header image for Corey Zehgebot MArch '09 with headshot on blue background

“You can be an ambitious person who’s had a robust professional career, but also be self-aware enough to know when you need to take a break—because of whatever is happening in the world or in your life. The choice was clear to me once I sat down and really thought hard about what the best decision was, and I don’t want to be self-conscious or apologetic about that.”

Corey Zehngebot MArch ’09

We are continuing to share conversations we have had with several of our alumni, each of whom pursued different areas of study at the GSD and have gone on to lead impactful careers in design.

We recently spoke with Corey Zehngebot, AIA, AICP, MArch ’09. Corey is an urban designer, architect, and planner. She has worked for the past 20 years in both the public and private sectors and remains captivated by cities. Most recently, Corey worked as the Director of Urban Design at Graffito SP, a consultancy that works with landlords, tenants, and developers focused on ground floor activation of mixed-use projects. Prior to joining Graffito, Corey worked as a Senior Urban Designer and Architect for the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA, formerly the Boston Redevelopment Authority). Corey has also worked as a senior urban designer, architect, and planner for Utile in Boston. In addition, she has taught at Harvard and MIT, and served as a design critic at many area colleges and universities. She received a B.A. with distinction from Yale University and a Master of Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Corey is currently a member of the GSD Alumni Council.

When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career in design?

I wasn’t one of the people who knew from birth. I took a long, roundabout way to figure it out. In college, I double majored in behavioral neuroscience and history of art, but I was very interested in architecture. Also, I went to Yale, which has two of the best designed art museums in the country: The Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art—the latter of which, in particular, was one of the first buildings where I really understood how design can profoundly impact the way people feel about space.

After college, I got a job working in master planning and construction at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This museum is a classical stone civic building that sits in a park, not unlike The Met in New York City, and it was embarking on a large-scale expansion project. I was part of the in-house team that was working with the architects and landscape architects; I had always struggled to figure out how to combine the sciences with the arts until I had a front row seat to this design process. The proverbial light switch flipped on in my head, and I thought: “This might be something that I want to do.”

You studied architecture, but have gone more into planning, correct?

I’m both an architect and a planner. Ultimately, I consider myself an urban designer in the sense that I’m very interested in the buildings themselves, but I’m more interested in how they operate within the space of the city. My focus has been in urban design, meaning the space between buildings and the first floor of those buildings—the public spaces that most people in cities would occupy and interact with.

I could care less about curtain walls and detailing certain aspects of a building; I want to play a role in creating the space of the city. I like to think about how buildings meet the sky and how the buildings meet the ground, and if they don’t meet the ground in a way that is sensitive to a vibrant urban context, then they’re failures to me.

Is there a specific GSD experience that you look back on as significant in shaping how you practice now?

Exploring other curricular options in my final two years [at the GSD] was really important to me, which does mirror how I approach things today. I took two high-level option studios where I traveled to Mumbai and São Paulo. In both cases, I was very deliberate in not choosing to take an architecture studio. I took an urban design studio and a landscape architecture studio. My final year, I took a course called Real Property at Harvard Business School and a course on smart cities and transportation at MIT. [At the GSD] I took a Field Studies in Real Estate course with students in other disciplines. It was a team-based project, and I worked with people in the real estate program who built financial modeling for projects. In many ways, that course most closely resembles what I ultimately wound up doing.

Could you talk a bit about your practice or projects that you have worked on?

I left working at the city of Boston Planning and Development Agency to join a firm called Graffito, which is predominately a retail broker but was expanding its consulting practice into advising on early-phase development projects. I was advising developers, architects, and consultant teams that were working on large-scale development projects on the design of the ground floor and how it interfaces with the public realm.

