Proving Creative Talent Through Design

CHRIS LENNEY / NNY BUSINESS Rebecca N. Weld is the principal and founder of Renew Architechture & Design in Potsdam.

Architecture, by Webster’s definition, is a formation or construction resulting from a conscious act. And the wordsmith is spot on; however, let’s remember he is man defining an act not frequently conjured up by females.

According to an American Institute of Architects survey, 49 percent of architecture students and 39 percent of interns are women, yet only 17 percent go on to become firm principals and partners. This is not the case in the north country. 

     Three female architects and engineers who don’t need to go back to the drawing board because they get it right the first time in the male-dominated field sat down with NNY Business to discuss their sketching successes, favorite architects – and just for fun’s sake – their dream design project. 

MARI L. CECIL

     Mari L. Cecil herself accounts for the 17 percent as the sole female principal among 15 other male architects at BCA Architects and Engineers out of Watertown, Ithaca, Syracuse and Saratoga. 

     Ms. Cecil will be the first to tell you, however, it was a man in her life who inspired her. “I remember finding my father’s mechanical drafting books in fourth or fifth grade,” Ms. Cecil said of the age she fell in love with structures. “I was interested in building things and I was often out in the garage building things with my dad.”

     Building bookshelves rather than playing with Barbies “drove my mom absolutely nuts,” said Ms. Cecil, who now sits on the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

     Growing up in construction-heavy Miami, Fla., in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Art Deco district began to dilapidate, Ms. Cecil’s dad would detail sketch theory in real-life structures by taking his daughter on-site. The two even befriended a superintendent who, at the day’s end, would “give my dad and I a tour and explain things.”

     Between that experience in the field and a friend’s father speaking at career day on architecture, “I was hooked,” Ms. Cecil said. 

AMANDA MORRISON / NNY BUSINESS
Mari Cecil is an architect for Bernier Carr Group.

     Her friend’s father warned it would not be easy for her, and he was right. But it didn’t stop her. She went from being one of two females in her first drafting class to receiving both her bachelor of professional studies degree in architecture and master of architecture degree at SUNY Buffalo by 1986.  She has been with BCA Architects and Engineers since 1988.

     A member of the National and New York State American Institute of Architecture, Ms. Cecil said there are female qualities that offer an edge in the industry.

     “I think women have a tendency to listen more and evaluate the different options, which allow more elements of the design to be considered before decisions are made,” she said, noting it is “not good or bad,” rather just a matter of gender-specific thought.

     She said in her 30-year career, persistence, patience and communication are what have cultivated her success in the male-dominated field. “There are some occasions where I have to prove myself and that I really know what I am talking about,” she said.

     Similar to one of her favorite architects, Marion Mahony Griffin, who was the first woman architect in the nation, playing a strong role in the Chicago School of Design and development of the skyscraper, Ms. Cecil is the sole sister in the flagship firm office in Watertown.

     Griffin gives truth to the adage “behind every good man there is a woman,” according to Ms. Cecil, who detailed how Griffin’s influence on renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright was undeniable. “Women weren’t really allowed to be out front at that time with design like we are today and many of the women were often relegated to the studio in the background,” she said of Griffin, who spent 15 years behind the scenes, but inevitably signed her name to sketches. “Marion influenced his design and helped influence his reputation,” Ms. Cecil said of Wright, who was a notorious womanizer.

     Wright’s love of woman opened the door for female architects, whom he employed more than a 100 of in his studio throughout his “design prevalence,” Ms. Cecil explained. “I admire them both because they were more on the hand crafting of architecture. They were involved with the Prairie School of design, the arts and crafts movement of architectural design,” Ms. Cecil said, adding the duo developed “organic design where everything was believed to be built with nature and look like it was coming out of the ground.”

     Given the opportunity to design her dream project, Ms. Cecil would do the same. “I really love the challenge of repurposing existing buildings or spaces within an existing building, especially if the building has good bones,” she said. “I would want to repurpose a building from the arts and craft movement or the Prairie School design movement, or even an Art Deco style, but be able to keep the historic fabric.”

     While that dream remains unseen, one dream that did come through Ms. Cecil’s success was a dream she fulfilled for her father, the very man that she built bookshelves with in the garage.

     “He walked up to me after graduation and said I am going to be living the career I wanted through you, because I always wanted to be an architect,” she explained. “He couldn’t be an architect because he was blind in one eye and was discouraged from doing it because it would put too much strain on the one good eye he had. I burst into tears because I had never known that until the day I graduated in 1986 from Architecture School.”

 REBECCA N. WELD

     Rebecca N. Weld, principal and founder of Renew Architecture & Design out of Potsdam, decided by age 11 that she would make her mark with a pencil in her hand. Happening upon a drafting table and templates at a friend’s house, “I got some graph paper and started making plans and I really liked it,” Mrs. Weld said, adding her admiration for architecture also came from moving to and living in many houses and landscapes as a child.

     Throw in her stepfather, who was a builder and timber framer, and the formula for Mrs. Weld’s future was calculated and achieved at the Tulane University School of Architecture in New Orleans. Entering a male-monopolized field made no difference to Mrs. Weld, who said she was naive to any real gender-discrimination when entering the industry. “I was lucky in that I was riding that wave of feminism,” she said.

