Admittedly, Carol A. Wilson was dragging her feet. She was eager to work with the editors at Princeton Architectural Press on a book about the bold, modern buildings she has designed in Maine and elsewhere in New England. But the project demanded time and attention that she simply didn’t have.

When Enrico Pinna and Juhani Pallasmaa agreed to help write for the book, “I could no longer say no,” Wilson said. “Enrico and Juhani are two of our most important living writers about architecture and phenomenology. I was humbled.”

Essays by Pinna and Pallasmaa, as well as transcripts from a series of conversations between Wilson and architect John Leroux, form the backbone of “Northern Exposure: Works of Carol A. Wilson Architect,” which tells Wilson’s story by portraying eight of her New England projects, including several in Maine – a writer’s studio on Mount Desert, a beach house in Kennebunkport and a long, lean home on Chebeague Island that takes maximum advantage of the sun for solar heating. She is based in Falmouth, and has dedicated much of her career to talking to people about good design and why it’s important to build environmentally responsive buildings that respect the ecology of building sites and take advantage of local materials.

The book explains her process and aesthetic, beginning with hand-drawn and computer-aided plans and ending with photographs of the finished projects. It took a village to finish the book, she said, crediting designer and Maine College of Art graduate Eric Eng for the book’s look and feel. As a student at MECA in 2004, Eng interned in Wilson’s Falmouth office before moving first to London and then New York, where he lives now. She recommended Eng to the Princeton Architectural Press for this project. “If I didn’t have the energy to face the book initially, then working with Eric gave me the charge,” Wilson said.

She answered questions about the book via email. We’ve edited the answers for length.

Wilson works through a design with pencil and paper.

Q: How do you stay inspired?


A: Inspiration is a funny thing. It stays hidden just under the surface and it burrows deeper oftentimes when one digs for it. You have to find a way to levitate it upwards to meet your spirit. Odd things do it for me. I am a voracious reader. I draw and write and I travel. Travel is the easiest way to feed my spirit. For the past two years, I have had the good fortune to spend from mid-December to mid-January in Milan, my favorite city. I come home with enough material to last the year.

Q: Why did you come to Maine and why do you stay?

A: My arrival in Maine was a case of the tail wagging the dog. I was married to someone who summered in Maine. I came grudgingly for a three-year period and then later realized how much I loved living in Maine, in particular Portland. I am more of a city person than an out-of-doors type, but I have climbed Katahdin, canoed the Allagash, fished from Grand Lake Stream to Pond in the River. My house and studio abut 140 acres of Falmouth’s oldest forest stand with pine hemlock and spruce trees, some 80- to 120-years old. If I can have both, then I choose the quality of life I have here and the beauty of this place.

Q: You obviously love the place and have been able to do your work. How have you made Maine work for you, on your terms?

A: That is sooo not easy. I am not sure how else to put it. At first, you must have some sort of luck, meeting clients who are willing to think about living in non-traditional ways. As soon as they get that, then you can begin to design spaces and buildings that make sense on every level and keep both sides of your brain alive. Many of my clients thought that they wanted this, but really had to take a leap of faith to build a modern house and now report to me that they can’t imagine living any other way. There is also the element of patience, persistence, and perseverance, or as my family calls it, “doggedness.”

Q: What do you love about Maine from a design perspective? How does living and working in Maine enhance your work and push you creatively and artistically?


A: I am not always sure that living and working in Maine pushes me creatively and artistically other than it forces me to push myself and to surround myself with other folks with vision who push themselves and push me, primarily Gavin Engler, my associate, and Tom Hall. Just this morning I was working on a house to be built in Woodstock, Vermont. It is a lovely design, well resolved, addresses the spaces and materials our client has in mind, but as I was drawing, I thought, this does not yet sing. We have done the work, but we haven’t brought it to life, so now I will carry it around with me and hope for an aha moment that will come, but from who knows where.

Q: How did your aesthetic evolve, and what role did place – Maine – have to do with it?

A: Maine makes a part of it very easy. I say this in several different ways in the book. Living at 44 degrees north latitude with the climate that we have, snow and cold winters, there are demands made that must be met, especially in our time when everyone is trying to be economically and environmentally sensitive. Parameters make things easy. They provide direction. The last thing I desire is a blank slate. I need material to work with, and perhaps that is why architecture suits me. I often have had students ask me, ‘What would you design if you could design anything?’ and I cringe because to me it is nonsensical. I love that Enrico Pinna says, “she is setting aside material.”

Q: What you made you want to design? You say in the book that our culture wants to divide us between artists and scientists, but architecture demands both to be successful. What characteristics do you possess that make you good at your job?

A: I love both the analytical and the artistic, and I truly believe that invention happens at this intersection. Architecture should be an expression resulting from originality of thought. I am not a fine artist working with no parameters. Habitation has many constraints, from levels of comfort to cost. I like operating within those boundaries, working from principles and solving problems. Architecture (vs. building) implies taking the solution beyond a simple utilitarian solution, to one of visual delight and heightened experience.

Q: Do you consider yourself an artist?


A: Not really. I do have artist longings, visual thinking that is satisfied by my work as well as by other things, drawings, collage.

Q: Why do you prefer houses over offices or public spaces? What does a home allow you that other projects do not?

A: I don’t necessarily have a preference, but working with public organizations, large or small, involves compromise and when you know that there is a better solution or the opportunity to do a world-class building, it is hard to back down and provide a “more acceptable” solution. Look at the importance of Henry Cobb’s Portland Museum of Art. Can you imagine Portland without it? Can you name another modern building of that quality in Portland? What does it take to get this quality of work? Who is willing to take that leap? At the moment, developers are not interested in paying for design services. It takes a client who values design to make it worth the energy that we put into every project, and oftentimes clients seeking excellence in design go further afield.


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