Balancing Act

Architects of Alys: Pledger Architects

Balancing Act
Images By: Cary Norton Words By: Cassie Condrey

Mark and Cristi Pledger say they aren’t the kinds of architects their clients parade around at cocktail parties. But I can’t imagine that’s true. In any setting, it’s hard not to imagine them as the smartest people in the room. There were several moments in my interview with the Birmingham, Alabama-based duo in which I noted things I’d need to look up later—words relating to art and architecture, historical moments and figures, ideas. They are just humble enough, just real enough, though, to never feel intimidating. They are as approachable as they are brilliant. As with many of the architects I’ve interviewed in this series, they seem to have arrived where they are less by chance than by an innate affinity for form and function, and for the Pledgers, above all, for beauty.

Their joint process is a dance of competition and collaboration. When they were younger, and dating, and living in London, they took the train to Paris one afternoon. They sat together on a blanket with the Sacré-Cœur church in sight. Soon, there was a competition. Who might draw it better? Cristi says Mark’s was more correct in terms of scale and proportion. Mark says Cristi’s was more beautiful. Their designs are beautiful and correct, perhaps most of all, because the Pledgers aim to present them in balance with the tradition and the landscape and the clients in front of them. For them, it is an artistic act, and a deeply satisfying one.

Cassie Condrey: Tell me what you’re up to before we dive in. You’re currently moving offices within Birmingham, right?

Cristi Pledger: We were previously working out of our carriage house at our home, mainly due to COVID-19, and because we have thirteen-year-old identical twin boys. It made sense at the time for us to work where we could keep them in eyeshot. And now we’ve had the opportunity to lease a really special office space downtown, which is something that Mark, I think, has always wished for.

Mark Pledger: Guilty. We’ve been looking for space in Birmingham, for over a year. We’ve lived in Rome, London and New York. We like cities and urbanity. Birmingham is obviously not of the same scale as those cities, but the idea of being around masonry buildings and city streets always appeals to me. Our new space is a 1905 building that was the original Birmingham Realty Company office. They’re the successors to the Elyton Land Company, which developed Birmingham, so the original plot maps from 1903—maybe even the 1870s—are still mounted on the walls. This is where the property owners would come and pay their mortgages because they sold all the lots. It feels historic, and it feels like a sense of place.

CC: That sounds beautiful. Individually, tell me about your childhoods and any design aspects of them. Were there any moments in your childhoods where you knew that this is the path you were heading down or any influences that led you here?

MP: First, we’re talkers, so stop us whenever you need to [laughs].

CP: I grew up a military brat. My father was in the Air Force. He’s from Philadelphia, my mother is from northern Italy, and they met after my dad served in Vietnam. My sister and I of course lived in a lot of different cities in the Northeast and Europe. My grandfather, my dad’s dad, had a hobby of painting portraits. I think my father—even though he wasn’t a painter—understood and appreciated art. My parents recognized early an innate interest in me to draw, particularly people and portraits and fashionable things. We did have the opportunity to go to Italy quite a bit growing up, and some of my earliest memories are seeing the work of artists like DaVinci. I saw the fresco of The Last Supper, I went to Rome, Florence, Venice, and saw all the things—architecture and art and otherwise. And that really stuck with me. 

As I found my way through high school into college, I continued to draw for fun. I actually wanted to go to art school. My parents were not keen on that as a profession. They encouraged me to follow my sister’s footsteps and go to a liberal arts college. I started out as a visual arts major; I had always wanted to do fashion design, but again, not highly encouraged. I eventually made my way to Notre Dame, which is where Mark and I met. I found that there was a happy medium between the visual arts and the tradition of architecture in the way that it is taught at the university level. It appealed to me. I did not grow up wanting to be an architect, but I made my way and I’m glad that I did. I fell in love with architecture, and I felt happy enough that I could express and fulfill my need to draw and paint, just in a different kind of way. It was more about structured buildings and less about portraits and fashion, but I think there is a base and a medium for both of those worlds to kind of collide. I think there’s a happy balance for me in that respect. I am still more interested in how it’s crafted and made and what it looks like. Is it beautiful? Is it enduring? 

