Building balance

Award-winning architect, Susan Fitzgerald.



hen the phone rang in the Porter house near Birmingham, England little Susan Fitzgerald would pick it up. On the other end, a patient of her mother’s would go on and on about symptoms while she took copious notes and asked questions. Her first job was a doctor’s receptionist.
She says she learned there is no separation of work and family, and women can be busy professionals and still raise happy families.
Now at 49, Fitzgerald perches on a chair in the white and glass boardroom inside the Fowler, Bauld and Mitchell Architects office on Hollis Street. She talks happily about being an award-winning architect, Dalhousie professor, mentor, designer, mother, and wife.
Daughter of two doctors, she attended boarding school in England. It might raise eyebrows here, but in England it’s quite normal, she says. It was there she met and heard stories from children from all over the world. “It was understanding that the world was very complex and there were all different ways of living in the world,” she says.
But her mom was Fitzgerald’s first hero and mentor. “She was a doctor, we had a grandmother living with us, and three children,” she recalls. “She was busy but she worked hard.”
She learned from her mother how to balance life and have a good career.
“She was very kind and very unflappable but I don’t know if I’m quite like that,” she laughs.
She studied math but didn’t want to go work in a London bank like many of her classmates. Then she met a young man from the Annapolis Valley named Brainard Fitzgerald and fell in love. Six weeks later they were living in Halifax. Susan was 21.
“It was a total culture shock because I lived in London for four years,” she says. They moved to Vancouver where she studied interior design and got a job working for an architect. She learned an appreciation for the wide-open Canadian landscape and how architecture works with agriculture.

The unique architecture of Havana inspires Susan Fitzgerald.

They moved back to Halifax when she was 25 and Fitzgerald studied architecture at Dal, graduating at the top of her class and already winning awards. They had a son, Will and a daughter, Sophie.
She worked for a few firms before starting at FBM in 2002, mentoring under architect Tony Cook. “He was remarkable and he let me do a lot of the design work.” Fitzgerald also worked with husband Brainard designing houses he would build. She started teaching at Dal a year after graduation.
Entering in a field that is male dominated wasn’t easy. “Often you go to site meetings and often you’d be the only female in the room,” she says. “It is stressful: there you are, you’re the only female and sometimes you’re one of the younger people on the site.”
That’s why Fitzgerald mentors many women students. Alicia Gilmore worked with her last fall in her first year at architecture school. Fitzgerald is a role model because she’s so driven and works hard on her own projects but also helps students find their own voice in their work, she said.
“There are lots of good professors at the school but it’s nice to see from a female’s perspective that you can be principal of a firm, professor and also have a family,” Gilmore says. “She somehow managed to balance all of it and do it like it’s easy. It gives us hope that you can have it all: both the career and family life too.”
Fitzgerald introduces her students to international design. Travel and understanding how other, more dense cities use green space and urban agriculture are key. She’s explored many Central and South American cities, often with her family.
Havana particularly fascinates her. Unusable properties that workers turned into gardens dot the Cuban capital. “If you suddenly add a landscape into a city and you start growing things…it adds a relief [to the density] and it changes the climate with a micro-climate effect,” she says. “They have a market and places where they sell homeopathic remedies because they don’t have many medicines.”
She regularly takes students there to study architecture through urban agriculture. They learn people don’t just need a place to exist in the city but also need these outdoor spaces.
The plaza in front of Halifax Central Library has some of Fitzgerald’s fingerprints on it. She was involved in the early stages of imagining and shaping what the library should look like.

Susan Fitzgerald’s Halifax home showcases her unique architectural style.

Her work involved workshops and focus groups with children, First Nations, newcomers, people with disabilities and others. These were people who needed a voice in the project who weren’t attending public consultation sessions.
Fitzgerald says she believes architecture has to be flexible to suit the humans using it now and in the future. That’s something she particularly learned while designing schools and houses.
“Everyone moves through life and it’s amazing how fast life changes,” she says. “It moves so fast that it’s hard enough for humans to respond, let alone buildings. Now we’re trying to make buildings that are a lot more nimble and flexible.”
It’s tricky, but there are some universal truths to all spaces and people, Susan says. “Everybody likes access to nature, everybody likes daylight, everybody likes to feel comfortable and warm,” she explains. “There are certain things that are truisms about any place. While spaces have to evolve, there are some deep rooted human needs and architecture has to take care of those.”
Their house on King Street, for example, is a shrine to work-play-live. The striking design includes a sleek glass and a passageway to an outbuilding in back—the answer to urban density. The house has been the subject of news stories around the world (with particular interest in South America and Germany) and it was nominated for a major international award for important projects.
That passion for creating exceptional spaces is just who she is, says her son Will Fitzgerald.
“She is probably one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met,” he says. “Everything she takes interest in she takes a great interest; it’s never something that’s only 10%. It’s always 100%.”
Just like Susan’s parents immersed her in their profession, Will, who is in his second year of political science at Dal, grew up visiting job sites all over the province and traveling the world with his mom. He said he used to like telling other kids that his mom designs schools.
“I am a huge fan of her work,” he says. “As the son of an architect, I’ve created my own ideas of what nice architecture is and what I would want to do if ever I was an architect. I think she’s really good at creating buildings that have the intimacy between the street or whatever context it’s in and the actual building. I find so many buildings lack that.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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