Who's That Gal: Marilyn Moedinger, Architect

Boston is the home of a LOT of development (if you don't live here, take it from this real estate-obsessed JUG!), and Marilyn is someone who can back that up, too.  As a superwoman architect and founding principal at Runcible Studios, her vast knowledge of urban strategies supports an incredibly impressive portfolio.  Be sure to join us, Marilyn and the co-founders of Brass Co. tomorrow night for more, in-person, and RSVP to Ladies Lounge below! (And if you also had the urge to look up the definition of "runcible...")


JUGs: Tell us a little about how you become interested in architecture and how you go to where you are today, founder of your own architecture studio!

MM: I have always been interested in architecture, even before I knew it was a profession. When I was a little girl, I liked building forts and structures, and I would get copies of plan books from the grocery store, white-out the walls, and redraw them where I wanted them to be. I even had a master plan of a city that I worked on, one 8.5”x11” sheet of paper at a time during math class, and then I would come home and assemble them into a huge city map. I didn’t do well in 6th grade math, but I loved drawing that city. I don’t remember a time before I was drawing. Someone eventually pointed out that maybe I should go to architecture school.

Founding my own practice was always just a matter of time - it actually happened much earlier than I thought it would! I would say that having experience in construction [I worked as a construction project manager for a few years] has been one of the keys to my success so far. And of course, going to a great school, and having some wonderful mentors along the way. And also some situations that weren’t so great for me - sometimes those can be just as impactful and educational!

What type of architecture studio is Runcible Studios?

We focus on housing - single family, multifamily, developer-driven or custom, ground up or renovations. We also have a research bent, focusing on housing, climatic performance, energy modeling, that kind of thing. My favorite thing is helping clients with seemingly intractable problems find something even better than they had imagined, by equally weighting pragmatics AND vision. Goals on the horizon include getting into more mixed use projects, as well as construction management services.

You have been a TA at UVA, RISD and taught at Northeastern, not to mention are currently teaching at Wentworth and BAC. How has teaching emerging architects helped or inspired your own work?

Students have great energy, and great freedom - they don’t have to worry about things like gravity and budgets yet - and a big part of my job is helping them remember that, so they can push their creative inquiries. Helping what amounts to hundreds of students conceptualize their projects over the last 5 years I’ve been teaching has also helped me get much better at framing problems, determining solutions, conceptualizing strategies, all that stuff - essentially, I get to practice the design process over and over with them, every semester, which makes me better at it too. I feel very strongly that, when I teach studio, part of my job is welcoming students into a culture of design. No matter what your level as a designer, we’re all grappling with the same issues - balancing the quantitative and the qualitative, balancing your vision and what the client needs, learning how to be creative “on demand.”

Boston has lots of development projects going on. In your opinion, what do you think Boston is doing well for urban living and what do you think they could improve upon?

Boston is a great city. I love the character of the neighborhoods, the history, the fact that the roads are all over the place, the open spaces, the fact that Fenway is in the middle of the city and not relegated to the ‘burbs, the presence of the water...these are all great things.

The two things I think Boston needs to improve on, and fast, are proper investment in public transit, and housing for middle income people. If these aren’t fixed, Boston will be left behind in the 21st century. I’ve been glad to see that both of these issues are starting to get the attention they deserve.

What is your favorite project you’ve worked on?

So many! And for many different reasons. In some ways, my favorite is the first thing I ever built, on my own. It was a porch for a family whose house I was working on while doing emergency home repair in West Virginia. “Porch” is a bold word for it - it was more of a platform with one step - but I built it by myself. I talked with the occupants about what they wanted for the porch, made a sketch, leveled the ground, poured a footing, squared up the frame, attached it to the house, laid the deck boards, sealed it up. All by myself. I was probably 14 or so. I was completely hooked.

Do you have a favorite city (from an architectural standpoint)?

Again, so many! As a whole city, though, I think it would have to be Venice. What a weird and wonderful place - all that water, and no cars - walking through that city sounds the same as it might have 400 years ago. The microtopographies [bridges, boat garages, sidewalks] and little hidden away spaces are enchanting, practical, and represent an extreme economy of space. Getting lost [and unlost] in Venice is an architectural rite of passage.

Where do you see the future of residential architecture going?

I hope housing continues to innovate on models like shared or co-housing, intergenerational housing, housing in mixed use settings, and housing that allows for car-less living, integration of urban agriculture, and/or prefabrication. Many of these models have been in use historically, or are in use in different places in the world, to great success.

And lastly, what advice would you give to budding architects and designers?

Draw, draw, draw! I’m not talking about house plans or technical drawings here - I’m talking about learning how both to record what you’re seeing and to communicate ideas visually. We all have training in how to communicate with words, from a very early age, but we don’t have the same training in visual communication, so there’s a lot to learn for beginning design students. Take long walks, and look at buildings. Check out construction sites. Be curious. Find people in the industry and ask them what their work is like - there is a vast spectrum of types of practices. And finally, don’t be discouraged - women and minorities still represent a small fraction of licensed architects, and many of us in the industry and in academia are working hard to change that!

Join us for more with Marilyn this Thursday night at WeWork!  RSVP to the free event!


Photo source: Marilyn Moedinger