CC: Fascinating. Mark?

MP: I was born in Birmingham, a product of Birmingham Public Schools. I grew up in a ranch home with wall-to-wall carpeting and fake wall paneling in the basement. For me, I feel like architecture was an escape. And it was about finding something new. I was always impressed later on in grade school and high school with what I would call the power of architecture and what that could do. I grew up going to Ruhama Baptist Church, which was the oldest church in Birmingham, founded in 1812. And it was a beautiful 1920s building that had some additions to it. I can remember distinctly being aware of the older sections, which had the twelve-foot ceilings and the moldings and the library, as compared to the newer wing where all the Sunday school classes were, which was very 1960s. I innately knew what that felt like and the difference. 

In fourth grade, I started taking art classes in our neighborhood with a friend. Our first challenge was to crumble up a brown sandwich bag, and then draw it. I took all this time. My friend just did some squiggly lines. That was an “Aha!” moment. I did that better. Looking back, I would say his was more Andy Warhol, which is an acceptable style. But I was clearly going that extra mile and trying to achieve. And I think that’s always been a big theme for me. I read a fourth-grade-level biography of Frank Lloyd Wright. There were two things that I took away from that. One is that he got to play with those blocks as a kid and it helped him in his career. And then secondly, there’s a building, I think at the University of Wisconsin, that collapsed when he was there. And he helped rescue people out of there, and then made it his mission to do good architecture that would protect people. There was that kind of do-good aspect, a helping-people side of things. I grew up very Southern Baptist, at one point I had wanted to be a missionary, so architecture satisfied that, too. In seventh or eighth grade, I made my family travel to Seaside from our place in Fort Walton on vacation. I was interested in New Urbanism even then. I just knew what I wanted to do. 

CC: Tell me a bit about your work and process together.

CP: We met at Notre Dame, were always friends, and had an admiration for each other’s work. He always seemed to understand the task at hand immediately, when I was, “What? What’s the assignment?” [laughs]. As our years there went on, I watched him develop a very notable interest in Rome and Italy and all things Italian. After he went to Rome, personality-wise, he kind of assimilated to the Italian style. That was comforting to me, obviously.

MP: I did a second major in Italian. There was a ten-year period where I wanted to be Italian, just totally different from where I grew up. I chased her, though, for four years before we started dating. 

CP: I was too busy studying and figuring things out. 

MP: Cristi was design queen of our class. She won the prize thesis award. When she graduated, everyone in New York was offering her jobs. And she was trying to figure out if she was going to London to work with this well-known architect. She went and then I went to Italy for six months and then moved to London too. There are things that I knew early on. I knew I was going to be an architect. I knew I was going away for school. I knew from like sophomore year this was who I was going to marry. I also knew that we would be very good as partners in the design capacity. It’s taken years, however, to get out the kinks. You know, when we first did side-by-side work, we’d argue over the height of a window, and I had to, like, leave the apartment [laughs]. 

CP: But there’s a shorthand now between us. We’ve known each other for so many years, it’s like second nature in many ways. We can just look at each other and know exactly what we think about buildings and things like that. 

MP: We’re competitive but also collaborative.

CP: You have to have both. 

CC: You spent time working in London, then New York, and now you’re in Birmingham. 

MP: We had New York fatigue. We worked for Robert C. Stern Architects. I worked for Gil Schafer as studio director. It was great work. We had kids then and Cristi was working part-time, but we really wanted to work together. It was a dream we always had. We looked all around and considered many places.

CP: I had moved around so much while Mark very much had a sense of identity, a sense of place. I thought Birmingham was charming and we were at a point with our kids where we wanted to be more settled. 

MP: We were late starting our own firm, but we felt that the experiences that we’d had in other professional offices meant there was not going to be this ten-year learning curve. We knew the formula. We were trying to bring that New York-level of training down here. There’s a certain academic rigor that happens in New York. But we came here with no projects. We started with a powder bath, as the saying goes. 

CP: Our first house project here just won a Schutze award. They were great clients; it was kismet. 

MP: They were not into, “What do we want our house to say about us?” As we aren’t. We don’t want to be pretentious.

