Designing for Good

Designing for Good

The Louis Armstrong Center [Photo by Albert Vecerka/Esto]


Sara Caples ‘66


The first big lesson that Sara Caples ’66 learned as a young architect took place, fittingly, in a preschool. It was 1990. Just three years earlier, she and her husband, Everardo Jefferson, launched their Queens-based firm together, Caples Jefferson Architects. Their first major public commission was heady: Redesign a preschool in the Bronx for children with AIDS.  

They spoke at length with the school’s educators and director. They scrupulously researched not only the preschool’s program but the pedagogy underlying early education in order to fully understand the client’s perspective and philosophy. Still, something didn’t sit. 

“The teachers came to us and said, ‘You’re trying to determine everything that’s going on in the classroom. That’s our job,’” Sara recalls. 

What the teachers really wanted was for Sara and Everardo to design classrooms that would allow them to vary their teaching approach depending on the students in the room, which, given their medical conditions, was highly variable. And they wanted them to design common learning spaces that would invite active participation. 

“That was really the beginning of us having to push against our comfort zone, to think very specifically about the needs of those we are designing for and to listen very intently to them,” Sara says. “That’s been the story of our practice ever since.” 

It was also the beginning of their pledge — which they continue to uphold nearly 40 years later — to devote at least 50 percent of their architectural work to underserved, multicultural communities. 

“Designing for the 99%”

Sara, who calls herself a service brat, and Everardo, whose family immigrated from Panama to the South Bronx when he was a child, met at the Yale School of Architecture (in César Pelli’s first advanced studio, she recalls). They began their careers in the early 70s, when women and people of color were a fraction of the practicing profession. In the absence of role models, they initially hewed to their training. Both cut their teeth at several architectural practices before joining forces to launch their own firm. They were grateful to have work designing residences for the wealthy, which reinforced the specific, intimate, and personal nature of the craft—tailoring design to the needs of the client. But before long, a certain yearning set in. 

“We had very strong aesthetic convictions, but we were conscious that the work we were doing didn’t connect with the people we had grown up with,” recalls Sara. “And we had a real desire to connect architecture with the communities that we felt didn’t get to participate in its creation as much as they should.”

For Sara and Everardo, that meant engaging in purposeful projects in underserved neighborhoods — primarily throughout New York City and its boroughs—that reflect the needs and wants of its people. 

When they got their start in the 1980s and 1990s, this architectural philosophy was foreign to most firms. That the pair were arbiters of a movement, now more widespread, emphasizing design that both looks good and does good, only adds to their accolades. And there have been many. 

In 2017, the firm earned the President’s Award from the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Five years earlier, it won the New York State Architecture Firm of the Year Award and was listed among the Top 50 Sustainable Firms in the U.S. by an Architect Magazine ranking. 

The Bronx preschool was the first of dozens of public commissions that Caples Jefferson Architects has earned over the last five decades, nearly all of which dwell at the intersection of social equity, education, and culture. With each project, their status as attentive, inclusive, community-minded architects — or, as one reporter summarized in her headline, “a NYC firm designing for the 99%” — has been indisputably affirmed.

The Louis Armstrong Center 

Completed last summer, the Louis Armstrong Center is a prime example of their work. Tucked into a diverse residential neighborhood in Corona, Queens, the 14,000-square-foot center is a tribute to the jazz legend who called Queens home, and complements the Louis Armstrong House Museum and gardens, directly across the street. Caples Jefferson Architects bested 44 other firms to win the commission, which originally called for a multipurpose hub—or, as Sara recalls it, “a grab bag of desires with no specificity—you could be in Omaha or Seattle and never know the difference.” 

The Jazz Room in the Louis Armstrong Center [Photo by Albert Vecerka/Esto]

Sara immediately honed in on their challenge: “We wanted to bring out the soul of the space in a way that not only celebrates the life and achievements of Louis Armstrong but reflects his living presence. We wanted to give residents and outside visitors a space where they could bring their own creative imagination to bear.”

How to achieve such a vision? A vibrant jazz club, they concluded. Close to a dozen excursions to various jazz clubs throughout New York City and its boroughs informed their design. And so, in addition to a vast archive and exhibit space, the center features an open, 75-seat practice and performance space—the Jazz Room beckoning performers and visitors alike. 

In its review, The New York Times hit upon Sara and Everardo’s desire for the center—indeed, all their projects—to not only resonate, but unite. Among the building’s goals, it cites, is “to connect Armstrong as a cultural figure to fans, artists, historians, and his beloved Queens community; to extend his civic and creative values to generations that don’t know how much his vision, and his very being, changed things. It wants, above all, to invite more people in.” 

Invite people in it does. After exceeding visitor expectations, the center expanded its hours to accommodate the many national and international guests eager to connect with the musical icon. Therein lies another lesson that Sara has learned throughout her vibrant career: “People don’t want to be invisible. They want to leave their mark, and often, a building is their mark,” she reflects. 

