Margaret Carney standing on the Cornell Arts Quad

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AA&P alumna Margaret McFadden Carney ’80, BArch ’81, oversees planning and design on the Hill

By Beth Saulnier

As job descriptions go, it’s a tall order. Among her many duties as university architect, Margaret McFadden Carney ’80, BArch ’81, is charged with being the “architectural conscience” of the institution—ensuring that all renovation and construction projects cohere with Cornell’s busy, growing, ever-changing campus. That means addressing details both high-profile and humdrum: Carney’s office is responsible for everything from hiring the architects for a flagship new building to designing the signage that helps you find it.

A veteran of more than four decades in higher education, Carney returned to her alma mater in 2018 following stints at Temple, Case Western Reserve, and Catholic University of America (all of which, she notes, are situated on much flatter land than East Hill). She not only works on campus—in the Humphreys Service Building, located near the Wilson Synchrotron Lab—but lives close by, in a historic home on Collegtown’s tiny Orchard Place.

In February, Carney received one of her profession’s coveted honors: fellowship in the American Institute of Architects, a distinction given to just 3 percent of the institute’s membership.

First off: what does a university architect do?

The most important thing is that I oversee the planning and design of the physical environment. I make a lot of decisions related to the functional and aesthetic design of the campus, but never alone; my job includes listening to many people—their technical, environmental, cost, timing, and aesthetic concerns—and doing what’s best for the institution in the long term.

How do you fulfill your role as Cornell’s “architectural conscience”?

I work with senior leadership, the Board of Trustees, and deans to understand our vision as an institution, and with each of the colleges and units to understand their needs—for example, for research, which is evolving constantly. Keeping in mind the big picture of the University’s Master Plan, I look at everything from an urban design standpoint, including how the campus interfaces with the community around it.

a b&w photo of Margaret Carney as a student
Carney at the drawing board as an undergrad. (Photo by Cheryl O’Neill ’79, BArch ’80)

You were a Cornell undergrad yourself, then taught here for a few semesters; how does that inform your job?

It has helped me understand the student experience, and how we can make it easier and less stressful by creating more spaces that build community. It’s important to have spaces that let people hang out together and have coffee and a sandwich, so they don't feel isolated, and ideally build lifelong friendships.

There’s value in coming to a campus you don’t know and seeing it with “fresh eyes”—but having lived here, and walked the campus in every season and every hour, helps me a lot in the design process.

How has campus changed since you were a student?

It’s definitely more dense, and there's more variety in architectural types and styles. There used to be more open and rugged green space; a lot of the buildings on West Campus, for example, were smaller and that area didn't feel as urbanized. The addition of more modern buildings has given parts of campus a different feel, with a bigger scale and more activity—generally in a good way.

There's also a much stronger physical connection [from the Arts Quad and its environs] to the Ag Quad and the Vet college, which has been hugely impactful, as interdisciplinary collaboration has grown in importance.

A rendering of Atkinson Hall
The multidisciplinary Atkinson Hall, set to be completed on Tower Road—overlooking the Botanic Gardens—in 2024. (Rendering by Lake Flato Architects)

Is a university architect under particular pressure, given that decisions you make today could have repercussions a century from now?

That's a very real thing. I see it a couple of ways, one of which is the need to preserve historic buildings. And when we design new buildings or refresh existing ones, a lot of thought and financial investment goes into making them more flexible than they've ever been in the past, because of the fast rate of change in how we work and use technology.

Once a firm is selected to design a building, what’s your office’s role?

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We guide them and help them connect with the people they're designing for—sort of like a translator. We don't want a building to just represent the character of an individual architect; it has to look like Cornell, and represent the institution as a whole. And when you get the right firm, it's magic—the project flows and people learn from each other.

An infographic about the Ithaca campus

Does Cornell's location—on a steep hill bound by gorges on two sides—make it especially challenging as a building site?

Definitely! It's like no other campus I can think of. But the biggest challenge is also the biggest asset: the complex topography, slopes, and distant views make building here much more interesting. Anybody can design a box and put it on a flat site, but when it needs to step down three stories on one side and avoid a cliff on another, the design team has to think really, really hard.

Another thing is that Cornell has an enormous footprint, with all the buildings and open spaces spread out. The diversity of those facilities can lead to visual chaos; trying to make the campus feel like a community is challenging.

Having lived here, and walked the campus in every season and every hour, helps me a lot in the design process.

What are some of your favorite spots on the Hill?

Uris Library, to me, is one of the most beautiful university buildings in the U.S. The top of McGraw Tower, where the chimes are, is iconic and probably the most unique space on campus. At the end of Tower Road is an amazing atrium in the middle of the Vet college—a very modern, wonderful, inviting gathering space.

Balch Hall—I worked in the dining hall there when I was a student—is another beautiful one. It's very uplifting; the arches welcome people and draw them in. It surprises me, talking about this, that most of the ones I love are the old ones.