CC: I love that. But tell me what you are into? 

MP: We’re into what is beautiful. We ask clients two
questions. How do you want to live? 

CP: And what do you find beautiful? That’s where we start.

MP: There are follow-up questions, of course. Do you want to live formally or informally? Do you want a center stair hall? Is it a four-square house that sets up a certain level of formality or do you want it rambling? Do you need a dining room? 

CP: I find a lot of people have some idea, and sometimes that’s not always communicated orally, but pictures and Instagram help.

MP: This might sound pretentious, but above all, it’s about making beautiful things. That’s probably the word we hear most about our work—it’s just so beautiful. 

CP: Most people come to us knowing something of our work, of what we can do. 

MP: I think people perceived us as “New York Architects” coming to Birmingham and were maybe surprised by how approachable we are. We just like what we do, and we think we’re good at it. We bring that to the table. It’s always a collaborative approach. You know, no one wants me swinging the hammer.

CP: No, he’s a very sensitive soul. I think that goes far with a lot of people. I’m sensitive, but I’m a little harder, a little more direct. 

MP: If we need to bring the hammer down, Cristi is gonna do that. I went to Sunday school for many years and talked to all the older people about their grandkids and this and that, it’s just a very natural thing for me to talk to people and get them to focus inside their own lives and what they want and not at all about what they want their house to say.

CC: You have these relationships with people and they go on for a while. Does that help to avoid too many surprises in the process with clients?

CP: I think we’re evenly matched with our clients in terms of a consensus of design and even personality. With the best clients, there’s this nice, natural dynamic. Like our first Birmingham client—they’re almost like family to us now, for various reasons. With several other clients, we’ve actually interwoven our lives. We have clients who come to us from other projects when we were with different firms and they want a renovation or a new home. We’ve stayed with them. 

MP: When I was in New York, I would jog in Central Park with the clients that would come in. It’s about trying to make connections, and trying to understand and learn what is of value to clients. 

CC: It’s amazing how much you have accomplished in seven years being on your own. 

MP: I’m always focusing on the next level. That’s just the way I’ve been. 

CP: I also think it’s not seven years. It’s more like 25. Everything we’ve done comes into it. 

CC: If you had to sum it up, how would you describe the way you work together to create a design?

MP: I think Cristi is very instinctual about her approach to architecture. We count on her for the immediate answer. She has that taste ability. I think my approach is more measured where I do my research. I collect all the facts almost like a term paper with my index cards. Not that I don’t have visceral reactions to things. 

CC: You get a client who shows you what they think is beautiful, and you’re taking into account both the context and the tradition of the design. And then there’s landscape. Are you looking at how the light falls on the land? 

CP: Definitely the siting of the house which Mark is exceptional at. I can tell you what it’s going to look like and he can tell you where it should be and how it should respond. 

MP: It is definitely about responding to the land, the outdoor rooms. We do studies on shade and shadow and view corridors. Broad thinking, then down to what is the outdoor room that you’re looking into from inside. Anytime you can extend and take that view for yourself inside the house, the bigger and the more expansive the house becomes. It’s like the opposite of a suburban street where the yard belongs to the street, right? You know, in our rental house, I bought two boxwoods, two meatballs as I call them, and I put them at the end of the sidewalk to claim this is ours, to claim the yard for ourselves.

CP: It was ridiculous. Because we lived in this mid century house and it had this little sidewalk and he just planted the big balls there. And when we moved, he dug them up and took them with us.

MP: They didn’t want them [laughs]. Planting is a tricky thing. I think if you can get the architect, the landscape architect and the interior designer all together, that is, at least for residential, you have the trifecta of good design. They all come to the table with their experiences and their ideas. You don’t have to solve every problem with architecture. You don’t have to do a niche, or you don’t have to do columns, you could put a piece of furniture and a painting and sconces. Or you can do a hedge instead of a wall, right? You can plant an ornamental tree like a Japanese maple as opposed to doing gates. We’re flexible like that.

CC: Tell me your feelings about designing at Alys Beach.

