Julia Gamolina on Breaking the Architect's Mold
A rising tide that raises all ships—Julia Gamolina’s efforts with Madame Architect in building a culture of community and collaboration give the diverse stories, perspectives, and the women they belong to a seat at the table. Listen to her episode on Design and the City. Photo courtesy of Sylvie Rosokoff
Julia is many things. Woman. Immigrant. Architect. Writer. Cornell Graduate. Director of Strategy at Trahan Architects. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Madame Architect. The latter is her brainchild and arguably her most well-known work; an online magazine about, by, and for the women that shape the built environment.
What is so special about the work she is doing with Madame Architect? Her commitment is to profile women in all stages of their careers, who break the mold of what an architect is, and create space for more diversity in the field.
Julia, breaks that mold too. She’s applied her knack for writing and expertise in architecture along with her inquisitive nature and ability to connect with people to build a platform that has now interviewed over 150 architects and designers, as well as CEOs, publicists, journalists, business strategists, and more. She is also the director of strategy of the up-and-coming Trahan Architects—a studio named the #1 Design firm in the U.S. for 2019, by ARCHITECT 50.
A rising tide that raises all ships—Julia’s efforts in building a culture of community and collaboration give these diverse stories, perspectives and the women they belong to a seat at the table.
Alexandra Siebenthal, reSITE: Hi Julia, and welcome to Design and the City. Thank you so much for joining. We're really excited to have you on the podcast.
Julia Gamolina, Madame Architect: Thanks so much Alexandra. I'm really excited too.
Julia: I'm Julia Gamolina, I'm trained as an architect. You know, I studied architecture, I worked as a designer for a number of years, and have now sort of transitioned into all things media and business strategy. So for the media aspect, I run Madame Architect, which is an online magazine, focusing on women in the field—the women that shape and change our world. And in terms of business strategy, I still am working in professional practice for a firm, Trahan Architects, that are based in New Orleans, but have an office in New York. And so those are kind of my two focuses right now.
Alexandra: Great, yeah, that's awesome. You know, Madame Architect is, of course, a big reason why we invited you on here. And I kind of wanted to share something with you actually, about the first time that I went on the site ever.
Julia: Please, I love these stories.
Alexandra: It was maybe a year ago; I think my colleague at the time sent it to me, and to be honest, I can't remember why. But I do remember, kind of, this little voice in the back of my head. You know, I keep hearing it as I'm looking through things, and I just think it speaks to the power of it, really. It was kind of [saying], “the danger of a single single story, the danger of a single story.” And I don't know if you're familiar with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie..
Julia: Of course, Uh huh.
Alexandra: I love her; I’m a huge fan, and particularly, of this one TED Talk that she has, called “the danger of a single story.” Actually, after you accepted [the invitation] to be on the podcast, I [started] thinking about this again, so I went back to watch her talk. And she ended with something that I just, you know, I think I got chills after, after she said it. And it's this quote, that “when we reject the single story, when we realize there was never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” And I just feel like that perfectly embodied what you were doing with Madame Architect, kind of just showcasing so many women at all points of their career with all backgrounds, different interests. And that really kind of just deviates from this really typical all-black wearing “starchitects,” sort of, you know, cliche in a way.
Julia: Oh, my gosh, yes, that was a big goal. That was a big point of it, yeah.
Alexandra: Yes, well, mission accomplished. But I also think, you know, when we're talking about what cities should look like, or who to vote for, and how, I think it starts with that idea that cities are built by diversity as much as they are made up of it. So I really wanted to share that with you.
Julia: I really am so glad you did. And wow, the parallel you drew, I mean, to one of my favourite authors. I don't know, if you've also read her [works], We Should all be Feminists and A Feminist Manifesto and 15 Suggestions. They're both amazing and big references for me and for Madame Architect. So anyway, I mean, [with] that parallel, you made my day.
Alexandra: That also makes mine. No, I read all those and I’m in the middle of Americanah right now. And, like I said, it just speaks to the power of it.
Julia: Oh, very nice. Excellent.
Alexandra: Yeah, definitely. So I guess on that note, you have spoken about your experience in university as being an, as you called it “an incubator for starchitects.” How do you think that that same sort of representation, that almost sets a precedent for what young architects should aspire to, is actually limiting students' futures?
Julia: Sure. No, I'm glad you asked that, because that's kind of the seed for all of this. And I want to share a story too. When I was in college, I remember, I started school, and you're just fed that like, “The architecture programme is small, the community is small, and you're going to be spending all of your time in Studio. These 50 people you see in front of you are going to be your only friends, so get ready.”
And I remember, like really rejecting all of that at the beginning being like, “What?? No way, I don't want to wear black and I'm gonna make friends with others at school. And I'm gonna go for runs at the end of Studio, whenever I want to.” That lasted for like two months. I mean, eventually, you know, the studio culture just completely takes over and you are, kind of, you do get wrapped up in all of this. But I remember always, like, not feeling good about that, and always wanting to break out of those expectations a little bit.
I think part of that was just because I had immigrated and I was always new in established contexts, and so never quite following the rules, you know, of the way things were supposed to be in those places. I was always this outsider kind of doing my own thing, and so it was kind of the same thing. I think, with architecture, you know, I was sold these expectations, and this image of an architect, and immediately I was, you know, doing my typical thing, where I was like, “Well, why do I have to be this? I'm not going to be this.” Anyway, that always kind of stayed with me. And I think a big part of it, too, was like the architects we were learning about.
First of all, they were [mostly] male, but also the female architects—you know, we learned about Zaha Hadid, of course; we knew about Liz Diller, who's amazing—I just knew that my life wasn't going to be what their life is, or what their life was. So I think from very, very early on, I was always kind of rejecting this notion of like, the typical starchitect path, and the expectations, and the image, and everything. And I think that kind of led to why Madame Architect is what it is today.
