Et cetera: Carisima Koenig on Finding Her Own Definition of Architecture
By Julia Gamolina, portrait by Matthew Kirschner
Carisima Koenig is an Architect and Senior Vice President at CannonDesign. Carisima joined CannonDesign in 2010, and is New York City’s co-leader of the Education studio. In addition to her work in practice she teaches about the profession in the Graduate Architecture and Urban Design Program at Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture. She is co-chair of the AIANY Professional Practice Committee, and serves as a Board member for a community-based school in Brooklyn.
As both a practitioner and educator Carisima is interested in creating environments that foster educational pursuits. She also studies the history of gender across time in architecture. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Carisima talks about seeing the practice of architecture at all its scales and complications, advising young architects to take their time and keep an open mind.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
I have a dictionary at my desk - which has been on every desk I’ve had since my 8th year of college, my 4th year of architecture school - and I’ve always gone back to this simple definition of the word architecture. Architecture is defined as: “the profession of designing buildings, communities, et cetera”. The idea of “et cetera” is what always intrigued me. What is the “et cetera”? Who defines the “et cetera”? I have always believed the et cetera was essential because there are so many other things going on in Architecture. That being said, my interest developed through a series of moments that unfolded quietly, from performance, to fine arts, to architecture.
I have been involved in creating, whether it was weave-made houses we made in vacant lots growing up, my first business in junior high school or intaglio prints in college. During my education as a print-maker, my professor focused me in on inhabiting the space of the picture with an intention and a story.
You first went to college, finished, and then went back to college for your architecture degree. Tell me about this.
When I started college, I had too many different interests that it was hard to settle on a single discipline. I was interested in history, language, culture, and the arts. I began at a small liberal arts school in the Midwest and transferred to another one where I graduated with a design degree and a printmaking emphasis. I also have a women’s study certificate - there was no major for this at the time.
However, one of my English professors, who knew I was interested in design, recommended the journal Assemblage, which had essays by women writing about architecture. I was hooked. By coincidence a number of those authors were teaching at Iowa State University, so I went north!
What did you learn about yourself in architecture school?
I loved that in architecture school, we were asked to research as if we were social anthropologists. The faculty rarely gave us a quantitative program brief. We were expected to explore, with some parameters and constraints, and develop the program ourselves. We could be dropped off in a small town and have to figure out what the town needed - maybe they needed a building and maybe they didn’t. That was the lens I learned architecture through and I appreciated that. We were taught to ask questions before simply providing answers. There were so many things about community, culture, and the construction of space that helped broaden my perspective.
What was your first experience in practice?
I moved to New York City because I thought the type of projects I wanted to work on happened here. New York was this magnet and architecture was one of its forces. The firm I interned with in architecture school designed really beautiful work, but it wasn’t at the scale I wanted to explore. I was interested in performance spaces and civic institutional work.
My first job, like most first jobs, was a defining experience. I was at Rafael Viñoly Architects and there was great scrutiny on everything we did, I learned that architecture is a profession which can be hard on its members, intense, and demanding. It gave me an extremely strong work ethic and design approach, and it prepared me to enter fully into practice in a competitive place like NYC. I met my “first job crew” - good friends, whose perspectives on architecture felt like another lab. I loved that.
Where did you go next?
My next job was in a larger office - I went from a place where one person drove the design to a different way of working. SHCA had a very diverse group of leaders. I learned that you can still accomplish while operating in a reasonable environment, through the structure of the office and project teams. I met two architects who really helped me understand architecture in New York City and took a vested interested in my growth. Our studio group worked hard to create beautiful projects for our clients, but within limits.
I was hired for a very specific job because I had experience with performing arts projects, and I gained a great team to learn from. I learned so much technically and about the city in so many new ways. Then 9/11 happened and everyone hunkered down.
Projects stopped and there were rounds and rounds of layoffs. People were in shock and people weren’t building. That was my first experience with a recession.
I had my son around that time. When I came back from leave I was asked if I would like to lead a really complex renovation project, which was my proving ground. This was the project where I learned how best work with clients. I was able to lead, listen, have a voice and be trusted. I loved running that job.
Tell me about having your son while leading this large job.
When I worked on this project, I told my office I was expecting and they were very supportive. They did suggest I start saving money because they didn’t have a maternity leave policy. Times have changed, thankfully. There was one person who was a mentor and who pulled me aside and said, “When you come back, don’t ‘mommy-track’. Don’t come back part-time. Come back full-time. I have seen that when people come back and they aren’t full-time, people don’t know how to work with that. I will fight for you if that’s what you want to do, but if you can come back full-time, I would recommend that.”