A rendering of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hall
Ginsburg Hall, a first-year residence opening on North Campus in summer 2023. (Rendering by Ikon5)

Lastly: what do you love about your job?

That it's extremely complex. I love dealing with the big picture, including the science of building performance—especially environmental design and sustainability—all the way down to the hardware on a door, fabrics, colors, lights, plants. At times I feel like an orchestra conductor, in that I’m not playing an instrument myself, but I'm saying, “A little too heavy over there, a little light over here, and what's up over there?”

Another thing I love is that it's not just designing a building and moving on; I get to see how it all comes together and impacts the campus. My work becomes part of people's lives for generations—and as an architect, that’s the greatest privilege I can imagine.

Top image: Photo by Noël Heaney / Cornell University

Published March 4, 2022


  1. Margaret

    Please, if you love Balch, remember what makes it so beautiful, and welcoming, and comfortable to live in. Incorporate that into some of the new spaces. Make nooks where one can read alone and be comfortable.

    What a hard job you have.

  2. Ann Marie Baranowski

    Who says you can’t go home again? Congratulations MMC on your role as Cornell’s UA and your AIA Fellowship in the Class of 2022. Well deserved!

  3. Vitaliy

    Love it!

  4. john miller

    congratulations margaret – great challenges for you.
    hope to see you sometime.
    please do not hesitate to make a re-connection sometime.
    renew some old memories.


  5. Bridgette

    Congratulations Margaret! I’m honored to be a colleague. Cheers to you!

  6. Angel

    My dearest sister, you have always blown me away with your incredible talents and your great love for this campus. I see a bit of dad in your eyes when you speak of your projects past, present and future. No sister could be prouder of or more humbled by the vastnessof your spirit.

  7. Matthew Bell

    Congratulations on elevation to Fellowship in the AIA! Cornell is fortunate to have you in that position!

  8. Joel Lovenstein, Class of 1980

    Congratulations, Margaret!
    I feel like I remember that photograph of you taken by Cheryl!
    I thought of you last year as I digitized my photographs of the Cornell Venice program we were on.

  9. Don Semler, Class of 1980

    What a great article: informing people on an Architect’s role -large and small. Congrats on your Fellowship and thanks for your sensitivity / vision you bring to our campus.

  10. Jack Glassman, Class of 1980

    Cornell — and the architectural profession — are so fortunate indeed to benefit from your sensitivity, talent and knowledge, Margaret! All the best! P.S. I still treasure the visionary napkin sketch of a skyscraper that you drew, and signed for me, many moons ago!

  11. Jason R Gettinger, Class of 1964

    Best wishes to Ms. Carney. I think with a shudder how one Cornell official presided over both the failed attempt completely to bury the campus store and the construction below the old library that came out looking like a gun emplacement on the Normandy coast during the German occupation. The new buildings are a huge improvement compared with the corporate style of the 50s-70s. I wonder if she lives in a house on Orchard Place that once was the home of former Ithaca Mayor Howe. His elderly daughter, a recluse, rented furnished rooms on her second floor. I lived in one — 1961-62.

  12. Jeanne BB, Class of 1987

    Congratulations Margaret – an amazing career you have had. More to come!

  13. Yolanda Cortes Mares

    Congratulations, Margaret! I remember my years fondly as an Architecture student in Rand Hall during ‘75-‘80 and I have admired the robust growth and development I’ve seen in recent years. Kudos to you and to Cornell’s visionary leadership!

  14. David G Marsh MD, Class of 1965

    I visited the Ithaca campus several years ago and was dismayed by the seemingly haphazard nature of the architecture. It is a shame because the University has a well-known Architectural College. My wife is a professor at the University of San Diego. Admittedly that university does not have the student enrollment as Cornell, but USD it frequently selected as the most beautiful campus in the US. There is uniformity of architecture there with a definite Spanish-Southwestern US influence. Please see pictures of this beautiful campus. To be generous I feel it is shameful to disregard Cornell’s classic Ivy League architecture for this homage to fast growth/burgeoning growth. Just one alumnus’ opinion!

  15. David Weinberg, Class of 1984

    Congratulations on becoming FAIA and for elevating the quality of architectural design, building performance and placemaking on campus.

  16. Susan Wertheim, Class of 1980

    Congratulations Margaret! Cornell is lucky to have you and your thoughtful stewardship and keen design sense. Wishing you the best in all your projects!

  17. Joan Dall Patton

    First let me congratulate you for receiving the FAIA. I lived in Balch Hall my first year at Cornell in 1943. I believe that my father, Jes Jensen Dall, also Cornell Architectural graduate, designed and built the building. Many architectural students loved the top floor of White Hall where all grades spent the afternoons on various projects and where our Beaux Arts Balls and other parties were held.

  18. Charles Fleisher, Class of 1965

    Ms. Carney,
    Would there be an opportunity for a few follow-up comments about the webinar you presented yesterday?

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