Finding Meaning: Carla Swickerath on Her Roots, Motherhood, and Fate

Finding Meaning: Carla Swickerath on Her Roots, Motherhood, and Fate

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By Julia Gamolina

Since joining Studio Libeskind in 1999, Partner Carla Swickerath has gained diverse experience in cultural, civic, retail, commercial, residential and planning projects around the world. She has led many of the Studio’s successful project teams from concept design through to completion—including the Crystals retail complex at CityCenter in Las Vegas, the Hyundai Haeundae Udong I-Park residential development in Busan, Korea, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Carla also led the complex World Trade Center redevelopment process from the initial competition phase to the present.

Carla earned a Masters in Architecture from the University of Michigan, following undergraduate studies in English and Art History at the University of Florida. She has taught at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee in Berlin and University of Michigan. Carla is a member of Van Alen Institute’s International Council, speaking publicly on architecture, design and planning. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Carla talks about her roots, finding meaning, and integrating motherhood, advising young architects to find a firm where they can learn and give it their all. 

How did your interest in architecture develop and how did you decide to pursue it as a career?

My mother is a writer and my father was an architect – two of the people I still admire the most in the universe. I was always interested in architecture because of my father but I never thought about becoming an architect. I thought it was amazing and I loved going to my dad’s office when I was little, but I also loved poetry and literature so went to college to study literature and art history.

Then in college, I was studying abroad in Italy and that's when I was exposed to incredible architecture. I called my dad after seeing Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio, telling him all about it (all of which he already knew). I told him, “What you do is so amazing, I should have done that!” When I was applying to graduate school, I finally thought, “Maybe I should pursue this.” I applied to film school, to PhD programs in literature, and to architecture school, and when I got into architecture school, I thought, “That’s the one I’m afraid of, so that’s what I will do.”

 Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio

Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio

You ended up at Studio Libeskind right out of school! How did this come about?

I did! Since my father was a phenomenal, intelligent, honorable, creative, eccentric human being, one of the reasons I wanted to go to architecture school was to spend time with creative people like him who were making the world a better place. My father was so humbled by his profession and knew that it was a huge responsibility - I thought all architects would be like my dad.

By the time I finished my graduate degree at the University of Michigan, I knew that I did not want to just get a job - I loved the discipline so much and wanted to contribute in a meaningful way, so I didn’t want to accept anything that didn’t align with my vision for what architecture can do. I was lucky and the economy was good, so I just kept proclaiming that I was waiting for fate [laughs].

One day, I got a call from Nina Libeskind– I actually hung up on her because I thought it was someone calling me to patronize me for “waiting for fate” [laughs]. Turns out the department chair at the University of Michigan at the time, Brian Carter, an incredible professor who I had also worked for, had recommended me. Thankfully Nina called again. We had a very short conversation – she basically just said, “When can you get here?” I gave away everything I owned, bought a one-way ticket to Berlin, and the rest is history.

“The best opportunity is one where you can get your hands dirty early and be somewhere that appreciates fresh ideas.”

You’ve been with Studio Libeskind now for twenty years. What has defined your experience here?

 My experience has been defined by two phases: our time in Berlin, and our time here in New York. In Berlin, I worked on a lot of competitions and we were very fortunate to win many of them. Our time in New York was then defined by the World Trade Center redevelopment – we won that competition and moved our entire office here in 2003. I played a role in all that was involved: I worked on the competition, I led the whole progression of the project, and I helped establish the New York office. The process has been an exciting adventure. We have evolved since 2003, and in addition to Daniel, there are three Partners now - myself, Yama Karim and Stefan Blach. We have all worked here for more than 20 years and I feel incredibly fortunate to work with them - we all have our strengths, and we are all very supportive and collaborative.

 Carla with Michael Ashley and Daniel and Nina Libeskind at the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, Canada.

Carla with Michael Ashley and Daniel and Nina Libeskind at the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, Canada.

Before becoming a Partner, you were both a CEO and Principal. How were you able to integrate the demands of both roles in your day to day?

Studio Libeskind has always tried to stay small so that we could do the projects that we really believed in. In keeping ourselves lean, a lot of us have had to do a lot of different things – which is a tremendous opportunity! I was always interested in learning more about the business side. As wonderful and creative and as talented as my father was, he was a terrible business person [laughs]. The business side is a part of being an architect just as much as the technical side is – it’s just another aspect of the profession and is just as creative – and since I had an interest in it and an aptitude for it, I volunteered to take on those extra responsibilities. That is one thing I love about this profession - it’s so multifaceted that you can find your way and your place if you want to.

 You are also a mom! How do you incorporate motherhood into everything else that you do?

 There are a lot of ways. First and foremost I have an amazing husband and I am also very fortunate that my mom decided, one week before my daughter was born, to move here – since my father passed away before I got pregnant, it has worked out well for everyone. Even more fortunately though, the office has been incredibly supportive – it really is a family here. When I was pregnant, I was carrying on like business as usual and even at 34 weeks I traveled to London to present our proposal for a competition. I was on my way to work in my heels when I went into labor. On day seven after Ramona was born, my husband saw that I was packing her up to go out. Dave asked, “Where are you going?” And I told him, “I’m going back to work.” He just went, “Excuse me?”

