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In an interview with Madame Architect’s Julia Gamolina, Mary Burnham reflects on leading a women-owned architecture firm. Read “Design That Matters: Taking the Long View.”

Mary Burnham, a founding partner of MBB Architects, was interviewed by with Madame Architect, a journal that highlights women leaders in architecture. MBB is a top women-owned architecture firm.

Design That Matters: MBB’s Mary Burnham on Embracing Opportunities and Taking the Long View

By Julia Gamolina

September 24, 2020

Mary Burnham, a native New Yorker and Partner at MBB Architects, has practiced architecture for over twenty-five years. Her design sensibility and mastery of color and light are influenced, in part, by her experience as an accomplished painter. Mary’’s conviction is that design is an integrated endeavor where the lines of architecture, interior design, and landscape design blur and overlap. Her work includes design of educational, cultural, residential, and commercial projects. In addition to her architectural work, she oversees the interior design division of the firm.

Mary holds a Master of Architecture from Yale University and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania where she studied the History of Architecture and Fine Arts. She has served on the Honors Committee of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and is a member of the League Council of the Architectural League. She is the founding Board Chair for the Lighthouse Works, a not-for-profit arts organization. Mary was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 2018. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Mary talks about growing up with many architects and letting her career evolve by embracing opportunities, advising young architects to keep a long view.

The Road to Leadership as a Top Woman Architect

JG: We always start at the very beginning – how did your interest in architecture first develop?

MB: Architecture was a backdrop of my childhood. My parents were both architects— Ann and Harry had met at the GSD when they were assigned seats next to each other in the studio, a really romantic story [laughs]. We lived in New York City and for a time my father had his practice in the ground floor of our brownstone house. My mother was busy raising five children upstairs and working when she could. Her father and grandfather were both architects and so there was a legacy there and my brother Jerome also became an architect. He has a practice in San Francisco. Finally, I have several cousins on both sides of my family who are architects, and artists, as well.

This is atypical! Most people I’ve interviewed didn’t know anyone who was an architect growing up. 

Despite that context, at no point did I think there was anything unusual about my upbringing, or did I think architecture was something that was interesting for me. I didn’t find a personal connection to architecture until my early 20’s, in college. I had always loved math, but was mostly interested in the arts — painting, photography, print making, graphic design — and was studying fine arts and art history at the University of Pennsylvania. In my junior year I took a course in ‘the history of modern architecture’ with Dr. David Brownlee and that course struck so many chords with me that I decided to shift my focus to the history of architecture.

After graduating I still didn’t know if architecture was the right career for me — I just knew that I loved working within the creative environment of a studio, as opposed to an office environment. I liked making things. When I returned to New York, I interned with Hugh Hardy at Hardy, Holtzman, and Pfeiffer, while applying to graduate school.

I really loved the work and the studio atmosphere. This was back in the dark ages, before computers were a part of our lives and we designed everything by making models and hand drawing. The following year I enrolled at Yale in the Master’s program, where I had a wonderful and very formative experience. I felt extremely inexperienced compared to my peers when I arrived but soon felt in my element, and I knew this is what I wanted to do. During the intervening summers I worked with a professor, Guiseppe Zambonini, who had a small studio in the city. Through my graduate years I was able to continue painting — and I continued this practice to a more limited extent up until my boys were born.

Toward Gender Equity in Architecture

What did you first do after graduate school?

I moved back to New York City and ended up taking a job with Richard Meier’s office, where I worked for five years. Meier’s practice had a very disciplined way of working through the design process and construction documents, all ink on mylar in the European method. It was a little bit like working at the UN in that most of the projects were in Europe and the office had become a destination for designers from Germany and Holland and all over Europe and the US. I was the only native New Yorker and one of a few females. We all worked insane hours, for minimal pay — and, yes, my salary was even more minimal than my male counterparts’ — but it was a great training ground for me.

What did you do next? 

I decided to move on when I was approached by some friends— a young couple— with a request to renovate their apartment, a classic first project. On the basis of that commission I began my own practice and sublet space in Soho from a friend with a larger practice. At the time it seemed like a monumental risk to go out on my own, but I did love the autonomy and independence of being responsible for the entire work. I was a sole practitioner for five years with a minimal part-time staff.

I learned so much in those five years, about running a business and wearing all the hats — getting work, doing the work, coordinating every aspect of the work. It was challenging and thrilling at the same time.

My friend Jeff Murphy had also started his own practice in parallel with mine. We both had fairly small projects — residential and small institutional projects — and we would meet for lunch periodically and share tips and resources. Eventually we were both commiserating that we couldn’t scale up our work so we decided to join forces to see if we could perhaps find work of scale in a combined effort. At the same time, my father Harry had decided to leave his firm and was looking for something different. So, the three of us decided to create a new firm together — and that is how Murphy, Burnham, and Buttrick, now MBB Architects, was founded.

Evolving into a Women-Owned Architecture Practice

How was starting a practice with your father?

[Laughs] It was such an unexpected and unique experience, I realize, to be in practice with Harry, but it was really great as well. In our partnership, everyone brought something very different to the table. I think those are the best collaborations, where each person contributes different talents and skills and brings a different perspective. Harry had started several partnerships during the course of his career — and this gave us, his new young partners, confidence in making the leap. We set up offices on 37th street and worked very hard to establish the practice. Harry stepped back after ten years, and with the addition of our new partner, Sara Grant, we have evolved into a women-owned practice.