Alexandra: Well, yeah, definitely, I agree. You know, [there’s] kind of always the “starchitect” of other industries. I feel like I've even had conversations with friends and colleagues recently—kind of questioning why they're doing something, if it's because they actually love it, or if it's motivated by external pressure to become something—so guess, at the end of the day, your “why” is super important. And It’s [exactly] what’s coming across, so loud and clear, with every story you put out. You're giving women permission and space to be true to themselves.
Julia: I really appreciate that. Yeah, I always, I try not to project too much of my own interests and curiosities on these interviews when I do them. I try to leave them fairly open ended, because I want the woman to tell me what's been significant for her and what's been significant in her career and what she's interested in, right, as opposed to me kind of interpreting her life based on what I know from the research I have done before. So I really appreciate you saying that, because that is exactly the point. It's just, I want to hear about their lives, and their careers, and how they’ve shaped them, and why they are the way they are, without any sort of projections from me, or from anyone else, for that matter.
Alexandra: You just answered my next question.
Julia: Perfect. We're on the same—we're vibing
Alexandra: Definitely; I’m loving it. Okay, then maybe, could you talk maybe a little bit more deeply about how Madame Architect came to be, and what motivated you? I guess you just said what motivated you to profile them, but just [about], kind of, your whole story and journey?
Julia: Sure, [I’m] happy to. [It’s] my favourite thing to talk about, honestly. Well, I touched on this a little bit in your first question, but I had immigrated, and every time we would move, you know, my mom would basically say to me, “I'm your mother; obviously, I can guide you in certain ways. But with anything related to academic or professional development, you're kind of on your own, because I've never applied to a US college, and I've never done the SATs, and you speak English better than I do now. So I would recommend that you go to your teachers for that kind of guidance.” So I did, all through school—all through elementary, middle and high school. Then in college, I would always go to my teachers.
And I always went to women, because as a young woman, and as a young girl, they were mother figures, and that's what I was comfortable with; that's what I was seeking. Then when I graduated from college, I noticed that that, sort of, built in system of mentorship that you had with your professors or teachers just didn't exist anymore, in this very structured way. But also, there weren't a lot of women that I could go to. [In] the firm that I was working at when I first started out, there were only a couple of women. One of them was focused on, kind of, operations and the business side of things, which ironically, I'm part of now. But at the time, I was more interested in design. Anyway, it just felt like, I didn't know who I could talk to, in the way that I used to, through my schooling.
So, yeah, I started seeking out my own mentors, met some amazing women, and was getting such wonderful information from them that I just thought to myself, “I know, I'm not the only young woman and starting out in the field that has the questions that I have. I have to share this.” A big part, too, was [that] I had always written a lot, growing up. I was always writing stories and fiction, like everything, just a lot of writing and journaling.
And I really wanted to bring that back in a significant way, and to, just my daily life, not necessarily my career, but just like something that I did. I couldn't figure out how, and with talking to these women, you know, I thought to myself, “Wow, this is a great way to do it. I could write these interviews, I could publish them.” So, the combination of those two desires, kind of, defined that mentorship specifically for women, and to integrate more writing into my life, sort of.
[Then] I started doing interviews, and I noticed the response they were getting, then the idea for a curated lineup of interviews came up, for this blog that I was publishing them on, for architects. And after this curated series was wrapping up, I realised, you know, how much I, myself, enjoy doing it, [and] how much the readers look forward to these interviews every week. And I just thought to myself, “Wow, I can't stop this; I have to keep this going.” So Madame Architect became its own entity, and its own website, from then. And now it has grown into, yeah, an online magazine, basically.
Alexandra: That’s really beautiful. It’s awesome to hear how it has evolved for you. Yeah, so I think the last recorded amount that you’ve interviewed is over 100, but it surely it's way more now. Do you have that number?
Julia: It is getting to, I think it's over 150. I'm just thinking now, between the Feature interviews, and the Next Generation interviews, and some of the Days with profiles that we've done, I think it's getting close to like, 175, actually. It's really exciting.
Julia: Yeah, yeah, I'm glad you asked. So I'm really, really lucky. We have three other editors, and they're actually turning more into contributors. Basically, what I had in the past, when I did interviews, they were really wonderful with helping me transcribe and, kind of, get these interviews organised a little bit—the ones that I was doing. But after they had done a few of those and, kind of, saw the questions I was asking, and the vibe with which I was approaching the interviews, they started interviewing, themselves. And I think I'd like that to continue, for them to be doing their own interviews, and continue this idea of architects interviewing other architects, women interviewing other women, and kind of all supporting each other.
So, that's the kind of editorial component, the interview component. Then, we recently launched two new columns, one of which is written by Iben Falconer, who's a business development strategist in the industry, a really, really amazing woman [with] a lot of integrity. She's writing a column for us on business advice for architecture firms, which is really needed for architects in general, but especially for women that are starting their own firms. And then, we have another columnist, Kate Reggev, who's writing our historical column. She's an architectural historian, and is, kind of, looking at Madame Architect’s past; so that's something new. And between, you know, the three editors we have, Amy, Caitlin and Gail, who are now doing their own interviews, and Iben and Kate, who are writing these columns, we're able to produce more and more content, more and more stories, and not all of it is on me, which is a big relief.
Alexandra: I can completely imagine. That's great; that’s such great news, that it’s growing that much. In some of the other interviews you've done, you've, kind of, talked about some of the most, maybe impactful, or just perspective-changing interviews you have done. And I remember, I also went and looked [them] up because they were super interesting, and insightful, and just such a marriage of different disciplines. And I thought that was really, really amazing. Can you maybe talk about some of the ones that really did change your perspective or impacted you, and really stuck with you this whole time?
