By Melissa Daniel
The Women in Architecture Series was a four part series focusing on aspects not typically discussed among women in the architectural profession.
Throughout the series I was able to connect with inspirational and talented women architects with amazing stories. As a supplement to the series, VVoices is a periodic blog series that features a diverse group of women offering their personal narratives highlighting childhood, architecture and a global perspective.
Meet Gioconda R. Simmonds, an Ecuadorian born registered architect in the State of New York with over 20+ years of experience in the profession. Currently, Simmonds works for the New York City School Construction Authority as a lead Architect overseeing the renovation and conversion of existing facilities into public schools. She has also been involved with Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs), focusing on both the exterior modernizations and interior upgrades of existing structures. Her past experience also includes having worked with Thornton Tomasetti, Inc., (an international structural engineering company), on assignments related to investigative research and evaluations on building failures.
Throughout Simmonds’ extensive career, she has encountered the gender imbalance, both at the office and at the construction site. Although there have been collaborative efforts with other Latinos in the workforce, the interface with other US Hispanic female architects in leadership positions has been very rare.
“Unfortunately, Latinos in the professional sector tend to suppress their ethnicity, for fear of being stigmatized. However, my choice has been to embrace it”, says Simmonds.
Looking into Simmonds’ past, we find a young Upper West Side girl riding her bike along the trails from 125th Street down to the piers at 79th Street eating summery Puerto Rican “piragüas” or frozen treats. During this time, bell bottom slacks were in vogue as well as “earth shoes” by Thom McAn. As a former resident of the Frederick Douglass Housing Projects, this has influenced her career as she is able to identify with children in underprivileged neighborhoods. She, as well as her older sister, attended the Ascension School along with other Latinos from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. “Ecuadorians, like my family, were the anomaly back then and the noticeable influx of immigration from Mexico and South American countries would occur much later”, Simmonds recalls.
The love of architecture happened while attending Notre Dame School of Manhattan, a private Catholic secondary school for girls in New York City. Her father worked long hours to ensure a good education for both of his daughters. “From an early age, art was my hobby and the guitar was my constant companion. Drawing competitions and musical recitals occupied most of my teenage years”, says Simmonds.
Simmonds received a Bachelor’s of Science in Architecture degree from City College of New York and a Master’s of Architecture degree (cum laude) from State University of New York at Buffalo. While at City College, she was one of five students selected to participate in the architecture study abroad program which took place in Fontainebleau, France. The 2-month program consisted of intensive design studio courses held at the Royal Château de Fontainebleau, as well as studying and touring the rich history of art and architecture throughout the country of France. “My parents were able to afford the tuition of City College and then I was awarded a Minority Fellowship to attend the Architecture program at SUNY Buffalo”, Simmonds recalls.
Early in Simmonds’ architecture career, historic preservation and restoration became her main focus. This included a position with the Historical Preservation Studio at the prestigious architectural engineering firm of VITETTA Group in the city of Philadelphia. She spent several summers measuring and generating detailed drawings for notable buildings within the Independence National Historic Park.
Now as a lead coordinator and Architect of Record for a building conversion project in Queens, NY, her assignment involves the complete rehabilitation and modernization of a former parochial school into a public school facility for children in Pre-Kindergarten through Fifth Grade levels. As part of the modernization, the goal is to execute the work in a cost-effective manner while attaining the highest standards of safety and quality for the children.
Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, Simmonds notes the positive impact of this skill, particularly at the job site, where her role as “translator” has emerged from time to time. This has also served to strengthen her assertiveness as well as to reinforce her leadership skills.
“It’s wonderful being able to exchange ideas at the construction site, but it’s even more exciting being able to execute this in multiple languages.”
Unfortunately, Simmonds is not familiar with any Ecuadorian architects, but lists a famous sculptor and painter, Mr. Oswaldo Guayasamín, (born in Quito, 1919, d. 1999). Simmonds does make mention of her mother, Angela Zanetti, as her greatest inspiration and mentor. “It’s been a long journey for me, from my native country of Ecuador to my upbringing here in the United States. Personally, working in a male-dominated profession has been challenging and rewarding at a higher level — due to my Latin American roots.”
Photo Credit: Gioconda Simmonds’ daughter, J