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Beauty by design
Architect Michael Foster is passionate about his work.
Arlington architect Michael Foster, principal and founder of MTFA Architecture, designed the newest diocesan Catholic high school, Pope John Paul the Great High School in Dumfries, which opened in the fall of 2008.
The Catholic Business Network recently recognized Foster’s design contributions to area churches and schools by naming him the 2013 Catholic Businessperson of the Year. His projects include St. Charles Borromeo Community Center in Arlington, St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville, St. John the Beloved Church in McLean and St. Mary Church and School in Alexandria. In Washington, clients include Our Lady of Victory Church, Catholic University, Dominican House of Studies and Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School.
As former chairman of the Arlington Planning Commission, Foster gives credit to the Arlington Diocese as a client and to his “very talented and very capable” staff for their accomplishments.
“We’ve done work for over 280 faith- and cultural-based organizations, maybe 20 some different denominations, 98 percent are Christian, and most of those are Catholic,” said Foster, who has worked as an architect and urban planner for the past 28 years.
His award-winning firm has been recognized for its commercial, institutional, government and urban design work, as well as its religious and educational work.
Foster believes that design is a powerful tool that can be used to promote the goals of any institution, whether it is education, worship, the workplace, recreation, entertainment or discovery.
“I do believe design has the power to provide a visible outreach and that the human spirit does respond to beauty. And it certainly has been part of Catholic social teaching, part of the history of the Catholic Church, for many, many centuries,” said Foster.
“It’s ironic that we know that stress and anxiety can cause health problems and even cancer. Therefore, wouldn’t it be logical that beauty, repose, reconciliation and prayer would do the opposite?” Foster said. “We think these things are important and they are important to the design of Catholic churches and Catholic schools.”
Since founding his firm 24 years ago, Foster has reached out in collaborative efforts to serve others in need around the world, seeking out “the least of our neighbors” as Jesus taught, explaining that the firm has received much more than they have given.
“I see design as an opportunity to shape the environment, the relationships and the behaviors of people in the environment and had a passion for that,” he said. “Early in my career when we didn’t have the financial resources to write checks. My mother always taught us you can contribute with your wealth, wisdom or work. Some would say time, treasure and talent. So we didn’t have any wealth or treasure, so we’d have to use work and talent. There were any number of projects at different times that I would enjoy and be able to make a contribution through design and producing design solutions to help different organizations that were helping others.”
The firm’s most recent pro bono work includes designing and building a Tibetan Resettlement Community for Tibetan refugees that fled China because of religious persecution. The firm designed an orphanage and school for the victims of terrorism in Peru, as well as an education center for the Lost Boys of Sudan.
Born and raised in Virginia Beach, Foster attributes his values to his family and his Catholic upbringing.
“I remember my grandfather, whose patron saint was St. Francis of Assisi,” said Foster, quoting the words often attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel; when necessary use words.”
Much of his childhood was spent outdoors building tree houses and forts, “a Tom Sawyer experience.” Virginia Beach’s southern end was rural and removed from organized sports at that time.
“I had wanted to be an architect since long before I could spell it,” he said. “And for a brief stint in high school, after taking a battery of tests they made you take in the 1970s, they told me I was supposed to be a doctor. Since I didn’t like blood or sharp objects, they talked me into psychology, so I studied psychology for about a year and then realized I would prefer to be an architect.”
Foster earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s in urban affairs from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. He completed graduate work in Switzerland and arrived in Northern Virginia with an internship at HOK Architecture. He was hired by Cooper Lecky Architects after graduation. He started his own business at age 27, serving clients his bosses referred to him if the firm was unable to meet their particular needs.
He married his high school sweetheart, Vicki, in 1989, and they have two daughters. One is a recent graduate of Georgetown Visitation, and one is a junior there. The Fosters are parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington.
Foster said that over the years, sometimes he would take his faith for granted, and at other times, have the opportunity to learn and be more focused.
“At different times, I would learn to take a step or two closer and saw that it was a good thing,” he said, adding that people can grow closer to God by any combination of prayer, fellowship, talking and listening.
He and his wife began attending weekly adoration at the adoration chapel at St. Agnes near their previous home.
“When we moved to St. Charles we just didn’t stop going to adoration,” he said. “It just was part of our lives.
“Most people when they talk to God, have a lot to say but that doesn’t give Him a chance to talk,” Foster said. “Sometimes, we just have to listen and see what happens.”
Several years ago Foster was diagnosed with a serious health challenge. The experience revealed a power and intimacy of prayer and the presence of God like he had never felt before. Many people were praying for him around the world on five continents.
“People would say, ‘I bet you are glad to have 2010 behind you.’ I really felt like it was the best year of my life,” said Foster. “There is no year or decade of accomplishments to compare. I felt a closeness, an intimacy I couldn’t have imagined, and if somebody had said that to me five years ago, I would think you were nuts.
“Maybe when you’re a hammer, everything is a nail,” said Foster. “But as an architect, anybody who has been to a sporting event has seen somebody hold up John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world.’ So if He loved the world so much, shouldn’t we love it enough to make it environmentally sound?”
Socarras is a freelance writer from Annandale.
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