Emerging with Rigor: Katie MacDonald on After Architecture
Katie MacDonald is Founding Partner of After Architecture and Collegiate Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech. She holds a Master of Architecture from Harvard University and a Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University. She was also recently named Emerging Designer in the Virginia By Design Awards.
Katie's research focuses on urbanism and resilience through the lens of emerging technology. Her scholarship has been funded by the Robert James Eidlitz Fellowship to study the work of Edoardo Gellner in northern Italy and the Paul M. Heffernan International Travel Grant to implement a project in the Slovenian Alps. The resulting project was recognized with such accolades as the AIA New England Design Honor Award in Special Projects, the Core 77 Design Award in Built Environment, two Architizer A+ Awards in Architecture and Collaboration, and a nomination for the Mies Van der Rohe Award EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Katie talks about starting a practice soon out of school and the rigor with which she approaches both design and business, advising all those interested in architecture to pursue the study of it.
JG: How did your interest in architecture develop?
KM: I was always creative, without being “artsy”, and my interests were varied - I was engaged in every imaginable subject, sport and extracurricular activity. One summer, I enrolled in a high school program in architecture at Cal Poly SLO because it seemed to combine all that I was interested in. There, I really connected to the learning process, which cemented my interest. The boundless possibilities and simultaneous rigor of design were a welcome release from the mechanics of standardized testing and lecture-based courses.
Tell me about your early days in the field.
First, Cornell was an intensive immersion into the cult of architecture. Sequestered in the perpetual winter of upstate New York, across from the country from my family and the sun’s warmth, few distractions pulled me from the studio. Then, as if my normal work wasn’t enough, during fourth year I started After Architecture with Kyle Schumann as an avenue to pursue competitions and side projects.
You’ve worked at a few offices before dedicating all of your time to After Architecture. What were those experiences like?
After graduation, I was eager to return to my roots and worked at Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects in Los Angeles, where I jumped into a fast-paced workflow of contemporary multi-family housing working alongside a lively, young team. Then, when a full-time opportunity opened up for me at Morphosis, I took it. Morphosis brought the dynamics of the academic studio into the workplace; a talented, diligent staff labored over designs ranging in scale from sculpture to skyscraper. All the while, Kyle and I were still doing projects as After Architecture, and they had quickly built up from ideas competitions and small installations to six figure projects.
How does your time at Harvard play into all this?
Many of the model practices that I looked up to had come out of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, so it was the natural fit to pursue my post-professional degree. During my first semester, I jumped at the opportunity to enroll in a studio with OFIS Arhitekti’s Spela Videcnik and Rok Oman, enticed by the opportunity to compete to build a project in the Alps, Peak House. I ended up being assigned to a team with fellow Cornell alumna Erin Pellegrino. I was initially surprised to have to start my GSD career working in a team - we did not do much team work at Cornell - but Erin and I became fast friends and ended up being the only team not to immediately disband. In a testament to teamwork, we won the competition and realized our design.
Take me back to when you started After Architecture. How did you get your start and how did you grow the practice?
Going back to my time at Cornell, the fall of fourth year in Rome was a welcome change of pace from the intensity of Ithaca. Studying architecture and culture in situ in an ancient place forced me to consider time, material, and permanence. That experience made me want to make something lasting and physical – no more paper architecture. Kyle and I joined forces with the intention of realizing real projects. Since then, culture, material, time, and place have become drivers of our approach. All of this is to say that After Architecture has its roots in Rome.
We began our practice doing open competitions, always with the criteria that the winning entry would be built. The speed, intensity, and conceptual clarity required by competitions is great for pushing one’s thinking forward, and so even when we only shortlisted, we often took the fresh ideas that came out of competition work and translated them into other projects. These days, we work on direct commissions, respond to requests for qualifications, do invited competitions, and do the occasional open competition as a way to exchange ideas with other emerging practices.
Our current work includes two major projects in Washington D.C.: the first is a memorial to Camp Barker, a Civil War 'Contraband Camp' that provided shelter to freed and escaped formerly enslaved persons, and the second, a neighborhood wayfinding infrastructure for Van Ness, which consists of a system of folded brass geometries. Our projects tend to be in the public realm, which is important to us in terms of making work that has impact.
How would you like the practice to move forward?