Julia: Sure, [I’d be] happy to. So, one of the interviews, and one of the conversations, that I really, really enjoyed the most was with Jean Brownhill, who's the founder and CEO of Sweeten. Sweeten is an online tech platform that connects those looking to renovate their home with design professionals and contractors. And they've been really, really successful; they're all over the states now. So, she's a trained architect; she went to Cooper Union, worked as an architect and a designer for, I think, seven years or something, and then founded Sweeten.
I'm just fascinated with how she was able to leverage her skills and design in architecture, to building a tech company, basically. She's African American, and you know, we talk about black women getting so little funding from VCs, and she's kind of spearheading an example of what is possible. So, that interview was really amazing, just hearing about her experience in architecture, and then translating those skills to something else, and being really successful in that.
And kind of on the reverse side, in a way, Kim Holden is one of my favourite people in the industry. She was one of the original founders of SHoP, and was there for their explosion of success and their growth, and you know, really got it off the ground, built an incredible architecture practice, and then went off afterwards. And [she] is now a birth and postpartum doula and is building a new business and really paying attention, not only to the design of birth itself, and how to best prepare women for labour and things like this, but is also really taking into account birthing environments, and birthing rooms, and lighting, what kind of furniture is there, and it's interesting.
I just had dinner with her yesterday, actually. And she was telling me about a study that was done that correlated birth environments with the rate of C-sections, and that, you know, environments that are less friendly, less warm—I don't know what other word there is for it—tend to have a higher rate of C-sections. I think that's something she wants to focus on as a next step, so that's really awesome.
Then I actually ended up interviewing two graphic designers for Madame Architect: Jessica Helfand, who's one of the founders of Design Observer, and Paula Scher, who's a partner at Pentagram. They're both amazing, because they come [from], their perspective is from, that of design and being creative and inventive. Just their thoughts on how creative people put things out into the world, and how you produce, and how you make new ideas, were really, really, really inspirational. So I recommend that everyone check out those four interviews.
Alexandra: That's great, yeah. I really, really like Jean Brownhill and Kim Holden’s [interviews], but I haven't checked out the other two. I think Kim Holden’s, about the application of design around birth, and [that’s] just something I didn't really think of, but [I felt that], “yeah, of course, this, this makes so much sense.” And it made me wonder how many other things really could be solved through that kind of thinking and application?
I’d love to know what are some of the common themes you’ve discovered between all the women you've interviewed. You've done so many now; surely, there are some reoccurrences or patterns that have caught your attention.
Julia: Yeah, definitely. I think no woman wants to be known as a “woman in architecture,” they just want to be known as architects and professionals and experts in their field of focus, or their field of interest. So that that is, you know, kind of an obvious one. And I make it a point not to ask, “What is it like to be a woman in architecture?,” because we all know. There's enough information out there, that we know that it's not the most equitable thing. So I just really like to ask people about their careers and their focuses and their interests. The other thing is, people talk about being lonely a lot, and not really having mentors. I mean, Kim Holden, herself—I asked her who her mentors were, and she was like, “You know, I didn't really have any, for architecture, for starting a firm in architecture.” And that's been, kind of, the case a lot.
Jenny Sabin is doing some really, really interesting things with design, [at] the Sabin Lab, and she talks a lot about, kind of, forging her own path and not really having anyone to reference or look up to, always. So, I'm hearing a lot of that. I also saw a lot of women who started their own firms when they were having their first child or when they were having a child, I think everyone was craving that flexibility that, you know, architecture firms in the past didn't always provide, or take into account. I think it's changing now, I think we have so many more female-led firms; we have women in leadership positions at bigger firms, and women that are mothers or caretakers in another capacity.
So, I think that things like that are changing a little bit. I would say those are the three main things: the focus on gender is not something that we want to keep doing, the flexibility in childcare—whatever else it is in a person's life, it needs to be accounted for—and yeah, that feeling of loneliness, and hopefully connecting women with more mentors and examples of that which they want to do.
Alexandra: Absolutely, I think that's super important for career success, not [only] based on gender, of course. Okay, so another thing, do you have plans to expand on Madame Architect into, you know, maybe other mediums or channels?
Julia: Definitely, that's something I'm really interested in. Actually, a few things are in the works right now that I'll announce, I guess, as they solidify a little bit. But absolutely, I mean, we're doing well. First of all, we're doing our first Instagram Live next week with Kim Holden, actually, so stay tuned for that. I think it will be a really nice way to connect with our followers, just because our following has grown so much, that this will be a way for everyone to, kind of, tune in and, sort of, see a live interview and send questions as we talk. That should be a really fun and casual conversation; I'm excited about that.
Actually, for that, I pooled our audience and asked what people want to hear about, and a lot of people said they wanted to hear from somebody that has started their own firm. And a lot of people said they wanted to talk to somebody who used their architecture skills to pivot into something else. Kim has done it all, and has done it all really, really well, so I think she's gonna be a great first guest.
But no, I'd love to take sort of the storytelling about architects, that are women, in the field to other mediums. We've talked about a potential documentary series, you know, a book is definitely on the way, things like this. So yeah, it's something that's keeping me interested in the project as a whole, and yes, new things will be coming out soon.
Alexandra: That’s great; I'm looking forward to it. We need more perspective-altering content across the board, in all forms of media. I can’t wait to see how those projects turn out.
Julia: Me too.
Alexandra: What do you perceive to be the greatest challenges women in architecture and design face today?
Julia: In terms of current challenges, I mean, something that's happening right now, is obviously the pandemic, and with people working from home, childcare is a big thing. I know some little ones have started to go back to school and daycare and things like this. But I think, the recession that's come out of the pandemic has been dubbed the “she-cession,” quite a bit of times, because, you know, women are taking on, kind of, the labour of childcare, and are able to focus on less.