MP: We’ve done eight houses through the Somerset Program. We were hired for four villas and four courtyard houses. Cristi took the lead on these because she’d worked on these types of projects before.

CP: These are developer houses that are semi-custom and there has to be efficiency. They give you the target square footage. With our understanding of Alys and what it was always meant to be, which was the Anglo-Caribbean-Bermudan identity, our goal was to create these to hone in on the indigenous architecture of Bermuda and why it was built and who built it. Mark has books and we bought a lot more books and studied the early building all over Bermuda. I remember sitting down one night, I was literally in bed with a sketchbook, and I started to look at the typologies of courtyard houses in Bermuda, and what those layouts look like and how they tried to block winds from the sea, and why they sited things a certain way. And I sat down and started sketching, and came up with a concept. 

The courtyard houses are my favorite of the blocks we designed. And I think they’re the most successful because they work on both an individual level and then together. It’s like having a sentence, right? You start with a capital letter when you start your sentence and end it with a period—there is some grammar to it. While also honoring the scale and the elements of how things would have looked if this were built by a Bermudan architect at a certain time. The villas were so interesting as almost a study in facade development. We tried to push things, make them different, celebrate it. We enjoyed the process, both academically and from a production standpoint. We have not had the opportunity to design a custom home and would love for that to happen.

MP: In our approach to the Bermudan architecture, I read about when European settlers first moved there, everything was in wood with straw roofs and everything caught on fire. So they banned wood construction, and began using stucco, and then when they they tried to do the typical moldings and detailed profiles, it fell apart. So you ended up with more simple curves. Just that fact alone and an understanding of that would drive your entire exterior. There wasn’t ornament, not because they didn’t know how to do it, but because it didn’t work. We approached our work in Alys with that in mind. We didn’t try to do anything overly classical.

CP: It’s an architecture that’s very planar. There is a play of silhouette and light.

CC: Tell me about what inspires you—what in your day-to-day life gives you energy? I mean, two thirteen-year-olds sounds like a lot.

CP: It’s a balancing act. I love beauty. I love art. I love travel. I love cooking. I love coffee. I love playing tennis. I love my children. I love animals. [Laughs.]

MP: We’ve done a lot of road trips with our kids, and they’re very interested in nature and the outdoors. I own snake boots now, which was not in my life plan. But that’s what I do on weekends with one of my sons—catch snakes. The Amphibian Society of Georgia offers a young herpetology master’s course so I did that with him. He was the youngest there and came in second in the class. We have a dog, a cat, two leopard geckos; we have a snake and four parakeets and a rotating collection of turtles.

CP: Then we have our life in New York. We’re going to the museums all the time.

MP: We try and get up to New York often. I’m on the National Board of the ICA. We have three projects up there, a project manager there, and a lot of friends. We didn’t want to give that up and our contacts there. That serves as inspiration a lot. 

CP: I applied for the Addingham Trust which is a continuing studies program in England which people in art and architecture and the decorative arts apply for and you can study certain programs. I did that in 2018. I focused on the London house course, because it was looking at the typology of English housing from the eleventh century to contemporary days, and you did it in fourteen days. And it was great. I would love to do things like that to learn more and continue learning about things and cities I’m interested in.

MP: I love being only a five-hour drive from New Orleans. I always feel like, I’m only five hours from a full masonry square building, Jackson Square, and history. We’re starting to work with other interior designers on quality projects, and I think that’s inspiring.

CC: How do you start your day?

MP: A few steps away from the Nespresso. 

Cristi: Always start with coffee. Number one. Pragmatically speaking, we have to get our kids up and get them to school. That’s the first priority. I like to exercise in the morning, because I feel like I’m best equipped mentally for the day. I like to get that behind me.

MP: In New York on a Saturday, I’d go downtown and hit the seven used bookstores that I knew. I love the hunt. Nowadays, on the weekends, it’s a hike with the kids. I love a good coffee shop. I normally get up thirty minutes early and just have coffee, and meditate a little bit. 

CC: You have a day off. It’s just the two of you. There’s no work. Kids are taken care of. What are you eating? You said you like to cook. What are you doing? Where are you?

