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'I wasn't treated any differently' - Star architect says a lot was expected of her
September 15, 2007 | Kelvin Browne | National Post

"When I was a child I built fantasy buildings," recalls one of Canada's pre-eminent architects. "I didn't play with them but tore each down immediately and rebuilt." Definitely a sign of a budding designer or developer. This is the same architect who later went on to graduate with a master's degree in architecture from Yale and co-founded what is arguably Canada's leading firm, the Toronto-based, 90-plus-person, KPMB Architects, known for a long roster of elegant design (including the Young Centre [Soulpepper Theatre in the Distillery District], the Gardiner Museum, the National Ballet School, the Canadian Embassy in Berlin, the Canadian Museum of Natural History, the One Bedford condominium, and the Roy Thomson Hall renovation). It would be easy to presume it's a guy I'm describing as this is the common assumption about star architects, but I'm not. I'm talking about Marianne McKenna.

I shouldn't make a point about men and women in architecture in relation to Ms. McKenna because it isn't an issue for her, and it doesn't seem it ever was. She's a gifted designer and a strong person, which makes her coincidently a gifted and strong woman (and mother of two). However, there are only a handful of women who reach her level in the profession in Canada, so I find her achievement notable in this context.

Marianne and I were in architecture school in the 1970s; she at Yale; I at the University of Toronto. My first-year classes were about one-third women, but by graduation, these numbers dwindled significantly. When you survey star architects, such as those who win the Pritzker Prize (the Academy Award of architecture), few women appear.

What propels an architect to the top? "My father never treated my brother or me differently," Ms. McKenna recalls. "He had very high expectations for both of us. He insisted we have good educations -- in the United States." Born in Montreal, Ms. McKenna graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania with a BA in 1972. I suspect her father and mother also instilled a healthy sense of competition, in addition to the confidence you need to win.

"I studied art history and economics," she says. "In retrospect, an intriguing combination for architecture, but I wasn't thinking about it then. I was interested in art, and the economics department at Swarthmore was renowned and I gravitated to it. Studying with the best in any area is a superb education." But after working in the graphic design field back in Montreal, an architect and family friend, Peter Rose, suggested architecture and Yale.

With her master's degree, she returned to Montreal and taught at McGill. Then a chance meeting with Barton Myers after a lecture he gave there changed everything. "I had some suggestions about how Barton's presentation could have been better," she says with a laugh. "I guess I challenged him." Ms. Mc-Kenna recalls his first response: "Who are you?"

Instead of moving to London or Seattle, being considered at the time, it was to be a migration from culture and architecture-rich Montreal to a less architecturally endowed and sophisticated Toronto. Soon she was working for Mr. Myers's small but influential firm in Toronto. When Mr. Myers decamped to the United States, Ms. McKenna and some of her colleagues at the office went out on their own and formed Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg in 1987.

After the firm was up and running, it began to create a stellar list of buildings, including the Kitchener City Hall and the Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery, one of the projects for which Ms. McKenna was the partner-in-charge.

Currently, the Royal Conservatory of Music is a focus for her. "In 1991, I managed its master plan. Then came a series of historic and interior renovations." In 2008, the project is culminating with the completion of its Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, which will feature the 1,000-seat Michael and Sonai Koerner Concert Hall, as well as 55 new music studios. The Telus Centre was awarded a 2005 Canadian Architect Award of Excellence.

She's also the partner in charge of designing the new Quantum-Nano Centre at the University of Waterloo. She can explain what nano technology is all about, as well as her plans for a beautiful building to house the people who study it.

I ask about women role models. She doesn't recall having one in the architectural world. All she knew was she wasn't going to be relegated to the sidelines. Is she a role model for younger women? She claims that not many have asked her for advice. She says she's grateful for having a wonderful family and a supportive husband. She should also be grateful for having extraordinary energy and an unrelentingly positive outlook."