There's a study that showed, recently, that more men are applying for, or submitting academic papers right now than women are. And I think that's because of [women] having to take care of their kids when everyone's at home. So that's the challenge, and that's always been a challenge—just the amount of responsibilities women have when they're working and raising children. Yeah, they're expected to work as though they don't parent, and parent as though they don't work.
And actually, another current challenge is speaking up, as a woman, I mean. That was a challenge in the first place, already, when you were in person at a firm, in a meeting with the majority being men, and kind of making yourself heard, and asserting yourself, and making your voice heard was a challenge. Now it's on zoom calls; now it's even harder because, you know, people will be on the phone and you can't see each other's faces. You can't pick up on body language and get a word in. Multiple women have said to me that it has become more difficult.
Alexandra: I'm nodding my head. I wish you could see me on video. I'm just nodding my head at you, [because I] completely agree. Okay, [I’m] trying to think where to go next with the questions. Because one of the big ones is, maybe, tell us, have you yourself experienced sexism or gender discrimination?
Julia: Oh, of course, I definitely have. I think everyone, honestly, I think every woman probably has, in architecture or in general. But no, I've experienced it, and also from, you know, both men and women. I think there's a lot of internalized misogyny that exists, given the society that we live in. I think I, kind of, went through three phases of it. The first was when I was super young, and starting out in the industry; I don't think I realised quite what was happening, or I don't think I realised that what was happening was sexism. I thought maybe, you know, I would beat myself up or think that I did something wrong.
And then, phase two was sort of a disenchantment of like, “Oh, my gosh, I know what this is. What in the world am I gonna do about it? This is so disappointing, that this is the case.” And I think that now I'm in phase three, where I have gained enough experience, I do feel confident about what I have to offer and bring. And I'm pretty established in my career, where, if it does come my way, I know how to handle it. I know what to say; I know if I should acknowledge it or not acknowledge it. So, thankfully, I feel good about the amount of experience I've gotten, to be able to navigate it now. But yeah, it still happens every day, or maybe not every day, but it still happens.
Alexandra: Definitely, and I definitely identify with those three stages. I think a lot of women our age are, kind of, going through that and just trying [to do] what they can do to change it. So maybe on that note, what value do you think women specifically bring to the table, especially in a male dominant dominated industry? I think it's kind of detrimental to any industry, if not all potential is being tapped into.
Julia: Of course, I mean, women offer so much value just based on their life experiences, and the way they exist in the world, and being different from men. I mean, I'll get pretty intimate here. But, you know, women go through puberty and have periods, and that informs the way they go about their days, and weeks ,and their lives, and then they have the children; they carry the children. So there's a lot of perspective to be gained from that, that should absolutely be incorporated into, in a significant way, how we design our spaces and our cities.
Actually, there's an amazing book that I'm reading now, by a geographer; it's called Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Manmade World, by Leslie Kern. She talks exactly about how a female perspective in the design of cities, and the design of environments, and design of buildings, interior spaces, all of it, is informed by things like female friendships, and a sense of safety, or lack thereof. I encourage everyone to read it. It's really fascinating.
Julia: I think, how secretive women have had to be, just in being who they are, in the past, and how many things are taboo. Things like breastfeeding in public and you know, having to sort of hide very natural things that women do to raise children. Things like this, and female friendships; she has a whole series focused on female friendships.
She actually references Sex in the City, the show about it, and how it was actually a really amazing example of these core relationships that happen in the City, in New York City, being kind of one of the characters, but just the way women's lives inform the city and vice versa. So I yeah, it's a really amazing book, and it's made me realise, sort of, my own patterns and behaviours in city life and being a woman, sort of, and how some things are different than others. Yeah, it's a great read.
Alexandra: Absolutely, I can imagine. So how do you think men in the industry could better support women then?
Julia: That's, that's a really great question, because to make significant progress, you know, men have to be supportive as well. And I think just mentoring and championing women; people tend to mentor those that they see themselves in, and I think we just really have to get past that. Both women and men but, you know, mostly men. And, and, you know, every man, sorry, Alexandra, I'm gonna kind of start this again, I'm like, getting choked up on my words.
I think men just have to continue mentoring and championing women, giving them advice, giving them guidance. And, you know, there's something I read, which talks about having a mentor, a sponsor, and a coach. And your mentor is someone that guides you, listens to you, and gives you advice. Your sponsor is someone that puts you up for opportunities, and your coach may be someone that will be really real with you, give you some tough love, or whatever it is, that you need to advance. But I think people just need to be thinking about others’ professional development and others’ advancement.
And from my position, at Madame Architect, I've met so many people now, that I always make recommendations. Whenever I hear about panels happening, or podcast guests, or things like this, I'll always put someone forward. And I think men need to be doing that more, putting up women for different opportunities that they hear of, when they're asked to recommend someone for something; they should be consciously thinking about that. I think it's all about championing others in the field.
Oh, and actually, I do want to add to that; the other thing men can do to better support women is to expose themselves to things [done] by women, you know, read books about and by women, watch watch films with female protagonists, buy from women-owned businesses, just really educate themselves on the [female] perspective. There are so many resources, I mean, I think all men in the industry should be reading Madame Architect to better understand some things, but I think that's also a really crucial component. Women have read men's stories for as long as I know of, so many novels and things like this, and I think it should be the other way around as well.
Alexandra: Okay, so I kind of wanted to talk to you about New York. You spoke about how, you know, you had these childhood influences that sort of led you there; could you share some of those?
Julia: Sure. Yeah, absolutely; I love New York so much. Well, I immigrated from Russia, and when I was immigrating, we first moved to Toronto, and then I moved to Colorado, and then went to school upstate, and then ended up in New York that way. Just a small background there, but when we were immigrating, my family and I would watch movies to learn English, and a lot of those movies took place in New York. And it was a dream for me, to end up in New York, where all these people were living out kind of their dreams and their lives.