My personal narrative during that time brought much joy — and added chaos — in the arrival of my twins with my husband Brad. My twin boys arrived a month early, just four days before we moved into our new offices, so the timing was challenging. It is an understatement to say I had a lot of “balls in the air” in those days. You certainly don’t plan these things to happen simultaneously [laughs], but if they do, you have to learn to roll with it.

Promoting Women and Minority Business Leaders

That speaks a lot to what we’re all experiencing today. Tell me more about running a firm though, because we do talk to a lot of founders, and a lot of founders are fairly young and looking for models to follow for how to construct their practice, and definitely balance that with parenthood. 

We have a thirty-person firm, and that is by design. As partners we are interested in being personally engaged with our clients and our work. Each of us balances the demands of the projects with the business administration of the firm, a task we all share. We are nimble enough to take on large projects, but also the smaller ones when needed. We have a marvelously talented group of architects and designers in the studio and have always thought it is as important to have a diverse and gender-balanced staff. The future and relevancy of our work depends on the inclusion of not only female voices but also Black and brown female voices, and the world of others. We have always sought out interesting opportunities in a wide range of project types. Though we are known for some of our educational and work on significant cultural Landmarks, we also do residential work, work in the civic sphere and a wide range of work with not-for-profits.

Balancing life at work and life at home is a constant challenge. I have had the good fortune of having wonderful professional partners — each with their own families — knowing that we will all step in for each other when something comes up.

It’s been amazing to see the firms that have been able to keep all of their staff afloat, Trahan Architects included. Some firms had to unfortunately let staff go the very first week of the crisis, which was tough to witness. It makes you think about the business model of architecture firms and their sustainability. 

Over the course of the last twenty years, we’ve had two major challenges. The first was in 2008, when we were dealing with the financial crisis, and we had to retract to the point where our firm went down to under twenty people. And then this year, when the pandemic completely upended our work and work lives. Over the course of the spring and summer we have been committed to keeping our team together. We have had to make some hard choices, and some major adjustments in how we work to meet the circumstances. I do not know what things will look like in six or twelve months, but today I am guardedly optimistic. We have been doing our best to fill in gaps — and decided to do a competition for a Net-Zero Library Design for AIA California.

Creating Opportunities for Women Architects

It’s such a strange time to be asking this question, but where do you feel like you personally are in your career today?

I feel grateful to have had to opportunity to do fulfilling and impactful work in my career. Working within the cultural landscape of our city, I have done several interesting multi-phased projects, and many with repeat clients, which is always very rewarding. I have formed deep friendships with some of my clients over the years.  I’ve had the opportunity to work on some amazing landmarks, which is a unique experience, but I also cherish some of the more challenging, more strategic interventions I have designed that were challenging to build but that make such a huge difference in people’s lives.

Though I am still deeply connected to our work, I am also engaged in several extra-curricular activities, including with the Architectural League, and leading the Board of an artist residency that I helped start on Fishers Island called the Lighthouse Works. My husband Brad and I are renovating a large warehouse on the Island to further incubate creative endeavors. I am thinking of ways to contribute not only within the office and through our work, but out in the wider community of art and architecture.

Looking back, what have been the biggest challenges throughout your career?

There have been very challenging times — particularly when my kids were small — with balancing the demands of being a mom, a wife, and a partner of a thriving practice. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but there is a constant question of how to manage all of those things that are tugging at you in different directions.

Architecture is still a male-dominated world, and we are still far from having an equitable playing field. Creating opportunities for more women in the profession, but also more women in decision-making positions in the world who will be hiring the architects, is as important as anything. I don’t think it’s an accident that some of my best and most interesting projects have come from female clients.

The Importance of Women Role Models

Who are you admiring right now?

Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away just last week — and it is impossible to understate the profound and lasting impact her work and life has had on all the women in this country. Anecdotally, when my mother decided to go to graduate school to pursue a degree in architecture, her father— himself an architect — was vehemently opposed to the idea of her becoming an Architect. Architecture was just not seen as a profession for women. With the current rising generation of female architects in this country and abroad we are starting to see that change. I have so many friends and professional colleagues whose work I admire, so I celebrate that as well.

What would you say your mission is?

My goal in every project is to harness the transformational power of design. I remember working with a very experienced head of a Montessori school, who at the time had never done a design project or built a new school before. After the project was completed, he took me aside and said he had “no idea” that design could impact the community of his school in such a profound and wonderful way. Putting design in places that really matter for people — that’s one of the most rewarding aspects of this profession. Most people may not even recognize that it’s the architecture that’s making their experience, but it is.

Progress for Women in Architecture

What has been your general approach to your career?

I would say I definitely did not have a road map at the beginning — but my career has developed along the way because of the opportunities I have chosen to embrace. The people you choose to work with will shape your experience.

Finally, what advice do you have for those starting their careers in the field? 

Every young architect should know that your career will not necessarily fall along a specific path that you lay out. Every project demands that there’s a client asking for that project, so you can’t really go out and shape your body of work in a preordained way. However, you can be open to opportunities and build relationships that then pop up again later in life. I’ve had that happen to me many times, where you meet someone that seems at the time like a relatively casual interaction, and then years later, somehow this person shows up again and is in a place where it turns into some kind of opportunity.

Taking the long view and knowing that a piece of architecture can take ten years to realize — It’s really a long process, and there are a lot of little steps along the way. Keep your eyes looking ahead and appreciate that what you’re doing today may not seem like the most important or meaningful thing, but that it will all add up. The power of architecture is that it is greater that the sum of its parts. When you get to the finish line, and see the work realized, that’s when you internalize what an amazing thing this is to do.

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