MP: We definitely love a late afternoon lunch, then to a coffee shop and just linger for a while. And read. We do like to cook a lot. And I think the attraction to cooking is that it’s infinitely creative, kind of like architecture. And you have all these ingredients, and then each of their components. Then we’d have friends over. The nicest thing is to have a great meal.

CP: Christmas Eve we hosted an open house. It was warm here, and so we left our doors open, and people came in and we had taken everything off the island and put this beautiful spread of food together and allowed people to come and go between a certain hour and that was joyful, to have people coming into our world, sharing food with them, thinking with them, hanging with them, in a meaningful way. 

MP: I would probably try and drag Cristi to a job site to just look at things. 

CP: I get a little impatient when things aren’t done. 

MP: If we were in Charleston, which we were recently, that would certainly consist of a beautiful coffee shop and nice breakfast, going to a historic house to look at the gardens, going for a walk on the Battery, looking at a print shop. We just did that; we picked out four drawings, snake prints from the 1800s. That’s what we bought our thirteen-year-old for Christmas. 

CC:That’s so good. What did he say when he opened them?

CP: He gave us a hug.

MP: We love creating environment. It’s very natural for us. 

CC: What would be a dream project for you now? 

MP: I’m excited about moving into this office space downtown. I feel like we’ve got a little piece of Birmingham that’s ours. That’s something I’ve always wanted. My dad used to work downtown. I feel like with this building, we’re custodians of a very important historic part of Birmingham’s built environment. So a dream, other than residential, would be an urban infill project here, something more regionally sensitive as opposed to some of the more recent apartment buildings that are almost like a watered down version of things that came from California that then went to Texas, then went to Nashville, and now there’re here.

CP: They have an identity-less nature to them, and
an impermanence.

MP: Birmingham still has so many buildings here, and it’s great to see all these things being revamped, and they’re not tearing anything down. Also, because Birmingham was founded in 1871, the typology of townhouses had already passed. So it’s not like Charleston or Savannah. I think you could reintroduce that into Birmingham, and I think you would have a lot of people that would love a townhouse as opposed to just an apartment downtown. What we’ve always been attracted to, whether we consciously knew it or not, was density. There was density in Rome and London, and especially in New York. And granted New York is the extreme end of that. But you need density in order to have people. And so when you walk down the street in New York, it feels safer, because there’s a ton more people. In Birmingham, it’s just kind of quiet. There’s no retail on the street. You need to start with the street level to get people in and maybe that starts with just one square block. I also personally would love to do a project that could impact the community. It goes back even to that Frank Lloyd Wright book I read. We’ve been so busy, just trying to get our business started, but I think I can see in the next five years us being able to be able to devote time and energy elsewhere, maybe to Habitat for Humanity or something like that.

CC: I hope y’all are able to do that. Both the infill and townhouses are interesting ideas. There was a sentence on your website—about using what was to propel us forward. I thought that was really beautiful, and it rings especially true given our conversation.

CP: We are also grateful for the team of people with us. We are lucky to have them. We could not do this all by ourselves. As clients entrust us with their dreams, we in turn entrust the people who work with us to help build this business. 

MP: We’re definitely people who support the best ideas, no matter who they come from. I’d rather surround myself with people who are smarter than me. We learned that in New York. We like people that work hard because we
work hard. 

CP: Mark too is someone who mentors people, and he’s very cognizant of that. That’s part of his makeup. He’s not an architect with a capital A. He’s very good about teaching people how to work and how to think, as we were taught how to think. We brought our own ideas, but we were molded and shaped through the offices we worked in. I commend him for extending that virtue to younger people in our profession.

MP: You just can’t build anything alone. Our parents gave us that work ethic. My mother was literally born in a house on the family farm in Mississippi. We’re not above any part of this job. 

CC: Your children are getting a really nice lesson watching that.

MP: Yes, among other lessons. They know, for example, about ambient lighting. They turn off the overhead recessed lights when they walk into a room. The babysitter doesn’t, but they come in and they turn them off. They’ve been trained [laughs].

CC: That’s invaluable. I have to say, I admire the curiosity and intellectualism with which you approach your work. This has been a real pleasure.