But probably the biggest influence for that was this movie called One Fine Day; it's just a Hollywood romantic comedy with Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney. But in it, she plays an architect, and that was actually my very first introduction to an architect and what an architect is; it was through a woman, which is really awesome. Anyway, she was the architect, she was living in New York City, she was a great character. I think, even as a young girl, at like eight or nine years old watching that movie, I was like, “Wow, this seems really cool. I want to do what she's doing.” So that was a really big influence. I mean, I don't know. If I hadn’t seen that movie, maybe I wouldn't be [here]; maybe none of us would be here.
Alexandra: I see that—it is really important; seeing yourself reflected in something, totally. That's a great story. So, I want to come back, maybe to your childhood somewhere. Before we get there, I wanted to just ask: you were in the city during the lockdown, what was that like for you?
I see that—it is really important for young girls to see reflections of women that define gender stereotypes in film and other media. I think these kinds of things make huge impacts on how they imagine their own futures and what they are capable of. but first let’s get something else out of the way - were you in New York during the lockdown in the spring?
Julia: So I was in the city the week leading up to lockdown, so March 9-14, then I left, actually, on March 15, to go to Pennsylvania to stay with my mom. I came back on June 18, before Phase Two, to start opening. So I was not in the city for the scariest part of lockdown, which [is why] I'm super fortunate—that I had family close by, and I could just, sort of, escape very quickly. Not everyone was in that position. I have a lot of friends who live in studio apartments, and I have a lot of friends who were stuck alone in their studio apartments for all of this. So, anyway, I'm really, really lucky. But yeah, I came back right before Phase Two opened.
And I will say, I live on the Upper East Side, which is right next to Central Park and has a really booming restaurant scene, on Second Avenue, and as soon as I came back—I mean, when I was in Pennsylvania, I was just at my mom's house; we would go to parks, and I would go for runs and stuff, but I really didn't go anywhere. I was just at the house—when I came back to the city, I was shocked by how lively it seemed on the Upper East Side. Not a lot of New York is like this; I think that precinct is a complete anomaly. But I think because the park is right there, everyone that was living in the neighborhood stayed, because they had access to it.
Also, when I came back with Phase Two starting, outdoor dining began, and it was just completely booming on Second Avenue. I mean, you had outdoor dining setups all down Second Avenue for stretches of like 10 blocks, and it's been super nice. So, actually, it was a pretty lively summer, I'm really surprised to be saying that. But yeah, there was a good opportunity to spend time outdoors, to see friends with proper distancing, and things like this. I'm really proud of how New York has handled a lot of this and [to see it] come back to life.
Alexandra: Yeah, the media coverage, what I've seen of it, has been, it seems, exactly as you described. And it's interesting to see that come out of all of this. I think there are a lot of urbanists, and maybe architects, really talking about trying to find a way to keep New York like this. Because it, kind of, reestablished this feeling of community, and that urbanists’ dream of returning the streets to public spaces seems to be more in reach. So, I'm happy to hear that, firsthand.
Julia: Yeah, very much. So I live on the Upper East Side, and before the pandemic, of course, I spent time there because that's where I lived, but I was all over the city all the time, for work events and things like this. And now I'm going into work—I should say that I started going into work shortly after Phase Two started; I've been going into the office since July 4, until now—but I did spend a lot of time on the Upper East Side. It's actually been amazing to really stay in my neighbourhood and get to know the community there. There's a running group that I run with, I have a lot of girlfriends that live on the Upper East Side, and I feel like I've just really focused on being in that neighbourhood and seeing those friends.
So I feel like I really have my [own] village within this bigger metropolis, you know, I feel like I have my community, my neighbours, the park, the restaurants there. So if anything, I've reestablished my presence on the Upper East Side. Or not even my presence, but just the fact that it's [become] the foundation for my life here in New York, and that's been really amazing. I've made closer friends from this running group. Again, my girlfriends that live there, I've seen them more, and probably even more than I would have seen them before the pandemic, when we were all travelling and all over the place. So, a lot of positives have come out of it.
Alexandra: Yeah, definitely. I'm glad to hear that. You know, with COVID, and all the things that have come out of it, I feel like there's a lot of talks—and this [question] is very US-centric—about the inequalities that have been unearthed by it, from architects and urbanists pushing forward how we can use the pandemic as a catalyst to push forward a lot of the things that they've been advocating for, the last 10 years or so. Just to take back public space, do you think it's like it's viable to keep some of this in New York?
Julia: Right, yeah, absolutely. I think public space is so important to really pay attention to. I mean, I have kind of personal experience with this one. I operate in the world as a white woman, but you know, my family and I were immigrants and when we immigrated, first to Toronto from Russia, we just didn't have a lot of resources. We had to leave relatively quickly from Russia, and we couldn't afford to do much; we couldn't afford to go out to eat, we couldn't afford to go to some cultural events, all of our free time was in public space outside in the parks of Toronto, and rollerblading, taking walks, going to the waterfront, all of this.
I think offering really quality spaces to do that, in a place like New York, is so important. Actually, outdoor dining has been extended to be a permanent fixture in New York, which is amazing. But then, you know, there have been articles and some discussions on LinkedIn about how, “Yes, that's amazing, but for whom?” Right? What about people that can't afford to go out to eat and can take advantage of this and enjoy this. I run up along the Hudson, sometimes on my way home from work, from Hudson square, and West Soho, up on the West Side, and through the park to the Upper East Side.
And it's fascinating seeing the waterfront development all along the Hudson, and you know, there's a really beautiful part of it, like in the 70s—in the streets that are the 70s—and you see that it's next to these huge developments and some of Trump's developments are there. So of course, that swath of land has some investment in it, and has this really amazing, beautiful park, and other parts along the water have not been paid the same attention, which is really disappointing. Yeah, I think public space, and quality public space, in the city just needs to be such a huge focus, especially when we're all spending more time outdoors.
