Words of Wisdom from Ann Beha

After a tour of her office, Ann Beha shared with us her story and her advice to emerging professionals. Founder of Ann Beha Architects, Ann has been a Trustee and past President of Historic New England, served on Visiting Committees at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and is a member of Harvard University’s Design Advisory Panel. She was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Architecture at the City College of New York, and has been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New England Chapter of the Victorian Society in America, the Alumnae Achievement Award from Wellesley College, and the Women in Design Award of Excellence from the Boston Society of Architects. Don't miss her words of wisdom!

 Ann Beha

Ann Beha

How did you begin your career in preservation & revitalization of buildings?

I graduated in 1975 and the economy was poor. I started to navigate doing part-time work, advocacy work and a variety of volunteer projects. I was focused on things that had stimulated me at MIT - opportunities for existing buildings to cast a new light, serving their communities and various cities and institutions. My work was consulting for a while. I was on the administrative staff at MIT at the Department of Architecture for 3 years, doing research on building codes and their relationship to historic building. I was very active as a volunteer in the city on a number of issues like preservation and demolition of buildings. During that time, I also developed a number of clients, who were interested in me helping them work on revitalizing their historic buildings. I started to also do part-time work with Shepley Bulfinch and found there a wonderful mentor, who hired me to work with him on one of their large historical preservation projects. This was all over a period of 4-5 years and by year 5, I had a couple of people working with me on preservation issues. I wasn’t practicing architecture per say but preservation. Through Shepley, I was qualified to take my exams and it became a larger initiative around a design practice that also included preservation.

How do you keep a dynamic practice?  

I never worked for a firm in the United States, so I don’t have any background in the corporate structure of firms here. Since we practice at various scales nationally and internationally, we have exposure to firms all over this country and abroad, who are structured in different ways and have different skill sets. That has taught me a great deal about practice, procedures, and project delivery methods. We have done 5 projects with Gensler with ABA as lead architect and we learned so much. We have a partner in Greece for the US Embassy project. Obviously, we learn a tremendous amount about how to work in a foreign country from them. You see other practices, sometimes indirectly because you are aligning with them, or considering aligning with them, and that is a great way to get to know how people do it differently - better or not so well. We continuously build the practice, expanding our national interest in working throughout the country, stating very clear that we are a design office and not just a historic preservation consultant.

Do you have a favorite project?

This is like asking if you have a favorite child! I do have some favorite projects in which we overcame extraordinary challenges and had extraordinary results. I won’t go too far back. I think the work we did at University of Chicago - revitalizing historic buildings and building a new building - is staggering. It was such an unbelievable undertaking. It required so much team work with community, departments, and the university and an exceptional intellectual reach associated with the program. It was very exciting. The buildings themselves are fascinating buildings because they are not the iconic buildings of Chicago and they are buildings that were too easily ignored. They are on the edge of campus, but now that they are revitalized, they actually feel more central to the campus and to the history of Hyde Park.

Have you encountered any advantages or disadvantages of being a female practitioner in architecture?

It is an interesting question. It is always asked, and I still don’t know quite how to sort through it. Does it exist, and where? How does it show up? We can’t be in all the rooms where it happens. We can’t be in the minds where it might be holding fort. Discrimination, if it exists, would be a subtle thing for me; I am really not aware of it as keenly as others, given my position and the peer positions of senior women in my client groups and leadership roles. They too have gained important voices.

I am on such a course trying to steer clarity, engagement and excitement about our work that the idea that if something is in the way, it would have to be a pretty big thing to keep us from doing what we believe in. If there is discrimination, I am still pushing along. Are there a million other challenges? Yes. If I start to put myself into the assumption that there is discrimination and it is holding me back, holding us back as a firm, I would spend all my day trying to deal with it. I think I try to navigate all of the obstacles.

When ABA’s work is attributed to a woman, I find that uneasy. First, my belief is that the work speaks for itself. It is important for women to be aligned with important visible engaging work. There are numerous examples of leaders and extraordinary visionaries, who have had either discrimination or many of their own self-inflicted challenges, and ultimately all those things are set in a certain space because their contribution is so extraordinary. What I am saying to women is be known for your work. And I think the secondary thing is people recognize that the work is done by a very diverse office and a completely engaged team. Half of our practice is women. In our office, everyone sees a very broad mix of thinking and backgrounds and different age groups.. The work is the most important thing, and there is always a lot of background noise and problems and challenges. You just have got to keep going and be known for your work.

