Exclusive Interview: Carrie Strickland, AIA
Carrie Strickland is the Founding Principal of Works Progress Architecture (W.PA), a thriving 100% woman-owned firm with a majority of female staff. Carrie’s aesthetic is “stripped down and industrial,” and her firm, located in the Pacific Northwest, is known for its “intelligent and playful style.” Carrie graciously took the time to talk to us about her approach to design, the challenges and rewards of being a Principal of an architecture firm while also raising a family, and her take on being a female architect in a traditionally male-dominated field.
Tell us a little about your journey to becoming a licensed architect.
I grew up on farm in a small town in southern Ohio. There wasn’t a lot of context to respond to, but I was always interested in building and the ideas of permanence (long story for another time!). My dad was a union concrete finisher and would come home and talk about his jobs and I remember one evening, he was lamenting that the architect had shown up on site and was being critical of the work. I remember feeling that this person had power over my dad’s work and I was
drawn to that control. It was impressive, and I decided that day that I wanted to be an architect. Prior to that I had sincerely wanted to be a cowgirl, so it was a big shift!
What piece of advice would you give to women on that journey now?
Based on where I grew up and when I was making that journey, I had a lot of folks discouraging me along the way. I think that there was still a big bias in the field that architecture was a man’s sport and that interiors might be a better fit. I know personally I am someone that is highly motivated by conflict and resistance. I’m a bit of a fighter. I still believe that to do this and do it well, you need to develop a thick skin and be ready to advocate for yourself, because it’s not up to someone else to look out for you.
It has been said that having a good mentor can help you learn and progress. Did you have a mentor as a young architect, and what are your thoughts on the importance of that role?
The question of a mentor is a tricky one. My gut response is always that I didn’t really have mentors, I had adversaries. And that worked for me. But as I’ve gotten older I realize that some of those adversaries were, in fact, acting as mentors and probably knew me better than I knew myself. Take my dad for example. He wasn’t encouraging of my goals… quite the opposite – I know now that he knew that the fastest way to give me guidance and support was to provide resistance. I know that women are still the minority in this field. I also know, and have experienced bias, resistance, harassment, etc. along the way that having someone to talk candidly about what was going on would have been really helpful. I want to be that person for young women that are actively trying to navigate their careers.
You have been quoted as saying that the field of architecture “has been a good-old-boys club.” How, as a woman architect, do you navigate that effectively? Have you encountered many obstacles working as a female in this traditionally male-dominated field?
I do think that the field of architecture has long been a “good ol boys club” and it’s not changing quickly. I know that I encountered many, many examples of this across a variety of different degrees. I remember one meeting where I had finished presenting to the client and the client turned to my project manager and said, “this is great, but can your little lady draw too?” I’ve also encountered professors making statements like, “you can’t do your thesis with a child”… (back
story: I had a 1 year old during my thesis year in Cincinnati) Also, more than I can count, I’ve been on job sites and gotten comments from contractors assuming that I was the interior designer or asking when my boss was going to be there so that decisions could be made. All of these are very particular to being a woman in this male dominated field. My approach, like many others, has been to challenge these antiquated notions by remaining strong, sharp and calling them out
on their shit. What saddens me about this method is that I feel it serves to continue the bias… do you have to act like a poor mannered man to get respect as a woman?
Today, your firm W.PA is a 100% woman-owned firm with a majority of female staff…which is a rarity in the field of architecture. What are your thoughts on the significance of this?
You’re right that it’s pretty rare. Being 100% woman owned and working at this size and in the markets we work in, make it even more so. It has been a long road and there are parts of that journey that I can’t talk about, but I absolutely recognize the significance of where I am today and what that means for the future.
You—and your firm—seem to be synonymous with thoughtful, unique, and transformative design. Can you highlight for us the types of projects you focus primarily on?
The work is all born out of private development. The first projects came from relationships that I had built up prior to launching WPA and those were complex and tricky problems to solve. I am also very politically driven and drawn to policy. I know you asked about transformative design and design approaches and I guess that I want to be sure that it’s said that thoughtful design and outstanding architecture comes from the gritty details of code and planning just as often
and equally as the grand gesture. I’m an advocate for high design regardless of budget and believe that simple moves are better than things that seems too precious. If you look across my body of work, I feel that those ideals are very evident.
What is the biggest challenge and the greatest reward of being the Principal of your own firm?
The greatest reward of being the principal of my own firm is that I really get to steer the direction and there is tremendous freedom in that position. The greatest challenge is that I get to steer the direction and there is tremendous fear in that position. I don’t know that I could ever work for someone else, but I know that is a bit scary in the moments where I realize that I’m leading a group of people that are depending on my good judgement for their livelihoods and that clients
are relying on me to look out for their livelihoods as well.
You have managed to simultaneously raise a family while enjoying a successful and thriving career as an architect. How difficult was juggling the demands of both aspects of your life?
I kinda jumped into the fire with the whole family thing. I wasn’t yet out of school, I was broke, I was young – and really had no idea what I was doing. At the same time, I had a professional drive that meant that I wanted to be a part of something very important. I know that I’ve been quoted as saying that you don’t need to choose between being a mother and being a
professional, and I do believe that. You don’t need to choose, but you DO need to cut yourself some slack. There are going to be times that you feel like you’re a terrible parent and there are going to be times that you feel like you’re a terrible architect. The best you can hope for is that you’re not being terrible at both at the same time!
Of the many projects you are working on or have completed, is there one that stands out as being particularly exciting or special?
I’m most proud of the work we’ve done in the last year. All of that work represents the collaborative work of our studio. It’s tough work in situations and programs that require careful navigation. It’s something that is different than our past.
How would you describe your design style in 3 words?
How to describe my work in 3 words…. Hmm. Maybe I don’t need 3 words. Sexy. There is power in that and maybe it’ll appear to be an odd choice of words considering what my history has been as a woman is this field, but “sexy” is what it feels like to me. It’s something that elicits a visceral response and stirs something inside of you.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I draw inspiration from tough problems. I like to find answers to things that others couldn’t do, and I like making connections. I’m inspired by the impact that the built environment can have on someone’s life. The art of the architecture is compelling but the impacts it has on communities is bigger.
What is one parting thought you would like to share with our community of Galchitects?
Don’t ever be afraid to say ‘fuck it’ when it’s appropriate.
We would like to thank Carrie for taking the time to participate in this Exclusive Galchitects Interview!
Feel free to visit her firm's website to see more of their work - prepare to be inspired!
We hope our readers enjoy getting to know and learn about fellow women in the field, their stories, and the projects they are working on. Stay tuned for more exclusive interviews. If you or someone you know would like to participate in an interview, or submit a recent project to be featured, head over to our Contact Us page, and send us a message telling us a little bit about yourself!