Biographical Sketch

Rebecca Warren Davidson
Visual Collections Archivist
Cornell University Library

Michael A. McCarthy’s career as an architect has spanned more than four decades and taken him to all corners of the globe. His work encompasses a wide variety of building types for corporate and institutional clients. Interior architecture has been a significant component of his practice, as well as the preservation and renovation of built structures from both the recent and historic past. McCarthy has served on art advisory committees, most notably that of the Chase Manhattan Bank, bringing a designer’s point of view to the formation and exhibition of major corporate art collections. In retirement, McCarthy continued his interest in architectural education and in the profession by serving as a mentor to younger architects and designers; by his endowment of a Chair of Architectural Theory at his alma mater, the Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning; and by his gift to the Cornell University Library of the drawings, slides, photographs, and other related materials documenting his career as an architect.

Early Years and Education
Michael Anthony McCarthy was born July 15, 1934, in Buffalo, New York and received his early education at public schools in the greater Buffalo area. His interest in art led him to consider a career in architecture, for it seemed a productive way to make his love of drawing a central focus of his life. Having been accepted by Cornell University’s highly respected School of Architecture­—one of the first professional programs to be founded in the United States—McCarthy financed his education there through a combination of scholarships and loans.

The five years spent in the B. Arch. program at Cornell would change his life forever, as he threw himself wholeheartedly into a strenuous schedule of art and architecture studios, elective coursework, and acclimation to a new environment. Modernism as taught at Cornell in the 1950s valued the designer’s innovation and originality, expressed without reference to historic styles and implemented through the use of twentieth-century technology. These tenets remained a part of McCarthy’s approach to design throughout his career, varied by differences in cultural and programmatic requirements. McCarthy’s fifth-year thesis project, which is documented in the collection by drawings and slides, was “An Institute of Oriental Studies for the Dominican Order, Borg al-Arab, Egypt.” He was awarded a First Mention under the Beaux-Arts system of grading, as well as the Charles Goodwin Sands Memorial Medal, given by the college for the best thesis design. He was also invited to join two honorary societies, Tau Beta Pi (Engineering) and the Gargoyle Society (Architecture). In 1957, McCarthy was awarded the Bachelor of Architecture degree.While at Cornell, McCarthy had participated in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, and upon graduation was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Army. Before leaving for basic training at Fort Lee, Virginia, however, McCarthy was able to spend a few months in Buffalo working for Harbach and Clark, an architectural firm where he had worked during summer vacations. Paul Hyde Harbach had received his architectural degree from Cornell University and was an enthusiastic supporter of the College of Architecture. Among other projects for Harbach and Clark in 1957, McCarthy designed a private residence in a community south of Buffalo, which was the only single-family house of his career.

For active duty in the Army, McCarthy deliberately chose an assignment—Korea—which would allow him to travel in the Far East. Japan, Hong Kong, Hawaii, and Macau were some of the places he visited on his leave time, and the art and architecture of these countries has had a lasting influence on his work. McCarthy began a serious study of Asian art in Korea, and while there purchased the ceramics and scroll paintings that formed the beginnings of his personal art collection. Even more important, the architecture of Japan made a significant impression on him. It seemed to him quite compatible with the tenets of Modernism, especially in its reliance on a modular system (the tatami mat), and in its frank expression of the character of materials. He also particularly admired the fine workmanship and attention to detail in many buildings, as well as the way in which Japanese designers related indoor and outdoor spaces to each other, and used gardens as extensions and amplifications of buildings.

McCarthy completed his Army service at Fort Totten in New York. His time in Korea, however, had also given him an opportunity to reflect on his life and plan for his future. He had brought with him books on the pre-Columbian, colonial, and contemporary art and architecture of Latin America, and had drafted a proposal for an Eidlitz Fellowship. This award, administered by the Department of Architecture at Cornell, has provided opportunities for many architecture students and recent graduates of the program to broaden their education through travel and study. In McCarthy’s case, winning the Eidlitz Fellowship enabled him to continue his exploration of non-European architectures, an area which had been almost entirely lacking in his formal studies.

After this intensive examination of Latin American architecture, McCarthy returned to his home town of Buffalo, where he soon joined the architectural firm of Thomas Justin Imbs. He worked only briefly for Imbs, however, before being offered a position with Foit and Baschnagel, another Buffalo architectural practice. During his three years with this firm, McCarthy produced design and working drawings for many projects, including libraries and public and private schools, an emphasis which perhaps reflected the increased federal funding available for education in the early 1960s. In 1963, McCarthy received his license to practice architecture in New York State, and became a member of the American Institute of Architects.

Having completed what he terms his “apprenticeship” in architectural practice, McCarthy then sought different and more recent perspectives on modernism. In 1963, he applied to and was accepted by the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, where he received his M.Arch. the following year. The summer of 1964 was spent studying the great monuments of western architecture and urban design in Europe, from which he took a wealth of images, techniques, and references that would, along with those collected in earlier travels in Asia and Latin America, serve him well in his future design career.

