Viewed from across a wind-swept cove on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, the weekend residence Suman Sorg, FAIA, is completing looks like a cluster of Monopoly houses: three tall, gabled buildings with tin roofs and glass walls facing out over the water. The serene yet bold, contemporary forms are clad in marine plywood panels, limned in metal flashing that glints in the powerful sunlight. Up close, the retreat's logic reveals itself. Sorg detached the house's two bedrooms from the soaring living space. The house and twin pavilions are connected by a wood walkway, "so you're not sneaking around inside the house," she explains. Those scattered buildings--and two additional pool houses to be built this fall--surround a large entry courtyard, a pool, and a tangle of silvery grasses.
This is only the second custom home the Washington, D.C., architect has designed. The other house sits just across the way, part of a 25-acre soybean farm Sorg purchased with longtime friends James van Sweden, a well-known landscape architect, and Marilynn Melkonian, who heads a community-development company. While the buildings in Sorg's compound stand tall and vary in height, like those on surrounding farms, the other house, designed for van Sweden, has a low profile that floats on the land. Its flat roofs and utilitarian forms were inspired by boat sheds and chicken coops. "I was interested in the kind of Eastern Shore buildings that are not meant for human habitation," Sorg says, "agricultural buildings that aren't bombastic, aren't screaming out at you, and yet if you look closely are interesting and subtle."
Many architects start out building beach houses and move on to larger, more complex projects. Sorg, who founded Sorg and Associates in 1986, took the opposite route. Her passion has been institutional and public projects, not custom homes. But if the best architecture comes from an intimate understanding of culture, climate, and environment, Sorg is uniquely equipped to design a wide variety of projects.
Her search for a fulfilling career, in fact, takes her around the world. Now in her early 50s, Sorg has designed multimillion-dollar U.S. embassy housing in Kuwait, Uzbekistan, and Barbados, and is working on another U.S. embassy in a Central Asian country much in the news. Her portfolio ranges from award-winning historic preservation projects, such as the Lincoln Theatre and the Georgetown Post Office in Washington, D.C., to a Hope VI master-planned community in Bradenton, Fla.
Sorg's stylistic range is just as fluid. She values community-based projects that preserve the fabric of urban neighborhoods, but also seeks out eclectic work that frees her up from historical constraints. One of her current projects is a state-of-the-art Materials Testing Laboratory for the D.C. Department of Public Works, a clash of glass and masonry and deconstructed forms. "We like projects that are off the beaten track," she says. "These buildings below the radar screen can give architects freedom."
the doctor is in
If Sorg hadn't been an architect, she probably would have been a doctor. As a teenager in northern India, Sorg saw herself practicing medicine. But because she excelled at drawing and math, her father, a physicist and a diplo-mat, suggested that she study architecture. Sorg enrolled in the University of New Delhi's architecture program, and then transferred to Howard University when her family came to the U.S. in the late 1960s.
After graduation, she and her new husband, Scott Sorg, set out for Morocco and the Ivory Coast with the Peace Corps. They lived in small villages, where she built market stalls and other civic buildings--projects that explored the social aspects of design. "I realized how important it was to have things in pedestrian scale and neighbor-friendly," she says, "and to have a communal sense of the village. I got to know the mango vendor. That kind of connection to community stays with you."
Indeed, Sorg approaches her work as if she were the village doctor, even though she's lived most of her life in sophisticated urban settings. "My practice is like a doctor's office. You go where and when you're needed," she says, apologizing for an unexpected trip out of town. And she has a calm and gentle, unassuming surface--call it a bedside manner--that belies her intellectual intensity. Practicing something as culturally dependent as architecture, Sorg returned to academia to understand idiosyncrasies that weren't hers. In 1978 she enrolled in Cornell University's master of architecture program in historic preservation, never intending to do period architecture. "I wanted to figure out the real DNA of American architecture," she says. "When I came out of the program, I took restoration and preservation projects because I knew about them. But my intention was always to contribute to the continuum of architecture. Now the ball is in our hands. We have to pass it to the next generation."
Those diverging interests in modernism and restoration have made Sorg almost clinically aware of the delicate balance between preserving a building's history and contributing something new. Her restoration motto is "do no harm," meaning that if the historic context is fragile, one should avoid intruding with contemporary forms. On the other hand, it's permissible to introduce contrast when a strong historic vocabulary exists. "I always feel responsible for what is needed in terms of one thing or the other," she says. "Sometimes the historic fabric could be overpowered by a modern move. You have to make that judgment."
Sorg's richly varied experiences nudged her toward the generalist practice she espouses today. Her education at the University of New Delhi was rooted in Bauhaus. There, she made furniture and cabinetry and learned to use a forge. By contrast, her studies at Howard and Cornell focused on the big picture--urban design, planning, and context. After Cornell, Sorg caught the eye of Chicago-based Harry Weese Associates. Its Washington, D.C., office recruited her in 1979, and during her six years there she worked directly with the renowned architect himself on several projects, including the master plan for D.C.'s Federal Triangle. Sorg absorbed Weese's philosophy of custom-crafting each building he designed. "He was doing many different building types at any given moment, and never had a cookie-cutter response to anything," she says. "I've tried hard to do the same."