Regina Bain, executive director of the Louis Armstrong Center, who worked closely with Sara during its construction, notes that hope for its realization began to simmer in 1971, the year Armstrong died. “To be able to enter into a long-held community dream so thoughtfully is hard to do. People sometimes run over community, but that’s not what Sara does, it’s not what she and Everardo do. She is deliberate, focused, and able to integrate the wants and needs of others while remaining true to the vision.” 

Near the end of the center’s construction—over 15 years in development thanks to onerous zoning laws—a group of admiring teenagers in the community approached Sara and Everardo outside the entrance. Their remark sticks with her: “When we see this building and learn about Louis Armstrong, we feel like we could do something, too.”

The Queens Theater-in-the-Park, Queens, NY [photo by Nic Lehoux]

The Africa Center Terrace, New York, NY [rendering]

Teaching, Writing, Learning

It is not surprising that Sara and Everardo, who are just as committed to the intellectual pursuit of design as the final product, are teachers as well as architects. Recently, they were jointly appointed William B. and Charlotte Shepherd Davenport Visiting Professors at the Yale School of Architecture, their third teaching post at Yale. Two to three days a week, they depart Queens for New Haven, where they currently teach a studio on the architecture of caregiving, and how thoughtful design can mitigate trauma. Previously, she taught at the University of Miami and City College of New York, and has served as a Fellow for Innovation in Engagement at Pratt Institute. She has also served on the boards of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects as well as on its National Committee on Design.

Far too modest in her impact as an educator, she argues that she gains more from the experience than her students. “Teaching is subject to a different set of constraints than building real buildings, so it pushes our thinking in a different way,” she says. “Working with motivated students forces us to examine our methods. Who wouldn’t be addicted to that process?”

Her willingness—indeed, eagerness —to learn and explore beyond what’s familiar can be traced back to a childhood on the move. Her father was in the Air Force and every year or two, by her recollection, her family lived in a different place. Her mother, the painter and printmaker Barbara Barrett Caples, preferred civilian life at their various posts, so Sara’s living experiences were wide-ranging, from a farm overlooking the Hudson River to the pastures of Colorado to more suburban neighborhoods. Before landing in Northern Virginia, the family’s longest stretch of time was overseas, in Fontainebleau, a small town south of Paris. She attended an international high school, taught entirely in French, among a diverse set of teachers and students. “To be a child in France in the late 1950s to early 1960s was gloriously free and joyful,” she recalls. 

She arrived at St. Agnes School, as a “slightly underaged sophomore,” in 1963. It was her first all-girls and parochial school experience, not to mention entry into the political consciousness of life along the Beltway. Culture shock set in. But her three years at the school taught her the importance of intellectual honesty. “That even if what you’re learning and analyzing is in conflict you have a duty to look at it and to try to understand and question it and your belief and relationship to it. Honesty is the key value underlying what you do. That was a profound lesson for me,” she says. 

She credits St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes for its deep commitment over the last 60 years to fostering an inclusive learning environment, and—not unlike her own personal and professional ethos —its increasing emphasis on morality and ethics. When she cracks open The Saint’s Life these days, she is “in awe” reading about many of her classmates and other alumni, and how they have used their skills “to construct lives that give something back.” 

Of course, one could say the very same about Sara Caples. In addition to her architecture and teaching work, she and Everado recently penned their third book together, “Many Voices: Architecture for Social Equity,” which draws on their decades of experience to provide a blueprint, of sorts, for design that is both technically strong, aesthetically striking, and socially conscious. As she is quick to argue, design need not tick just one box.

Building for the Future

On tap for Sara and Everardo, who work in a collaborative, close-knit firm with just 10 other associates, are two new projects: A pair of buildings for the New York City School Construction Authority—a student services building and a preparatory high school building, both at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn—and a new continental society for Africa on Fifth Avenue, on the edge of Harlem. 

As always, building spaces that address the client’s needs and leave room for creative potential is a challenge on which she thrives. 

“We want people to have a stake in the buildings we work on. While we help to create them, we are a fleeting presence,” she acknowledges. “We don’t own them, the communities do. That awareness of our role creates a real humility in the work.”

As an example, she cites their 2012 addition for Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, a civic monument and performing arts space. She and Everardo felt the new extension should be clean, white. After meeting with several focus groups in predominantly Asian neighborhoods, they learned that white, far from celebratory, is the color of mourning. So, they went to work researching how different cultures map meaning onto color and settled on a universally uplifting, golden orange hue. Now, says Sara, the theater has become a beacon in the night. Families gather to take photos in front of it. 

“It’s joyous when, in your wrongness, you get pushed to learn something new, to discover some deeper meaning that maybe you didn’t know about before.”

Other Works Include

Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn, NY

Queens Theatre-in-the-Park, Queens, NY

The Africa Center, New York, NY

Heritage Health & Housing Headquarters, New York, NY

Marcus Garvey Community Center, Brooklyn, NY

Starr East Asian Library Renovation, New York NY

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