Juggling Architecture

How New York City-based architect Tina Manis balances the demands of family and work

"It's hard, it's frustrating, it's wonderful, and it's exciting." Tina Manis is talking about the office she started three years ago and runs today, but could be just as easily describing raising a family. A young mother, Manis is in a position that is still surprisingly rare in the architecture field: She is the sole, female owner of an architecture firm whose two employees are also women. "We were saying the other day we could use some testosterone, but actually I think we have enough testosterone among us," Manis says, explaining that there's no intentional gender bias at her office.

The work of Tina Manis Associates (TMA), in New York City, expresses femininity not in clichéd terms of curves and pastel colors, but in its approach to process. "We have a consciousness of and sensitivity to the everyday rhythm of residential work and also of the intricacies and politics of commercial work," Manis says. "What we make and how we conceptualize our work is neutral. I've always wanted that—I never wanted to play by a man's rules, but I didn't want to play Sex in the City either."

Manis, who has worked for Rem Koolhaas and Richard Rogers, clearly relishes setting up her office on her own terms. Going it alone has given her the advantage of being able to work in a nonhierarchical fashion—there's no one person barking out orders. While she's not afraid to make demands of her employees, she notes, "It's important to know that there exists another alternative, and you can still do amazing work." She's perfecting a kind of office lifestyle that allows for the inclusion of personal life—out-of-office concerns such as family—while maintaining a high level of professional rigor.

The practice is right now at a turning point. TMA recently completed a new town house in Brooklyn, New York—a rare and exhilarating opportunity to build ground-up construction in a city where there are a decreasing number of vacant lots. With this project, Manis had ideal clients. They said to her, "We have these program needs, but you do your thing." Despite a "phenomenally low budget," she had the liberty to express a full range of her ideas, one of which is finding beauty in the "things that seemingly have no value." She adds, "We can take the most banal, boring material and actually invent with it. We're very interested in that kind of strategy towards architecture." TMA also just completed the first phase of a studio in Queens, New York, for Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.

Much of Manis's current work is residential, although she says, "I would like to move the office toward more institutional work." Unlike many of her peers, Manis's dream isn't just landing a client with lots of money to spend. Rather, she would like to work on a development for a marginalized group or a nonprofit organization. These projects "fulfill a kind of consciousness in me. There's a possibility of supporting humanity," she says. Although she jokes, another dream would be, "Getting paid well. A real jawbreaker salary."

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