 

CHRIS LENNEY / NNY BUSINESS Rebecca N. Weld is the principal and founder of Renew Architechture & Design in Potsdam.

    What she will tell you is  “women drop off as it goes along,” since booming success at the drawing board is not your normal nine-to-five, entailing late nights and long days.

     Male or female, you need “a certain level of confidence to know you can do what you want to do because you are smart enough and hard working enough to achieve it,” she said. Yet, “I have encountered building inspectors and builders who give me a little bit harder of a time because I am not a man, but it helps that I have worked as a builder.”

     With the support of her husband and father of her two children, having a stay-at-home dad assists Mrs. Weld when juggling up to 20 clients at a time; be it planning, designing or constructing with a group of builders she trusts wholeheartedly.

     After spending 10 years in Nantucket, designing high-end residential homes, Mrs. Weld decided there really is no place like home and moved her firm back to Potsdam. After buying the home of her parents, who were downsizing, she and her family started from scratch. “I have been here seven years and its great,” she said.

     It’s all about space and vibe, according to Mrs. Weld, who also appreciates Wright’s architecture as one of her favorites. “He would do a lot with wood and other materials,” she said, adding the Finnish architect gave off a north country feel in his work that she, too, relates in her designs. “It is kind of the vibe I can relate to here. In the north country, you get that Adirondack and craftsman vibe that people want, and I enjoy that.” 

     Before sitting at the drafting table, Mrs. Weld visits the site she is designing for first. “Setting will dictate,” she said of the existing furniture and space in the area. “I am an architect, so I can translate fairly well between words and visual.”

     As for her ultimate project, that’s a no-brainer. “My dream project would be a Great Camp in the Adirondacks. They are not really being built anymore,” she said of the properties that most often have a main house, cottage and wine cellar. “I love the way the style elements transfer from one building to another.”

DIANA P. GRATER

     Diana P. Grater is the great woman standing alongside a great man, working with her husband, William, at Grater Architects, P.C., out of Clayton and Rochester. Before creating private boathouses and large-scale commercial projects, Mrs. Grater really had no idea she would end up one of the most prominent architectural principals in the north country.

     On the contrary, finding out what she didn’t want led her to find what she did want after taking a career survey.

     “I didn’t want to be an art teacher so I applied to architecture school,” she said of the profession that combines her love of math, art and social science. 

JUSTIN SORENSEN / NNY BUSINESS
Diana Grater of Grater Architects at the offices on Riverside Drive in Clayton.

     By the time she started college, with one-third women in her undergraduate and master’s degree program at the University of Virginia, Mrs. Grater said many of her female peers did not follow through to the end. “The success of anything takes perseverance, emotional commitment and clear eyes to see what you are getting into,” she said of flourishing as a female in a field full of men. “You are going to find discrimination if you look for it.”

     However that is not to say that women are “easily typecast in a large firm,” according to Mrs. Grater, who does not have to face said discrimination running her own firm. On the contrary, her femaleness perfectly balances her husband’s manliness in the design scheme of things. “I tend to be stronger developing a scheme, where my husband often comes up with the big idea,” she said.

     Noting engineer Erik Gunnar Asplund, as well as textile designer, sculptor and architect Alvar Aalto as one of her preferred principals, Mrs. Grater’s favorite work by the latter Scandinavian sketcher is the renowned Baker House at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It is the response to the river in the curve a linear form and the rooms are configured so they take advantage of the view, but buffer the noise from the street,” she said, adding, “I tend to follow his work. I like the fact that he was not just an architect, but a real designer.”

     Mrs. Grater said the north country landscape lends itself to the same sort of reaction. “The area we live in makes it very translatable because of Scandinavia’s cold climate, as well as the environmental landscape, so they are similar responses,” she said. “There is a simplicity about it that is very appealing.”

     On the subject of appeal and feel, Mrs. Grater says she shoots for certain sensations when sketching. “If you can wash your dishes, look out a window and be inspired, I feel like that’s one of the greatest things I can provide. I hope to enhance your life, to inspire or even elevate the human condition.” Simple earthly elements seen through a window, like the shape of a cloud or the way the sunlight is shining through the pane, can excite the most mundane tasks, even dishwashing, according to the architect. “While you are doing those ordinary, daily things you notice those things. And if that happens, I met my goal,” she said.

     Another end Mrs. Grater meets when designing is doing it responsibly. “The building and construction industry account for most of the energy used in the world, i.e., far more than transportation, manufacturing or industry. So we need to design more responsibly and think more about high-performance materials and design and how they are working together,” she said.

     Her dream project? Another no-brainer: Bridges.

     “I was always inspired by the Roman aqueduct in Mien,” she said, citing the bridges designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, also among her favorites. “He has designed a lot of bridges, some really beautiful ones.”

     Be it the Golden Gate or Brooklyn Bridge, “I am always looking at bridges. What intrigues me so much is that you have two sides you need to connect and the expression of the bridge is ultimately the aesthetic of the construction,” she explained.

     “It has to be structured, it has to work. A lot of buildings have to work, but not to the same degree as a bridge. You can have poorly functioning buildings, but you can’t have a poorly functioning bridge. You will die. There are so many demands of a bridge, but when you see a beautiful one it is amazing. It’s greater than the sum of its parts.”