Since 1995, the office of Cary Bernstein Architect has been committed to providing their Bay Area clientele with progressive design that emphasizes craft, clarity and light. We had the opportunity to sit down with Founder, Cary Bernstein to discuss her process, what inspires her and how a double major in Russian and Philosophy influenced her decision to become an architect.

Take us back to the beginning. When did you decide to become an architect?

I decided to become an architect when I realized that practicing architecture would allow me to combine my passions for philosophy, cultural studies and craft in one place.

I started studying Russian in high school where I also studied Latin and French. I continued studying Russian during college, at Dartmouth, and also studied Italian. I really like languages. While in college, in the early 1980’s, I was able to spend a semester studying in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and another semester working in Moscow. It was a very intense time during the Cold War, under Reagan and Brezhnev, and these were unusual experiences. Studying languages and traveling abroad gave me a great appreciation for the power of place and cultural expression. Working and living abroad is invaluable – you see a place differently when you’re there day to day rather than passing through as a tourist.

Personal questions, though, led me to study philosophy – primarily existentialism and metaphysics. I took my first philosophy course during freshman year and loved it immediately – so much so that I graduated with a dual major in both Russian and philosophy. Questions about aesthetics, ontology and ethics were at the forefront of my coursework.

In addition to traditional academics, I also learned metal-smithing. From junior high school through college, I made jewelry and objects with various metals and methods of fabrication. My college had great student workshops, steeped in New England craft traditions. Time spent in the studio, working with my hands, formed my love of materiality and making.

When I started to think about what I wanted to do professionally, I was encouraged to take an architectural history class. Architecture’s profound nature and purpose spoke to me immediately and I saw it as an amalgam of things that were meaningful and joyful for me. Architecture has so many interesting aspects to reconcile–function, aesthetics, sustainability, meaning and making. The more I learned about buildings the more I wanted to make them. I decided to complete my undergraduate degree in Russian & philosophy and then study architecture in graduate school at Yale.

What is your approach when taking on new projects?

During the pre-design phase we gather information about the site, client and program and establish priorities for the project. We start with a site strategy, not an image: the form and identity of the project emerge over time as various things such as design agenda, context, budget, schedule and codes influence our parameters. As a practical matter, we’re often working on multiple tracks for a project at one time, such as permitting and design development, so managing the technical project documents while allowing time for design is critical. My design process is very iterative – constantly testing, editing and refining from schematic design through construction documents and sometimes through construction as well. We are simultaneously working inside out, from intuition to realization, and outside in, from constraints to form. It’s important to me that the final form be greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t get hung up on individual motifs or materials because our work is defined by how we create space and how we use materials, not by which materials, products or forms we use.

Have there been any notable influences on your career?

At Yale, we were lucky to have studio in a Paul Rudolph building right next door to two Louis Kahn masterpieces. There were also great works on campus by Gordon Bunshaft and both Saarinens along with a small encyclopedia of historic building styles and types. Kahn, Mies Van Der Rohe, Adolf Loos, Carlo Scarpa, Sverre Fehn and Tadao Ando were the biggest influences on my work during school. As masters of space, material and light these architects were real builders and an antidote to surface-oriented and “ironic” post-modernists of the 1980’s. Artists like Diebenkorn, Judd, Wilmarth, Rothko and Cezanne also provided distilled tools for looking at composition, light and material. Traditional Japanese architecture and landscape design have been a strong influence and opened the door to a kind of complexity and nuance not often found in Western design.

How does living in the Bay Area affect your design practice and your design thinking?

After growing up on the East Coast and practicing in New York, there’s no question that the temperate and dry climate of the Bay Area affords design opportunities that regions with more extreme weather can’t. Indoor-outdoor connections are a cliché, but very real to the way live here. We get to incorporate the environment in our designs rather than having to buffer against it. The confluence of nature and built form here is very present – along with our obligations to protect the environment. The level of awareness about environmental issues on everyone’s part – from client to laborer – is very high and appreciated.

Another factor has been witnessing the cultural change in the Bay Area which has taken place over the past 20+ years. When I moved to San Francisco from New York in 1994, people were pessimistic about the possibilities for modern architecture – I was warned that I would never get to design modern buildings, that San Francisco was too conservative, etc. No one knew then that 1995 would be so transformative, after Netscape went public. This is my third building boom and in each one, I’ve seen – and sometimes helped – the Bay Area change from “hide the modernism” to “some modernism is ok, but not too much” to “I want it modern.” Public policy hasn’t quite kept up with the pace of demand but there are efforts to improve it. Knowing that San Francisco and the Bay Area are so young in cultural time and being able to contribute to their evolving identities is greatly satisfying.

I think the next challenge will be redefining expectations of and allocations of space. It’s something I think about a lot in the efficiency of our designs. Training in New York, where every inch is precious, was a great foundation for the road ahead. The East coast is used to a kind of density which is still uncomfortable here. Density, however, will be the only way to manage the limited natural resources left and, perhaps, correct some of the damage from earlier eras. It’s going to take a lot for people to change their way of thinking about the West as no longer being an open frontier with endless resources. Economic change is fast, but cultural change is slow.

What would you consider to be your ideal project?

I’m eager to design a library – I treasure an inspiring place to read and research. I love the feeling of stepping into a great library and the potential for discovery. There are so few new regional or branch libraries in the Bay Area which give any sense of history or communicate the wealth of resources through their architecture. The modern library as a place for multi-sensory information gathering is a compelling challenge. Books and other printed media are physical and immediate. Digital information is vast, but personal experience with the digital realm is flat and limited by the screen. Audio can bring a different dimension and, of course, is important for the visually impaired. With the increasing availability of virtual reality technology, new possibilities for libraries will emerge. Beyond the specifics of information gathering, though, is the representation of institutional purpose which makes community and time evident.

What exciting projects do you have coming up in 2016?

We’re working on a neighborhood commercial project in Potrero Hill which will revive an abandoned building with a restaurant and yoga studio. We’re also working on a two-unit residential building in Glen Park; the renovation of a house and carriage house, also in Glen Park; and a house in Sebastapol which will be completed this fall.



More work by Cary Bernstein can be found at

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