Note: This is taken from the preface by John Lobell to Mimi’s book, Spatial Archetypes. You can find more information about Mimi on this site under:
• Memorial (including a slide illustrated presentation of her life)
• Remembrances (including Cristina Biagi’s Preface to Mimi’s book that includes a narrative of her Goddess involvement)
• Archive (including notes on the materials in her archive that outline aspects of her life)
• Resume (which is very extensive)
Mimi studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania with some of the leading architects of her time, worked in the offices of leading architects, and was a professor of architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.
She was born Miriam Louise Comings in the Midwest on July 18, 1942 and died on April 7, 2001 in New York after a brief illness. She grew up in farm country in Illinois and Indiana. Her father was a professor of chemical engineering, and later a department chair and then a dean. Her mother was college-educated and a-stay-at-home housewife, although she sold real estate, taught speed-reading, and at one point started a home day-care center so that Mimi would have playmates. Mimi had two brothers, seven and nine years older.
During WW II Mimi’s parents had a large victory garden and they were surrounded by cornfields. As a child Mimi would sit on the top of her slide (built by her father, since such things could not be bought during the war), look over the hedge at the Pegasus on the sign of a nearby Mobil gas station, and imagine stories of mythology and travels to far away places. Her life became rich with both. Her parents took her on car trips throughout the U.S. and sent her off to a school in Switzerland during her junior year of high school. She traveled all over the world, usually to present papers and attend conferences or to look at architecture and archaeological sites, including to Austria, Belgium, Brussels, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, England, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and throughout the United States. And she studied the world’s cultures and mythologies and their impacts on architecture.
Mimi’s high school junior year in Europe came about because her father was on a Fulbright and she and her parents traveled in Europe the summer before her father’s teaching job started, with her mother seeing to it that they visited museums and cathe- drals. When the summer ended her parents put Mimi on a train to Switzerland for school. Traveling alone for the first time, and then finding herself in a school full of older army brats gave Mimi a sense of confidence that lasted the rest of her life.
Mimi attended Middlebury College where she majored in art history and philosophy and transferred to the University of Pennsylvania to study architecture. Her professors at Penn included Edmund Bacon, Denise Scott Brown, Robert Geddes, Romaldo Giurgola, Ian McHarg, G. Holmes Perkins, and Robert Venturi. Louis Kahn was at Penn and she watched many of his juries. While at Penn, she married John Lobell, a fellow student.
Mimi and John moved to New York where she worked in several architectural offices. At Kahn and Jacobs she worked on an airport for Buffalo and the Minskoff office building in Manhattan, among other projects. In Marcel Breuer’s office she worked on the Grand Coulee Dam Third Power Plant among other projects. (At the time very few architects were women. Occasionally, upon telling someone that she was an architect, she would be asked, “Oh, do you do houses?” She would reply, “No, I am working on the Grand Coulee Dam Third Power Plant.”) At John Johansen’s office she worked on Roosevelt Island Housing, designing a complex skip-corridor scheme. She became a registered architect in 1974 at a time when less than two percent of registered architects were women. She passed all of the exams in one sitting, which very few people do.
In the late 1960s she became involved in the New York art scene in projects challenging social norms, and in the women’s movement in architecture. She was one of the originators of an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977 titled “Women in American Architecture.” She co-founded the Alliance of Women in Architecture and The Archive of Women in Architecture and briefly explored with several colleagues creating an office of women architects.
In the 1960s she also began various spiritual studies including Tai Chi with Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing, and Buddhism at the New York study center of Chogyam Trungpa. She pursued other Buddhist studies and also studied Shamanism with Michael Harner.
She attended dozens of lectures by Joseph Campbell, read the works of Carl Jung and attended various lectures at the New York Jung Foundation, and pursued on her own studies in the history of the Goddess, particularly in Neolithic and ancient cultures. She became a member of a Goddess study group, she associated with Marija Gimbutas, Cristina Biaggi, and other scholars interested in the Goddess, and she attended conferences and presented papers with them.
Thus Mimi became heavily involved in architecture, art, women’s issues, social norms, and spirituality. Not wanting to live schizophrenically, she sought to bring all of these together in one synthesis, which she began with the design of a contemporary Goddess Temple in 1975 that was extensively published, and contributions to a Goddess Mound by Cristina Biaggi. All of this led her to a mythological and symbolic approach to architecture that informed her teaching and led to numerous articles and to this book, Spatial Archetypes.
Encountering glass ceilings in the offices in which she worked and realizing that despite being one of the most competent people in these offices she was not going to be made an associate, Mimi started teaching at the School of Architecture at Pratt Institute in 1972, becoming full time in 1976, only the second women at the School to receive a full time appointment and tenure. She taught there until her death in April 2001.
Mimi’s contributions to Pratt were extensive. She served on many committees and was Chair of Curriculum in the School of Architecture (equivalent to a departmental chair). She taught Architectural History and various electives including Architectural Alternatives, Non-Western Architecture, and Myth and Symbol in Architecture. For a brief time she taught Life Support Systems, an engineering course. The Architectural History sequence was team-taught, and Mimi typically gave the lectures on Paleolithic, Neolithic, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Buddhism, China, Japan, Pre-Columbian American, and Gothic architecture.
She also taught First Year Design and Advanced Design (advance design at Pratt for most of the time Mimi was teaching combined third, fourth, and fifth year students) with various themes. In the years before her death, students in her Advanced Design studio designed “a place of a creative person.” “A place” might mean anything from a studio for that person in their time to a park today in their honor. The “person” might be anyone in whom the student was interested, from a basketball star to a reggae singer to a science fiction writer. Her studios used various techniques such as guided imaginations to access the students’ unconscious creativity, that produced remarkable results, in part because of Mimi’s abilities as a teacher and in part due to the students’ enthusiasm because they were dealing with things that interested them. And because Mimi herself was an excellent designer. Occasionally she would set up a drafting table and say to her students, “Ok, chose a building.” (They might arrive at a library.) Then she would ask, “How large? For what kind of community? What is the site like?” She would then work for several hours, explaining to the students what she was doing as she proceeded, and produce preliminary designs for a building.
Mimi never stopped exploring. Outside of Pratt, she pursued interests in astronomy (she owned a good telescope, collected astronomy books and star charts, and studied the impact of cosmologies on architecture and astronomical alignments of ancient architecture), needlework (she sewed her own clothes when she was younger and mastered various forms of knitting and crocheting), and playing the harp among many others things. She lived a rich life in which she was able to study, travel, and teach. Many of her students remember her to this day as an important influence in their lives.