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New Hand at the Helm in New York
Margaret O'Donoghue Castillo to jumpstart AIANY
Margaret O'Donoghue Castillo
Tom Stoelker / The Architect's Newspaper

A photograph on Helpern Architects’ website shows Margaret O’Donoghue Castillo with a harness strapped round her waist as she stands 132 feet above ground inspecting the dome of Columbia University’s Low Library. Castillo scaled to new heights earlier this year when she took over as president of AIANY in December. She hopes her years of hands-on experience will inform this year’s President’s theme, “Design for a Change.”

A native of Virginia, Castillo was first drawn to architecture after visiting the Jefferson-designed state university. And although she majored in math at Boston University, a semester in Rome sealed the deal—she wanted to be an architect. Castillo continued her studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where she was one of two women in a class of one hundred. Upon graduating, she headed to Chicago and the office of Dirk Lohan, the grandson of Mies van der Rohe, where she had the chance to work on choice projects like the restoration of the Farnsworth House.

Castillo returned to New York in 1984 and joined Helpern in 1996, becoming a principal in 2000. It was her work there that literally took her to the top of Columbia University, one of several restoration projects she has completed in New York City. Throughout her career, Castillo has been active with the AIA. For many years she served as chair of the AIANY Historic Building Committee. Last year, as president-elect, she found herself among 10,000 urbanists at the World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro. During a conference session, one presenter posed a question that stuck with her: “What are you industrial nations going to do? Why can’t you help?” asked the speaker. Castillo said her concerns for the planet have their roots in Earth Day circa 1970, but the question from Rio resonated. “I care about [sustainability] and want to work on it with the city, especially while [Mayor Bloomberg] is still here,” she said.

Castillo’s tenure as AIANY president started off with a bang when the parks department introduced its new Landscape Guidelines at the Center. Looking out at the packed audience, she was bowled over by the throng. The rest of the year promises to be no less lively: Jugaad Urbanism, an exhibit focusing on resource strategies in India opened on February 10; this summer, an exchange of ideas and programming between the Center for Architecture and the Amsterdam Achitectuur Centrum will consider the implications a warmer future has for seaside cities like New York and Amsterdam; and this fall the Center will present Buildings = Energy, an in-depth look at buildings and their direct relationship with the environment.

Castillo said that the chapter will continue to develop educational programming both at the Center and online through on-demand webinars. She hopes to help smaller firms in particular deal with a variety of concerns, from grappling with 1099 forms to gaining exposure in a competitive market. In early February she lobbied Congress for transportation needs and alternatives and for the loosening of credit. But her main focus, she reiterates, will be on sustainability. She pointed out that coordination among government, engineers, landscape architects, urban planners, and architects remains key. “I don’t think that architects alone should lead the charge,” she said. “It’s a collaborative effort. That’s why this year is so important—we want to reach out to the whole industry.”

Tom Stoelker