The SOM Years
McCarthy returned from Europe in autumn 1964 and began looking for work in New York. He applied at most of the large, well-known architecture firms and accepted an offer from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which enjoyed an excellent reputation, having by that time completed some of the most admired works of modern architecture, such as Lever House and the headquarters of the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, and the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. In addition, there was an expanding international demand for the firm’s designs, which would increase exponentially over the next thirty years. The working atmosphere at SOM also suited McCarthy’s own style. He enjoyed not only the creative excitement of being part of a team of talented designers, engineers, and support personnel, but also the diversity and complexity of commercial building commissions consistently awarded to SOM. Even so, he ruefully recalled, it was three years before any project he worked on at SOM got so far as the working-drawing stage, much less constructed (this is typical of most architects’ careers). For McCarthy the “breakthrough” came with the headquarters of the American Can Company in Greenwich, Connecticut, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, for which he was a Junior Designer. The project, which won a national AIA Honor Award, was an example of what had become a common phenomenon in the 1960s and 1970s—the move of corporations to the suburbs and the creation of what came to be extensive landscaped “campuses” for businesses more traditionally used to operating in crowded urban spaces.

As McCarthy’s skill and responsibilities increased, he moved from being one of many designers responsible for various parts of a project to senior designer in charge of carrying out all design aspects of a commission. His design talents were recognized by his promotion to participating associate in 1967, and to partner in 1973. A short list of some of the most notable projects he and his teams designed illustrates what a wide variety of building types they created in different cultural and geographic environments. Such a list would include the Chase Manhattan Bank projects in the greater New York area and its branches in Europe, Japan, and Latin America; the Milstein Pavilion and the Allen Pavilion of the Presbyterian Hospital in the City of New York; the Islamic Cultural Center of New York; and designs for Transitional Housing for the Homeless, also in New York. Worldwide, McCarthy has designed mixed-use, office, residential, and recreational complexes for sites in Europe, the Far East, the Middle East, and Latin America. His work in other areas includes a chancery for the State of Kuwait in Washington, D.C., and design solutions for transportation, notably the expansion of Dulles Airport in Virginia, the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport in South Carolina, and the Harvard Square Subway Station and its above ground approaches in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Although McCarthy himself was reluctant to designate any one or more of his works as being of most significance, he has stated that his 24 year relationship (1973–1997) with the Chase Manhattan Bank was among the most rewarding and satisfying experiences of his career. This lengthy partnership afforded him the chance not only to design a number of new buildings, but also to make significant contributions to the style and experience of their interiors, both through his own designs and by serving on their art committee. Chase also gave him the opportunity to revisit and renovate many older buildings—some of which had been originally designed by SOM—as the nature of banking and its architectural requirements evolved during those years.

Aesthetically, McCarthy’s work is grounded in modernism as it evolved in the first half of the twentieth century, in historic architecture as he has observed it in his travels, and in the art of his own time. He was concerned that his designs be expressive of programmatic requirements, that they explore the frontiers of new technology, and that they represent the spirit of the times and of the cultures from which they originate. Although McCarthy had received no formal training in interior design in architecture school, he quickly discovered it as a discipline, and his designs for interior architecture and furnishings have been a significant element of his work. He had the good fortune to work with senior members of SOM’s Interiors Department, an experience which, he said, “really became a graduate program in interior design.” Over the course of his career, he has contributed to the interior designs of such corporate clients, as General Electric, Texaco, IBM, and Chrysler. His awareness of and sensitivity to cultures outside the United States were particularly notable in the Middle East, where he designed interiors for the Joint Banking Center, the Commercial Bank of Kuwait, and the Al Ahli Bank in Kuwait, and the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia in New York, among others.

McCarthy’s work with SOM has won many honors and awards, including the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter Design Awards for the Milstein Pavilion at the Presbyterian Hospital in the City of New York (Special Award for Health Care Facilities), for the Transitional Housing for the Homeless (Distinguished Architecture Citation), and for the General Electric Building on Lexington Avenue (Preservation Award). During his years at SOM, the firm received the 1995 National Arts Club Medal for “excellence in architecture” and the American Institute of Architects 1996 Architecture Firm Award.

In retirement, McCarthy continued to be a mentor to younger designers, on an individual basis and through his sustained interest in the profession. The education of new generations of architects was of great interest and concern to McCarthy, and he has served on the Cornell University Council and the College of Architecture’s Advisory Council, as well as donated time and resources to educational causes. He regarded the gift of his papers to Cornell as one of the most important contributions he has made to architectural education. The collection he has made available not only documents his own career, but also directly shows how architecture was practiced in a large, international, team-based firm over the last 50 years. Providing a research fund to help students and scholars use the collection was also a key element of the plan, and one which he hoped will eventually result in both a clearer understanding of the history of twentieth-century architecture, and a sharper focus on our built environment of the future.


The Michael A. McCarthy and Skidmore, Owings & Merril, LLP Collection at Cornell University Library, Collection #6306.
Copyright © 1998 Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, 2B Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 14853. Phone Number: (607) 255-3530. Fax Number: (607) 255-9524.