MY WASHINGTON — Winter 2006

Corinna Cotsen, M.Arch. '83, M.S.C.E. '83

Exceptional Advocate for Architecture

Corinna Cotsen really looks at things.

She brings a well-trained visual perspective to her work at her design/build firm, Edifice Complex. Her family's influences since childhood have helped shape her appreciation of art—particularly folk art and culture. Her sense of the visual colors her community service and activities, travel adventures, and personal interests and pastimes.

Corinna graduated from the University of California-Berkeley with an A.B. in art history, intending to become an architect. "I wanted a university with a strongly design-oriented architecture school, and one that also offered a construction management degree." She reasoned that being an architect and a construction manager would make her more marketable and set her apart. "At the time, I didn't realize just how beneficial a dual degree would be," she says.

She chose Washington University and enrolled in the School of Architecture (now the College of Architecture and the Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts) and the School of Engineering & Applied Science. "I had a great experience," she says. "The cooperation among the schools is one of the best aspects of Washington University and its professors. It breaks down the boundaries between disciplines you find elsewhere. Washington University made pursuing the dual degree seem easy." She received her Master of Architecture and Master of Science in Civil Engineering in construction management degrees in 1983.

"I wanted a university with a strongly design-oriented architecture school, and one that also offered a construction management degree."

After graduation, she practiced architecture in Los Angeles and then moved into construction management with the founding of Edifice Complex, based in Santa Monica, California. One of her firm's projects involved supervising the renovation and expansion of the older home in which she and her husband, attorney Lee Rosenbaum, and their three children, now reside. She has put her plan to be involved in every aspect of a design/build project on temporary hold while her children are still young. "It's a matter of setting priorities," she says.

Her next project was to design and build a house from the ground up. "I wanted to use new and unusual materials, things that weren't usually found in most houses," she says. One of the most distinctive features of her second house is the use of custom-made tiles in the entryway, the bathrooms, the kitchen, and even in the garden outside. She hired a local tile artist to do one of the bathrooms, with a result she calls "very whimsical and colorful." For the countertops, she chose a translucent glass and resin material more commonly used in commercial buildings for office dividers.

The style of the house was inspired by the well-known turn-of-the-century California architect, Irving Gill, who designed the original building of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, as well as many other homes, churches, and public buildings. Corinna wanted a new house that looked like an older modernist home.

An old weathervane she acquired in St. Louis is mounted and displayed in the living room. Another feature partly influenced by her time in St. Louis is a brick fireplace, rare in Southern California homes. She used terrazzo throughout the ground floor, and the interior walls are very colorful. "The house is meant to display art," she says. Her collections of baskets, mid-20th-century pottery, and African masks, among other items, are showcased throughout the house. One room has a collection of globes. Colorful travel posters she and her husband collected are also on display.

The garden is one of her passions. "It has three components: color, fragrance, and fruit," she says. There are 40 fruit trees, flowers, and tiles made by a local ceramist, including an "Oriental rug" made of tiles, in homage to local Malibu tiles of the 1920s.

Besides architectural designer, Corinna is also a printmaker. While she was in graduate school, a friend and fellow architecture student, who had taken classes in print graphics in the art school, gave Corinna one of her prints as a birthday present. It made an impression: "After graduation, I started taking printmaking classes, and I've been doing it ever since."

She actively supports the arts, especially folk art and teaching young people to appreciate the arts. She serves on the board of the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles and is a member of the American Crafts Council. She is a past president of the Friends of the Junior Arts Center in Barnsdall Art Park in Los Angeles.

Corinna's parents' influence extended into many areas. Her mother, a fashion designer who studied at Washington University before going on to finish her degree at the Parsons School of Design, was a community leader, volunteer at the Beverly Hills Public Library, and a founding member of the Friends of the Junior Arts Center. In 2004, Corinna established the JoAnne Stolaroff Cotsen Professorship in Architecture at Washington University to honor her mother's memory. She previously had endowed an architecture lecture series at the University.

Corinna's father, Lloyd E. Cotsen, retired chairman of the Neutrogena Corporation and well-known collector, was very supportive of her studies in architecture and encouraged her independence and creativity. "I came home one Christmas and went to my room," she says. "There I found a book on Japanese architecture I had mentioned seeing in the library at school. My father said he saw the folio-sized book of the Katsura Detached Palace and 'just happened to buy it.'" During her first year in architecture school, he also surprised her with the book Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, inscribed: "May this be a beacon of inspiration."

An active volunteer for Washington University for the past decade, Corinna became a member of the Architecture National Council in 1996 and also joined the Los Angeles Regional Cabinet that year; she is currently its chair. She co-chaired the Los Angeles Regional Campaign Committee during the Campaign for Washington University. She says, "Being involved in the Los Angeles region has given me an awareness of Washington University's prestige and standing in the world."

In 2001, she was appointed a trustee and served a four-year term on the University's Board of Trustees. "At my first Board meeting," she says with a laugh, "one of the older Trustees asked me if I was one of the student representatives to the Board."

Corinna received the Dean's Medal for service to architecture from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts last spring at the annual Distinguished Architecture Alumni Awards dinner. She was honored for exceptional dedication and advocacy on behalf of the school and the profession.

Corinna continues to keep close watch on developments in the Sam Fox School and the impact of consolidating architecture and art, along with the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, into a single academic unit. Her greatest concern is that the new architecture dean maintain and enhance the School's long-established identity as one of the top professional schools in the field of architecture.

--John W. Hansford