Liken Progresses from Gingerbread Houses to Model Zoos

March 15, 2004

By Gabriel Chen

Catie LikenMany psychologists agree that play is an essential ingredient in a child's growth and development—play stimulates the human spirit, encourages imagination, conceptual thinking and creation. Cathryn Liken remembers playing Legos for hours, constructing anything out of them: a boat, a plane, or a train.

As a wide-eyed inquisitive girl growing up in Pittsburgh, Cathryn avoided Barbie dolls like the plague, choosing to amuse herself with cardboard blocks instead. Catie, as she is fondly called by her friends, recalls assembling the pieces with her deft hands, and before you can say "jackrabbit," tearing them apart to create something new altogether.

Catie said her curiosity for building might have been sparked by her grandfather, a contractor, but also hinted that her interest was a natural progression from baking, her other love.

"I'd often go to his house, where I'd look through his drawings and blueprints, and see what he was planning," Catie said. "I also remember baking gingerbread houses for fun, showed them to my grandfather, and he thought they were a masterpiece – he chose not to eat them, but kept them for years."

Though Catie demonstrated a passion for hands-on work at a tender age, it never crossed her mind to pursue an engineering degree, let alone make a career out of it. It was an introductory class on Roman architecture offered by the Art History department at Duke that piqued her interest in building structures. Soon, Catie learned about the evolution of design and engineering in the architecture of ancient Rome, of major building forms, and about city planning in the late Republic.

Catie also loved her calculus class, and figured that since she was equally passionate about mathematics and Roman architecture, she could combine the two disparate subjects and do something related to engineering.

Having pinned down her career interests, Catie debated at the beginning of sophomore year if she should stay on to complete her undergraduate education. She had fallen in love with the campus while her older sister was touring college.

"I tagged along with her and Duke was our last stop," Catie reminisced. "I remember us driving up Chapel Drive, turning around the circle and seeing the chapel. I heard myself exclaiming aloud that I want to go to Duke! After my sister was admitted, I came to visit the campus often, and found myself liking the place even more."

Catie mulled over transferring to a school with a nationally-acclaimed architecture program. Unlike schools like the University of Washington or Texas A&M University that have established architecture programs, Duke currently offers a certificate in architectural engineering at the undergraduate level through its civil and environment engineering department.

"I came to the conclusion that an engineering background would help build a good foundation for an architectural career," Catie said. "So I decided to stay, as I love Duke too much to leave yet."

Then Catie took a variety of engineering classes including modern and post-modern architecture, concrete and composite structures, structural design and optimization to boost her background in architectural engineering.

"Those were great classes, but looking back, I would have taken more art, sculpture, and art history classes, as they would have given me a more creative field," Catie said.

In 2002, Catie snagged a summer internship with Hellmuth, Obata, & Kassabaum, Inc., where she had the opportunity to work with Duncan Broyd, HOK's global director of Justice Architecture, on the preliminary design phase of the Manatee County Courthouse in Bradenton, Florida. HOK is among the world's leading design firms and it manages the planning, design, and construction process for its clients.

The following summer, Catie traveled to Washington, D.C. to intern with Chatelain Architects, where she spent a great deal of time working on a display model of a church, as well as learned to build massing models like an elephant house for the National Zoo. A massing model is a dimensionally accurate summary of the fundamental exterior forms of a building. It is made of solid blocks, and building details are either left out entirely or summarized succinctly with a few simple blocks.

Catie said that both internship experiences have given her an insight as to the kind of firm she wants to work for when she enters the job market.

"I want to work for a small firm," Catie said. "Chatelain, unlike HOK, had a more relaxed atmosphere. I went to a lot more site meetings, site tours, and would work on different projects. Whenever they needed more people, they didn't hesitate to get me involved, which gave me the chance to see different processes in action."

It will be a while before Catie puts her books aside and scurries around to find a job, as she has been accepted into a year-long architecture program at Columbia University in New York City. The comparative learning program, which commences several months after she graduates from Duke, will have Catie spending a semester in New York, and the other in Paris. It will be her first time to Europe.

"I thrive better when I'm really busy, than when I've very little to do. I can get more done if I know that I've only 30 minutes, compared to when I've the whole morning," said Catie candidly, as she deliberated about her long-term plans.

"Hopefully, several years down the road, I'll be in New York with my own apartment, have my own architectural firm, or be one of the principals of a medium-sized firm," she said.