Design Manifestos: Celestia Carson of VCBO Architecture | Modelo Blog Series

Design Manifestos: Celestia Carson of VCBO Architecture

Celestia Carson (Photograph courtesy of VCBO Architecture)

Celestia Carson is a Principal at VCBO Architecture located in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is particularly skilled at facilitating the crucial interface among different user groups within a complex facility to ensure that their distinct identities are maintained within the development of a cohesive project. Celestia orchestrates the balance between technical disciplines and outstanding aesthetics throughout the planning, design and construction processes, ensuring that specific complex spaces are accurately detailed and built according to user needs and desires.

Many projects on which she has been involved have garnered national recognition and awards for design excellence. Celestia is also the Founder and President of Women in Architecture SLC. WIA SLC is a non-profit organization with the primary goal of gender parity in the field of architecture. Modelo spent some time learning about Celestia’s journey through the profession and about what continues to inspire her today.

On becoming an architect
I guess I would say architecture found me. When I started my freshman year at the University of Utah I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. I always enjoyed the sciences, math, problem solving and the arts. I took classes in all of these categories, but still without direction. Finally I had a friend tell me he thought I should try architecture. In my efforts to find out more about the architecture program I decided to go check out the department and the architecture building on campus. The first time I walked through the design studio and saw all of the amazing and engaging student projects I instantly knew this was the profession for me. As architects design is in our soul. Once it’s turned on there is no going back.

I won’t pretend that it isn’t a very tough and demanding profession, and at times a love/hate relationship. But, I just can’t imagine doing anything else.

Weber State University, Tracy Hall Science Center (Photograph by Derek Payne courtesy of VCBO Architecture)

On discovering her voice as a designer
I’ve been in the profession now for over fifteen years and I still feel like I’m developing my “voice” as a designer. Design is a never-ending exploration. Every project is different, every site is different and every client is different. As architects we must listen, observe, and analyze the working behaviors of our clients to best design a building for their unique needs. It’s an intimate and engaging process. I’m inspired and driven by the future inhabitants of my buildings.

Weber State University, Tracy Hall Science Center (Photograph by Derek Payne courtesy of VCBO Architecture)

On joining VCBO Architecture
I will be the first to admit I have been very fortunate in my career. The summer before my senior year of my masters program I took an independent study class arranged by one of my professors. The class entailed attending weekly design meetings for the Salt Lake Public Library project, designed by Moshe Safdie in collaboration with the local architecture firm of VCBO Architecture, and at the end of the semester I had to write a paper about the design process for that project. It was an incredibly eye opening experience. I like to jokingly say the principals at VCBO Architecture must have become quite accustomed to seeing me every week because at the end of the semester they offered me a job! It was never my intention to spend my career at one firm. I truly believe change is how we grow. But I found that the I have never had a reason to leave. VCBO Architecture is a large, prominent firm in our community, and we work in many market sectors: education, recreation, healthcare, business, etc. The work has always been incredibly engaging and I have been fortunate to work on great projects with incredible talent. I am frequently inspired by my peers.

Weber State University, Wildcat Center (Photograph by Preston Norris courtesy of VCBO Architecture)

On her role at VCBO Architecture
Over the course of my career I have primarily worked in education. Initially on K-12 projects then in the last ten years my primary focus has been higher education. It’s humorous to think back, I started my architecture career on elementary schools, then moved to junior high schools, then I was the project manager on a high school and finally graduated to university work. I can’t help but wonder what’s next? Hopefully not senior centers or mortuaries.

As a principal of VCBO Architecture I am in a great position to work directly with our clients, build long term relationships, but am still quite active in project management. Architecture is a team effort. I really enjoy working collaboratively with our clients, design staff, engineers and contractors toward a singular goal: a successful project.

ProjectVEST (Photograph by Jinnie Lee courtesy of Women in Architecture SLC)

On being the Founder and President of Women in Architecture SLC
About five years ago I came across an article outlining the statistics of women in the profession of architecture. Although I always knew it was a male dominated profession I didn’t realize until I read those statistics just how great the disparity was. What was really shocking to me was how our profession really struggles to retain women. Coming out of architecture school we make up nearly 50% of graduating classes, yet less than 20% get licensed and less than 10% of positions of leadership in firms are held by women. These are a rough description of the national statistics, our Utah statistics are much more discouraging. I was shocked! As a woman architect on the path to senior leadership I felt a great responsibility to turn the wheel in motion toward gender parity. With that conviction I enlisted a few of my architect girlfriends and we started Women In Architecture SLC.

I am humbled at the strides we have made in our community in just a few short years. Through the efforts of our Women In Architecture SLC we have strengthened our community of women architects, we have brought to the attention of our local firms the need for parity and we encourage women to stay in the profession. We have held numerous events including speed mentoring, panel discussions, and WIA curated PechaKucha nights. Annually we hold a design competition, one of my favorites being ProjectVEST, a design challenge to redesign the construction vest for women. We have also initiated a NCARB Lottery program in which we pay the NCARB exam fee for texting interns.

Dixie State University, Holland Centennial Commons (Photograph by Paul Richer courtesy of VCBO Architecture and Sasaki)

On her design toolkit
We are in a profession that relies on our ability to communicate. Architecture begins as an idea, we must communicate that idea to our clients, and then document that idea down to the precise details on how to execute it. There is no singular tool that works in all instances, at each step in the process, and for every project. I think we are so fortunate in this day and age to have so many tools in our toolkit when it comes to communicating our ideas: everything from virtual reality, to laser cut models, to 3D renderings, down to a simple hand sketch on a napkin. We should employ whatever tool best accomplishes the task.

On the state of design software today
I think it is simultaneously incredible and incredibly frustrating. The advances in software have changed everything about how we produce projects today. The complexity and level of detail in our drawings compared to twenty years ago is frankly astounding. Yet, it still has its limitations. I find it so frustrating when I’m redlining construction documents and I hear staff say that reason the “line prints that way” is because of the software.

Dixie State University, Holland Centennial Commons (Photograph by Paul Richer courtesy of VCBO Architecture and Sasaki)

On the future of the industry in the next 5–10 years
Well, as president of Women In Architecture SLC my hope is that the industry will become more diverse. As architects we have such a profound influence on our communities and our environment. I think we are really missing out by only having a small demographic of women and minorities influence our built environment. It’s exciting that in the last couple years there has really been a ground swell in our profession, and society in general, towards greater equality. I can’t wait to see what our profession looks like in ten years.

On advice she would give herself
Simply to be patient. Architects by nature are driven. I think it is important to remind ourselves from time to time to just be patient. It will come.

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