That ability to fit the right solution to a particular context has endeared her to clients, the D.C. Fine Arts Commission, and community groups alike. Over the past 20 years, van Sweden, of the landscape architecture firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates in Washington, D.C., has partnered with Sorg on a variety of projects in the U.S. and abroad. He also happens to live across the street from a recent collaborative success: the new town houses at Georgetown's Phillips Row. When a developer first proposed building infill housing on the playground and parking lot of an old school and turning the school into condominiums, the neighbors were ready for revolt.
"People hate change, and I must say I was against the buildings as well," van Sweden admits. However, Sorg's creative vision for the 14 town houses won them over. She designed five very detailed groupings of homes, each cluster representing one of the neighborhood's distinct architectural periods. The neighbors were also impressed when she and van Sweden proposed two separate side entrances through a garden gate for the school condos--a move that restored the original separate entrances for boys and girls--rather than the double front staircase someone else had proposed. "There was this terrible meeting in the school," van Sweden remembers. "Then Suman presented her buildings and also the fact that we'd taken the major entrance off the front of the school. Some of my neighbors said, 'Now we can sleep for the first time in several months.' That was a turning point."
Architecture is ultimately a cultural statement, a way to express a community's identity. And Sorg's focus on urban living includes a deep commitment to social issues--designing meaningful housing for low-income residents, not displacing them by simply obliterating the blight. While working on a design for Kentucky Courts, a low-income apartment complex on Capitol Hill, Sorg observed what the neighborhood women wore and how they carried themselves. She was impressed by their proud stature, how they had persevered under grim living conditions and were finally getting something done. In response, she gave them tall buildings with turrets that look like necks with dainty heads. "I stretched the necks of those buildings just like them," she says. "They recognized themselves."
She has the gift that marks all great artists: the ability to see with a fresh eye and to make creative connections between disparate ideas. When Sorg inspects even the newest contemporary buildings, she sees the influences of Henry Hobson Richardson, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, all the way to Harry Weese and Richard Meier. These days, though, Sorg mostly looks inward for the muse. She says she sees new designs as a movie in her head. Her weekend house has an office in the loft overlooking the bay, but she works in silence, oblivious to the view. And while Sorg admires a lot of new architectural work, she doesn't study it in magazines. "It confuses me," she says, professing a loyalty to the legacies of Mies, Le Corbusier, and Wright. "I look always to the older architects. I told a developer, 'Don't talk to me about an architect unless they're dead.' But I do like Richard Meier."
A shadow, a reflection in a pond, a piece of music or clothing--all are inspirations for Sorg. Some of her current designs focus on courtyards and what it means to use buildings to break down outdoor space into smaller pieces. Those ideas are explored at the Eastern Shore houses, and on the U.S. embassy buildings in Kuwait, where housing units face each other across a sheltered green courtyard--the transplanted American lawn.
Another strand evident in the firm's current work is order vs. chaos. At the Materials Testing Lab, where objects are broken to test their properties, Sorg conceived an orthogonal building made of masonry with punched openings. Intersecting the rectangle are glass-and-metal, angular forms that are exciting and dissonant. Her design for an apartment building at 14th and P streets explores the same idea. The building, called Sign of the Lamb, will be marketed to young adults who are "working on ordering their disordered lives, like my daughter," who just graduated from Cornell.
Sorg's unflappable faith in her own instincts serves her well when it's time to argue the finer points of design in front of review boards and community groups. Behind her quietness and poise lurks a very tough woman. Says van Sweden, "She'll drift into a room full of people quietly without separating the air, sit down, and be in total command of the meeting. She comes in perfectly dressed and cool as a cucumber. And she's very flexible and has a good sense of humor, which is very important in this profession."
Sorg is like that with her staff, too. At the helm of an office of 40 people that is brimming with work, she thinks in broad strokes and allows others to follow through on the details--albeit with her mentoring oversight. With 10 to 12 senior project managers, the firm currently has a dozen projects under way ranging from $25 million to $40 million--but she would like to trim the number of projects to eight. The firm owes much of its recession-proof stability to the mix of work Sorg seeks out--60 percent for the public sector, 40 percent for private interests.
The office has a steady staff roster, too, thanks to a non-hierarchical structure that Sorg calls creative chaos. With the exception of Scott Sorg, the chief financial officer, "there isn't anyone just crunching numbers or pushing papers," she says. Five years ago, she made a smart move when she declined the advice of consultants to pattern the firm on a corpo-rate model. Rachel Chung, an associate at the firm, says people like working there because they experience all parts of the design process. "We charrette with Suman on different projects and have a wide range of responsibilities," she says. "We're not isolated doing just working drawings or models. Everyone has access to her."
Sorg's leadership style is not surprising, considering she spent her first 18 years in India, where community and extended families are highly valued. "There's not as much isolation there," she says. "You never see a for-sale sign, because houses are handed down." Whether it's embassy apartments gazing toward each other across a common space, or an elegantly simple compound on the Eastern Shore, Sorg still designs in ways that encourage human connections.
Cheryl Weber is a contributing writer in Severna Park, Md.