Observations on Women Architects with Andrea Leers

A personal inspiration for the Girl UNinterrupted project, Andrea Leers, Principal at Leers Weinzapfel Associates shares how she created an award-winning women-lead studio. Andrea's design work has earned her the recognition from of the BSA Award of Honor. She is a Commissioner for the Mayor's Boston Civic Design Commission and a member of the University of Washington Architectural Commission. In parallel to practice, Andrea has had an extensive teaching career. She is the former Director of the Master in Urban Design Program at Harvard GSD and previous appointments were at Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Virginia, Tokyo Institute of Technology, National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, and University of Paris, Sorbonne. Take a look at what Andrea has observed about women architects and young professionals during the years!

How did you get to where you are, Founder and Principal of Leers Weinzapfel Associates?

Andrea Leers

Andrea Leers

I was always interested in art and painting; I took classes with local artists In Springfield MA where I grew up.   My mom would often take me to MOMA in NY. I was one of those kids that was always drawing things. When I went to Wellesley, instead of a Fine Arts program, I found a wonderful Art History program. Toward the end of college, though, I thought, “This is really interesting, but I want to create art not study it.”  I considered graphic design and architecture, but I really had no idea what architecture was about and I thought of it as big sculpture. So I went for a semester to MIT to try it out.  Maurice Smith, my professor, was a very difficult and intimidating person. However, at the end of that semester, he said to me begrudgingly, “You know, you could do this.” That lead me to think about it more seriously. I then went to UPenn where I had an extraordinary education.  It was the time of Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, B.V. Doshi, Tim Vreeland, Denise Scott Brown – an amazing group. I felt especially fortunate that I had two kinds of introductions to architectural education - the MIT approach and the Penn approach. From the beginning, I knew that there was more than one way to think about architecture.

When I finished graduate school, I was very eager to get to work and joined my advisor from Wellesley, Earl Flansburgh. There, I met Jane and we immediately became friends. Earl was a very forward-thinking generous person, and he respected and valued us both. I worked there just long enough to get registered. In the beginning, I didn’t think I needed to be registered; I imagined I would always work for someone else who was. I didn’t have a big picture. I worked very briefly for another firm, now Arrowstreet, who presented me with the opportunity to do a small house project on my own. It was 1970, I was married to Hugh Browning, and we tried to make this the beginning of a practice. We did small projects together - kitchen renovations, back porches, a few college renovations and feasibility studies for public facilities in cities and towns.

In 1975 I also started teaching. I had not been interested in teaching because I wanted to gain skill in design. But Dolores Hayden, then a student, was pushing Harvard to hire women, looking under every rock for the few of us that were out there. One day I got a call, “Would you like to come teach?” I said, “I don’t know. Teaching is a whole skill in itself. I am not a teacher, and I am learning my craft...” They replied, “Oh no, you will be fine, you will be a great teacher.” They saw something I did not. I began teaching then and continued until 5 years ago. In the beginning it was very challenging; I felt that I needed to figure out what I had to teach. Gradually, I did and that was very stimulating - I really enjoyed working with students and always learned a great deal from them.

Hugh and I parted in 1978 and I took over our small firm. I thought that was going to be a make it or break it year. Jane was, by then, working for a big architecture and planning firm. We had a mutual friend- Marilyn Tobey-  working for Massport - a very strong feminist. She had a little project and wanted a woman to do it. That was my very first project - the Tobin Bridge Project. It was really fun and exciting. By the end of the year I realized that not only were I going to make it, but I was overwhelmed with a lot of work. In 1982, with my office barely underway, I had the opportunity to go to Japan for a year-long fellowship. I threw caution to the winds and asked Jane, who had just had her daughter, Eve, to oversee the firm for the time I was away. We would both then think about whether we wanted to join. She and I had very different experiences by then. I had a lot of smaller institutional and public sector projects, and she had been working on complex big projects for the MBTA and others. We had very different connections and clients, and coming together seemed very promising. My year in Japan was inspiring, and led me into several research projects. Now that my interests were spread over 3 areas (practice, teaching and research), it became very clear to me that forming a partnership with Jane was going to be essential for me to continue that many dimensions in my life. So the decision to work together made itself by the end of that year.

When I returned, we formalized our partnership and we began putting our different experiences and client base to work. We had already known each other for more than 10 years; we were friends first. We gave a lot of thought to whether we would threaten our friendship by working together and to whether the idea of two women partners was going to be more than the world was ready for. It was a leap into the unknown and a great adventure. We had very gradual steady growth in staff and in the complexity and interest of our projects. After many years as Principals, we are now looking toward a time when new Principals take a stronger lead in the firm.

What are your observations on women in the architecture field throughout the years?

It sounds strange to say today, but for many years, we did not think of ourselves as women architects at all. We thought of ourselves as architects. And we were appalled when people proposed magazine issues of women architects or exhibits of women architects. It was only many years later that we began to understand that the perception of us as women was real, that we needed to face it squarely, and that we needed to make the most of it where we could. But for many years, there were so few of us that we were oblivious to our “otherness.” We were always 1 or 2 in school - the exception. I discovered through teaching that the exceptionalism persisted. The women students were always outstanding because they had crossed so many barriers to get there in the first place. It was no surprise that in the end of the year exhibits, many of the best projects were by women.

