If you are Audrey Matlock, FAIA, this is how an architecture career happens: You get a master’s degree at Yale, work short stints for Richard Meier, FAIA, and Peter Eisenman, FAIA, and then land at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where you spend 10 invigorating years designing buildings of significant size and complexity. You’re lured briefly to a design director position at another large international firm. A recession is raging, but you think to yourself, “I need to move in a different direction, and why waste time?” Without work or a plan, you build out some desks in your New York City loft and hand-pick a half-dozen out-of-work former colleagues, all volunteers, to enter design competitions with you. You choose competitions that have interesting programs and sites, the work generates creative energy, and you end up with serious projects to show. You also teach yourself to write proposals for assorted public work—an aquarium, a couple of library additions, and school renovations. Soon enough, someone says yes, and within a year you’re Audrey Matlock Architect, looking for office space.
Smart and resourceful, with a staff of 12, Matlock has a keen eye for the texture of a neighborhood, the contour of a landscape, and the poetry of exposed super-structure. Since founding her firm in the mid-1990s, she has garnered acclaim for work on a variety of programs and scales, from single-family homes and high-rise condominiums to a series of buildings for Armstrong World Industries, including its striking 125,000-square-foot headquarters in Lancaster, Pa., a collaboration with Gensler.
In the last few years, Matlock’s connections have catapulted her across the globe. In Kazakhstan, a difficult place to build, she is just finishing up a gossamer gatehouse (two tilted glass cubes) and welcome center for a future mixed-use project. There’s also a lavish, 30,000-square-foot residence perched on a mountainside in an earthquake zone, with massive retaining walls that create indoor/outdoor terraces. Its owner developed the Medeu Sports Center, which she also designed. Set in the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains, only the roof of the below-grade sports complex is visible. It is composed of kinetic, zinc-clad ribbons and irregular clerestories that evoke the movement of athletics and the profile of the surrounding mountains.
Matlock is driven by a penchant for research and discovery. “A leader is the easiest thing to be,” she says. “I think the way to achieve real success is to do something that hasn’t been done before.”
Back in New York, there’s ample opportunity for reinvention and a lot of money looking for somewhere to go. Matlock’s knack for innovation has turned the heads of developers such as Robert Gladstone of Madison Equities, who hired her to design the Chelsea Modern residential tower, near the High Line and the Hudson River. Rising 12 stories, it sits mid-block near some of the city’s most expressive architecture, such as Frank Gehry’s IAC building and the Standard hotel, and it demonstrates her commitment to the specifics of program, context, and site. Almost as wide as it is tall, the building had a height limit of 120 feet and a mandatory setback of 85 feet or less—a common zoning requirement that too often results in a wedding cake effect, or, as Gladstone puts it, “a glass dog house on top of a glass box.” Matlock finessed the setback with pleated horizontal bands of clear and cobalt-blue glass that ripple across the street façade and reference the nearby river.
“The skin of the building is something Audrey gets and controls extraordinarily well,” Gladstone says. Those sensuous movements were also proforma-friendly: Every piece of glass is the same size, and the 5-foot-deep undulations provided a lot of depth without sacrificing interior space. Windows on special hinges, which she says had never been used before in New York, push straight out, optimizing airflow and changing the building’s face throughout the day. “The technology was available but expensive, so we developed a way to fabricate it,” she says. “We’re very interested in structure and technological advancements. How can we solve problems, but also make architecture, using this wide array of things at our disposal now?”
That window design is scaled up at Irving Place, a luxury 11-story building in Gramercy Park completed for the same developer. There, motorized 5-foot-by-10-foot windows on scissor hinges pop open with the push of a button. “Often, I’m completely convinced that something new will work, but [real estate] brokers go on past history: This is what sells,” she says. “No, it’s what sold last time. When the formula changes, it takes a developer with a little more confidence to be the first to take a step.”
She’s referring to her initial plan to push the envelope, literally, at Irving Place with walls on the building’s face that would open to recessed terraces. “We floated the idea, and everyone was afraid to do it; six months later a developer did it on 19th Street, and it was a massive, smash success,” she says. In the elegant alternative version, vertically stacked glass projections at the dining and living spaces stand out in relief, differentiating the single and duplex units. “I like a little bit of indication on the outside of the building about the specifics of what’s going on inside,” she says. The design abstracts the patterns of the neighborhood’s beautiful mid-19th-century homes, whose varying bays and other architectural elements reflect their internal organization.