I have pretty extensive knowledge of the city of Boston at this point, because I worked more than six years for the city. When you’re in government, you know all of the projects that are in the pipeline, many of which may not be publicly known. They’re still percolating in that pre-permitting stage. My approach to the work involved trying to connect the dots between projects that might be proximate to one another and to other city initiatives, while thinking about how best to create a well-designed, high-quality, consistent, and safe public realm. At Graffito, I was really able to get into the specific uses on the ground floor of these projects—both retail and, as the firm liked to call it, “non-retail ground floor active spaces.” Everything from libraries to COVID testing sites (at the time) to uses related to the arts. There are a lot of creative professionals like architects that prefer to operate out of a storefront location, as opposed to being in some commercial office tower way up in the sky. All of these uses bring vibrancy and life to the street. I would summarize the mission statement of the firm as “using ground floor space as a way to create value rather than revenue.”

How are you spending your time lately?

I’m taking a self-imposed sabbatical at the moment. I prefer the term sabbatical as it implies both intellectual pursuit and an endpoint. I’ve been working for 20 years, basically, nonstop, and I really needed a break. For me, it was more about the physical burnout than the mental burnout. Between two kids, working, teaching, and a global pandemic, I was exhausted. But I also had gotten to a point where I was reviewing development projects that I had seen earlier iterations of years prior because I had been working in government for so many years, and it was becoming difficult for me to get excited about some of these projects. That was another clear indication that I needed to step away.

Being on sabbatical has given me time to reflect and take care of myself, which was long overdue. I’ve done an enormous amount of reading about social injustice, race, feminism, and parenting. I have two young daughters; when they’re little, their needs are very custodial. But they’re getting older, and this time has given me an opportunity to recalibrate how I approach parenting.

What would you say to fellow alumni about your experience taking a sabbatical? Specifically, how has it been valuable for your life and career moving forward?

I don’t feel old or wise enough to impart wisdom, but I can offer my perspective, which is that my sabbatical has allowed me to see my career as a number of different chapters. I really subscribe to the notion of a nonlinear career path, and I think that my interest in design and cities is very broad; it’s become clear to me that I can enter the field from a number of different angles. To young people, I would say: The first job you have (or whatever job you’re currently in) is probably not going to be the only job you’ll ever have. I’ve found it’s a useful framework to think about the things you learn in school or on the job as seeds being planted that may not bear fruit for a long, long time, until the conditions are just right—even though that can be really frustrating.

I would like to note that I’m extraordinarily privileged to be able to make the decision to take a sabbatical. Architecture as a profession does not compensate people nearly as well as it should, and I know that there are many folks out there who are burdened by substantial loans and may not have the luxury of being able to take time off.

What happens to our society if initiative and progress in the design world stop moving forward?

As I said, I have two daughters, and I’m fearful that they’re going to grow up in a world where they have fewer personal freedoms than I did. On one hand, it’s important to advocate for and acknowledge how important design is to the world. But on the other hand, we’re living in a moment where many are realizing that the world’s problems are enormous and we’re all trying to put out fires left and right. I am a pathological optimist and don’t want to be dramatically pessimistic, but I worry that if the bottom falls out for a while, we’re going to have bigger problems. That said, I think there is much more awareness and acknowledgment about the value of design—certainly among sophisticated developers. They absolutely appreciate and understand the value of design, and they’re much more inclined to hire skilled and competent designers. “Value of design” is now a phrase that has infiltrated other discourses (like in business schools) and other spaces where that vocabulary didn’t always exist.

Do you see designers as leaders?

Absolutely. Designers have the ability to visualize tangible outcomes, which can inspire all sorts of people. They are trained to take in diverse information, synthesize it, and come up with a solution that’s tangible in the world. It is truly a remarkable skill set. I think that designers are recognizing that in order to show leadership, they have to speak multiple vocabularies and know how to operate in diverse contexts in order for what they’re saying to resonate with people.

The younger generation of architects has shown tremendous leadership around big issues like climate change, resiliency, and social justice—even with projects that are not generating money, or projects that people are pursuing independently because they feel that they’re important.