Gwynn Zivic ’99

Sr. Associate, Mackey Mitchell Architects


During my third year of architecture school I almost abandoned the program. Overwhelmed, overworked and impatient, I was disillusioned by the still-long road ahead, knowing it would include internships and testing. Surrounded by students who seemed to take all-nighters for granted—eating, sleeping and breathing the big “A”—I yearned for a balanced life, and this field seemed too all-consuming. How had I gotten here?

Growing up, I never knew any architects, and had little exposure to the field before entering college. I’d begun my education in graphic design and business in St. Louis, but felt restless. Although I enjoyed creating graphic materials, it didn’t fulfill me. I started researching design professions from product designers to creative directors, from sculptors to textile artists. Through further research, I kept coming back to the idea that architecture was the “umbrella of the design world,” and by pursuing an architectural education I could dabble in all design scales, from a city master plan to a house and its furniture. I found a field where I could design it all. So I began my studies at the Hammons School of Architecture.

I loved HSA. I remember meeting fellow students and faculty thinking, “I have found my people.” I related to the way my new friends noticed the ceiling, lighting or furniture the moment we walked into a new space. I knew I was in the right place.

In my third year, I became frustrated by the workload. I was missing inspiration and I was ready to change directions completely. Would the lifestyle of an architect be too demanding? This was an important crossroad that allowed me to question established norms and then tailor my education to work with my strengths and goals. This skill would become useful throughout my career when I would have to bring my work and lifestyle back to what was authentic to me.

One day during that third year confusion, I was sitting with a group of students and Professor Alkis Tsolakis. Professor Tsolakis noticed my frustration and asked me what was missing. How would I create an education that motivated me? I said I wanted to be inspired, to see more of the world; that I needed to get excited about architecture to validate the time and dedication it requires.

As a group, we wanted to study in Greece to be inspired by the ancient arts. With Alkis, we began strategizing and developing a new semester-long program. In a presentation to school administration, we outlined how the program would work with our education and be financially feasible. Administration said we made an excellent case, so we put our plan into action. The semester was one I will never forget, and I fell in love with design and architecture again. It helped build my confidence that I could create my own path and customize not only my education, but also my career, to reflect my strengths regardless of what everyone else seemed to be doing.

Today, 15 years out of school, I can look back at an already tremendous career that reflects my strengths and interests. To quench my early desire to be exposed to design at many scales, I focused on higher education. I have created landscape and university master plans, university buildings and interiors, unique signage and wall graphics, custom chandeliers and built-in furniture.

I am in a leadership position and have been the lead design architect and interior designer for amazing education institutions across the country. I’m particularly proud of three elegant residential halls at the Miami University of Ohio that opened in the fall of 2014; an AIA merit award-winning student center at the University of Huntsville in Alabama; transformational renovations at the Mallinckrodt Center and Business School at Washington University in St. Louis; and a LEED Platinum living/learning center at CU Boulder.

Through this work, I’m creating environments where students are dreaming about their futures and coming together with fellow students and faculty, challenging each other to develop the skills they need to create an authentic life that inspires them. Because of my experiences at Drury, I’m able to share why architecture excites me and how to create an authentic career path with a new generation of students.