Out of Office: Marla Gayle

Making connections with a transportation architect

Marla often gets away to Columbia County, New York, a place with no mass transit.

Architect and transportation planner Marla Gayle spends her days sorting out how we get around. It’s no small job: Marla has managed some of the world’s largest and most complex infrastructure projects, including work at New York’s JFK and LaGuardia Airports. She’s currently working on Moynihan Train Hall, the transformation of the city’s former central post office building into a new transit hub. Her work has an impact on millions of travelers each day.

For Out of Office, our series on the people behind SOM’s practice, Marla tells us what motivates her and shares her own big travel dream.

What made you want to become an architect?
In the basement of my childhood home was my grandfather’s pockmarked drafting table. Although I never met him, he lived on in family lore. His career as an architect spanned a time not just before computers, but before the invention of drafting tape. His drawings were held down by thumb tacks. To this day, I am humbled each time I sit at that table or use his well-worn architectural scales.

What do you enjoy the most about your job?
My career has focused on transportation planning and architecture — from airports, to train stations, light rail systems, and even ferry terminals. I find it tremendously exciting to be involved in projects that have the potential to make a big impact and improve the way people live and work in urban areas; connecting to each other as well as to places across the globe. Improving mass transit systems helps to create more sustainable cities around the world, as populations shift to urban centers. It’s the challenge to create gateways and improve access to new places and new ideas — and ideally, to create great civic architecture.

If you hadn’t become an architect, what would you be doing?
As a kid, I spent my waking hours filling up sketchbooks with detailed drawings of everything I ever set my eyes on. Architecture was the natural choice. If that hadn’t worked out, I guess I might have been an attorney.

What advice do you have for students?
The writer Anna Quindlen once referred to her time at college​ by saying she “majored in unafraid.” Architecture school is infamously challenging, but doing a double major with “unafraid” is definitely the way to maximize the experience. Also, take every architectural history course you can.

I find it tremendously exciting to be involved in projects that have the potential to make a big impact and improve the way people live and work in urban areas; connecting to each other as well as to places across the globe.

Which books do you think anyone should read in their lifetime?
Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A book way ahead of its time by a 1960s physicist who challenged the linear notion of scientific progress. He argues that transformative ideas don’t happen as a result of day-to-day experimentation, but instead require thinking outside of “normal” science. He coined the term “paradigm shift,” and the world was forever changed. Needless to say, the implications of this book extend far beyond science.

Sir Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture (Centenary Edition). The 6.4-pound bible of architectural history, from the earliest cave dwellings to the 20th century. If you studied it in architecture school, it’s in there.

Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel, by Robert Alter. A look at modern cities as depicted in novels by writers like Virginia Woolf, Kafka, and Flaubert.

Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture, by Ulrich Conrads. The philosophy and social basis of modern architectural movements, in the words of the architects themselves, including Adolf Loos, El Lissitzky, Louis Kahn, and Le Corbusier.

What’s your favorite app?
NPR One: Curated public radio for NPR fanatics who are short on time and not interested in programs like “Car Talk.”

Mid-span on the Brooklyn Bridge, one of Marla’s favorite viewpoints

What experiences are on your bucket list?

  • My National Geographic dream: taking the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok — a 9300-kilometer train ride crossing eight time zones, multiple Russian literary meccas, and the birthplaces of revolutionary movements. It’s the longest train line in the world, used by all — from the upper crust intelligentsia to the proletariat, everyone enjoying $3-a-liter vodka.
  • Learn to play classical Spanish guitar
  • Finish an entire week of The New York Times crossword puzzles (correctly)

You’re showing visitors your city. Where’s the first place you take them?
The Brooklyn Bridge. It’s the rare combination of an amazing feat of engineering and the most spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline.

What keeps you up at night?
Working on fabulous projects in multiple time zones across the globe.

When you think about the future, what excites you?
We are living in complicated times. My optimism is rooted in the idealism and sense of purpose I see in my two daughters. They each take very seriously their responsibility to “repair the world,” raising awareness both in our home and in the larger community.

What is most important in design right now?
Developing sustainable infrastructure and buildings: good for their users, and good for the environment.

Who is someone you admire?
Natalie Griffin de Blois, the first female designer at SOM. We are all standing on the shoulders of trailblazers like her who took great risks and improved the architectural profession for us all.

What is the most awe-inspiring space you’ve been in?
That’s a tough question — I have two:

Pierre Chareau’s 1932 Maison de Verre in Paris is an amazing example of early modern architecture — truly a “machine for living.” It is rarely open to the public, but I was lucky enough to visit it many years ago.

Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion was the first masterpiece of modern design I had analyzed in architecture school. I visited this amazing icon several years ago. Standing in that space was like a religious experience.

What is the most important quality for a project manager to have?
The ability to listen carefully. It’s essential to hear the needs of the client, to convey those goals to the larger team, and to hear, understand, and respect the many voices and talents on the team.

Define good leadership…
Creating and fostering a dynamic, collaborative environment.

Define good design…
I had the opportunity to hear Zaha Hadid speak about her work on several occasions. Here is one of the ways in which she defined good design: “I don’t think that architecture is only about shelter, is only about a very simple enclosure. It should be able to excite you, to calm you, to make you think.”