Ronnette Riley: Living Large and Appreciating the Small
Architect Ronnette Riley has one of the best views in the world. From her office on the 76th floor of the Empire State Building, she can see not only the rooftops of New York and New Jersey, but also the rooftops of Amsterdam, Paris, and Dubai.
Hundreds of miniature landmark buildings from all over the world line the walls of Riley's office. Owner of more than 3,500 tiny structures, Riley possesses one of the country's largest collections of miniature buildings.
Not all the miniatures are conventional silver or bronze replicas. "I love the corny ones," says Riley, pointing to an Empire State Building dog chew toy. A candle version of the Empire State Building and building-shaped flasks also keep the extensive collection from being boring.
Like her collection, Riley's life has been anything but boring. King's students passing Riley in the ESB lobby on their way to classes might not realize they were seeing one of the most accomplished female architects in the country. Riley's quick step and quicker laugh, however, hint at her intensity and humor even to a casual observer.
Determination and a sense of humor are necessary for Riley, a woman working in a male-dominated field. Becoming the first female architect to oversee design of a skyscraper from start to finish, Riley designed New York's iconic Lipstick Building in the 1980s while working for Philip Johnson. While managing the project, Riley overcame opposition from men who resented her gender and youth, and successfully completed the building at age 25.
Instead of being daunted by opposition, Riley seems to thrive on challenge. "My whole life has been people telling me girls can't do things," she says. "Did I really want to be an architect, or was it just because people told me I couldn't do it? I don't know, but it's a good profession."
After her success with the Lipstick Building, Riley decided to open her own architecture firm and is now the proud owner of one of the few female-owned firms in the country.
Born in northern California to teenage parents, Riley decided to become an architect when she was 12 years old. Desperate to escape poverty, she decided to follow in the footsteps of an architect uncle, assuming that the profession was lucrative, an assumption she says was wrong.
"It's very difficult to make a living in architecture," Riley laughs. "On the other hand, no one wants to talk to my banker friends at the bar."
No one could have difficulty making conversation with Riley. Well-traveled and well-read, she is more than willing to share the stories about her unconventional life. A dedicated softball player who competes in three leagues, she also loves racing her Maserati and frequently participates in road rallies.
"I might be a little too old, but I can have fun," she says.
When asked what the future holds for her, Riley seems uncertain. She loves her work and hopes to continue reaching out to the community with pro bono work, but she seems uneasy when she considers the future.
"The great thing about architecture is that you don't know you're a failure until the end of your life," she says.
Riley can hardly be called a failure. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and received a masters from Harvard University. Her buildings include the Lipstick Building and the Apple Store in Soho. However, she seems unsatisfied with both her professional and personal lives, joking that she is "looking to marry very well, because I'm tired of making a living on my own."
Whatever the future may hold, Riley plans on sticking to her lifelong habit of determinedly pursuing her goals and enjoying herself in the process. "Live large. Live your life," she says. "You're not doing this on the way to your life."