Rosalie Genevro and the Cultural Act of Architecture

Architectural League director Rosalie Genevro shepherds a sound mission.

What sparked your interest in architecture?

I grew up in Southern California, in Orange County. I was so horrified at the general suburban environment that I grew up in. I wen as a summer exchange student to the Netherlands when I was in high school and lived with a family of an architect in a very beautiful, untouched kind of villa-like house, in a small farming village. I had always been interested in architecture and design, but that really crystallized an interest for me.

You’ve described the Architectural League as a cultural, not professional, institution.

We have the privilege of looking at and thinking about architecture as a cultural act and artistic act. While the professional side of architecture is very important, those actually are not the issues we are focused on. We look at how architects think and grow, and how the work that they create communicate to other people. It’s particularly interesting to look at how architecture embodies society, or projects society in periods of change.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the League’s mission—“to nurture excellence in architecture, design, and urbanism”—which has remained the same since its founding in 1881. Why is it so important to uphold that?

Because architecture is a very, very, very, very hard thing to do, and it’s both a creative process and a synthesizing process. It takes a lot of effort and will and creative intelligence and talent to do it well. All of those need to be constantly stimulated and encouraged and supported. For people who are trying to do great things in those areas, it’s really important to have stimulation and encouragement.

In your mind, what’s the line between architecture and art?

Well, architecture is a social art. I’m personally more interested in thinking about architecture in terms of its use and its significance to people in the world. I’m interested in thinking about how architecture serves other human institutions.

Architecture isn’t only about any single individual. It’s made by a team of people, then it’s used by many people, over time. That dimension of time is interesting and important: How do you understand how humans act to create something that can have some continuing use over time?

What defines the types of buildings that withstand the test of time?

I think successful buildings in the cities are able to be adapted—architecture that isn’t so specific for one particular, highly demanding, use. Something that’s a little but more forgiving and looser and flexible and that can be adapted to different uses over time is more important [for] projecting into the future. Which doesn’t mean that it’s without character or without a sense of place, both of which are really important, but things that really can be rethought.

How was the League changed over your 30 years as director?

We’ve grown. The League is still a small organization, but it was much smaller when I came: two and a half employees, including me. Now we’re at 12 to 13. One the other hand, certain things haven’t changed, and we just celebrated with a publication of the book 30 Years of Emerging Voices. In certain ways, the nature of the projects and of the people who are recognized through that program [Emerging Voices] hasn’t changed. There have been some continuing threads through our programming.

Do you find similarities both in your hiring and when you’re looking to give awards and scholarships to emerging architects?

With both, we look for a combination of openness and a sense of direction or questing.

What are some new projects or urban studies that you’re excited about?

We’re starting a housing atlas of the city of New York. I love nothing better than to walk around neighborhoods in the city, particularly neighborhoods I haven’t been to before. Something that has struck me when you think about housing is that New York is a very diverse place in terms of housing types. You’ll have a neighborhood in the Brown with two- and three-family houses and a neighborhood in Brooklyn with two- and three-family houses, but they look quite different. We’re trying to understand who built these and when and why.

What are some of the day-to-day challenges that you face in your role?

In a very big way, being in a non-profit organization with a supportive board is a fantastic, privileged place to be. The League is a relatively small organization. It’s pretty nimble. The challenges tend to be around resources and predictability, so the biggest part of our support actually comes from architects themselves. Through the last recession, I have to say, we didn’t see a big dip, which was very gratifying, because it was a pretty bad recession and was hard on architects.

Why do you think that is?

The League, in addition to providing recognition and stimulation, provides a sense of community. It also provides very real opportunities for learning and continuing education, so I think people recognize that this was a resource that they could continue to draw on, even when they had more time to draw on it when things were a bit slower. That’s my best guess.

And it’s been doing that for almost 135 years…

It’s been a long time, but it’s stayed in business continually. One funny thing we found in the archives at one point was that in the Depression apparently the League brought Irish sweepstakes tickets to fund them—it would increase their fortunes. Times were tough.

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