Written by Heather Burke Tuesday, November 22 2011
Snapshot: Beverly Willis, founder, Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation
|Industry Leaders Roundtable retreat, October
2011, at Pocantico Conference Center of the
Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Beverly Willis is an artist, architect, urbanist, activist, writer, and entrepreneur who transformed American 20th century architecture through her pioneering innovations. Her most famous building is the San Francisco Ballet Building in the City Civic Center. In 2002, Willis founded the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) to document and raise the visibility of women’s contributions to America’s built environment throughout history. BWAF promotes pathways for women’s recognition and advancement in the building professions through its core programs of education, research, and outreach.
Womenetics: What led you to found Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation?
Beverly Willis: After 35 years of practice, I discovered that the designs and work of professional women in the built environment, whether architects, engineers, or planners, were not in the history books. While thousands of women have practiced over the decades – some have been truly gifted and exceptional and, during their lifetime, showered with professional awards, recognition, and press – but when they die they fade into obscurity and their history is lost.
Womenetics: How is BWAF reshaping the way women’s roles in the history of this country's built environment are understood?
Willis: First, we celebrate the work of today’s practitioners as well as those of the historical past. We document women’s work. BWAF’s online Collection of Women of 20th Century American Architecture of more than 1,200 names keeps growing. We educate the public through museum programs and public events, and we transform the industry practice through collaborations with other organizations and through the BWAF Industry Leaders Roundtable.
Womenetics: What impact does this historical project have for women currently practicing in the building professions and society at large?
Willis: Without a history or a tradition, women in school never read about what women have accomplished. This means there are no inspirational role models for today’s practitioners and there is no record of the incredible designs produced by early women. Design cannot continue to be an old boys club’s exclusive territory.
Women professionals in greater numbers than men embrace the importance of environment and social design. Critic Paul Goldberger defines architecture as simply the design of building structures. Women architects tend to include societal and social concerns in their practice – the design of housing, schools, hospitals, child care centers – while men want to design buildings considered “important:” civic structures, museums, religious buildings, as well as high-rise commercial buildings. This is not to say that women do not design these buildings – they do.
Womenetics: Rebuilding women into the history of architecture is a massive undertaking. Tell us about your process to move a vision into a reality.
Willis: BWAF participates with the Society of Architectural Historians and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. Joint programs are sponsored with leading museums such as MoMA, Guggenheim, and the National Building Museum. BWAF has also provided seed money for films and books. [Personally], I read about a wide variety of all sorts of things. I spot trends and/or patterns. I can connect the dots. This leads to ideas that can be implemented.
Womenetics: BWAF just celebrated its 2nd Annual Industry Leaders Roundtable, “Innovation and Metrics.” What is the goal of the roundtable?
Willis: Specifically, the goal is to provide women with research and knowledge that can help women enter the C-suite and educate their firms about the business case. Studies show that firms with women in a decision-making capacity are more profitable and successful. Roundtable participants are large global firms that taken together employ more than 100,000, which we guess – based on existing survey of women in architecture and engineering – include 15,000 to 20,000 women. We believe this number will also help to create cultural change.
Womenetics: What are some of the innovative practices the roundtable has uncovered to advance women of the building professions into decision-making roles?
Willis: First, we lobby for new 21st century management, known as the lattice model, developed by Deloitte Services. We seek to advance three women into to the C-suite as research has shown that three women can change the culture. We build the business case that shows the costs of turnover, how women can build a larger client base, and essentially show that firms where women’s voices are heard are more successful.
Womenetics: In 1966, you established the only female-owned architecture firm in San Francisco, Willis and Associates Inc. Architects. How did you approach building a name for your company and ensuring its competitiveness?
Willis: Through innovation. In 1971 when Microsoft was just being founded by Bill Gates, my firm – one of the first three in the nation to use the computer – wrote software in-house and developed a program we called CARLA, (Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis), for large scale land planning. With CARLA, we could do six months work in 15 days more accurately with the computer.
Womenetics: What role has mentorship played in your life and career?
Willis: It has been essential, both on a social and professional level. Also my early art clients were great mentors.
Womenetics: Tell us about a defining moment in your career.
Willis: While I was still an artist, I hired architects for projects. One day, in response to my ideas, the hired architect said to me, “If you think you are so good, why don’t you become an architect?” It was a new idea, but a challenge, and I decided to become an architect.
Womenetics: Throughout your career, you are constantly pushing boundaries and defying societal and institutional limitations. What philosophy has guided your personal and professional development?
Willis: Never say no. I often did work I was not trained to do. I was not trained as an interior designer, yet I designed the interiors of Admiral Stump’s headquarters at Pearl Harbor and a number of officer’s clubs. Nor was I trained as an architect. I qualified to practice architecture by passing the five-day examination. Enjoy the challenges. Be passionate about what you do. Be part of the greater society outside the profession. Believe that if you cast bread upon the waters, it will come back multifold.
Womenetics: What is the most valuable piece of advice would you give to a professional whose career is in a state of transition?
Willis: Know one’s own self. Be clear about what you want, and then go get it.
Womenetics: What is next for the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation?
Willis: We are working hard to become sustainable. Our challenge to transform the patriarchal structure of the building industry will outlive me and our current officers and trustees. The organization has to be self-sustaining with new people constantly leading the way.
Womenetics: Where do you go to find inspiration?
Willis: I read the newspaper and the stories about people – some very grim, too few are happy. I want to help. For professional innovation, I am constantly reading and researching across all disciplines. I love learning.
Heather Burke has more than eight years experience working with partners in the public and private sectors to promote women’s empowerment and develop innovative investment strategies for community development. She has worked in 12 countries on initiatives spanning women's and girls’ leadership, education, income generation, social entrepreneurship, public health, food security, political participation, and environmental conservation. She is a social venture consultant based outside of Washington, D.C.