communicate through unfamiliar sounds. “Mr. Levesque believed the best path to becoming conversational involved uninhibited experimentation, similar to children learning to communicate by foraging within their memories for previously heard sounds and grammatical structures,” he said. “This simple understanding of how languages develop encouraged me to recognize familiar roots in what I’d read and heard and to be unafraid of playing around with them.”
Founding Head of Senior School Mr. Jim Cavalier, who grew up in a social environment similar to his own, also had a profound impact on Greg’s life. “Mr. Cavalier understood my situation, that I came to my studies with a background much different from that of many Academy students and classmates, but I didn’t want that difference to be all that I was to become,” he revealed. “I wanted to be a person in my own right, to fail and succeed on my own merits, and he helped me to navigate that transition.”
Matriculating to Williams College in Massachusetts, Greg majored in English literature and chemistry as a pre-med student, but after a year spent “shadowing” an Academy classmate’s physician father in surgery, his tendency to faint in the operating theater eventually persuaded him that medicine might not be his proper calling. After college, he embraced a more innate talent for drawing and, believing he might become a better architect than lab scientist, traveled (overseas, for the first time in his life) to Paris for a couple of years. “I knew some basic carpentry, and a friend offered me an apartment and a job renovating the inside of an art gallery on the Left Bank,” Greg recalled fondly. In his free time, he walked the city streets and drew and returned to the States with enough sketches to talk his way into the model shop of Benjamin Thompson & Associates, a busy architectural office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He honed his skills while at the firm and earned a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University in 1990, where during his final year he spent a research summer in Sicily. A post-graduate fellowship took him to Jerusalem just as the first Gulf War broke out. During the job searches of his early career, he continually put out word that he was looking to work in this part of the world. In 2006, Greg received a call from Jung Brannen, a Boston architectural office, asking him to represent the firm as their Middle East regional manager in Dubai.
Due to the immense power of oil money held in sovereign wealth funds, many countries in the Middle East were rapidly modernizing at that time but without having done enough of the conceptual planning that typically precedes growth in the West. “Over the course of eight years in the region, I witnessed the construction of far too many buildings entirely unsuited to their geographical locations. Numerous examples can be found in the UAE alone, where long boulevards of mostly empty skyscrapers appear more like store displays of multicolored perfume bottles than office space or habitation,” he vividly described. “The internal heat loads produced by an ever-present sun on all that glass means these structures are much less suited to the Arabian Desert than to the temperate climates of Manhattan or London. And even this doesn’t begin to assess the effect of wind-driven sand on those glass facades, rendering them less visually transparent with every passing year.”
While overseeing development of a large coastal resort in Oman from 2007-2009, Greg lived in the city of Dubai, his work requiring a 10-hour round trip drive across the rocky desert every other weekend to liaise with local architects and government authorities in Muscat. “It was a rather ambitious project that should have never been undertaken, completely overwhelming a small fishing village on the edge of coastal bird sanctuaries,” he explained. “When the economic meltdown of 2008 took hold, financial backers deserted the premises and the project fell, leaving behind nothing but cleared land and graveled roadways in its place.”
Greg described living and working in Dubai as “fast, shiny, and hot.” The world’s tallest building was being built directly across from his long-term hotel suite and overlooked fantastical palm-shaped islands being engineered just offshore. “At one point, over a quarter of the world’s construction cranes were in operation somewhere between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Then the global market upheaval of October 2008 occurred, and within a few months most of them were idle, while high-end sports cars were left at the airport with keys in the ignition, testimony to shattered finances and broken dreams,” he recalled in wonderment. “The Emirati developer with whom my U.S. firm worked suddenly dropped from 600 to 60 people overnight, lights went dark, and bags were quickly packed. A week later, I drove my (rented) Audi to the airport and flew home.”
A few months after returning to the United States in early 2009, Greg received a call from The Associated Engineering Partnership (TAEP), a Palestinian/Kuwaiti firm, offering him a position as design director in Kuwait City. There he would be overseeing a team of regional architects and engineers and helping the office develop its own design studio capabilities. The job description turned out to be only partially accurate, and Greg served not only as design director but also project architect and design manager, director of human resources, international/ cultural dispute resolution specialist, and even the guy who repaired the A/C thermostat. “I managed a very talented but desperately understaffed team of 50 architects, engineers, and draftsmen speaking 12 different languages, and within 20 months we developed concept design sketches into construction drawings for several projects, including the Kuwait National Bank Headquarters,” Greg recalled. He also oversaw work on the Kuwait National Library, the Amiri Terminal at Kuwait International Airport, and the National Sports Stadium. “I was the one person in the office who had put a building together soup-to-nuts, which unfortunately also meant that far too much of the design process went through me,” he explained. “I coordinated all architectural design with the disciplines of structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering and even directed the research of local fire, safety, and building codes, supervising the preparation of submissions for approval to Kuwaiti authorities. It was exciting, rewarding, and ultimately exhausting.”
