MH+D Inside Out: Nancy Barba and Cynthia Wheelock on How Architecture Elevates the Spirit

Photo credit: N. Barba
The design of the Zausner residence reveals traditional and innovative solutions to bringing light into a space. Photo Credit: N. Barba
The design of the Zausner residence reveals traditional and innovative solutions to bringing light into a space. Photo Credit: N. Barba
Photo credit: N. Barba

Though different on the surface (one is an extrovert; the other, an introvert), architects Nancy Barba and Cynthia Wheelock share a passion for history and design theory. Barba and Wheelock share with Maine Home+Design their vision for architecture that enriches our lives.

Q. How did you two meet, and why did you end up working together?

Nancy Barba: We’ve been working together for twenty years. We met while working on a project, and we found that we really enjoyed working together.

Cynthia Wheelock: We have complementary skills, I would say. Nancy is the extravert, and I’m the introvert.

Barba: Cynthia is empathic, and I’m cerebral. When we get into a meeting with clients, I can pick up all the little details and nuances of what they want, but Cynthia knows what they need. In terms of design skills, we’re complementary. I love the details, and Cynthia looks at the bigger picture.

Q. What do you have in common?

Wheelock: We share our passion for design and the theory of design, as well as our philosophy of the world. People seem to understand America as a pioneer country, in which they’re still trying to capture more space for themselves. Americans focus on shelter and not the beauty of architecture and the arts, and how one feels in a space.

Barba: Americans don’t seem concerned about how architecture can elevate the spirit. Cynthia and I are always thinking, “Is there some way our lives can be enriched?” If we design a space that’s right for our clients, the light streams in at a particular angle at four o’clock on a winter day, and they feel like their lives are transformed in some way.

Wheelock: You can experience awe in a space, as opposed to just shelter. Architecture can be about shelter, but it provides so much more than that.

Q. Why do you think some Americans struggle to appreciate architecture?

Wheelock: Our culture is so new here. Recently it was all about acquisition, whereas in other parts of the world, they haven’t had to worry about that for a while. Art and architecture are integral to European culture, for example.

Q. You also work in historic preservation. How do you update the design of a building while still maintaining its historic integrity?

Barba: People often want to change a building to fit their lifestyle. There’s an egotism there. Instead we ask, “What is this building saying? How can I retain its history and culture without blowing everything apart to fit new fads?” 

Wheelock: Nancy is more of a traditionalist in her approach to preservation. I feel that, in order for us to preserve these spaces, we have to make thoughtful compromises, and we do. In some of our projects, it’s like putting a modern frame on a historic print. The tension is there, but you’re really intrigued by it.