Matlock’s fascination with materials, structural aesthetics, and assembly began during her earlier years as a sculptor. After studying fine arts at Syracuse University, she spent several years in San Francisco working for Frank Oppenheimer, who founded the Exploratorium, a museum about science and perception at the Palace of Fine Arts. There she designed large-scale environmental sculpture that demonstrated the principles of physics. But soon she grew disillusioned. “I found that, though I worked with teams of people, working as an artist was, in many ways, a very lonely world,” Matlock says. “There weren’t a lot of other stakeholders. It became clear to me that working with larger environmental projects in situ, part of a city or landscape, was much more interesting to me, so the next step was clearly to do it on the level of architecture.”
After launching her practice, work came in the reverse order from what most architects expect. Within a year or two she landed the Armstrong commission—an award-winning visitors’ center, new conference center, and headquarters expansion. It was her first major work outside of New York, and it put the firm on the map. “It was odd, but that was the easier work for me to get because so much of my career at SOM had been spent working on significant buildings,” Matlock says, recalling how SOM supported younger architects by allowing them to be lead designers on large projects. “Friends would tell me about their apartment renovations and I would say, ‘Gee, we could do that.’ They’d say, ‘You don’t want to do that; you do real buildings.’ I had a hard time convincing people, and a lot of those things passed us by.”
A native of Olean, N.Y., Matlock lives in Tribeca, a few blocks from her four-story storefront studio on Broadway. The bookshelf-lined first floor has a large work table inside the front door, and Matlock looks up every now and then to return a wave from someone on the street. “People see us every day because we’re on their route,” she says. “We’ve gotten work that way.”
One can wait days to talk to her, but when you do you have her full attention. She speaks quickly and likes to explain what she does. Yet when asked what personal vision informs her work, Matlock hesitates. “I think there are some aspects of the creative mind that you don’t necessarily articulate,” she says. “There are things you gravitate toward. Every idea doesn’t come from a totally logical place. You see it, you feel it’s right, you do it, it’s you.”
A couple of years ago, a well-known architecture critic commented that Matlock’s work has blood and guts; another defined it as macho. “I thought it was amusing. They were saying it doesn’t look like a girl’s work should look,” she says. “There’s a real satisfaction I get from designing buildings that are what they say they are. When the structure starts making sense, it looks right, too.”
There is a yin to the yang. Currently in construction is a bar-shaped house on 12 acres in East Hampton, N.Y. A software entrepreneur and his wife had fallen in love with the quiet, tailored lines of another house that Matlock had designed nearby and asked her to create a weekend home that feels active, informal, and restful. The house she designed for them is composed of two perpendicular wings, one resting on the other to create sheltered entertaining space beneath. Delicate, V-shaped white steel columns factor into both the ground-level and elevated volumes, bringing to mind the landscape’s lacy tree branches and allowing an unobstructed view from inside to outside.
For the same family, she’s finishing up a Brooklyn penthouse that joins two units of a waterfront building in the Williamsburg neighborhood. Its calming interior gives no clue to the complications encountered, such as rerouting the kitchen plumbing through a drop ceiling in the apartment below to accommodate the existing weight-bearing columns. “Audrey is extremely diligent, attentive, and patient with us,” the husband says. “She’s one of the people in the universe who is more fussy than I am, in terms of thinking things through from all relevant vantage points.” He adds: “Most surprising to me is how making things flush and eliminating visual clutter creates a much more pleasant environment to live in. It matters more than I would have thought, and Audrey pushes on those things that really matter.”
Matlock is focused on a variety of projects at the moment, among them several single-family and loft residences; a Bronx firehouse expansion; a 10,000-square-foot North Forest Park Library addition and renovation in Queens; and an invited competition entry for the Thames Street Residences, a 58-story building south of the World Trade Center.
Like most architects, her career trajectory has been slow and steady. “Many things have turned little corners, each one hard fought,” she says. “And just when people started coming out of the woodwork looking for us and willing to pay our fees, the recession hit.” Never one to stand still, though, Matlock is turning another corner as work rebounds, capitalizing on her Kazakhstan connections by opening an office in Istanbul. “It’s a good place to work from,” she says confidently, characteristically keeping her sights on the opportunities that are right in front of her.