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Architect Asks: Why Can't Our Civic Buildings Look Like Civic Buildings?

"Why can't we have a building that is both of our time and beautiful?"

Marianne Cusato is a third generation Alaskan -- and a young, New York-based architect, lecturer and writer. She is a woman with a dynamic career and bright ideas, and whose strong beliefs have already begun to make a difference, for the better in communities.

She is also a woman who is unafraid to take on the mainstream "establishment" -- in this case modernist architecture -- when she believes important values are being compromised. She has already proven that. Cusato grew up in the city of Anchorage and in Kenai on the Cook Inlet side of the Kenai Penninsula. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in architecture from Notre Dame University. She is a student of traditional and classical architecture and its application in the modern world.

"What I learned from Notre Dame was 'how to learn,' " Cusato says.

Cusato knew architecture would be her lifelong passion from the time she was in elementary school. "I decided a long time ago; I was always drawing little houses."

Recently, Cusato succeeded in bringing public attention -- much of it unfavorable -- to a design that had been selected for the construction of a new, $100 million state capitol building to be built by 2009 in Juneau.

You could say she touched a nerve.

Cusato had been in Great Britain and absorbed in writing a book about traditional architecture during the time designs were submitted and during the public comment period for the new Alaskan capitol building.

The winning design was by Thom Mayne and his firm, Morphosis. The design was modern and featured a dome (which Cusato likened to an egg) and roof wings that were supposed to evoke Alaskan glaciers.

Many of the public comments from Alaskans were opposed to the design concepts submitted by all four finalists in the Capitol competition, including Mayne.

Unhappy friends and colleagues in Alaska, many of whom thought of the winning designs as better sci-fi than architecture, brought the design for the new capitol building to Cusato's attention.

Once Cusato saw the modernist design she moved quickly to let people in and out of her profession and the Alaskan media know very specifically what she thought about the design. "We want a building that looks like a building. We want a capitol building that looks like a capitol building . not something that looks like a fashion statement for an award winning architect from California."

Thom Mayne is the most recent winner of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture. Although many say it is the most prestigious award in the field, Cusato's feeling is that the Pritzker Prize "goes to radical modernists who create buildings the architectural profession tells the public to like.

"But people don't like the buildings. They don't understand them and just walk away feeling dumb," she says.

Cusato argues that Alaska is rich with history, has a diverse population and is among the most beautiful -- and unique -- places on earth. She says the Mayne design for the new capitol bears no reflection of these things.

Because she is an architect and felt she had to do more than criticize the winner's design, Cusato came up with some sketches of her own as well, which appeared in newspapers and online.

"Alaskans disillusioned with the winning design selected for the new state Capitol building in Juneau need to be heard," she wrote in one article.

She won many people over to her side. People loved her sketches.

From a newspaper architecture critic; to a noted, oft-published historian of southeast Alaska; to the state's lieutenant governor; to devoted architecture and general topic bloggers; to members of her own profession; and to members of the general public, her comparison of the Thom Mayne design's dome (domes are found on 39 of the 50 state capitol buildings) to "an egg" caught on.

"Yes, a civic building should be of our time," she says. "But it should be recognizable in form."

The building design alternative Cusato came up with reflects her Notre Dame education. The beauty of traditional architecture is obvious in her work, interwoven with undercurrents of Alaskan history. For example, domes in the sketch clearly reflect aspects of the designs of many Russian churches throughout the state.

Actually, Alaska already has a capitol building. Congress authorized funding for it in 1911 and construction began in 1929. Construction was finished in 1931, 28 years before Alaska even became a state in 1959. Today the building houses the offices of the state legislature, the governor and lieutenant governor.

According to information on the capitol's official website, the building's construction is brick-faced, reinforced concrete. "The lower facade is faced with limestone. ... A replica of the Liberty Bell, given to Alaska as part of a promotional campaign for U.S. Savings Bonds, stands in front of the building."

The old building does not have the grace or the dignity of a state capitol. It looks like exactly what it is -- an old federal office building with a replica of the Liberty Bell standing in front.

Cusato agrees that perhaps it is time to build a new Alaskan capitol but not one with the modernist design that just weeks ago appeared to be on the fast-track. She feels fortunate to have gotten the public's attention on a new design for the capitol building before anything else happened in the process of building the Mayne design.

"Usually," she says, "once you hear about it, it's too late."

Although today she lives and works in New York, Cusato's Alaskan roots remain strong. Her deep bonds go to the core of Alaskan life.

"Every summer [during college] I went home and fished" red salmon, she said. She describes herself as the person who "ran the boat." It's hard to imagine an experience more Alaskan (where the first salmon canneries were built in 1878) than commercial fishing.

Prior to this phase of her career (in addition to consulting, she is writing a book) Cusato was a project architect at Fairfax & Sammons Architects in New York where she managed and ran a variety of projects including Manhattan townhouses, a summer house on Long Island, and builder spec houses in the new urbanist town, I'On, near Charleston, S.C. She worked closely with clients to develop schematic designs and construction documents and managed projects under construction.

Earlier, Cusato was an associate with Grenfell Architecture in Charlotte, N.C., where she consulted on several charrettes with new urbanist planners, designers and architects, incorporating local architectural design into the schematic designs of single and multi-family residences and civic buildings.

She has learned her lessons well.

Andrés Duany, principal at the firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, has worked with Cusato. "Marianne is not only very talented, she is brave and steady. It probably comes from captaining those fishing boats in Alaska.

"She bested a lot of arrogant and well-connected men in that Alaska Capitol competition. It was wonderful to watch the process and a good outcome for the people of Alaska too," says Duany.

For her part, Cusato will continue her campaign in Alaska and on her future projects. "It is important to show restraint [in design and building]. We need places that are timeless and beautiful."

Marianne Cusato's proposal for the Alaskan Capitol building appeared in the
New Towns, Spring 2005 issue: Alaska Deserves a Real Capitol Building, Not an Egg