Mary Katherine Lanzillotta, FAIA

Partner, Hartman-Cox Architects

Washington, District of Columbia

Load Testing Columns, Oyster Elementary School Third Grade, Washington, DC. Washington Architectural Foundation, Architecture in the Schools.
Courtesy of the Washington Architectural Foundation.

Having an idea develop into drawings and then a building where one lives or works is thrilling. My parents added onto our home and then built a new home when I was a child. The reality of this experience and living through the construction was very exciting. I knew by the time I was a teenager I wanted to find some way to be involved in the building process.

Why and how did you decide on which school to attend for your architecture degree? What degree(s) do you possess?

As I was trying to decide whether to pursue engineering or architecture, the University of Virginia (UVA) offered a summer program for high school students on the “grounds” in Charlottesville. My parents agreed to let me attend the program to determine if architecture was a good fit for me. As part of the program, I attended morning lectures on history, visited job sites and then had a “studio” program in the afternoon. The experience was very positive, and I knew I wanted to pursue the Bachelor of Science in Architecture at UVA.

After four years and a dozen or so architectural history courses at UVA, I knew I wanted to be more involved with the preserving the built environment. For graduate school, I only applied to programs that offered a combination of architecture and preservation; I completed a Master of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and a Certificate in Historic Preservation.

What has been your greatest challenge as an architect?

Reminding myself to stay focused on the big picture and not to get bogged down in the details. To do this often requires me to step back and think creatively about how to solve the challenge in a different way.

"Reminding myself to stay focused on the big picture and not to get bogged down in the details."

As a partner at Hartman-Cox Architects, what are your primary responsibilities and duties?

One primary responsibility is to pursue, secure, and execute good work. As one who is interested in preservation, I tend to look for more work in this same area but am also open to exploring new opportunities. My other duties are “as assigned” as we do not have rigidly set roles but look to see what is needed and where.

A handful of Hartman-Cox Architects projects relate to historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and rehabilitation. How and why are these issues important to architecture?

Most of the Hartman-Cox projects relate to providing a continuity of the sense of place. This can be achieved by preserving existing buildings, adding onto existing buildings in a sensitive and appropriate manner, or by building a new building that respects its neighbors and reinterprets the sense of place. Our firm believes in building timeless buildings of their place. The continuity of history is important culturally as there are specific reasons why particular materials are used in some locations and not in others and, in the process, they leave us with a lesson about the use of local materials and technology.

In the case of the Old Patent Office building, now the Smithsonian Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, we can see the evolution of much of the nineteenth century technology and architectural history from the restraint and classicism of Robert Mills with the solid masonry vaults to the exuberance and mannerism of Adolph Cluss as seen in the Luce Foundation Center. Buildings also share the cultural memories of place from the soldier’s carving his initials in the shutter of a window to the inaugural ball of President Lincoln.

Buildings also embody an enormous amount of energy, and to reuse or renovate buildings appropriately to keep them in use is a responsible approach. In 1958, the General Services Administration considered tearing down the Old Patent Office Building that occupies two city blocks and turning the site into a parking lot. The amount of wasted materials would have been vast and the history would have been lost.

What is the most/least satisfying part of your career as an architect?

The most satisfying experiences are watching people in the buildings and see how they are enjoying the building and see if they are experiencing it in the manner we expected. Of course, if when you find the public is not as pleased with some aspect, these are the most instructive moments. All architects should visit their own buildings to see what works and what does not so they can improve upon their experience.

Can you provide details on Architecture in the Schools and why it is important for you to serve the profession in this way?

A program of the Washington Architectural Foundation, Architecture in the Schools (AIS) teams volunteer architects with pre-K to twelfth grade classroom teachers to use architecture and design concepts to reinforce learning standards across the curriculum. Established in 1992, the Architecture in the Schools program originated in the District of Columbia and expanded to the greater Washington metropolitan area in 2002.

Students in the program (1) learn problem-solving techniques, (2) explore different ways to express their ideas, (3) examine their environment through the classroom projects they design, (4) apply abstract concepts to real-life scenarios, (5) develop a cross-curricular understanding of subject matter, and (6) cultivate civic awareness of how the children can influence their environment.

Since its inception over 400 schools and over 10,000 students have participated in the program. The Architecture in the Schools program has expanded to include professional development programs for teachers to learn more about how to integrate design and architecture into their curriculums and a series of architectural walking tours for children in Washington, DC neighborhoods. With the opening of the District Architecture Center in 2011, we began to offer monthly Saturday programs for K-12 students who are interested in architecture. The programs have ranged from the basics of site design, drawing, and model building to set design and green roof tours. All of these programs allow students to explore the architecture and the built environment.

The experience of opening the eyes of children to the world around them and having them think critically about choices in their neighborhoods has had a profound impact on me. The opportunity to share my understanding of design and architecture with these students has forced me to learn to speak about architecture in a readily understandable way. The students’ questions helped me to think critically about how to present ideas in a new approachable manner. Further, these students will grow up and become homeowners or members of a citizen’s advisory committee. When this next generation has to think critically about a design issue that may impact or influence their communities, I hope they will have some frame of reference on which to base their decisions.

"The experience of opening the eyes of children to the world around them and having them think critically about choices in their neighborhoods has had a profound impact on me."

Who or what experience(s) has been a major influence on your career?

Without setting out to do so, I have found myself gravitating toward projects that have an educational theme. The preservation projects are educational in what and how the buildings are preserved and the missions of the organizations themselves whether it is preserving the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorials or renovating the UNC Morehead Planetarium Building. The Architecture in the Schools program is more directly educational, but the program attempts to encourage children to look at their world and think critically about it while they are still open-minded.

My current partners, Lee Becker, and Graham Davidson, and emeritus partners, George Hartman and Warren J. Cox, and all of the members of the Hartman-Cox team over the years particularly those who took the time to help me understand what was required and patiently answered all of my questions.

My parents encouraged me to explore architecture both as a young child by building and, then, as a student when I wanted to pursue architecture as a career. My parents also were role models for getting involved in and giving back to the community through their own service.

The hundreds of Architecture in the Schools volunteers who have given so freely of their time to share their knowledge of architecture and the built environment with the schoolchildren in DC and the metropolitan area to bring AIS program to life in the schools.

Rolaine Copeland, Hon. AIA, was the Architecture in Education program director at the Foundation for Architecture in Philadelphia and who encouraged me to start the Architecture in the Schools program in DC.