I took that to heart. However, when I found someone to care for my son, she was only available four days a week. I called the principal of my studio and told him I was ready to return but I couldn’t work on Fridays, but I did want to still work full-time. He said he just wanted me to return to the studio and we would work together to create my schedule. Between my extremely supportive partner at home and my new schedule at work – I was able to work Monday through Thursday with Fridays off to care for my son. Having that one day as a mommy day, was so important to me and my family while building my career.
Why did you leave what sounds like a really supportive environment?
I left because I chased a job. We went after one of the United Nations contracts - one of the best performance spaces in the world. The firm I was at wasn’t awarded one of the UN contracts, but then one of the design principals ended up going to one of the firms that got the job. I followed them both.
The project, the United Nations Headquarters Renovation, was a completely new experience. The client was not a private client, so I was working across multiple contracts with a large global institution, historically renowned, with different timelines, protocols and inertia. We had this crazy dynamic of working on a site inside NYC that was not actually NYC. My time on this project was a fulfilling period because it got closer to my sense of architecture - a social-political and historically-oriented focus.
However, even with the positive project experiences, the toll it took on the office was something different and I saw how the duration of architecture takes a toll on teams. The project really is bigger than the team. The timelines of an institution versus the temporality of the architects working on the project was a contrast I learned about.
Where are you in your career today?
Now I am at CannonDesign, building upon the lessons learned and the collection of experiences in these other environments, as a licensed architect. I am finding that an education practice gives me much more consistency on the social project of architecture, which is to create environments for learning and thus improving people’s lives.
Having a family and being an architect is not easy and to be honest at times I struggle. You really have to push and there are periods of feeling conflicted – being all things to everyone. But, I love my career and it makes me happy. At Cannon I co-lead the higher education studio in New York City and the Womens’ Forum and am a founding member of the Diversity and Inclusion Council. I have been able to chart my path at CannonDesign with supportive teams and mentors.
I have also been able to teach at Pratt Institute in the Graduate Architecture and Urban Design program in the School of Architecture. Leading an education practice helps me teach and teaching helps me lead the practice. These two things help – it’s a meta-position! I have worked hard to put myself in the mutually reinforcing environments of profession and academy.
What have been your biggest challenges, looking back at everything?
It has taken me a long time to work through the fact that a lot of elements in architecture, especially at the scale I want to work at, are out of one’s control. You can make all kinds of plans, but the field is so complex that you have to figure out how to stop trying to control it all and learn to negotiate your way through it, all the while navigating things like recessions, gender gaps, financing, enrollment downturns, agencies, and more.
My biggest challenge is that there are just not enough hours in the day. There are so many environments and figuring out when to downshift and focus on my family has been a challenge. I have missed major moments and am filled with guilt but I have an incredible family who support me so I can live in that “et cetera” of Architecture.
What have been the biggest highlights?
Personally, my son. He is a good person with a great sense of humor, and is developing a kindness and sincerity in the world. He is undoubtedly my best project.
In terms of my work, the most amazing moments are always walking into a space that you have been laboring over, and feeling, “Our team did this and this space works”. Moments like listening to a musician play at Jazz at the Lincoln Center, knowing that I’m contributing to the mission and legacy of the United Nations, watching the news and seeing Hillary Clinton sit at the desk in the space we designed, watching students in the library laugh and study as they discover their voices and their futures. Realizing the things you do as an architect take on a life of their own - things like this are wonderful.
What has been your general approach to your career?
You have to be able to find something you can learn in each situation. There may be some things that feel mundane or repetitive but find the part that you don’t know. Discover what you can teach yourself. Ask questions.
I also tell my students not to have an accidental career. Don’t bumble your way through it - make sure you know what you want and make sure to advocate for yourself. At the same time though, you have to an open mind. And, if something is not right, you can leave.
Finally, what’s your advice for those just starting their career in the field?
Things take time. Architecture is a long game. The time scale for getting projects built - in our world that is so quick and fast - can be really challenging. We have to immerse ourselves and know that some things take time, and we also need to enjoy the work that we do. Being a good listener and hearing what someone truly needs is also one of the fundamental pieces of practice. At the same time, never forget your voice. So, take a breath, take some time, and keep an open mind. Things change, but it all works out.