I’ve always warned Greta to be careful about whom she talks to the first day in a new school, as you might then be stuck with them for the rest of your life. My first day in grad school at Columbia I found my assigned desk (no egalitarian lottery system as at the UO), and Kerry Moran was sitting next to me, one of the more fortuitous events in my life. We would have become friends even if we hadn’t sat together, as she was one of the funnier and saner people in the class, and trying to fit in at Columbia definitely required some grounding with a few sane people. Kerry had gone to Penn as an undergrad, and we were in the same boat, as well-educated people who thought about design a lot, but had never actually had to sit down at a desk and design something. We were more than a little intimidated, as at least half of our classmates had BAs in architecture from really good schools such as UVA and Illinois, and their experience and skills were daunting.
Mark Rylander was one of those daunting people. He wasn’t in school with us, but he had majored in architecture at UVA, and lived with one of our classmates in New York as he began his architectural career, so he effectively became a member of our class, albeit one that only spent weekends in studio when he was helping someone else out. Mark did eventually head off to grad at school at Yale, where I believe there was a higher percentage of sane people.
Kerry became a close friend (not hurt by her being one of the few students who could or would cook). She and her roommate Heidi began their long tradition of fabulous holiday parties, and at some point in grad school, they took over running the small lunch concession in Avery Hall; the food was so good that it was discovered by non-architecture students, and soon the business school students with their strings of pearls had moved in and squeezed the architecture students out.
In second year everyone had to tackle a large housing studio in pairs. Kerry and I decided to work together, and it was eye-opening. I would sit and talk about what we should be doing, and she would stare at me and say, What the hell are you talking about? Then she would start drawing, and eventually I’d say, Is that a plan or a section? And she would say, I don’t know, it’s just a drawing. Somehow between these two approaches we developed a working method, and things turned out fine – we really worked as a team, complementing and covering for each other (although our elevations were ghastly). This studio may be where I started to really get the nonlinear, intuitive side of design. Later on Kerry pointed out how unusual our partnership was – we were the only female/male partnership in the class, and we were probably the only partners who remained friends.
I knew Mark mainly from hanging out at parties, but then one summer we both ended up in Italy at the same time, and spent a few days together in Rome, Florence and Siena. We enjoyed each other’s company, but I realized there were certain things I couldn’t do with Mark. We were sketching in the Villa Borghese gardens, and after a while I wandered over to look at Mark’s sketchbook. Then I just closed my book and walked away – it was just too depressing trying to draw when Mark was seemingly effortlessly cranking out sketches which were all much better than I’d ever be able to achieve. I’ve felt that way about much of Mark’s career since – you think you have him pegged as a really capable professional architect, or as a cutting-edge expert in sustainable design, or as a really talented designer, and then you realize that he’s just superb at all of those very different things.
After school we all stayed in New York, and eventually Kerry and Mark got married and lived in Brooklyn. They worked at a string of good firms – Polshek’s, Gwathmey Siegel, Bob Stern’s – and a few others, experiencing the peculiar joys of life in a high-powered professional world. One summer in the early 90s I was back from Oregon visiting, and had dinner with them right after their daughter Lane was born. Mark arrived home from work with a Xeroxed memo that had been placed on everyone’s desk at work that morning. It was clarifying the extent of the workday, which began at 8:00, and ended at 8:00, and could you please just eat lunch at your desk because things were very busy. Mark and Kerry looked at each other, and at Lane, and said, it’s time to leave this city.
When Bill McDonough was appointed dean at UVA, Mark called him up to offer congratulations (Mark had previously worked for him in the early 80s), and Bill invited him to come along. So they moved off to Charlottesville, and their son Peter was born there in the late 90s. Mark worked for McDonough and Partners for 16 years, establishing his own reputation as a sustainability expert, chairing the AIA Committee on the Environment, etc. In the past 20 years I’ve mainly seen Mark when a colleague drags him out to Oregon for reviews. Since leaving McDonoughs a few years ago, Mark has worked on his own, with a combination of architecture, sustainability consulting and project management.
Kerry has had her own firm since before they moved, and has continued her practice mainly in residential work – houses, additions and remodels in the historically-compatible style appropriate to a place like Charlottesville. The work is small and exquisite – seeing a refined modernist sensibility applied to these projects reinforces my belief that the best contextual work doesn’t copy historical architecture but complements it on a level deeper than style. In recent years, it seems that more and more of Kerry’s attention has gone into community theater. The whole family was involved when the kids were younger, but now Kerry is a mainstay of a few local troupes – designing (and usually building) sets and costumes, and frequently acting. While we were visiting Kerry was up to her eyeballs in getting City Of Angels to the finish line, and we were able to catch the soft opening and see the payoff. It was remarkable; I especially enjoyed the part where the character in an iron lung joined in singing the chorus.
We arrived just in time for Thanksgiving, for which Kerry cooked for days, and were part of a large crew of family, friends, and other passers-through. We got to meet the latest incarnations of their children – Lane now graduated from UVA in architectural history and just back from working on an organic farm in Utah, and Peter now an art student at VCU in Richmond. (It seems that both learned enough as children of architects to shy away from the profession, but you can only suppress those hereditary talents so far.) Greta got her transient pet-fix from Ace, a terrier with a lot of personality who liked to lie on her feet.
We planned on staying for a couple of days, but Greta got sick, and then the weather turned cold and rainy, so we just hung out for a week, as we couldn’t leave without seeing the landscape around Monticello on a beautiful day. That was really just a good excuse to catch up with old friends, so we walked and ate and talked, and every evening Kerry would head off to the theater while Mark and I drank Manhattans.