Newsletter | Mar/Apr 2013

Gioconda R. Simmonds: Through the lens of a Hispanic female Architect
by Gioconda R. Simmonds

A work-related field visit to one of the public high schools in Manhattan last month granted me the opportunity to revisit my old neighborhood in the Upper West Side. It brought back memories of the late 1970s when the sights of “earth shoes” by Thom McAn and bell bottom slacks were in vogue and were all too common. The former shoe store at the southeast corner of Broadway and 108th Street, which carried the infamous Buster Brown shoes, has since been replaced by a coffee shop.

Around the corner is the Ascension School, of which my attendance lasted eight years. Most of my peers were like myself, of Latino background, but were mostly from the Caribbean nations of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Ecuadorians (like my family) were the anomaly at the time and the noticeable influx of immigration from Mexico and South American countries would occur much later. My Ecuadorian parents actually met and were wed in the United States, but a total of two pregnancies resulted in the births of their daughters taking place in their native homeland --- a conscious effort by my nationalist mother. This decision along with periodic vacations spent in Ecuador, would later prove to reinforce my Latin American roots throughout both my childhood and adulthood.

Summers in NYC were filled with visits to Riverside Park with my older sister, my neighbor and best friend at the time, a girl of Panamanian and Puerto Rican background. Long bike rides along the trails from 125th Street down to the piers at 79th Street were rewarded with “piraguas”, which in Puerto Rican terms refers to frozen treats made up of shaved ice covered with fruit flavored syrup.

My secondary education took place at the Notre Dame School, a small, all-girl high school which was located at West 79th Street. Unlike elementary school, the majority of the student population at the time consisted of non-Hispanics, mostly girls of Italian, Irish, French and Portuguese descent. From an early age, art was my hobby and the guitar was my constant companion. Drawing competitions and musical recitals occupied most of my teenage years. While at Notre Dame, the career choice of Architecture had long been established prior to high school graduation.

College years resulted in a 4 year baccalaureate at the City College of New York and a Master’s of Architecture degree (cum laude, being granted by the State University of New York at Buffalo. The recession of the early 1990’s and the dearth of architectural jobs in the Northeast region took me to the prairielands of North Dakota, where I gained experience in the design of religious facilities, as well as exposure to the Midwestern culture.

After two years of long winters and short summer months, fortune stepped in and I was offered a position with the Historical Preservation Studio at the prestigious architectural engineering firm of VITETTA Group in the city of Philadelphia. My portfolio with the firm consisted of direct involvement with high profile projects such as the restoration of Independence National Historic Park, the Academy of Music, City Hall and the State Capitol building at Harrisburg, PA. I gained both familiarity and expertise in the field of Historic American Buildings Survey or HABS, as applied to the intricate detailing of Philadelphia’s most historic structures.

Like most professionals, obtaining the official legal license to practice in your field of choice became a sought-after honor, of which I was able to achieve after 10 + years of apprenticeship. The main focus of my career has been on the restoration of existing structures, with careful attention being paid to historic detailing and repairs. Extensive knowledge of building design investigations and failures was acquired throughout my eleven year tenure at the multi-disciplinary international engineering firm of Thornton Tomasetti, Inc., the former Lev Zetlin Associates.

Currently, I am the lead coordinator (Architect of Record) for a building conversion project in Queens, NY. My employer is the New York City School Construction Authority, which is dedicated to the building and designing of public schools for the children in the many neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs of the city. My current assignment involves the complete rehabilitation and modernization of a former parochial school into a public school facility for children in Pre-Kindergarten through Fifth Grade levels. As part of the modernization, the goal is to execute the work in a cost-effective manner while attaining the highest standards of safety and quality for the children.

Throughout my career, I have encountered the gender imbalance, both at the office and at the construction site. Women are subjected to higher standards than men, but as a Latina, the barriers are even greater. Encounters with other Latinos in the workforce have been scarce, and in very rare instances have they involved working with other Hispanic female architects in leadership positions. Unfortunately, often times Latinos in the professional world tend to suppress their ethnicity, for fear of being stigmatized. My choice has been to capitalize on it.

Fluency in both the Spanish and Portuguese languages has had a positive impact on my career, particularly at the job site, where my role as “translator” has emerged from time to time. It has also served to strengthen my assertiveness as well as reinforce my leadership skills.