ENR California's 2015 Legacy Award: Paul Matt Leaves An Indelible Imprint
Longtime builder forms deep partnerships with owners and design teams to build many of California’s most recognizable buildings
Paul Matt’s lifelong ambition to tackle challenging projects head on with a collaborative spirit has led to a career in construction that spans 65 years and encompasses more than 450 buildings, many of which are among Southern California’s most iconic structures.
“Paul brings unique qualities to the collaboration between contractor, architect, engineer and owner,” says architect Moshe Safdie, with Safdie Architects, who nominated Matt for ENR California’s Legacy Award. “He invests in an effort to understand the project’s objectives and comes forward with innovations which are both effective and economical.”
Safdie first worked with Matt in the 1960s on the Louis Kahn-designed Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. Matt—on his first job as a construction superintendent for builder George A. Fuller Co.—employed experimental mock-ups and new forming methods to deliver Kahn’s design, one that showcased architectural concrete where all seams and panels are visible.
“This challenge was the perfect opportunity for Paul to be part of a collaboration process that he has embraced the rest of career,” says Paul’s son Steve Matt, CEO of MATT Construction, the general contracting firm the pair founded in 1991 with Paul’s brother Al. “Ultimately, the Salk Institute became one of the great designs of modern architecture. For Paul, it was the experience of working together with a great team of people from the earliest concept with a common goal of creating a great architectural vision powered by a shared passion for the science and art of design, engineering and construction.”
Paul Matt got his first taste of construction at age 16 as a welder and later went on to work for 22 years at C.L. Peck. Despite working his way up to becoming a member of Peck’s board of directors, Matt left the firm to found his own company “around the idea that if it’s difficult to build or even close to impossible to build, there’s not going to be many people competing for it,” he says.
That philosophy has been tested numerous times over the years. At Peck, Matt delivered high-profile structures such as the Crystal Cathedral with its vast, open interior space designed by Philip Johnson; the I.M. Pei-designed Creative Arts Agency in Beverly Hills; the futuristic cylinders comprising the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, designed by John C. Portman Jr.; and the Cesar Pelli-designed, 53-story 777 Tower, also in Los Angeles.
Later at MATT Construction, Paul and architect Safdie formed a partnership that has lasted more than two decades to produce the expansive Skirball Cultural Center campus, built on a rugged site in the hills above Los Angeles. Recent MATT projects include the LEED Platinum Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, both of which were selected as Projects of the Year in Southern California for ENR’s regional Best Projects awards. And next to the Disney Concert Hall—a project Matt worked on during his firm’s early years—MATT recently completed the Broad Museum, with its unique, waffle-like exterior panels.
While Matt says he “didn’t want to get locked into any one type of building” in his career, he gravitates toward complex cultural, corporate office, educational and historic restoration projects—those that typically require deeper relationships among the owner, design team and contractor. “I wanted to work with people that I could know and who would appreciate somebody who is a good builder,” he says.
With MATT Construction now participating in an employee stock ownership plan, Paul Matt’s focus has evolved to mentor younger staff and help the company plan for the future.
But even at the age of 83, Matt shows no signs of hanging up his hat. “I like what I do. My feeling is everybody should do what they like to do and feel rewarded, not for the money necessarily but for the satisfaction of what you are accomplishing,” he says.
After his father’s many decades in the industry, “the same experience [he derived from] the Salk Institute continues to be his fountain of youth,” Steve Matt says.