Frankly, the gender inequity hits young women hardest because there is the uncertainty of not knowing everything you need to know yet. There is a feeling of insecurity because it takes a long time to build knowledge. There is also the confusion about how you are treated. Is it because I am a woman or is it because I don’t know enough yet? In a lot of ways for women of your age, it is harder than it was for us because it was not conscious for us. When there is a critical mass of women, who are sharing the same experience, then you begin to notice inequalities. It is really quite amazing looking back at it now how unconscious we were. We just put our heads down and kept going. If something didn’t work out, you just tried harder and figured that is how it had to be. Teaching younger women, I see that these issues arise for a time, then ebb, then arise again in waves. So, this is your wave.

Any advantages / disadvantages of being a woman architect?

Jane and I would chat with mentors of different kinds- Joan Goody, Jim Polshek among others. At some point, we consulted Cesar Pelli as we did periodically about how to practice and design well. He said, “You need to be aware that people perceive you as women in the field. And there are times when that can be an advantage.” We talked about this a little, and he said that there were certain moments for certain universities where being seen as forward thinking and engaging women leaders was a plus. He advised us to put that agenda forward gracefully and sensitively where it might be an asset and a value. He was the first one who urged us to be explicit about that. He was right too, and we found that there were specific clients for whom it was the right fit. We also learned that for a very long time we were seen as a risky choice among lots of good architects with similar experience. What was risky about us? We think of ourselves as exceedingly sensible and responsible. But there is a perception among some clients that you are taking a risk to hire women architects.

There were other moments in which, for government contracts, the participation of women on a team was an advantage. We always thought that might help to get to the table but certainly was not a decisive factor. We did encounter some resistance among competition, who felt that we were unfairly advantaged and I often replied, “Maybe it sometimes levels the field, but certainly never puts us ahead.” We always felt as though we had to prove ourselves extra capable, and I think that that reality still exists. Although it has diminished, it is still in the background. And it depends on where you practice. In big urban centers in this country, it is less or no issue at all. Outside the two coasts and big cities, it is very much alive as an issue.

What is the biggest professional challenge that you have encountered?

The first challenge for me was gaining mastery over the craft of architecture. Then it was coming to know what I care deeply about in architecture and how to realize it. That is a life time work. Even creating a practice and sustaining it isn’t the biggest challenge. That was hard, but gaining a certain knowledge base and idea flow is the biggest challenge and the one that keeps you going. Creating a practice takes two things beyond talent: it takes motivation- fire in the belly- and determination - sitting in your seat longer than anybody else. The difference between people with talent, who make a successful practice and those who don’t is determination; it is patience and persistence and the willingness to do whatever it takes to make it happen. The biggest challenge is to continue to learn and nourish your mind and your aspirations.

What changes have you observed in the design field?

A couple of major changes have shaped design as we know it today. First is technology. The use of computers for exploration, representation, and documentation has absolutely changed the way we create design concepts and realize them. Second is the awareness and attention to the larger issues of sustainable design. Those are dimensions that are outside what we think of as the first set of skills – the form making, context responding, and program fulfilling activities of design. The means of production has really changed how we do design. When computer-aided design first appeared, we all wondered how it would affect us.  For a long time, I thought it was just a better tool, a better pencil. Now I think that design thinking has been fundamentally altered. As for the issue of sustainable design, I think that while natural forces, materials, and climate consideration were always part of design in my education and in all years subsequent, something fundamental has changed.  The integration of thinking about the natural world and its resources, how you apply them in building, how you make architecture and urban places in the world is very different from when we started. There was a short while in the 70s when solar energy was explored, but comprehensive environmental thinking didn’t really come back until recently as integral, as inspirational, and generative as opposed to applied. Those two dimensions really altered the way we do what we do and think about what we do.

If you could change any policy in the design field, what would it be?

I think of policies as organizational guidelines set up by an entity to enable or inhibit activity. Federal policy (or the lack thereof) of housing, of environmental awareness and controls, of infrastructure - these kinds of policies to me are terribly important for what we do. When I began practice there was actually federal money for public and senior housing. Everybody wanted to do housing because we believed that it was very important for society. Today there is no public funding for housing, developers build housing according to market demand, and people live where they can. If the federal or state governments would make a public housing policy as they do in EU, South America and elsewhere, a lot of creative energy would go into better affordable housing design. Similarly, if federal policy provided very strong environmental protection, it would significantly affect what we do. I think policies that support better quality of life for people are important, and that might be infrastructure improvements, parks, city streets, sidewalks, etc. We are lucky here in Boston as we have a high awareness for making a good city. A lot of places are proud of their lack of policy, so Boston is quite enlightened in that way. That is the kind of policy that matters to me and the profession as a whole.

What strengths / weaknesses do you observe in the young generation of designers? Any tips?

I am really hopeful about this young generation. I am energized because I think you all are a group that is very optimistic about the possibilities of doing better in the world, and the social responsibility of design. I haven’t seen that since the 60s, frankly. I have heard generations come and go saying, “What is better for me? How do I rise up?” But I see in your generation a desire to use design to make a better life for people in whatever way you can. That is tremendously hopeful. You also want to make a more satisfying life for yourself and redefine that in ways that are new. There is a sense of human contribution not only artistic exploration. I recognize that you are enabled with the skills of being digital natives and that gives you a lot of facility and agility. I do worry some about your breadth of knowledge. I think that your generation tends to go deep into what interests you and be utterly ignorant and blind about a whole other realms of knowledge, history, and culture. That is a danger of easy information access. But life will fill in a lot of those gaps and hopefully you will discover what else there is in the world other than what already interests you and is immediately available. I am very hopeful that this generation is going to work to make life better, make places more beautiful, make environments healthier. Those are at least on the table as discussions. I was educated to see architecture as a great balancing act -  that design be useful, that it be valuable, that it be sound, and that it be beautiful. I see that balance returning in your generation and I am delighted.

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