Extended Territories: Women of Architecture

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In celebration of Women’s History Month, the National Building Museum collaborated with the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation to discuss extraordinary women leading the field of architecture. Andrea Leers, FAIA, and Jane Weinzapfel, FAIA, discussed how their work intersects with urbanization, globalization, and sustainability. As a firm, Leers Weinzapfel Associates, the 2007 AIA Firm Award recipient, promotes social well-being and human interaction in buildings that blend the realms of public and private space and cross disciplines of architecture, urban design, landscape architecture, and infrastructure. National Building Museum Online interviewed Andrea and Jane about their work and their place in the field.

University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex, Philadephia, PA. Photo by Peter Aaron/Esto.

National Building Museum Online (NBM Online): Please tell our readers a little about the history of your firm.

Leers & Weinzapfel (L&W): We came from different parts of the country where we each grew up and studied—Andrea from New England and Jane from the Southwest—which shaped our sensibilities and values. We met as interns at the office Earl R. Flansburgh in Cambridge, MA, and later, in 1982, we joined in practice. We started the firm with a commitment to design innovation and excellence in the public realm, thinking of buildings as citizens of a community, and architecture in the ensemble. Our goal was to create a workplace of collaboration that is supportive of individuals’ family and teaching responsibilities. In 1997 Josiah Stevenson joined us as Principal, and in 2012 we expanded our leadership group with three Associate Principals: Natasha Espada, Tom Chung, and Winnie Stopps.

Our first design opportunities were in the area of infrastructure—a building suspended under a bridge in Boston, an airfield maintenance building—leading to later significant infrastructure projects such as the University of Pennsylvania Gateway Chiller Plant. Public building projects began with small community recreation buildings, neighborhood police buildings, and later expanded to important civic buildings including state and federal courthouses. Early small renovation projects for universities led to major campus buildings and master planning.

Today our work lies at the intersection of architecture, urban design, and infrastructure; our projects are embedded in cities, campuses, and the larger landscape. While we continue to be committed to building in the Boston area and contributing to our community, our work now extends across the country and internationally, most recently with projects in Taiwan and France.

The Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital. Photo by Anton Grassl/Esto.

NBM Online: What would you say is the driving philosophy behind your design process?

L&W: We approach today’s highly constrained and technically demanding design programs with clear and rigorous modernist core principles; a passion for material and detail investigation, and innovative sustainable strategies; and a desire to create meaningful places for human and social interaction. We seek to integrate building and landscape, strengthen urban and campus ensembles, and intensify and expand the sense of place. We search for a close fit between program and place, and for an architectural experience to engage the spirit and senses.

NBM OnlineCan you tell us about one of your most successful projects, and why you feel it was so successful?

L&W: The University of Pennsylvania Gateway Chiller Plant was a new, larger type of infrastructure project for us. And because it was a design competition we did not have a high level of interaction with the client during the initial design. We took a cue from the competition brief that requested maximizing recreation opportunities in addition to the new-required varsity baseball field. We treated the entire site as a recreational landscape with the chiller plant and truck movement precinct enclosed in a screen, creating a quarter-mile jogging track. The screened enclosure became an elongated ellipse juxtaposed with the ball field to fit the teardrop-shaped riverfront site. The project is successful on several counts: it serves as a gateway to an important campus entrance; its site integration of building and landscape enhances a green recreational zone along the riverfront; it significantly saves energy on campus and improves overall central plant efficiency and operations; material investigation in its design developed a new building material; and currently, over a decade after its initial design, a major phased expansion of the plant is being designed within the elliptical screen plant precinct for minimum site disruption.

Taunton Trial Court, Taunton, MA. Photo by Peter Aaron/Esto.

NBM OnlineWhere would you like to see Leers Weinzapfel go in the future? What types of projects or issues are you interested in that you haven’t yet gotten the chance to address?

L&W: We look forward to investigating the extended territories of architecture: interdisciplinary design, sustainable design strategies, and international cultural challenges. We anticipate and welcome the increasingly powerful technical integration within the studio including digital fabrication and parametric design. We have not yet had the chance to work in the southwest or northwest regions of this country, and we would enjoy exploring the impacts of those climates, cultures, and landscapes on our approach to design.

NBM OnlineHow would you characterize the fields of architecture and design in 2014 in terms of the climate for women practicing in the field? What advice would you give to a young woman interested in studying architecture, but who might be intimidated by entering into an historically male-dominated field?

L&W: We believe that determination and staying power, the belief that architecture makes a difference, and finding like-minded clients, remain as important as they were when we started and are even more crucial today for the current generation of women architects. Among the growing percentage of women students, we are seeing an increase in cross-disciplinary degrees and are encouraged by the number of women studying architecture combined with urban design and landscape architecture degrees. Our advice? Follow your passion, enjoy what you do, and move the discussion forward. Don’t be blind to the barriers that remain for women, but don’t be blocked by them. Remember that you stand on the shoulders of women before you, and offer a hand to women emerging.

NBM OnlineWhy do you think talks and lecture series like Women of Architecture series are important?

L&W: In the early 1970’s, a group called WALAP (Women in Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Planning), initiated by then-recent HGSD graduate Dolores Hayden and others, called for many women professionals and faculty in the Boston area to gather together, share, and explore the status of women in our professions. 100 women responded including the two of us, Joan Goody, Marilyn Tobey, Joan Sprague, Doris Cole, and many others. Most of us were the only women in our firms (we were the exception) and so it was extraordinary to see our numbers. Today, more than 40 years later, we are looking at a much broader landscape of women in the profession, but work still remains to be done. We still encounter students, professionals, and occasionally faculty who feel isolated and/or marginalized, and for whom a connection is quite important. This lecture series highlighting the design of exceptional architects who are also women is part of that work, and we applaud its initiative.