Alexandra: Absolutely. And that's such a great story about your family, and so true.
Julia: All we did was take walks, that was like our thing, and we would take a lot of family walks and get to know Toronto that way, and that was really fun.
Julia: Yeah, we play a lot of word games.
Alexandra: Oh, I love that. So maybe on a happier note, what do you love most about New York City?
Julia: The walkability is the first thing that came to mind; I mean, I walk everywhere. And I used to work around Union Square, and very often I would walk home, up to the Upper East Side, and you know, that's like 60-something blocks, but you just see so much. That's always been something I really, really love.
Then, also, just how much there is here; I feel like no matter who you are, or what you like, or where you're from, you can find your people here, you can find things to do and see here. New York just has everything. And I think that's wonderful, especially for me. I've lived in a couple different places; I'm kind of this weird hybrid of a lot of different things. I feel like New York really fulfils a lot of those parts of me.
Alexandra: So with your lived experiences in Toronto, as well as the time you’ve spent in Colorado Springs contrasted with your hometown in Russia, can you tell us some of the differences, or similarities you noticed in your experiences living in them.
Julia: Sure, yeah, happy to; it's so interesting. I think the bigger culture shock was moving from Toronto to Colorado Springs [rather] than it was from moving from Novosibirsk to Toronto, because both Novosibirsk and Toronto are these big, cosmopolitan cities. Novosibirsk is the third-largest city in Russia, after Moscow and St. Petersburg. And Colorado Springs is completely suburban, and very car-centric, so that was a huge, huge culture shock. Also, you know, when I was growing up in Russia and Toronto, I didn't partake in a lot of outdoor sports. I danced, as a lot of young Russian women do. Then when I came to Colorado, that's when I started running, and hiking, and whitewater rafting, and all this stuff, so it was completely different.
But growing up in Novosibirsk, it's so funny, I remember being outside a lot, which is kind of surprising because it is pretty cold—I mean, it’s in Siberia. But one thing I will say is, that we were really prepared for that. I have a bunch of photos of myself from childhood with a huge fur hat, and a huge fur coat, and woollen boots, and things like this. I’ll actually make a post on Instagram soon, when it gets cold, for some cold weather dressing inspiration. But, you know, that was a big part of my life. I just remember us walking everywhere, spending a lot of time outside, no matter how cold it was, but never actually being cold, funnily enough.
Then in Toronto, I remember having so much freedom there, even as someone really young. I think, at 11 years old, my girlfriends and I were getting together, taking the bus, taking the subway, taking public transportation to go see a movie at a mall, and then going shopping, and going to lunch, and just having that sort of freedom from a very young age. I think that's what I love most about cities, just the accessibility you can have public transport and things like this.
So yeah, by the time we moved to Colorado, it was so strange; I didn't drive, at least not then. And just seeing these different urban environments and how the activities people did, based on the environments they were in, how much freedom they had, what they prioritized and valued—I think that really shaped, you know, my desire to go into architecture, but just in general, kind of, my lifestyle.
Alexandra: Wow. That's really interesting. It’s interesting how you gained that perspective and saw firsthand how those environments have really shaped people’s habits. So just to circle back to the topic of 2020, what has challenged or inspired you the most this year?
Julia: Oh my gosh, yes. Actually, in quarantine especially, when I was at my mom's for those three months, you know, from March to April, to May, to June. A lot of things really ramped up, Madame Architect ramped up, some ideas I have for Trahan Architects—where I work during the day—ramped up. I think that was because before the pandemic, I was spread really thin. I was flying to a lot of different places, I was travelling a lot, I was going to a lot of events, I feel like everything was very external. I was exhaling a lot, you know, it was all about, kind of, putting things out into the world, and being around people, and things like this.
Then when I couldn't do any of that anymore, it was kind of like inhaling; I was absorbing a lot. I was consuming a lot of TV, books, and ideas, and a lot of things started percolating. So we launched four things on Madame Architect in quarantine. We launched the Expert column, where women write about their work and their interests. We launched the Strategist, but even that I had mentioned before. We launched Creative Compliments, where we were posting, you know, other analogue things that architects were producing, because so many people started painting in quarantine, and collaging, and just making, just being at home and wanting to do something creative.
What else did we launch? We launched the Next Generation series, which came out of, kind of, the situation that a lot of students were graduating into and [they were] just having such an uncertain time. It’s such a, kind of, fragile period in your life anyway—there comes a lot of uncertainty when you're transitioning, from college into the working world—that I really wanted to celebrate a lot of these students and kind of have something positive that celebrates them, too. So the Next Generation column was a really popular one for us. But yeah, I think because I couldn't be going to things and seeing things and, kind of, again, putting things out into the world, I was absorbing a lot and really focused on thinking about things and new ideas. Yeah, a lot of new things came out of lockdown.
Alexandra: Awesome. Yeah. It seems like that's definitely the silver lining in all of this, right?
Julia: Yeah, you there's a lot of reflection and just thinking about ideas, you know, we were all forced to reflect on what this means for the world, and how things are going to change. And I think that translated to people thinking, “Ok, where am I in my life? And what am I focused on? What do I need to be doing?” So I think it was good in those ways.
Alexandra: Definitely. So, you already mentioned that you work for Trahan Architects, can you talk a little bit about how you got involved with them, and just, kind of, your whole path towards being a strategist? Because it's quite interesting.