I explained that my heart has grown and exploded with Ramona, but I also love what I do! I loved being at work! Even the hospital, I was already on the phone and working on projects – not because I had to, but because I love what I do and it’s fun and interesting and I’m committed to it. I took Ramona to work with me for a few months. I didn’t come to work twelve hour days obviously, but I’d come with her for about six hours a few days a week. I had a little basinet behind my chair. It sounds crazy but it made total sense for me. My coworkers are people I love, they’re already my family, and half of us have kids and help each other. I kept Ramona with me and I got to do what I loved, in an environment that supported it. My coworkers were happy to have a little baby to play with - Daniel and Nina were more interested in Ramona than they were in any project.

 Carla with baby Ramona

Carla with baby Ramona

 Carla and Ramona today

Carla and Ramona today

How has motherhood changed you?

Before I had a baby, I thought I was so effective and efficient, such a go-getter [laughs]. After I had a baby, I feel like I went into super drive. I’ve become clearer, more focused, and more effective because there is something so much more important in my life. Motherhood puts things in perspective. I don’t work less now – maybe more – I’ll run home to her, put her to bed, and work for a few more hours, but I don’t mind doing that. It’s just my way of incorporating everything that I love into my day.

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In addition to being a Partner and a mom, you are also a restaurateur! Tell me about Faun.

I am a very reluctant restaurateur. I love food and I love restaurants, but I never wanted to run one – it’s all Dave. Dave is an architect and has always loved cooking. Years ago he started looking at restaurant spots in the neighborhood and calling realtors when he would see places go under. I thought it was just a little bit of a fun hobby. Then a spot opened up near our house, when Ramona was two, and he told me he wanted to make an offer and open a restaurant. He said, “I really want to do this. I want Ramona to know that she should follow her dreams and do what she loves even if everyone tells her she shouldn’t and even if she fails.”! I could not argue with that.

So he quit his job in architecture two years ago, and has been managing the restaurant since. You only get to live once! I help with many things, but it’s really his baby – he designed and built it himself, he planted the garden. He sees at as an urban project by how it makes an impact on a changing neighborhood and creates a place where people want to be. We have so many regulars and we’ve had weddings there – it’s really a great place with such a creative atmosphere and a great community.

 Carla and Dave in the Faun garden

Carla and Dave in the Faun garden

 What have been some of the biggest challenges?

The World Trade Center project was a big challenge – the magnitude, the complexity, the importance of it. Any project in New York City would have been complex, but given the emotional and political aspect of things and how meaningful it was, this project was exponentially more complicated than any other and also being done under a magnifying glass. We were a small office coming from Berlin, and we had to respond to this giant responsibility. Having experience with the Jewish Museum helped us - Daniel and Nina faced so much adversity in that project getting cancelled, new directors coming on, and Daniel and Nina really helped steer it to getting done. We brought that same commitment, passion, sincerity, and ability to listen to the WTC.

 Carla on site

Carla on site

What have been some highlights and what are you most proud of?

 I’m most proud of who we are as a practice and that we approach each project with genuine enthusiasm, from the Jewish Museum in San Francisco, to the Crystals in Las Vegas, to the Ogden Center at Durham University. I’m proud of how we’ve collaborated with our clients, partners, consultants, and anyone who is part of the team - we just keep making more friends! That’s what I love the most about the profession – you dream these incredible things, and then bring them to life with a lot of different people. You can’t do it by yourself in a corner – it’s about people and relationships and working together.

 Carla in the office in 2012

Carla in the office in 2012

What’s next for you?

We just won a NYCHA project – affordable housing is something we’ve been interested in doing for a long time. We weren’t the obvious choice but we believe that design is about ideas and not about money. I’d like to do more work here in New York and in America in general. I’ve worked all around the world, and we’ve been here for fifteen years and besides the WTC, the NYCHA project is our only other project here. We just started working on a project in Detroit, which is also very meaningful for me having studied in Michigan, so a lot of exciting things are on the horizon. I also feel very fortunate to be involved with things like the Van Alen Institute, where I am a Board member, and to be able to give back.

 Carla with Van Alen in Mexico

Carla with Van Alen in Mexico

What have been your biggest influences?

My mom said to me before I went to college, “Go to school to have a life, not to get a job.” My parents are amazing human beings – they never told me to get a certain job, or to make a certain amount of money, but encouraged me to do something in life that mattered to me. My parents worked really hard, cared about the world, were creative, and loved what they did. Society tells us to do X,Y, and Z in this order and I never felt like I needed to check off those boxes – that wasn’t my foundation. I was very lucky not to be encouraged by convention – quite the opposite.

Daniel and Nina have obviously influenced and inspired me – and they still do! One of the best things about working with them, here and in Berlin, is that they create such a collaborative atmosphere and such a special place. I’m really proud that we are an office of very sincere people - we take on projects we love and are deeply committee to them. I’ve learned so much from my amazing colleagues over the years, so to land as a young graduate in an environment that’s a very collaborative studio atmosphere gave me the opportunity to learn about everything I was interested in.

“I was very lucky not to be encouraged by convention - quite the opposite.”

What has been your general approach to your career?

I believe that life is an adventure and having that attitude has been very liberating. It’s funny to say that as someone who has been at one firm for all these years, but I just found the right place early. I think it’s simply about doing what you love and what you believe in. If you’re doing what you love and what you believe in, and are genuine, life is very easy. 

What advice do you have for young architects?

Find a place where you can learn a lot and stay there a while. Architecture is hard and buildings take a long time to be built, but following the process from beginning to end is invaluable. The best opportunity is one where you can get your hands dirty early and be somewhere that appreciates fresh ideas. That would be my advice – to find a place where you feel you’re being invested in and give it your all.

 Carla with Ramona.

Carla with Ramona.

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