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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Nancy Ruddy

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-15

Nancy Ruddy raises buildings by building rapport.

"Architecture is teamwork, and I enjoy working collaboratively with people," said the co-founder and managing principal of Cetra/Ruddy Incorporated, one of New York's top 10 architectural firms. "To me, the excitement of architecture is taking the diverse requirements of clients, program and professional excellence and creating a product that exceeds all expectations. I don't see myself as just a technician working on architectural drawings. I like the give and take."

She absorbed the art of give and take from her father, Samuel Ruddy, a prosperous retailer in the New Jersey community of Montclair. Her mother, Sharon Friedman, worked with her father, and, the daughter said, was "an extraordinary guiding light" for her and her older brother Alan, now a lawyer.

"My mother would say, 'You can be whatever you want to be - there will always be someone smarter, and perhaps prettier, but only you have a unique combination,'" Ms. Ruddy said.

What her mother saw as a unique combination of smarts and people skills in her young daughter played out in Ms. Ruddy's adult life as a career of designing diverse building types and luxury housing.

"The complexity of architecture is what I love," Ms. Ruddy said. "The experience of great design can enrich people's life as great art does. It is the architect's role to create inspiration in the everyday experience."

As someone born and raised in the suburbs, she said, her inspiration came from the big buildings of New York.

But her sensibility was shaped by studying public-housing projects all across America as part of her first job. After receiving a degree in architectural history from New York University, Ms. Ruddy completed a five-year architecture degree program at City College in three years. It was at City College that she met another star student, John Cetra, who became her partner in marriage and in business.

After City College, Ms. Ruddy joined Perkins and Will. She was entrusted with an assignment to improve the standards for public housing.

"I was absolutely devastated by what I saw," Ms. Ruddy said. "Crowded apartments, poor sanitation, and virtually no recreation space - these were common in public housing projects."

She helped develop standards for better public housing, including safer playgrounds. Partly as a result of that early professional exposure, and partly on account of her own high school experience in Head Start - a Federal program that serves the child development needs of preschool children and their low-income families - 60% of Cetra/Ruddy's work is in housing. Of that, Ms. Ruddy has committed to consistently working on special needs housing, in addition to the luxury market.

Those projects include housing for the homeless, survivors of domestic abuse, and people diagnosed with the HIV virus.

"In considering how an architect can positively affect society at large, special needs housing is a means to truly affect a person's life," Ms. Ruddy said. "In special-needs housing, I always ask myself, 'What could I do as an architect?'"

That question was also posed, albeit in another context, by a man named Walter Weiner, then the chairman and CEO of the erstwhile Republic National Bank. The bank's founder, Edmond Safra, occupied a landmark building on Fifth Avenue, and wanted to raise a tower around it.

Ms. Ruddy drew the assignment.

"It was just an extraordinary experience - a five-year experience," Ms. Ruddy said.

She led a team of 25 architects and designers in the construction of a 29-story building which wrapped around the bank's old landmark building.

"My bosses at Attia and Perkins felt that they needed to assign someone to the project that was equal to Mr. Weiner's tenacity," Ms. Ruddy said. "I learned, among other things, that there was no risk in telling people what you think - if what you're saying is knowledge based, and that your passion for the job is what it's all about."

And while architecture is an exacting discipline requiring great precision and technical excellence, Ms. Ruddy said, her definition of her profession included a special emotion.

"I have always been very passionate - I wear my passion on my sleeve," she said. "I have always felt that you have to have it inside you to want to build, to design, to engage in innovative architecture."

And innovative architecture, in Ms. Ruddy's view, isn't only about buildings that dazzle.

"You must have a keen understanding of branding and marketing," she said. "That's why, at Cetra/Ruddy, we use the art of design and architecture to create or reinforce the brand of a new multi-family product or the next chapter in a corporation's evolution."

Ms. Ruddy cites one of her much publicized current projects as a case in point, the conversion of the fabled Barbizon Hotel into 67 luxury condominiums.

"This project has had great importance to me as an architect, a woman and as a New Yorker," Ms. Ruddy said. "This assignment afforded me the challenge of taking a landmark-quality building and restoring the interior to the luxury and grandeur of what a building from 1927 might have held. The architectural challenge of maintaining the grace and elegance of this masterfully detailed exterior while converting it to modern uses was challenging and rewarding."

Another project that she cites with special affection is Tiger Mountain at the Bronx Zoo. Working in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cetra/Ruddy designed an environmentally sensitive four-acre habitat for Siberian tigers.

Tiger Mountain was one of three projects designed by Cetra/Ruddy for the Bronx Zoo, the others being the new Butterfly House and the Bird Propagation Center.

"For an architect, this is a most exciting time to be in New York," Ms. Ruddy said. "In the city that used to be 'location, location, location,' it is now a city of citizens who appreciate and demand high quality design."

Of course, her sense of excitement about New York dates back to her early fascination with the city when she was growing up in Montclair. But that sense was also shaped by two mentors - Bradford Perkins of Perkins and Will, and Eli Attia, of Attia Architects.

"I have always tried to emphasize collaboration, excellence and a humanitarian spirit," Ms. Ruddy said. "It's not just a philosophy that sounds good. We have a record that backs it."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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