March 22, 2017
by: AIA New York Chapter
Elisabeth Martin, FAIA, Principal, MDA designgroup architects & planners. Photo: Sybil Holland.
Allie Mae Public Library, View of Story Hour Corner, New Orleans, LA. Photo: Courtesy of MDA Designgroup.
Garden City Public Library, View of Children’s Zone, Garden City, NY. Photo: Courtesy of MDA designgroup architects & planners.
Goddard Riverside Community Center, Bernie Wohl Center, View of Multi-function Theater, New York, NY. Photo: Roy Wright Photography.
Locust Valley Library, View of Teen Zone, Locust Valley, NY. Photo: Courtesy of MDA designgroup architects & planners.
Old Stone House, Interior View of Planned Expansion Pavilion, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Courtesy of MDA designgroup architects & planners.

Elisabeth Martin’s leadership and advocacy for public libraries is a catalyst for transformative change. As a principal at MDA designgroup architects & planners, Martin’s passion has fueled discourse, inspired solutions, influenced national models and demonstrated the power of design in the public realm. As a proven leader with national recognition for over 3 decades of work with public libraries, her specialty practice combines the tools of advocacy, vision, planning and design to create beacons of life-enriching activity and resources within the communities they serve.

The 2017 Jury of Fellows of the AIA elevated Martin to its prestigious College of Fellows in the second category of fellowship, which recognizes architects who have “Advanced the science and art of planning and building by advancing the standards of architectural education, training or practice.” Now among the AIA membership’s three percent distinguished with fellowship and honorary fellowship, Martin was honored at the New Fellows Reception hosted by AIA New York on March 13 and will also be recognized at an investiture ceremony at the AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 in Orlando.

Here, Martin tells us why she admires Louis Kahn and Walter A. Hunt, and why today’s libraries are important cultural beacons:

Q: What has been one of your favorite projects?

A: Creating and leading an international design competition for the Brooklyn Public Library’s partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music Local Development Corporation for an innovative New Visual and Performing Arts Library in the new arts district in downtown Brooklyn. Envisioned as an architectural icon and vibrant public anchor serving the burgeoning community of visual, performing and experimental artists in the district, the interactive arts library model sought to create new synergies between resource access and arts production. The program called for a transparent gateway to arts resources and programming that would reinforce urban connections and serve as a 24/7 public space. The design competition brief I created was awarded NEA funding with a New Public Works grant. Structured to solicit experimentation and quality design, the competition resulted in 4 bold schemes that brought the highest level of creativity to the challenge of defining this new interactive library model. While the winning scheme was not immediately built, the example set by VPA competition process and the subsequent exhibit held at the Urban Center inspired other innovative collaborations and successfully served to illuminate the crucial role of civic architecture in the public realm.

Q: Who do you most admire?

A: There are two architects who, for very different reasons, I admire most for the inspirational path they modeled in our profession. First, I admire Louis Kahn for the timeless and powerful serenity his buildings achieved. My freshman dorm window at University of Pennsylvania faced his Richards Laboratory; Yale’s School of Architecture was adjacent to his Yale Art Gallery and British Art Center. My father’s home in California led to annual pilgrimages to Salk Institute. I visited Kahn’s buildings frequently and whenever I did, I felt the impact of their clarity and beauty and instantly felt re-charged. The second architect whose example is most meaningful to me is the late Walter A. Hunt.  Walter’s legacy of generosity and dedication toward our profession, and all those serving it, is unmatched. His vision, energy and ability to inspire others was pivotal in creating the dynamic Center for Architecture and in sustaining its scholarships and programs. Walter nominated me to join the Foundation Board and to follow in his footsteps as its President. He was an inspirational mentor and friend whose generous gifts to people and to the advancement of our profession are remembered by all who knew him.

Q: What are you working on right now, or what is your next big project?

A: Currently, I am working on four public library projects and a pro-bono design for a new building on the campus of a community center, in addition to the work in our residential studio. Each of the library projects is a renovation of an existing civic structure that aims to re-establish its roles as the “cultural heart” in its community. Today’s libraries are dynamic technologically-rich centers in their community that serve their community’s informational, educational, social and cultural needs. They serve as an active beacon within the community, a place where barriers are dissolved and interaction is fostered, reflecting the power of the library to serve as a positive transformative force in people’s lives. In the public library, democracy is the touchstone of every element. As one approaches, one senses the delightful and inspiring notion that freedom and equality are the guiding principles of all that is offered.

The next big project? We would love that to be a new library or civic building.

Q: What does being a Fellow mean to you?

A: Joining the College of Fellows raises the bar for what we as architects can give back to our great profession. It inspires me to devote myself even further to mentoring architects and designers who are entering our field. In our firm, in alumni outreach roles, and in teaching, I have had an incredibly rewarding opportunity to enrich the skills and experience of colleagues with whom I work, graduates whom I have had the opportunity to mentor, the students at Harvard and at the School of Visual Arts whom I am so fortunate to teach, and the participants in the programs at the Center for Architecture I had the opportunity to lead and serve. There is nothing more rewarding than sharing the skills we have and the realization of critical impact we, as architects, can have on the design and planning of the built environment.

Editors’ Note: This feature is part of a series celebrating the 18 members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter that have been elevated to the prestigious AIA College of Fellows in 2017, an honor awarded to members who have made significant contributions to both the profession and society. Learn more about Fellowship here.


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