Julia: Sure. Happy to Yeah. So Trahan Architects is an amazing firm. We're based in New Orleans, started in Baton Rouge in Louisiana, and now have a second office in New York City. So they found me, and what happened was, like I said, I started architecture, I started out working in design, worked as a designer on a few buildings here in the city and then a building in Los Angeles, and then transitioned into kind of a communications role, and then [started] doing business development and marketing and all of that. And I think that experience combined: the design aspect, the communications aspect, the business development, mixed in with my experience of getting a startup off the ground, Madame Architect, really appealed to Trey Trahan, who is now my boss and the CEO and founder of Trahan Architects.
He was really looking for Trahan to go to the next level. I mean, Trahan is really established in Louisiana, in the south, and doing really, really beautiful regional work there. And, you know, Trey was thinking a lot about, “How do we bring this heart and soul elsewhere? How do we bring it to New York? How do we bring it, you know, to an international scale?” And that's when we connected; they found me and reached out. And I was very settled; I finally had figured out my routine for Madame Architect, and a full time job, and how to incorporate other interests into it, and was not looking to make any sort of move. Of course, that's when, you know, surprises come your way.
So that's kind of what happened. And yeah, the conversations that Trey and I are having a lot [are about], “How does one take an architecture firm to the next level? What does it mean for an architecture firm to contribute more to the world than buildings? And how do we do that?” So, it's been really interesting.
Alexandra: Definitely, definitely. The work Trahan is doing is really inspiring. Okay, so you've woven quite a few different passions into your practice. You've studied architecture, formerly, and you've spoken quite a lot about how you kind of just made this transition going from the design process into the strategic development of things and working in communications. And I just thought this was so interesting, because you really are the example of, you know, what you can do outside of just being an architect, in this industry.
Julia: Sure, sure. Yeah, I understand. Yeah, so I transitioned. It was very, very organic, and it also took some time. It's not like I woke up one morning and knew exactly how I wanted to pivot into it. I just knew, coming out of architecture school, that maybe the technical aspects of design weren't quite for me. It just never felt natural to me, when I had to figure out some of those details, when I was drafting in college, and things like this. So when I started working, there were two things that I noticed I was thinking about, almost on a daily basis, eventually.
One time, there was kind of a lull on a project I had, I think we were “pencils down” for two weeks in between, schematic design and design development, something like this. So I came up to her and I was just like, “I have some downtime, can I help you? I would love to help you.” And she was like, “Oh, my god, yes, thank you so much. Please help me,” because she was doing a lot on her own. And the way positions like that work at firms, as many of you know, is all overhead. So, you know, the client is not billing, or is not paying for you to have these people on board. The firm is paying to have a communications professional pitch to press and things like that, so it can be really expensive.
Anyway, this woman was the only one doing it, and couldn't bring on someone to help her full-time. So when I offered, I think she was really relieved. And I was helping with press releases and social media, researching news outlets that we could pitch to, preparing our partners for podcasts, listening to podcasts, just to get a sense of the types of questions that will be asked, things like this. And I just thought it was so interesting because it did involve writing and involve people, but it also involved a way to think about architecture from a larger point of view, which is a lot of what schools focused on.
So just all those things combined; I started to help her. I really wanted to do it full-time, but couldn't at that firm, for the reasons I just described. Then I went on to find another opportunity, and eventually realised that focusing on business development and, kind of, getting to know the people in the industry and the ecosystem, in this way, would be good. So, I went to FX Collaborative and focused purely on business development there, just kind of doing a lot of research on the market, on the city, on who was doing what kind of projects, who the people were that were decision makers, in terms of making sure projects get started and get built. And yeah, that's exactly when Trey and Trahan Architects found me.
Alexandra: Awesome. Yeah, it's always interesting, just to see how it all, kind of, comes together, in hindsight, isn't it? So, apart from idolizing Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in One Fine Day, what other influences sparked your pursuit of architecture?
Julia: Sure. Yeah, it was a number of things. I think moving around a lot and just taking note of my physical environments, like I described, was really formative. I also drew all the time when I was growing up. If I wasn't with my family, or at school, or with friends, I was either reading or drawing. So, that was just such a daily constant in my life, and you know, a daily practice, if you will. That's definitely something I knew would be integrated into whatever it is I did [professionally].
Yeah, so, I was very creative, but I was also pretty type A, so I don't think I could be an artist, for example, just, kind of, being as type A as I am. So, architecture seemed like a good fit. Then the other part of it, too, a really practical aspect, is again, we're immigrants, we're an immigrant family. And I think my parents were like, “This girl needs professional training, because that's gonna influence what kind of visa she's able to be on and, kind of, open up more opportunities for her,” in that way, just like from a pure immigration perspective. So, you know, my options for something like that were law or becoming a doctor or nurse, and I wasn't going to be either of those things. So, architecture seemed like a really great fit and also combined a lot of my interests.
Alexandra: What do you love most about it?
Julia: Wow, that's a really great question. It reflects the world in which we live, literally, because it is, right? I mean, it reflects technological advancements, it reflects people's values and priorities, and what they want to fund—certain people's values and priorities, right, like, who's funding these buildings. But I think it's like a kind of photograph of society and time, in a way. Just seeing what people care about and are able to do; it just combines everything, you know.
Julia Gamolina: It's so funny, I really don't. But I feel like Madame Architect is such a huge creative outlet for me, that I get a lot of stimulation and personal satisfaction level from that. Also the work I do in strategy with Trahan is so creative. We're thinking big picture, and I feel like a lot of the skills that I, you know, tapped into when I did focus on design, and in school, are being tapped into very much now. It's a lot of big picture thinking with both Madame Architect and Trahan, so I haven't missed it yet. I was just talking to Kim; like I said, we had dinner yesterday, and I was talking to her about how maybe I should start drawing everyday again, just because that was a good, kind of, stress reliever for me. So, maybe I'll incorporate a little bit more of that, going forward.
Alexandra: Definitely, it's always good. If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently.
