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Architect Yolanda Cole on Building with Neighborhood Identity in Mind

Architect extraordinaire Yolanda Cole speaks on her goals, her works, and how being a woman in a male-dominated industry influenced her

With her firm, Hickok Cole Architects, Yolanda Cole has designed over 60 million square feet of corporate office buildings, multi-family housing, and interiors with more planned on the way.

This past year, Curbed named Cole one of the 10 most prominent female architects who practice in Washington, D.C. Some of her impact can be seen in projects like the multi-family housing development in Logan Circle known as The Corcoran, the planned, car-free housing development Blagden Alley in Shaw, and most notably NPR's headquarters.

Cole's firm has won a myriad of awards over the past 28 years. Two in particular include the AIA | DC Award of Merit for Interior Architecture for Center for Strategic and International Studies' (CSIS) headquarters in Downtown D.C. and the IIDA Mid-Atlantic Gold Award for Interior Architecture for the Allsteel Resource Center by Farragut Square.

Cole was able to take some time out of her day to speak with Curbed about her goals, her works, and why being a woman in a male-dominated industry doesn't impact her work.

Has there been a single goal or mission when it comes to how you manage your company or how you design developments?

Our company is completely organized around a three-part goal, which would be great design, great management, and great place to work. So, it’s a trifecta if you will.

Of course, the first one is great design, and that’s what we do for a living. That’s what we’re passionate about. That’s why we’re here doing architecture.

Back to the general sense for the company, I would say personally I’m a driver. So, I live to make things happen. I get up every day, and I’m always driving to make sure something is happening, and if we have our goals, that we’re going to reach them whatever those may be.

So, there are lots of them that fall under great design, and great management, and great place to work because we want people to be happy, while they’re doing all of those other things.

Your company has designed everything from interiors to mixed-use developments. Of all the projects you’ve worked on, which are you most proud of?

Probably the headquarters for NPR. It is an all-time favorite because I’ve spent a lifetime listening to NPR, so I feel like you have a relationship to the organization. It was really one of those once-in-a-lifetime projects that is built-to-suit. So, we were designing it specifically for that particular tenant or organization.

It was complex in many ways because it had an existing historic building on the site that we had to incorporate, which is not always an easy thing to do, but you want to make the best of it, and also highlight it as well as be able to bring something new to the table. It has this incredible newsroom at the heart of the building. We were able to do work with broadcast consultants to do all the broadcasting studios and design the entire interiors associated with it.

So, I would say it was really a complete, complex, and comprehensive project for a particular organization that we admire, and that’s pretty cool.

Is there a certain project that you’ve done that you would say has really benefited Washington, D.C. as a whole?

Well, probably a lot of those. We live in the commercial world, and so we’re not designing museums and things like that, but I would say NPR is one of those because it was an early project to NoMa. They saw themselves as a catalyst to the neighborhood.

Fort Totten Square, which is a mult-family housing project we did with JBG that is over at Walmart, is also one of those projects that is a catalyst to a neighborhood. It's a large project that is workforce level housing for a lot of people and creates a place where none existed before. We like those kind of projects.

One of our other all-time favorites and probably one of the most beautiful projects we’ve designed is CSIS, which is the Center for Strategic and International Studies. That is again one of those unusual and fantastic opportunities to design a built-to-suit project for an institution. These were great people, great clients, and it’s a really stunning, beautiful building.

It’s a Platinum LEED, and it has a world-class conference center. They love the building. That’s the other thing that happens is when the tenant or the people who live in the building and use the building, when they come back and they feel as if it’s changed their lives, the way they work, the way they interact with each other, and the way that they can get the news out to their audience. With CSIS's new headquarters, it has just put them in a whole new level as far as thinktanks in their ability to hold all these meetings with important entities around the world.

As an architect, you can’t get better than that.

How have you seen the District change in terms of what it needs from architecture firms?

From a city perspective, I think the thing that we’re always interested in—and this is particularly related to housing—is designing for the neighborhood.

I think at a point in time before the housing boom in D.C., there were a lot of large-scale housing developers that did commodity type work. In other words, they had a model, and then they would put it in Arlington, and then they would take that model in D.C. or some other location, and they were pretty much all the same. It was really a brand new kind of approach. I think what we really are good at is that we’re really good at designing for each neighborhood and the character of that neighborhood.

Because D.C. has just boomed with a lot of people moving back into the city, that kind of authentic sense of the place has become important.

Are there any unique challenges when it comes to designing and working in the D.C. area?

Every jurisdiction has their quirks. I think some of them have to do with incorporating historic structures, which happens all over. Because D.C. has more of them, we’re often in a situation where we’re incorporating the existing structure, or we’re building adjacent to a historic building, or in a historic district or an arts overlay district.

There are always many constituencies involved in most projects, and over time, the Planned Unit Development process, or the PUD process, has been used more and more, meaning that a developer wants to gain greater density and more units on their site or more of anything on their site.

So, they go through a specialized process, which is more scrutinized by different entities along the way. That’s been used more and more over the last several years. So, it’s become more complicated. It takes longer to do, but then the end result is that they get more out of the site.

Only roughly two out of 10 architects are women. Has that affected how you view your work or how you manage your company?

No. Different women have different philosophies about how they go through that. My philosophy has always been that I am just me. I behave how I behave.

In the end, you have to live and work in the environment that exists, and you have to accept that. That doesn’t mean it’s not harder than it might be for a man, but I just don’t make it an issue. I don’t think about it much. I just do what I do.

One final question: What are your favorite places in D.C. in terms of architectural beauty?

Well, there are so many, and there’s beauty in different ways, right? I mean, certainly Washington, D.C. is known for the beauty of its major streets, its monuments, and all of the historic L’Enfant plan that exists. That’s the baseline for what makes D.C. D.C., but what I’ve grown to appreciate—and I’ve lived here since 1994—is that this return to this city and people moving into the city have really given D.C. a whole ‘nother life that is not the federal government.

So, what we like to say around here is there’s the federal government, and then there’s the District. The District is what has been growing by leaps and bounds in the last 10 years and this whole idea about neighborhood identity.

So, one of the places that I find fascinating is Union Market. It’s a work in progress, but I do enjoy the uniqueness of it, the grittiness of it, and my hope is that as it gets developed that this kind of original feeling of the place can be maintained, while also allowing for progress.

There are a lot of cool places being redeveloped around the city: Capitol Waterfront, the Wharf … What’s really cool is that there are so many interesting new places to be in D.C. It’s not just a daytime city anymore; it’s day and night.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

Hickok Cole Architects [Official Website]