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AIA Wunderkind Courtney Brett Bridges Architectural Worlds

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A rendering of the Gulf, courtesy Casburn Brett.

This week, Curbed National is examining what it's like to be a woman working in architecture. Today, writer Lamar Anderson profiles Courtney Brett, who, at 24, became the youngest licensed architect in the history of the American Institute of Architects.

If you know Courtney Brett's name, you probably remember her as the lovely but mysteriously grayscaled millennial who, at 24, became the youngest licensed architect in the history of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In 2012 Brett made headlines as the architectural wunderkind who began college at 14, transferred to Auburn University's architecture program at 16, and, at 20, reported for duty at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York. By 21, she was working on Qatar Petroleum, an unbuilt complex for Doha that, at the time, was shaping up to be the largest construction project in the world.

In the slow-moving universe of architecture, 24 is the equivalent of a child star. And, as befalls anyone celebrated for her youth, Brett was quickly supplanted: in 2013, her former Auburn classmate Rosannah Sandoval, just 23 at the time, unseated her as AIA's reigning ingenue.

Two years on, Brett has made the leap from blogger-baiting curiosity to full-fledged firm owner and employer of four (three of her staff are older than she is). Her New York hustle—honed in the two-plus years she spent logging 90 hours a week at SOM and another 10 as Architecture for Humanity New York's director of development—laid the groundwork for the always-on job of running her own firm, Casburn Brett Architects, which she launched in May 2012 in Daphne, Alabama, a Gulf Coast town across the bay from Mobile. With active projects in eight states, including a residence in Anchorage and a Miami community garden/market pursuing the Living Building Challenge, Brett is settling into her reputation-making years while most architects her age are still slogging away at unpaid internships and preparing to wean themselves off their parents' health insurance.

A month after starting her practice, Brett scored her first major commission, a master plan for nine acres on the coast of Orange Beach, Alabama, which called for a boardwalk, event space, playgrounds, shopping, and restaurants. The project went into limbo when the state put a moratorium on construction while a portion of the seawall awaited repair. Brett hated to see the site remain vacant, so she designed a temporary food stand in four shipping containers—a structure that the client could pick up and move when the master plan came back into play.

Recalling Envelope A+D's popular shipping-container mini-mall in San Francisco, the Gulf restaurant is a little Proxy on the beach, with hydroponic grass rolled out on a rooftop observation deck and on the sand below. When it opened in November 2012, the spot quickly became a local institution, attracting hundreds of patrons on weekdays and thousands on weekends. A recent episode of HGTV's House Hunters featured the Gulf in its opening sequence, and the Bachelorette-style show Sweet Home Alabama even filmed a date scene there. New urbanist guru Andrés Duany also became a fan, after stopping by last year during a visit to a project in Florida. "I was on the road, and I get a picture texted to my phone," says Brett. "It's this absolute rock star I've been reading about and studying for so long, and he's there, at my space, giving the thumbs-up." Two weeks later, Brett got a call from her hero's office. Duany wanted her to participate in a charrette on tactical urbanism in High Point, North Carolina, where he is leading an effort to draft a new master plan.

[A rendering of the Gulf, courtesy Casburn Brett.]

By the time she was 10, Brett knew she wanted to be an architect. On long car trips she would entertain herself by sketching floor plans and sections through buildings. The family moved around a lot—her father is a retired Air Force officer, her mother a homemaker—and she and her younger siblings bounced around the East Coast, stopping for a stint in Texas. "I had lived in and gone to school in so many different types of buildings; I was drawing plans and elevations trying to figure out how they worked," says Brett, whose low-country lilt approaches New Yorker speeds, like a Tami Taylor fluent in archispeak.