I am wondering whether a lot of feelings about gender issues start a lot earlier than when we start practice. If you arrive trained in a certain way or experiencing life in a certain way, can you reevaluate your baggage at a certain point? We arrive in practice, we are in our 20s and we have had a lot of years and built up many assumptions. One analogy I use is that in any big sport, there are people on the field playing and people in the stands observing. People on the field playing don’t always see all the things that the people in the stands see. They are looking at the goal post or at the baseline or trying to serve an ace. It is important every so often to get up in the stands and look down. Those who are up in the stands can be saying, “Oh God, how could that guy miss that play?” But... Imagine what it is like to be down in the field, and whether or not what the stands saw is really what happened. What you are doing is trying to offer that intersection of what is real and what is observed to develop the most realistic mindset.

What do you think is key for a successful career?

I will give you a very personal observation. When all is said and done, you need to be reconciled and happy in your emotional life. I think that the choice of partner and the relationships in your life is a critical issue, and I think that many men would say the same. I have found that there are struggles that men have managing their time and family responsibilities often as much, even more, than women. Your relationship between your work place and your personal life - growing from your adolescence, your childhood or your current relationships, is going to have a lot of influence and power over what you are able to accomplish. It affects how you are able to manage the pressures of practice and must be true in other professions as well. You need to have someone, who is as interested in what you need as you are interested in what he or she needs. And if you cannot have that outside practice, I do not know how you have it in practice. I really hit the jackpot. I have been married to the same guy for forty-three years and have two children, I cannot remember a single time when Rob said, “No, you have to come home. You cannot do that.” It has never been that way and I think that has been extraordinary. Perhaps even more so, my mother, to whom I was very close, never said I should stop or slow down or spend more time with my family. She and he accepted me as I am, (Ok maybe 80%) and their support always sustained me.

Have you had to make any sacrifices because of architecture?

Life is full of sacrifices. You make sacrifices because you have a child in need or because you have parents in need. I have faced both. There are all kinds of things in one’s life by the time you reach my age. There are a lot of sacrifices you make to be helpful and be there for all those people. It is not architecture that has made me make sacrifices but because you want to be a good daughter or a good mom. There is really some truth to the global aspect of the fulfillment of a complete life, whether you are male or female, and that always requires sacrifices from you and from the people around you.

How does Ann beha architects evolve their office policies?

When people need to take time off for their family and personal life, they need to be heard. You can see the concern in their eyes and they may need more than the normal policies. Not everyone who has been here, male or female, can be satisfied with everything we offer. But we continue to evolve and we continue to hear them. We have made modifications in our policies to be more flexible, but we need people who are dedicated and can be here as we are so very collaborative.  What we are trying to encourage above all is this open exchange between employees and the people they report to about their needs so that we can find out what the needs are and not guess at it. 

What is one thing emerging professionals should focus on?

I think people should write and draw. I have spent the last three weeks writing and it is hard to do. Architects need to be able to write about their projects and they need to be able to speak easily about them.  You are not just born with that. That is a tutored thing, a practiced thing. Being in front of your peers, taking a leadership role in your firm, speaking up, being aware that you have a voice, not just being articulate, but also speaking to people in a real down-to-earth way. There is a discipline in communication that strengthens architectural dialogue. I think we identify that too infrequently. We rarely plan how we are going to talk about the project. As to drawing, it is a muscle that has atrophied. It is a language, and a common ground, and a rooting for our work. I love it and admire those who use it so freely and effectively.

Do you have any other tips for young people who are starting their careers?

They should talk to people who are just a little older than they are, not so much to the upper generation! Whenever somebody says, “I have a young friend who’s in the career discovery program or she is first year at the GSD and she really needs to talk to someone,” I say, “Absolutely, have her come over, but I’m going to set her up with somebody who’s been here for five years.” There is a big gap otherwise. That is more of a common ground and less about the past and the scar tissue. A mentor can be someone who is much closer in age or just got registered.

You also have to have passion about what you are doing and you have to be pretty single minded about it. If you do have that passion and interest, it comes through in the work. It comes through in relationships with your clients because you will stand in their shoes and work with their needs—and do anything for them! And it is going to come through to your firm and colleagues. Creative passion makes me and my colleagues more dedicated and more thorough. You win people over with your leadership and voice. I think the real struggle is to be able to move within the firm with agility to the highest challenging position you can have. Passion as well as skill get you there. Initiative and thinking outside the box–those are a winning combo for me.

Zhanina Boyadzhieva