James McCullar, FAIA, founded his New York–based firm, now called James McCullar Architecture, in 1981, focusing on affordable housing, sustainable community design, and urban revitalization. His steadfast commitment to such projects has earned him the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture. Here he responds to our architect's version of the Proust questionnaire.

What is your greatest achievement?
Co-founding the New York-based Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization that builds bridges between the design community and the United Nations in support of the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda adopted at Habitat III and by the AIA in 2018.

What is the most memorable moment of your career?
Induction into the AIA College of Fellows in 1999 for Urban Housing and Community Design.

When did you know you wanted to focus on affordable housing/public design?
After the New York City population loss and abandonment in the 1970s created a need for rebuilding the city.

What is the biggest challenge right now in this area?
Finding consensus on how to address a continued population growth and exurban sprawl exacerbated by climate change and the lack of environmental planning.

What is the most promising aspect?
A new generation of architects, landscape architects, and planners have brought a holistic design approach capable of addressing many of these problems if given the chance.

What was your most rewarding collaboration?
The early Byland House in Missouri, a synthesis of active and passive solar design, local influences, and an octagonal solarium modeled on Jefferson’s Monticello. Jackie Byland wrote, “There is hardly a day that passes that we do not still marvel at his designs for our solar home. Our lives continue to fit perfectly into the spaces he created especially for us.”

What project of yours best illustrates your approach to architecture?
The Jamaica Market, recognized by a 1998 AIA Honor Award for Urban Design: "Responding to the social act of place making, this market is a community force and a community resource ... a beautifully executed civic space. The Jamaica Market proves that such a huge urban design success must rely on a marriage of design, policy, and an involved community."

What’s one building/project you wish you had done?
A skyscraper visible in the New York City skyline, had I taken a different career path. I often think of Robert Frost’s “Two roads diverged in a wood and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

What’s the one project that got away?
The adaptive reuse of the Empire Stores and adjacent warehouses for a mixed-use residential, light industrial, and waterfront park in Brooklyn when I first began practice.

What is the greatest career ambition you have yet to achieve?
The realization of a larger scale mixed-use urban community and new town development.

What is your greatest professional regret?
Not have taken more risks to achieve more of what I was capable of doing.

What do you hope your legacy will be?
As an advocate for affordable housing and sustainable community design.

When did you first realize you wanted to be an architect?
At an early age drawing and building environments. I recall Freud’s observation that adult happiness is the realization of childhood fantasies.

What jobs did your parents have?
My father was a farmer and outdoorsman. My mother was a homemaker who co-opted me in the constant redecoration of our home.

What would you have been if not an architect?
A good question. Possibly a lawyer in advocacy work, or an urban historian.

What keeps you up at night?
During bouts of insomnia, re-analyzing problems.

What is your favorite building?
In deference to Jefferson, Monticello, but also Borromini’s San Carlo. Though not a building, the Viaduct of Millau, by Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, that spans the Tarn Valley in the Southwest of France, is a beautiful synthesis of engineering and environmental design.

What is your most treasured possession?

What is your greatest extravagance?
Dining out with friends.

When and where were you the happiest?
In my 20s embarking on a career, marriage, and exploring the world.

What is your greatest fear?
That we will not be able to resolve the host of problems confronting us today.

Which talent would you most like to have?
To be musical and speak different languages.

What does architectural misery mean?
The difficulty of paying bills and staying in business.

What does architectural happiness mean?
The conceptualization and realization of design concepts that can make a difference.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
As a child of depression-era parents, being too conservative and not having taken more risks.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Lack of humility and inability to act with grace towards others.

Which artists do you most admire?
Matisse for color and Donald Judd for abstract form.

What’s the last drawing you did?
A sketch for new supportive housing adapted to a rocky Bronx hillside, which is being realized with only minor changes.

Which five architects, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
A difficult choice given the history of architecture, but in the spirit of the award, Thomas Jefferson and four past recipients I admire: Michael Pyatok, FAIA, David Burney, FAIA, Curt Fentress, FAIA, and Richard Dattner, FAIA.

Which living person do you most admire?
Another good question. I would say Jeffrey Sachs for his commitment to society and the environment.

Which book(s) are you currently reading?
Jefferson’s nemesis yet equally influential founding father: Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
The Roman Emperor Claudius in I Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves, who was brought to life by Derek Jacoby in the classic 1970s BBC TV series.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
To be less of a work alcoholic and more socially engaged with family, friends, and colleagues.

What’s the one question you wish we had asked (and the answer to that question)?
What is your favorite movie? There are so many, but to choose one–Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, and for this year’s contenders Bohemian Rhapsody.

What does winning the Thomas Jefferson Award mean to you?
An acknowledgment of a career in making our communities and cities more equitable and better places to live.