Julia: That's a great question. I think the response depends on where I am, and I'm in a really good place right now. So I wouldn't say I would do anything differently. I think I would tell myself, maybe, to worry less or stress less. But at the same time, maybe it was because I was worried and stressed that I, kind of, was proactive about some things, or made sure other things happened. So I don't know. I don't think I would do anything differently, as funny as that sounds.
Alexandra: No, that's a great answer. Then, maybe, what advice would you give to younger architects and designers? What would they benefit from hearing?
Julia: For young architects and designers, there are two things. One is to be really genuine towards what you actually want to do in the world, not who you want to be. I think a lot of people want to have their own thing, want to be founders. But I think it has to come from a really genuine place, what it is that you want to start, and what impact you want to have on the world. I would encourage young architects to think about, “Okay, what do I really care about? What's been really influential in my life, that has helped me along, or that I put a lot of time and effort into? And, kind of, how do we solve that problem? How do we put more of that positive thing into the world?,” and that'll kind of lead you down a genuine path, for that which you should start, or be a founder of.
The other is [that] relationship management is extremely, extremely, extremely important. Working with people is very important. I feel like after you graduate from college, architecture is just like one big group project. So, you really have to know how to pick your battles; you really have to know when you should push for something, or when you should let things go, what is worth a discussion or conflict, and what is not. And I think it’s also trying to get to know people, and knowing what they care about, or what their priorities are, and where they're coming from. I think relationship management and nurturing friendships is really, really, really important in both what you do at work, in your career, but also just in life.
Alexandra: Definitely. Well, that's great, and I think that’s really good advice, even to hear now. That’s invaluable advice, for listeners of all ages or fields of work.
Alexandra: I can imagine. But also the authenticity, I think that's definitely something I would even give myself advice on. Okay, so, I think we can move to some of our crowd-sourced questions. Yeah, so, the first one is, “I have daughters, who will be university-aged in 10 and 13 years. Will they be happy in life if they study architecture?"
Julia: I love this question. I think they will definitely be happy that they studied architecture, I think the study of architecture is so stimulating. You learn about so much. You learn about history and philosophy, and there's Studio, so you get to produce, and you learn about building technology. I mean, it uses all parts of your brain, so I'm really, really happy that I studied it. It is a lot of work; that's one thing. But, I think that teaches you a kind of rigour, that a lot of people maintain in their careers, and that helps, too.
So I would say the study of architecture—no one can guarantee if people will be happy in life or not, because there are so many other factors—but the study of architecture is fascinating. And there are a lot of things you can now do, in the field, as hopefully demonstrated on Madame Architect. So I think I think, yes, I'm very optimistic when it comes to the study of architecture and working in it.
Alexandra: Great. And, I guess, to talk again, about some of the sexism that exists in the industry: "Do you feel the gender wage gap is still an issue in design and architecture?"
Julia: Yes, I do feel it's still an issue. But, I also think that there are some wonderful firms out there paving the way for what it should be; Studio Gang is a great example. So, while I think it's still an issue, I think people are being vocal about it, and I do believe that it will change.
Alexandra: That's great to hear. So "[do you have] advice for an immigrant, but resident, architect starting fresh in New York City?"
Julia: Yeah, I love this one, because I can totally relate. I would just say meet as many people as you can, find people that you like, find people that you respect and admire, and just really nurture those friendships. But I would say, yeah, try to get as familiar with as many organisations as possible. Go to their meetups—right now you can't really go—but you know, join their Zoom happy hours and, yeah, just just meet a ton of people in the city.
Alexandra: Would you consider an architect to be suited for an art curator position?
Julia: 100 percent. There's actually an interview that I did with someone I went to school with, Ashley Mendelsohn, who studied architecture and is now, most recently, an assistant curator at the Guggenheim. I mean, she is the curator for architecture and design, not necessarily for art. But, I think those fields are so closely related and, you know, in the study of architecture, you are also studying a lot of other design fields, and visual fields, and artistic fields. So for sure, it is a pivot, but, you know, a very possible one.
Alexandra: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I really love this interdisciplinary approach to things, too. And so the final crowdsource question, this one just made me laugh: "How do you keep up with everything?!"—with an exclamation point and question mark.
Julia: I saw that one, too—I loved it. I mean, there's a lot that I don't do. I don't really cook. I don't have any children. So, you know, that certainly lends time to other pursuits. I also don't do everything at once. There's like a week I'll focus on one thing, a week I'll focus on something else. Madame Architect has been going on for two and a half years now. So it's not like everything that we do now just sprouted from one week; it all took time. I will say, again, I'm extremely type A and very much a planner and organiser.
So I'm pretty good now about just knowing what to expect from my schedule, and things that are coming my way, and really planning things out, and being disciplined about it. I would say [it’s] probably a combination of those three things. You know, I don't do other things, I don't do everything at once, and I try to stay on top of organising my days and my weekends, and things like this.
Alexandra: Alright, is there anything else we didn't cover that you would like to discuss?
Julia: No, we covered so much. This was so fun, and I really got to talk about things that I haven't talked about on other podcasts, so thank you for that. It's been really awesome. What about you? Is there anything else that you want to know or feel like we didn't cover?
Alexandra: I think we covered most things.
Julia: Your questions are so great. And you were so thoughtful about it ahead of time, anyway, that this was easy.
Alexandra: Julia, thank you so much for your time, and for joining us on Design and the City. It truly was a pleasure; this was so much fun. And I hope you enjoyed it as well.
Julia: Thanks so much, Alexandra. The pleasure is all mine. This was really fun.
Design and the City was recorded at the WeWork offices in Prague, with the support of the Czech Ministry of Culture and Nano Energies. This podcast is produced by Alexandra Siebenthal, with support from Martin Barry, Radka Ondrackova, Elizabeth Mills and Elizabeth Novacek and edited by LittleBig Studio.
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