After the bank project was fully developed and under way in late 2010, Greg returned home to work on a short-term project located outside of Riyadh for Koetter Kim Associates, a Boston architectural firm. This was quickly followed by a call from Vanir Construction, a design management office out of Sacramento, California, offering him a position flying between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, managing an enormous hospital complex funded by the royal family. But after years of struggle in the heat and dust, this project was ultimately shelved and construction never even begun, leaving Greg to wonder about the “meaning and purpose of all this flying around.” Thumbing through his passport, he also began to wonder whether all those entry stamps into countries now enflamed in the wake of the “Arab Spring” would draw the attention of someone at the Department of Homeland Security. He returned to the U.S. in time to spend the winter holiday with his daughter, then in her senior year of high school and making preparations for college. And just as he was settling into domestic life that spring, a liaison with the U.S. State Department called and offered him an experience in Central Africa, far different from any he had in the Middle East.
During the summer of 2013, Greg served as the project manager during construction and renovation of The American School of Kinshasa (TASOK) in Kinshasa, République Democratique du Congo (DRC), a project partially overseen by the State Department. Sheltered from the rain and heat under a corrugated roof, he supervised construction of several classroom buildings, following designs that encourage passive air convection and natural ventilation, thereby minimizing operational costs. Greg was particularly intrigued by the inventiveness of local tradesmen, who fabricated many building components entirely by hand. “I slept under mosquito netting at night, sweat a lot in the humid heat, and swallowed malaria meds every day,” he reminisced soberly. “I wanted to explore, but it was never clear how far I’d be able to travel into the countryside, since the project demanded close attention during the very short dry season available for construction. With only 300 miles of paved roads in a country the size of Western Europe, rain, which was often torrential, also turned dirt tracks into valleys of mud.”
Greg was invited to join the State Department, and following an extensive battery of medical tests and security background evaluations, relocated in early 2014 to Den Haag (The Hague), Netherlands, where he now serves as site architect at the new U.S. Embassy. His current role is part of a government initiative to increase embassy security while enhancing diplomatic openness. During years of increasing security measures, chanceries had begun to seem less like diplomatic posts and more like urban bunkers. “Integrating esthetic design with diplomatic security is a very interesting process just for the complexity of its many moving parts, although muscle-bound security protocols sometimes feel overwhelming. I now have more passwords than pencils or paperclips, and I spend time at the end of every day feeding all my paperwork into a shredder,” he described with mild bemusement. “I have no real complaints, however. I return home every day feeling I’ve been a diplomat for architecture among rough men (and women) in hard hats…and we’ve carried the field.” This current project is expected to be completed in the summer of 2017, after which Greg will be reassigned to Athens, where a new embassy is under design.
Although he claims to be only truly fluent in French (and very possibly English), Greg makes a point of learning some of the language of any country he enters. “Travel and work overseas has always reinforced for me the value of knowing at least one language besides my own,” he said. “Although English has become the lingua franca of the business world, I’ve never met anyone in a foreign country who didn’t appreciate an earnest attempt to at least introduce myself in familiar words.”
Living and working abroad, while intellectually rewarding, is also uniquely challenging. “Travel takes a toll on your body and your life. A seasoned business traveler never fully recovers from jet lag and lost sleep, and the fatigue accumulates,” he articulated. Greg is also frank in his assessment of how such travel contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. “In the end, there is only so much love one can convey during a Skype video call across nine time zones,” he said with regret.
Working abroad also involves certain physical risks, and sometimes being accidentally placed in danger. When entering a new city for the first time, Greg first develops neighborhood friendships and connections, so that if anything does go sideways he knows where the exits are located. And although he’s refined his instincts for evaluating risk, he also knows that not every possibly harmful situation can be foreseen. “While traveling in Yemen, I had prearranged with my small hotel in Sana’a for a return to the airport at the end of my stay. However, on the morning of departure an unfamiliar car appeared, much different from the white SUV that had dropped me on arrival five days before. Aware that protesting too long would mean a missed flight, and because the hotel proprietor insisted everything was OK, I resigned myself and got in,” he admitted with a wince. “The driver took me a few miles down the road, then pulled over and appeared to renegotiate my trip with another driver, into whose badly maintained vehicle my baggage and I were then transferred. After four successively worse trades, my final ride was in a shot up Fiat pick-up truck, the seats almost entirely duct-taped together and the windshield fractured into splinters of glass. I began to suspect that maybe I’d been careless,” he laughed in embarrassment. “As we approached the airport perimeter along an unpaved road, I heard shouting to my left just as a nervous guard fired a clip of automatic rounds into the dirt a few feet ahead of us. We came full stop, the driver keeping both hands visible on the wheel while mine were planted firmly on the dashboard. Several extremely wary members of the local government militia then gathered around the pick-up and, after skeptically reviewing my passport, told me to walk the final 500 yards to the terminal, while the truck turned around and sped off into the dust.”
Greg’s years of working overseas have provided him with tolerance and patience and only seem to increase his curiosity about foreign countries and unfamiliar cultures. “Time is extremely elastic, and each culture moves at its own pace. In order to interact well while traveling, you accept this from the start,” he explained. “It also helps to understand the hum or beat or rhythm at which a culture moves, in order to be involved in its work. How time progresses is not a concept one can, or should, impose on anyone else. We are all living our lives, each by a different clock,” he concluded. “And I’m sometimes amazed that this great world keeps spinning."