“Make it simple. Do what you want.”
Fourteen Questions with Cara Cummins, TaC studios
By Carmen P. Stan AIA
I first met Cara Cummins in 2013 when she and her husband and partner Jose Tavel exhibited their personal residence on the Modern Atlanta Tour of Homes. I can’t say for sure if it was the design of the house, the attention to detail, the “oasis” they created in an urban environment, or their impressive collection of artwork (some of which was created by Cara) that most struck me in awe. But I knew I was determined to follow her career.
Cara originally planned to study veterinary medicine when she enrolled in Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University but after taking an architectural history class and spending time in the College of Architecture library and studios, she made a life-altering decision. “I knew everything I was interested in was related to what I saw. My eyes were opened.” After graduation, she worked in Italy before moving to Atlanta in 1997. She and Jose opened TaC studios in 2001.
TaC Studios’ work has garnered numerous industry awards, including three AIA Greenprints Project Awards, an AIA Merit Award, a City of Decatur Design Award, an Urban Design Commission Award, and an Atlanta Regional Commission Exceptional Merit for Adaptive Reuse. Cara won the first J. Neel Reid Prize in 2001.
What follows is a series of questions I sent to Cara, and her written responses:
1. What artistic or architectural movement or style most influenced your work?
I am not sure what that means, because I am not really interested in 'styles' or 'movements.'
2. What’s the best project you’ve ever worked on?
That project is yet to come. I can't pick favorites… but they know who they are.
3. What is a project or architect you admire, both local and non-local?
Most of my heroes are dead. Joe Amisano, he was a nice person. Peachtree Summit Building. Aldo Rossi, he liked my sketching. San Cataldo Cemetery. But those are ones that come to mind; it may be different tomorrow.
4. What is your favorite place to “just be?”
In a garden.
5. Did you always want to start your own firm, or did you decide later in life? What made you take the leap?
Yes, I always wanted to have my own firm. Is that not why we went to school for so long?
6. What challenges did you face when you first started? What challenges do you continually face?
Finding the work that is compelling to 'do' is always the challenge… Is this something I want to do for a year or more?
7. Would you advise young architects to start their own practice? What are the requirements for taking that step, in terms of experience, design, capital, etc.?
I stay away from telling people what they should do. It has to be something you want, and come from within. If everyone knew the steps, they would run away. (S)he who hesitates is lost...
8. What do you see as some of the challenges for women in architecture?
There are not many of us doing work, or being seen. Too many women stay in academics, or in business development of a 'FIRM'. There are many ways to be an Architect, however I tend to be more interested in the 'Practice' of architecture.
9. What woman in architecture do you most admire?
Billie Tsien, she was a mentor. Zaha Hadid, mostly for her shoes. And we stayed at the same hotel in the nineties.
10. Do you have a family? If yes, please describe.
Yes, there are lots of people in my life that make a family.
11. Do you have children? Do you think that made it harder for you, as an architect, to advance in your career?
My husband has three children from a previous marriage, and I have been very fortunate to have participated in their lives. The youngest was seven, so there was school, band, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, cross-country, bedtimes, and homework. Schedule was / is important. Today they are on there own. We have family dinners often, and they are cool adults.
Did they make it harder?… I think the career of an Architect is always a challenge. The question is, “what do you want, how do you want to spend your time?” Did I have times that I did not do something because I had to go to a kid event? Maybe. But did it prevent me from some great job? I have no idea - nor do I really care.
12. Do you believe that women “can have it all,” career and families?
I feel like I “have it all,” whether it fits the definition for someone else's parameter of what having it all means - I can't speak to that. What I don't like about this question, is that it presents such a box for women to exist 'within.' That women are either defined by career or by family - pick one. I don't see men asked the same question.
13. Why do women leave architecture, or never enter?
I think it is because employers don't make it worth entering or returning to… compensation for the effort required is not a balanced point for most architects - male or female. That speaks to the bigger issue beyond gender: architectural fees. My sister is an attorney, the financial reward is pretty compelling to work long hours, and she enjoys it.
14. Any parting words of advice?
Make it simple, do what you want. Think about what makes you happy, and pursue that happiness. Also, a career in architecture is not a race. If you want to pause to do something else, you can always come back.
Carmen P. Stan, AIA, is a member of AIA Georgia’s Equity in Architecture committee, volunteering on the Advocacy + Outreach subcommittee. She is a lead designer and project architect at Robert M. Cain Architect.