Moving forward, we are working on bringing our scholarly research into our practice. Kyle is doing research around emerging fabrication technology and robotics, and my research is exploring resilient design. Both areas have huge implications for how the built environment is changing, so we hope to translate the research into real projects.
We also hope to grow and rethink the traditional architecture business model. Coming of age during the Great Recession and witnessing the subsequent exploitation of young architects has made us really conscious about how we want to design our office. The hierarchy, prejudice, and abuse so entrenched in the profession is not acceptable or productive; being a forward-thinking design practice means not only creating high-caliber projects, but also rethinking the conditions in which architects practice.
What have you learned in starting your own practice so early?
I learned to learn fast. As a student, I operated under the assumption that my professors and employers had expertise about all facets of the profession. When my peers and I progressed into the profession, it quickly became clear that there is a lot of learning on the job at all levels. This realization was comforting - no professional knows everything and learning is constant. Designing and managing projects of increasing scale has helped me both build up deep expertise and be agile about acquiring new skills when I need them. One thing that I did not realize was how large the ratio of business to design would be when running a practice, but I enjoy both aspects.
How is working with your life partner?
In one word: fun. I feel quite lucky to have found such a partner. We began working together before we started dating, so our relationship is an accrual of friendship, collaboration, and love. We are both quite immersed in our work so it works well; we can slip between work and personal life fluidly. We both engage all aspects of design and business, but I favor conceptual design and urban implications, while Kyle tends toward materials, tectonics, and fabrication.
Looking back at these five years out of school, what are some challenges that you’ve faced?
Architecture is a profession ripe with challenges, and such challenges are magnified as a newcomer trying to establish oneself in a tumultuous industry. One is that it is difficult to locate clients and mentors, and finding the right ones is even more rare. Another challenge is that running a practice requires an even wider skillset than the generalist palette of the architect, and learning business basics like forming a company or reviewing a contract was new to me when Kyle and I began After Architecture.
What have been some highlights?
I love the moment that the rendering becomes real through the process of construction. It gets me every time. It is one thing to push a project through the design process, but it another to see it realized, to feel it against your skin, to smell it! The first project that Kyle and I completed was a sculptural bench entitled Lightwave at Cornell University, which is now permanently installed in the Cornell Botanic Gardens. Building something permanent on the campus where we spent so much time learning how to design was extremely rewarding.
The world of design has introduced me to some brilliant people and given me wonderful friendships. Every project, collaboration, and conference seems to open up my eyes to new and exciting work going on around me. I really appreciate architecture as a profession of lifelong learning. At After Architecture, we have deliberately established a set of core values that inform both our designs and our professional relationships. We have worked hard to build up a body of work and surround ourselves with collaborators who can augment our capabilities. We have been lucky to have a few great clients come knocking, but we also spend a lot of time seeking out new work. Over time, we have become more adept at finding opportunities and avoiding projects that do not align with our values.
What are you most proud of?
As my first realized building, the mountaineering shelter that I designed for a site in the Alps in Slovenia ranks near the top. I was able to helicopter to the site after it was installed, and the ride was unreal. The mountaineers who make their way to the bivouac now have free accommodations. The project was honored with such accolades as the AIA New England Design Honor Award in Special Projects, the Core 77 Design Award in Built Environment, two Architizer A+ Awards in Architecture and Collaboration, and a nomination for the Mies Van der Rohe Award EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture.
I am also proud of a recent honor that I received—the title of Emerging Designer in the Virginia by Design Awards. I just moved to Virginia last August, but I have quickly adapted to the beautiful landscape, wealth of historic architecture, and emerging artistic scene here. My work is currently on view at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design in Richmond as part of the Virginia by Design exhibition.
Where do you want to go next?
Now is an exciting place to be. This is my first year of my first full time teaching post at Virginia Tech and After Architecture is taking off with two major projects in Washington, D.C. I hope that this streak continues.
What advice would you give to young architects?
I would advise anyone interested in architecture to go ahead and pursue the study of it. Architectural education is an exemplary model of learning - students learn to think critically, navigate complexity, analyze givens, develop proposals, synthesize systems, communicate ideas, and manage projects, among other skills. These lessons apply far beyond the narrow footprint of this profession. Whether students stick with architecture or pursue something else after school, they will have critical skills to thrive at their jobs and in their communities.