Having hailed from a family who works in construction, John Cetra was exposed to the industry at an early age. Looking over his father’s shoulder, John learned how to read plans and blueprints while accompanying him on job sites. It was these early experiences that sparked his interest in design and what eventually led him to studying architecture at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, where he met his wife and business partner Nancy Ruddy.
Today, the pair are the principals of CetraRuddy, an international, award-winning architecture and interior design firm founded in 1987. The company has designed a wide range of buildings from the simple yet distinctive One Madison, to the five-storey, 52,000-square-foot Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York.
CetraRuddy’s latest project brings it north of Manhattan to Toronto’s posh Yorkville neighborhood where the firm was recently announced as the architect for 64 Prince Arthur Avenue. We caught up with John Cetra to learn more about the development, his experiences in the field and his firm’s design philosophy.
BuzzBuzzNews: What inspired you to become an architect? Was there a specific moment early in your life when you decided that’s the career you wanted to pursue?
John Cetra: My first experience with architecture was through building. My family had been in construction (masonry) and I learned how to read plans at an early age. The plans for low two- or three-story family houses in New York City were very basic, but still fascinating to me. Further understanding the power of architecture came later as a college student, studying the history of architecture and learning of its social and cultural importance.
BBN: Where did you go to school and what were some of your first experiences as an architectural student? How did they shape you into the architect you are today?
JC: I received a Bachelor of Architecture degree from The City College of New York, Spitzer School of Architecture, and a Master of Architecture in Urban Design at Harvard University, Graduate School of Design.
As a student at City College, I became very interested in multi-family, high density residential design. Those studios had a special significance for me which may have been sparked by what I saw being built in residential design – which quite frankly was not very good. I knew it could be better and had to be. What’s more important than the design of one’s home?! This interest also led to my passion for urban design, which I saw as community building.
BBN: Tell us about CetraRuddy and how the company was started. What’s the working relationship like between you and co-founder Nancy Ruddy?
JC: We actually met at City College when Nancy decided to change her studies from Architectural History to Architecture. We both have a passion for building and love to see our projects come to fruition. We work together on all aspects of our projects but Nancy focuses more on the interior design while I focus on the architecture and planning. Nancy Ruddy is my wife and greatest confidant. Nancy is a great designer and critic as well.
BBN: The firm has described itself as being committed to design excellence and ‘creating memorable place making.’ Can you elaborate on that objective?
JC: Our design philosophy centers on the experience of “home” – whether we design a residence, place of worship, hospitality space, or learning environment. We strive to elevate the building typologies we touch by combining our craft, attention to details, and integration of humanity and scale to compositions of strong geometric forms.
We approach each building design and project by carefully studying the site and place as each design is centered on context. That context starts with the surrounding community, the neighborhood fabric, and the relationship to the building.
Our integrated approach also carefully considers the relationship of architecture to interior. The sequence of spaces is carefully choreographed to create memorable and comfortable experiences.
BBN: Walk us through your design process and approach. What are some factors you consider when designing a building?
JC: We begin our process by developing a thorough understanding of the project’s context and examination of our client’s goals. As stated above, we research and investigate the site and the context. We are very good listeners, so we listen to what our clients’ goals are and other stakeholders that make up the design team. Our ultimate goal is to create a unique product and experience for those who will occupy our buildings in the future, while adapting to evolving needs.
BBN: One Madison is one of your most well-known developments. The award-winning tower is just steps from two New York landmarks — the Met Life Tower and the Flatiron Building. How did the location influence your design?
JC: This project gave us a very special opportunity to impact a significant urban space, Madison Park, and create a dialogue with the iconic MetLife Tower, completed in 1909, that stands cater-corner to One Madison. These two towers were constructed almost 100 years apart.
For us, it was important to create a contemporary landmark that would both stand-alone but and complement its neighbor. The five white glass boxes that cantilever off a shaft of bronze glass relate in scale to the proportional subdivision of the MetLife tower but do not mimic it. The two towers rise above the neighborhood to create a discussion between traditional classicism and contemporary architecture. The use of the bronze glass on the structures shaft reflects a warmth which is reminiscent of the limestone and brownstone buildings around the neighborhood.
BBN: Let’s talk about one of your latest project — 45 Broad — which broke ground earlier this year in the Financial District. At 1,115 feet, it will be one of the tallest condominiums in downtown Manhattan. What was the inspiration behind it and how would you describe the final design?
JC: Our design for 45 Broad is “soaring”. We are always fascinated by the way sunlight plays off a building façade, and how it reflects light onto the street and surrounding buildings. For this project we wanted to add emphasis to its height. We achieved that by designing a glass and aluminum façade that captures the movement of the sun at different times of the day. It’s not a flat, rectangular shaft, but one with slight curves, and has bronze colored, shaped mullions that project from the glass, creating their own light show of reflection and shadow. We’re very excited to see the foundations getting started!
BBN: CetraRuddy was recently announced as the architect for Adi Development Group’s 64 Prince Arthur Avenue in Toronto’s posh Yorkville neighborhood. Can you speak more about the genesis of the project, and how you became involved?
JC: Tariq and Saud Adi wanted to create an iconic and important building. I understand that they interviewed a list of internationally recognized architects for the project. When they came to New York to meet with us, I had done some thinking about what the issues might be for the design of this building, and showed them some sketches I had done by hand. I think they saw that our team had a passion to create a very special building and we saw in their team, the determination to create something exceptional. We also have a lot of experience in high rise luxury residential architecture and I think it was that, with our desire to create a truly unique residential building that led them to select us for the project.
BBN: What can we expect in terms of design and scale of the building?
JC: With this design we have endeavored to create a building that is responsive to its context, program and only appropriate for this site. We were very much aware of the concern about shadows on Taddle Creek Park having had to address similar concerns on other projects.
64 Prince Arthur Avenue will be a very slender tower, twisting as it rises to create the narrowest shadow on the park, while creating a diverse selection of apartment types with balconies that offer varying views of the Toronto skyline.
BBN: Your portfolio extends beyond residential spaces and includes commercial buildings, educational centers and cultural landmarks like the award-winning Lincoln Square Synagogue. What are the major differences between designing a condominium tower and a religious building? What does the unique ribbon-like glass facade represent?
JC: When we design a condominium tower, we are designing people’s homes. When we designed the Lincoln Square Synagogue, we designed a community’s “spiritual home”. We were honored to have been entrusted with such a task.
The five ribbons of glass represented the 5 unfurling books of the Torah, which are illuminated from within, a very important notion in the scriptures. It was important that the light from within would shine outward to the world. Our philosophy really focuses on the notion of home, regardless of the building type; we are always striving to create that feeling.
BBN: Are there any major projects coming down the pipeline that you can share with us? Do you hope to do more work in Canada?
JC: We hope there will be more. Toronto is a very dynamic city. Nancy and I love it!