Beverly Willis' Legacy: Architect Pushes Deserved Recognition for Women
Embracing new approaches to better design buildings, cities and everything in between seems to be a 21st-century phenomenon—whether it’s adaptive reuse, enhanced public spaces, environmental conservation or urban policies for livable cities. But please.
Architect Beverly Willis has been doing all of that since the late 1950s—pioneering design trends now leading the industry, and launching an impressive second career with her New York City-based foundation that also was ahead of its time in helping women in architecture and related fields gain deserved recognition and grow their careers in a male-dominated environment.
“I would say she has no peers. She’s peerless!” says Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, executive director of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), who in October introduced the 90-year-old as the winner of the Legacy Award at ENR New York’s annual Best Projects Awards breakfast in New York City. “The sheer variety of careers that she’s had, from artist to architect to philanthropist, makes comparison a challenge.”
Life Informs Work
Willis has come far since her birth in Oklahoma in February 1928. She went to an orphanage at age 6 because of family financial difficulties and learned to fly planes at age 15 to be able to support the war effort during World War II.
These experiences would later inform her pioneering work. Bombsights used by bombardiers on military planes sparked her idea for CARLA (Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis), a suite of land analysis software programs to plan and design large-scale housing projects built on complicated terrain, which landed her on the cover of ENR in November 1976.
Fending for herself as an orphan shaped her professional approach. “I’ve spent my whole life doing things without a prototype!” she said in a phone interview, while talking about the architecture-engineering-construction industry’s wariness to do new things in new ways. “I’ve never suffered any consequences for being a risk taker.”
While accolades in recent years focus on her foundation and her advocacy for professional women, it’s extremely important to Willis that she be equally remembered for her architectural accomplishments.
She’s arguably responsible for the famous “look” of San Francisco, where she jumped into her career in earnest, with its Victorian-style homes that often combine residential and commercial in elegant fashion. In the early 1960s, purchasers of those houses wanted to figure out how to make the properties income-producing. If they built new shopping malls, there wouldn’t be nearly enough parking spaces that city codes demanded for new structures.
“That’s when I came up with the idea of keeping the buildings, but jacking them up and building a new floor (for retail) underneath,” she recalls about what became a nine-store shopping center on Union Street, which more or less has been copied around town. “That met the challenge of income-producing space without having to meet the parking requirement.”
That city is also home to Willis’ shiniest design achievement: the San Francisco Ballet building.
After almost a decade of looking for a structure to convert, the owners decided to build from scratch. Then-Mayor Diane Feinstein knew Willis and supported the endeavor. Completed in 1984, the structure was the first to be specifically designed for the needs of professional dancers, from practice to performance.
“I was struck by the design process—specifically the amount of outreach, dialogue, listening and study,” Carisima Koenig, senior vice president of Cannon Design, says of the building, which “became the benchmark for American ballet schools.” As a former ballet student and veteran of a variety of classrooms and performance spaces, Koenig particularly admires how the project “designed how a ballet school teaches and rehearses.”
In ENR’s 1976 cover story on Willis for the groundbreaking CARLA, the architect noted that she and her peers “saw that without substantial change, traditional architectural and engineering private practices were not able to provide the expertise to meet the needs of their clients and society at large” (ENR 11/4/76 p. 24).
“Up to that point, building sites were quite small,” Willis recalls today. “In school, we learned to walk sites to get a feel for slopes [and other terrain issues]. But when it’s 5,000 acres, you can’t just walk it and memorize it [and figure out] what will happen if we bulldoze this or that, what happens to drainage, or in terms of mudslides? We needed a tool—and that tool didn’t exist.”
When California adopted new federal environmental rules in the 1970s, her firm Willis & Associates started providing services to draft newly required environmental impact reports. After decades on the West Coast, Willis relocated to the New York City area.
New Venue, New Challenges
One of her most discussed architectural achievements in the city is the Manhattan Village Academy, which exemplified what was in the 1990s the “brand new concept of charter schools,” she says.
Willis was tapped to design a smaller facility in which limited staff could still keep their eyes on students and that could be retrofitted into an existing building—a more common approach in the city’s tight spaces than building a school from the ground up as was common in the suburbs.
“Part of my design was to have students come in a fairly narrow entry, but the office with glass walls was right there, so they could see everyone who walked into the door,” Willis explains. “We had windows in the library so that the hallways would be visible to multiple people.”
Construction finished in 1996, but the school still impresses today.
“Dignified, sophisticated and elegant, what a wonderful setting for New York City high school students,” says Lance Jay Brown, president and founding board member of the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization and a board member of Willis’ foundation. “I see them going to school every morning. I keep thinking that the architecture enriches their lives in ways they do not yet know, but feel. That is Beverly at work.”
The Legacy Award winner also was hard at work outside her studio—traveling to Washington, D.C., to urge the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment and to co-found the National Building Museum; serving on the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Conference on Habitat I;
She also served on the executive committee of the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Infrastructure and Constructed Environment; and had a role in innumerable activities that continued long past normal retirement age.
“When I was 75 years old, I discovered that women were not included in architecture history,” Willis said in June at the premere of “Unknown New York: The City That Women Built”—a 17-minute documentary that she wrote and directed.
“What was important was … trying to show the volume” of women involved in constructing the city’s skyscrapers, bridges, gardens, cultural centers and subways. Some 350 projects designed or engineered by women are packed into the movie.
Promoting Women's Achievement
Realizing women’s exclusion is what spurred Willis to start her foundation in 2002.
While she is semi-retired from BWAF, the organization still serves three constituencies. One is historical, to give due credit to female architects and engineers, through such means as producing films like “A Girl Is a Fellow Here: 100 Women in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Another is by developing programs for executive-level women so they can move into the C-suite and generate change from the top.
The third is an Emerging Leaders program, to provide knowledge and advice to professionals 10 years or less out of college.
“Right now we have a lot [of younger women] dropping out and leaving the profession. We’re trying to give them business tools that deal with aspects of the profession they haven’t yet been trained in,” Willis says, adding that about 100 have completed the program so far.
Graduates say the program has been a big help.
“Sometimes I find myself conflicted or even confused by the social issues at work, but cannot articulate those feelings immediately,” says Angel Eng, a senior project manager of building structures at WSP USA. “During roundtable discussions organized by BWAF, I was able to think through those issues.”
Danei Cesario, an associate at Array Architects, was in the first cohort of the Emerging Leaders program. She says Willis is “a true advocate,” noting that “her ability to rectify the ills of historical exclusion while remaining forward-thinking for the next generation of architects has resonated with me. It’s a delicate but vital balance in propelling our profession forward.”
But “delicate” is hardly a term applied to Willis.
As Patti Harris, CEO of LicenseSure and treasurer of the foundation, puts it: “I most admire her abilities as an advocate for the rights of women and as an agitator to make it not just about saying the right things but doing the right things. Bev has had a long career as an agitator.”
Willis would be the first to agree.
In accepting her Legacy Award last year, she rose when her name was called and waved vigorously to the crowd as it gave her a standing ovation.
Willis then referenced #MeToo among other fiery topics in her acceptance speech.
“I have a bad reputation for being blunt,” she said with a lilt in her voice. “But by the same token, I feel if I’m not blunt, I’m not getting my message across.”