Our Carisima Koenig is profiled in a new Q+A interview from Madame Architect, a publication focused on highlighting women that advance the practice of architecture, from all backgrounds, corners and levels in the field. In the Q+A, Carisima shares how she developed her passion for architecture, how she balances work with family, insight into her work, lessons learned and more. Carisima is the co-leader of our New York City education practice and currently serves as the co-chair of the AIA New York Professional Practice Committee.
Carisima’s full Q+A can be read online. Here are key excerpts:
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.
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 that Architecture, at the scale I want to work at, is something that is 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, who is developing a kindness and sincerity in the world. He’s 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.