“I’ve probably been the luckiest person in the world.”
That’s the perspective of Edith Cherry, longtime architect, University of New Mexico professor emerita and former school of architecture director, historic preservationist and winner of a 2021 lifetime achievement award.
It’s been a full career for the 81-year-old Cherry, who still lives in the UNM “student ghetto” house she and her husband designed in the 1970s. (They were at the vanguard of modern solar design back then, and though there have been some changes, the couple is still “nearly net-zero” in home energy consumption, Cherry says.)
She is retired from UNM – where she was the first full-time female architecture professor – and from Cherry/See Architects, the firm she and her husband started. But her schedule is stuffed with activities that continue her love of the profession.
Architecture “is all about coming up with a physical solution that somehow not just makes sense but has an aesthetic boost,” Cherry says. “I couldn’t always do it … both the functional stuff and the beautiful stuff, but that’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I love about it.”
Now, she and husband Jim See are developing a website for the New Mexico Architectural Foundation that shows off some of New Mexico’s standout buildings.
“There’s about 50 buildings on it now, and we’re still cranking them out,” she says.
The couple travels, too, and that means Cherry gets to indulge her ongoing interests in geology and anthropology, which she studied at UNM.
“I have the notion that there’s a kind of architecture in everything,” Cherry says. “I’ve gotten a real interest in geology because just through physics, it makes these beautiful forms. Bryce Canyon. I wish I could do that.”
Which Cherry/See Architects project are you particularly proud of?
“I think probably our favorite project is the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial out on Louisiana (Boulevard). That was actually a competition that we entered and had no expectations of getting. It was kind of radical at the time. This was 1990, and both Jim and I were young people during the Vietnam War, and so what we said we wanted to do … was honor the veterans without glorifying the war. And so we thought some people are not going to like that, but it turned out that they did. There’s not military hardware there. It’s a place for veterans to have their own memories.”
How did you get into teaching?
“I moved to Albuquerque (from Houston) in 1972 to teach. The only thing I had done that was teaching was I had tutored Spanish to jocks at school. And I really enjoyed that. Well, one night I had been to a party in Baytown (near Houston), and I was driving back… near the ship channel and the air was yellow, from I don’t know what. And I thought, ‘Yellow air, this is not good.’ And Houston was humid and hot, so I was ready to get back to West Texas or some place – preferably some place with mountains. So I thought, ‘OK, I’m just going to leave my résumé at the schools of architecture in the Rocky Mountains and see what happens.’ That’s how I ended up here.”
Did you have any students that stand out in your mind?
“Lots of them. Teaching is great fun. I think there’s a big difference between teaching and professing. I never felt like a professor. I think teaching is about diagnosing where is this student mentally. Architecture is a funny thing. We have all these (students) who are kind of scientific and not very artistic, and then we have these students who are really artistic, but they can’t figure out their structures. They’ve got to learn the other side, and so … what kind of medicine do they need to pick up what they’re not already good at? And they’re all trying. I hardly ever had any just lazy students.”
Your architecture firm, Cherry/See (now called Cherry/See/Reames Architecture) did a lot of public projects. Which was your first?
“That was Centro Familiar in the South Valley for Bernalillo County. And it was funny because we put in a proposal, (but) we thought, ‘we don’t have a chance at this.’ Because we didn’t really have a public track record, and Jim had kind of long hair and I was a girl. So we thought, ‘Who’s gonna hire a hippie and a girl?’ But it turned out that the committee in the South Valley didn’t want a bunch of suits with ties, and they hired us. Isn’t that funny?”
There were not many female architects at the time?
“Oddly, in my class – it was a class of 15, and there were five women in that class. But that was very unusual. There weren’t any women ahead of us, one woman behind us, but it just turned out that way. I had no female role models. But I had some wonderful mentors. I’ve had bureaucrats who deep down didn’t think women should be practicing. This was in the ’70s and ’80s. Not many, but I remember one telling me once, ‘Well, I thought you’d be at home cooking dinner for Jim.'”
What makes you happy?
“Oh, lots of things. Seeing birds in the backyard makes me happy. Feeding the fish makes me happy. Learning stuff makes me happy. And I don’t care what it is.”
What famous buildings do you want to visit?
“Because I’ve got this anthropology (interest), I don’t approach architecture from the notion I want to go see the masters. That broadens the amount of stuff that’s interesting to me. It’s interesting to see what the masters do, too – the Frank Lloyd Wrights, the Le Corbusiers, the Frank Gehrys. It is interesting to go and see something and think, ‘That was a mistake.’ And I’ve done that.”
Tell me something fun you’ve been doing in your free time.
“I’ve always liked illustration, so I’ve been doing sketches for some archaeologists at the Office of Contract Archaeology for UNM. They send me some photographs of the site and what they’re digging up, and I try to project what it looked like. It’s really fun. I get to use Crayolas.”