CHRISTA WARING I Architect
"If I weren't doing this I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. My crazy life suits me."
Where did you grow up? Describe that place and its people…
I grew up in Narragansett Rhode Island. It’s a small beach town kind of place. Everyone there hates the "city people" who are the rest of the Rhode Islanders who flock to Narragansett on the weekends in the summer and turn it into a hopping place instead of a lazy town.
What were you like as a child? What did you want to do when you grew up?
I was a pretty reserved kid. My brother was the wild one and he gave my parents such a hard way to go, I was always compensating for him. When I was really young, maybe 8, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Once I got into high school, I had big dreams of living on the left bank in France and hanging out. No real plan there!
When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to be an architect,after the hanging out on the left bank phase, but my school didn't have any art programs or anything that wasn't strictly college prep, so I had no way to put together a portfolio that wasn't a photography portfolio. I had learned to develop and print B&W in the 5th grade and had kept up with that. So I went to school to be a French major—I was fluent and it was easy for me.
When did you first leave home? Where did you go?
I left home when I was 18 to go to college in Lynchburg, Virginia. I was there for one school year. Then, there was a period of limbo, and when I was 24 I moved to Brooklyn to go to Pratt Institute. I moved in with a friend of a friend. I had no money and knew no one. It was the bravest thing I had ever done. I think that's why I hold it dear.
Can you talk a little bit about that time off school between 19 and 24 years old? What propelled you to move to NYC and take the leap to go to Pratt?
I was 22 when I moved to New York. So, I don’t think that I’ve said that I’m a pretty independent person. When I wanted to go to college, there was a financial aid policy that you could not receive aid based on your own sad financial state until you were not claimed by your parents on their tax returns for two years. So, while I was waiting for that to happen, I went to community college and worked full-time in a photo lab. I always wanted to move to New York! What kid doesn’t?
Why did you want to become an architect?
I don’t think that I had a specific reason. It was more of a calling. I recently took my class to an office visit at H3 Hardy which is headed up by Hugh Hardy who is in his 80s and an architectural icon, and still goes to the office every day. He told my students that architecture is an obsession. I liked that, I believe that. It’s not a job that one falls into by mistake. It’s trial by fire!
How does NYC inspire your work?
I do prefer fixing things over designing new things. In particular, I like to do renovations of low income housing. I have that architect's belief that when someone's environment is improved, then their life is improved. I like to believe that. I think in a place like New York City there's a fair amount of opportunity for that kind of work. The population is so much more diverse and there are people here with that same real interest that I have.
One of your projects that we were most excited by was the LES Girls Club. Can you talk a bit about that? Your inspiration for the project?
We worked with the Girls Club for many years before the building was realized. The Girls Club is a little funky and fun, and this inspired the facades, and the scale of the facades, which I am happy to say are petite little gems on the side streets. But they are also bold and outspoken which we spoke to with our choice of materials—exposed concrete, corten steel. They have fun “contents” on the building interior, a two story library with a grand cast concrete stair, the Airstream trailer podcasting lab, a 30’ planetarium dome. We chose to accentuate these elements on the facade with concrete “frames” that stick out and announce that something quite special is going on in those places. The corten and stainless steel “banner” that runs along the facades from street to avenue to street tie the building together and let the community in on the goings on inside this big new building. It was a very exciting project, built during the time when the economy tanked, so it was a real success story.
What was your favorite project to work on and why?
I'm working on a project now that is low income housing for the elderly and we are putting together a scope of work to do interior renovations. I had to visit a bunch of apartments and everyone was so nice and welcoming and they were real people, with real lives. I enjoy them. There's one resident who says I am one of his people. I don't know what he means but he's great. A real New York character.
Who is your favorite architect right now?
My favorite design architect is Behnisch Architects. One of my professors introduced me to their work like 15 years ago and I remain intrigued.
Do you have favorite materials to work with? Do any materials speak to your design aesthetic?
I do love brick, roman sized. I am so retro.
What inspires your designs?
Context. I am never a fan of a new building that overwhelms its surroundings. I received an email yesterday about owners of a lot in New York City that are petitioning for a 30 FAR for their new building. What that means is a GIANT building. It’s ludicrous.
What excites you about the future of architecture?
The profession is always changing, particularly with the rapid advances in technology but there is always something that brings it back to the prehistoric hut. Architecture has always managed to bridge this divide. I look forward to seeing where this leads us.
What are your biggest challenges? Do you have an achilles heel?
I think one of my biggest challenges is speaking up in the face of opposition. But then that depends on my mood. Sometimes I'm right on it. But I am an architect who does not believe that every piece of architecture needs to be an icon. And that can definitely be an architectural Achilles heel.
It seems like architecture is a male dominated industry. Have you found this to be a challenge?
I have found this to be more of a frustration than a challenge. I get very frustrated because, nowadays, architecture school is 50/50 male female, but at my age and at my level, I find that I am often the only female in the room. This is true of the profession as a whole and frankly to professional life in general. As a mother, I find that its very common for women to drop out of the work force (still!) once they’ve had kids. I often think in about 15 years I’m going to look back at my life now and be like, what?? I did that for 20 years? It’s a juggling act.
What lessons have you learned? or Best piece of advice you have ever been given?
I have learned a lot, but most of all, hard work will get you where you need to go. That and luck and timing and moral support and….
What does a typical day look like for you? What's your work process?
A typical day for me is up around 6AM. We have two kids, so I always say that I have back of house and my husband has front of house. He does breakfast with them and makes lunches while I get ready for work then I get them dressed, teeth brushed, hair fixed, backpacks packed. Then we all leave the house around 7:30, kids to school, parents to the city. We are a well oiled machine at home before and after work. What happens at work depends on the day and the deadline. I sit and talk with a lot of people, clients, employees, co-op board members, building residents. I don't spend a lot of time hanging off of buildings on a scaffold anymore. I kind of miss that.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to do what you do?
If I were to give someone advice who wanted to do what I do, my advice would be to always support the other people in your office and to be the real you and to have a spouse who knows what the meaning of partner is.
What does the word authentic mean to you?
Authentic is an important word to me. Authentic is just being who you are always, no apologies. A little goofy, a little inhibited, a little impatient, a little rigid, whatever it is that you are.
How would you describe yourself in five words?
In five words…. Oh wait, I could give you one more since I already named four…. Unapologetically in love.
Do you have any rituals to you get you ready for the day?
My rituals aren't so much daily but still necessary. I knit but not every day. That helps me unwind and I'm creating which I clearly enjoy. I go to yoga a few times a week, so that I can be in my own head. I always say 3 partners, 40 employees, 15 students, 2 kids and 1 husband, sometimes a girl needs a little time.
Any badass women you love? Dead or alive?
Julia Morgan, badass woman of Architecture circa 1900!
If you weren’t doing this, what would you do?
If I weren't doing this I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. My crazy life suits me.