by AIA New York
As public architect and urban designer, Mary Elizabeth Rusz, FAIA, is a leader in community regeneration, design innovation, and conservation. Her neighborhood strategies, thoughtful interventions, and design excellence “make life better” for the communities she serves. Rusz’s career has involved posts in both the public and private sectors, with urban regeneration as her focus, including: creating contextual zoning with the NYC Department of City Planning; managing cultural and courts projects with the NYC Department of Design and Construction; and serving as design lead for several large-scale neighborhood plans with the NYC Housing Authority. Rusz is a long-standing AIANY member, serving on both its Housing Committee and Planning and Urban Design Committee, and is a Fellow with the Urban Design Forum.
The Jury of Fellows of the AIA elevated Rusz to the College of Fellows in the fourth category (public service, government, industry, or organization) of Fellowship, which recognizes architects who have worked “To ensure the advancement of the living standards of people through their improved environment,” according to the organization’s definition. Rusz was recognized at the New Fellows Reception hosted by AIA New York and at an investiture ceremony at the AIA Conference on Architecture.
Q: How/why did you decide to pursue architecture?
A: I am the architect daughter of an engineer father, which I imagine is a somewhat common scenario. One of my earliest perceptions about architecture happened when our family visited Expo ’67 in Montreal, where I was intrigued by the innovative structures there—Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, and Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67. When I traveled to Europe during high school, I fell in love with places such as Place des Vosges in Paris, a glint of my future interest in urban design.
I grew up in 1960’s and 1970’s Toronto, a heady time for architecture, and a common topic of discussion in our family, in part as my Father, Nicholas Rusz, P.E., a consulting engineer, worked with many architects there. He had been the Chief Mechanical Engineer for the then new Toronto Dominion Center, and when we would drive through downtown he would excitedly point out these gleaming structures, for which design he had played a part. Other significant projects then included Ontario Place by Eberhard Zeidler, the Toronto Reference Library by Raymond Moriyama, and the modern extension to the Art Gallery of Ontario by John C. Parkin. As I was high school friends with the daughters of all three of these architects, architecture was informally just part of our daily lives.
While I was researching career options, my father suggested I study architecture. With that nudge, I quickly became hooked on the idea of pursuing this creative journey.
A: Do you have a favorite building? Why?
A: The John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, or “JHDFALD,” master plan and building design, by the Cooper Union School of Architecture Dean Nader Tehrani (Principal, NADAAA), with Katherine Faulkner (Principal, NADAAA), is a daring yet pragmatic solution—repurposing a Gothic Revival structure combined with a dramatic new addition. This unique result is like a polished Gothic gemstone set within the campus and larger city landscape, at Spadina Circle located on the western edge of the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. This new place mediates between the academic and professional worlds through a series of stages. An east-west pedestrian way binds the historic structure to the south with the new addition to the north. On the upper levels, open studio spaces foster interdisciplinary connections between architecture, landscape, and design curricula. The ceiling profile of the top-most studio is like a futuristic aircraft, with stylized Gothic openings, a nod to the existing building.
Historic preservation has been considered hand in hand with high technology. The restoration details are all exemplary, overseen by Michael McClelland, Principal, ERA Architects. At the same time, the building is a showcase of sustainable design, using an efficient building structure, systems, and green roof. The well documented design and construction process, and finished building itself, altogether serve as tangible lessons in Architecture and Urbanism for students in this inspirational setting.
Q: What are some of your favorite recent projects that you’ve worked on?
A: My favorite projects have always been those that help shape public policy to promote design excellence, starting with my role as an Architect/Urban Designer with the NYC Department of City Planning’s Zoning Study Group (an outgrowth of the prior Urban Design Group under Mayor Lindsay).
I was honored to serve as Assistant Director with the NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) to develop a Neighborhood Transformation Plan, entitled Make Mott Haven, working with James McCullar, FAIA, on the challenge to recast Mott Haven in the South Bronx, one of NYC’s most underserved neighborhoods, as a connected and positive living and working environment. This plan framed potential improvements along an enhanced greenway to include rehabilitated and new housing and community facilities. I’m proud to see new area investments now happening, such as a new senior building by Perkins Eastman, being built at Mill Brook Houses.
Most recently, I managed NYCHA’s Historic Preservation Study covering its complete housing portfolio consisting of 326 developments in all five boroughs. Working with a small team, we assessed the design characteristics of the entire portfolio, reviewing site layouts, massing, design features/artworks, and any significant historic events. This effort resulted in NYCHA’s first ever “Programmatic Agreement” with the NY State Historic Preservation Office, or “SHPO,” which now limits which NYCHA capital improvements require SHPO review and approval. In the end, the two agencies agreed upon designating 38 sites, which include the Beaux-Arts planned Harlem River Houses, Manhattan, and International Style-inspired Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn.
Q: What are your greatest sources of inspiration?
A: My initial inspiration was when our Toronto architecture class spent the fourth year fall term at the Unité Pédagogiques Six, Paris, in 1979, a pivotal point. It was a C-change in our earlier years in that we were introduced to an urbanistic approach to design [versus a more functionalist emphasis]. This experience ultimately inspired me to pursue a second degree in Urban Design at Columbia’s GSAPP.
I travel as much as possible to see design precedents in the flesh, so I can best understand the prospect and scale of each specific place. When I was serving as Chief of Design and Development with NYCHA starting in 2000, I would visit the UK once or twice a year, for many years, studying London and its environs, Bath, Brighton, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and so forth. I walked multiple residential neighborhoods, parks, and open spaces to fully understand the street patterns and building types, so to apply these lessons to my urban design work. For example, in London I discovered a small square, Queens Square in Bloomsbury, which proportions and orientation became the inspiration for the centerpiece of my conceptual plan for redevelopment of Markham Gardens, Staten Island. These travel tours also provide wonderful material for my watercolors, which I started to make around 2004. I am fascinated by the origins of architecture and ruins of any type—fantastic subjects for painting!
Last, but not least, I love any vehicle—be it a book, lecture, film, or exhibition—that provides enlightenment about the history and development of architecture, especially about the most current design trends that blend aesthetics with the newest technologies.
Editors’ Note: This feature is part of a series celebrating the members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter who are elevated each year to the AIA College of Fellows, an honor awarded to members who have made significant contributions to both the profession and society. Learn more about Fellowship here.