Brett's ascent as an architectural whiz kid was set in motion, ironically, by her parents' worries over her future. "I have an anxious personality, and they realized that if everything depended on standardized testing, I might panic and not do very well," she says. To get her comfortable with the SAT, her parents signed her up at the age of 11 and assured her that the results didn't matter. Based on her score—which Brett says she doesn't remember, but which was obviously quite good—Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, recruited her for their early-college program. She was 13, attending eighth grade in San Angelo, Texas, when she got the offer to enroll. "It was so outside what I thought was available to me," says Brett. "And I wasn't ready to leave home. I relied on my family for everything. My mom was still helping me style my hair." But the following year, her father got orders to move to Florida. Brett, who was not keen on the idea of starting over in a new high school, made the leap.

Since Mary Baldwin lacked an architecture program, after two years Brett set her sights on Auburn and its hands-on Rural Studio, in which students spend a semester as citizen architects, designing and building pro bono projects in western Alabama. At 16, Brett entered the school's Summer Option program, an intense studio course designed to identify students who can make it through the school's rigorous B.Arch program. She was competing with 300 students for about 40 spots. "We had people dropping out on the first day," she recalls. "There's such disconnect between the perception of the field and the reality of practice. The Frank Lloyd Wright and the Mike Brady, everyone we've been conditioned to see as model architects, was not at all what they found to be true about school."

Brett pulled her first all-nighter at Summer Option. Her parents, who grew worried when they couldn't reach her on the phone at her dorm, called the Auburn police. "They thought something had happened to me," she says. "They didn't realize I could be at school for that long."

With no plan B, Brett was dead-set on earning a place in the program. She made fast friends in her studio section but closely guarded her age, worried that any perceived weakness might hurt her chances. One night, when she was several weeks into the program and had already seen dozens of her classmates cut, a student came running into the studio where she was working. "He goes, 'You guys are never going to believe it. There's somebody here who is not college age,'" Brett says, doing a convincing rendition of the omg-guys teenager voice. "I stopped breathing," she says. "I can't even believe that I didn't pass out." But her cover was not blown. The other student had been talking to Rosannah Sandoval, who, at 14, was going through Summer Option at the same time.

"We had the ability to compete like a man [for much longer]. I could be up there because I wanted to be there, because I wanted to dedicate that much of my personal time to SOM."—Courtney Brett

Brett says her age—or, more accurately, other people's ages—never intimidated her. It turns out that in a field dominated by old white men, where young women doubly stand out, going to college at 14 is a great way to learn to hold your own as the youngest person in the room. As a junior staffer at SOM, Brett grew frustrated with an associate director who was in the habit of following her emails to consultants with second-guessy replies to all. Brett, who has a friendly but direct style and barrels past obstacles in the nicest possible way, called him on it. "It totally shocked him," she says. "I just marched up there and told him, 'Trust me.' We had a nice little chat about it, and he became one of the greatest mentors I've had so far." Later, Brett grew more reflective on the subject. "I could have accepted that that was going to be the way it was," she says, "but there's no way I would have progressed the way I did if I didn't decide that it wasn't going to be that way anymore."

Though architecture has been slower to integrate women than other professional disciplines like medicine and law, women architects are, of course, much better off than they were 20 and 30 years ago. Rosannah Sandoval, who went to work for Perkins+Will in San Francisco at 18, considers herself lucky to be coming up in this generation. "It's a completely new world," says Sandoval, who in September will wrap up her master's degree at Cooper Union in New York. "Those women pioneered the way, and I'm in the group that's reaping the benefits of the difficulties they dealt with."

Sandoval says she never felt conspicuous as a young female associate the way some of her forebears did. In fact, Perkins+Will was much less concerned with her youth than she anticipated. "To be honest, I don't think they knew I was 18 when I applied," says Sandoval. Her age didn't come up until the office poured champagne one day. "HR finally had to ask my age," she says.

It's tempting to look at young achievers like Brett and Sandoval and conclude that no one will ever be Denise Scott Browned again. And it's true that doors have flown open for Brett in places they never existed before. But it's also true that so many of the contours of Brett's story fit the male model of success: the 100-hour workweeks, the solid block of years in which to pursue licensure unclouded by the demands of motherhood, and the never-ending task of keeping a young business afloat.

Brett's age is less a handicap that she overcame than an asset in a field where fortune favors the kind of professional arc that men are still best positioned to follow. It's an advantage Brett readily acknowledges. Because of the head start, "we had the ability to compete like a man" for much longer, Brett says of herself and Sandoval. "I could be up there because I wanted to be there, because I wanted to dedicate that much of my personal time to SOM."

Cheering as they are, those eminently clickable press shots of the newly licensed Brett are a bit of a miscue. What we have here is not a barrier-busting ingenue but a balls-to-the-wall midcareer architect who began her journey at 14 and founded a firm before sprouting a single gray hair. This second reading is no less impressive, of course—in fact, it's more so—it just means that Brett's story doesn't transfer well to aspiring women architects who are not living their lives at warp speed.

The big structural problems remain largely unaddressed, whether it's the lack of paid maternity leave in the U.S. or architecture's insular culture and wariness of practitioners who pursue interests outside the field. The point is not to fault Brett over her hard-won brand of success, but to ask a different question: how many other Courtney Bretts are we losing?

Here is what we are gaining with this one:

Though Brett could have kept climbing the ranks at SOM, or launched her firm in a big city, she opted to set up shop in Daphne, where her husband (whom she met at Auburn) owns a music school. It's a choice that makes business sense—rather than work toward opening multiple offices, she keeps a lean staff who travel a lot—and one that anticipates the family she wants to have one day. For Brett, it's not just New York, LA, and San Francisco that benefit from rich public spaces, but small communities with car-centric developments and deadened commercial strips. In High Point, North Carolina, the site of the Duany project, the big furniture suppliers own most of the retail space, which they use for the big expos and board up for the rest of the year. "There's no energy," says Brett. "Families are driving 30 to 40 minutes to neighboring cities for stuff. For this to be a vibrant place, we need restaurants, play space, things to keep families in the city."

[A design for a Florida outpost of a discount chain store. Rendering courtesy Casburn Brett.]

Brett also works outside the traditional notion of the architect as a maker of buildings. One of her firm's extracurriculars is to act as a facilitator between local government and developers to make strip malls less horrible. "In some small communities we come in and talk about lessening parking requirements and doing natural drainage, with buildings that are right on the road and walkable," says Brett. For a project now under way on Florida's Atlantic coast, the firm helped convince a discount chain store to build in two master-planned towns with a highly regulated building style, instead of locating the stores on farmland outside the town limits. The communities stay dense, and the buildings will have a use beyond the store's tenure, sparing everyone a repeat of the post-recession rash of vacant Circuit Cities and dead Pizza Huts. "These are the people who are investing in a lot of our built environment," Brett says of developers. "If no one gets involved in making sure these investments have a long-term value in the community, that's a failure for us as an industry."

Maybe part of the solution—a way to recapture some of those missing Courtney Bretts—lies in expanding definitions, recognizing creative acts other than plopping a building down as valid forms of architecture.

Laura Crescimano, principal of SITELAB Urban Studio in San Francisco (and tomorrow's profile subject), would like to see this vision come true. "I consider architecture to be more than purely the projection and representation of buildings," she says.

As a citizen architect with an SOM pedigree, Brett bridges both styles. The world needs its Dohas and its Gulfs—elaborate renderings to gawk at and good places to sit on the beach with a burger. Brett remains first and foremost a designer of buildings, but her drive to make the in-between stuff better for the regulars points toward an architecture for everyone, not just the rich. If Michael Graves had designed actual Targets instead of the products sold inside them, it might be a little nicer to go outside.

"If there's a way I can help, even if it doesn't mean I get to design a beautiful building," says Brett, "I need to take on the challenge." If, like Gehry, Brett is still designing when she's 85, perhaps we'll get to see a new model emerge: the activist starchitect.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is responsible for issuing architecture licenses. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) is the organization that facilitates the licensure process, not the AIA. Curbed regrets the error.
—Photo of the Gulf by Robbie Caponetto for Southern Living.
· How Women are Climbing Architecture's Career Ladder [Curbed]
· Women in Architecture [Curbed]