The Importance of Diversity

During a pleasant afternoon over tea, we had an inspirational chat with Jane Weinzapfel, Principal at Leers Weinzapfel Associates and role model for the Girl UNinterrupted team. Jane is an award-winning design leader, dedicated to craft and technology. She has been a visiting faculty member at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning and at the University of Arizona College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. She was also a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome. Jane is a board member for various organizations such as the Boston Society of Architects, the Boston Architectural College, and Boston by Foot. She has served on the Mayor’s Boston Transportation Advisory Committee, the Mayor’s Government Center Plaza Task Force in Boston and on the Massachusetts Executive Office of Community Development Designer Selection Board. Read on to find out the benefits of being different and how to embrace diversity.


How did you get into architecture?

Jane Weinzapfel

Jane Weinzapfel

In high school, I transferred from a kind of girls’ convent school to a public high school when my parents moved across town in Tucson, Arizona. I was asked, “What is it that you want to do?” I said, “Well, I can’t decide between science and art. I really love both. But I think that I would want to be an architect.” That seemed a blend of science and art from my viewpoint at that point. I was also comfortable with the idea of architecture because my Dad had been a builder and land developer and had taken me to many building job sites. Upon graduation, I went to architecture school. There had not been a woman graduate; there had been women, who were in the program and then out of the program. I came in as a freshman and all looked fine to me - all the faces were men. I didn’t see what it looked like from the other side that there were many men and one woman. Two years later a woman joined the program. It was so wonderful because I could see what it was like to see a woman in a linen dress at a drafting board – and we could share and reflect on the studio experience together. Women on campus at that time needed to be in their dorms by 10 o’clock,  so there was no working in the studio late at night. I worked alone on my project in the dining hall. It was a little creepy because I was working alone when the night wind would blow against the windows. But, I always had my projects submitted on time.

How did you become a Principal at Leers Weinzapfel Associates?

Andrea (Leers) and I had different woven paths. Immediately upon graduation, we both started work with Earl Flansburgh in Cambridge. I was the first woman there. Earl was very worried that I would be offended by the foul language that he anticipated in the studio. I reassured him that I expected no problems. Andrea had also just graduated and she soon after became an intern at  Earl’s also. We were his first two women employees who had been trained as architects. It is surprising how much different working with at least two women is than being the only woman in an office with many men. I had great relationships with the guys there - they were accepting, and there was no language I hadn’t heard before. But it was just a richer environment with Andrea working there as well. Subsequently we had increasing numbers of women at the firm. Earl was great supporter of women as a teacher and as a firm leader. He mentored many women architects including Zibby Ericson and Ann Beha.

Andrea and I became long term friends. After working several years at Earl’s, we each went in different professional directions. I worked with a large planning and architecture firm and was an Associate there, interested in being a Principal. I went away to Ann Arbor (Michigan) when our daughter was born. At that time, I had no idea whether I would want to be away from work for 3 months, 3 years, 6 weeks or 6 years. I was fine with doing small projects for friends but remained in contact with my firm back in Boston, and even did some marketing with them. However while I was away, the firm bifurcated. When I returned to Boston, each of the two new firms asked me to join them, and one firm asked me to join as a Principal. I was very torn because I had a young child, and I was not certain that I would be on equal footing with them as I couldn’t expect to be working 60-hour weeks as they might, or perhaps not even 40-hour weeks with a young child. I said I was going to wait for a year and they were quite understanding.

All through this time period, Andrea and I had remained good friends. When Andrea and I began working together soon after, I was working about half-time and Andrea also had teaching commitments. Early on, we had decided that you didn’t have to be at the office all the time. We could schedule individual and joint appointments and overlapping coordination time, and it was totally fine to have a shorter than usual work schedule in the office. It felt more balanced working together with Andrea.

During the first year, we discussed and evaluated the benefits of working together. We had started with the understanding that our friendship was quite important to us, and we wanted to make certain that working together didn’t change that. Meanwhile, we were each dedicated to the work and our varied clients; and although an architectural practice has many challenges, we have supported each other by talking through the tough parts. Our practice has evolved to be remarkably interesting and satisfying because we continue to challenge ourselves and each other. Andrea and I came from totally different parts of the country and educational formats. We shared basic values and architecturally, we were each influenced by Kahn so there was a common vocabulary. It may sound odd but it was actually very good to start my practice with Andrea and with my small child, because Andrea and I each needed flexible schedules. I would say that being proactive and trusting my heart is how I got here along with the basis of a very good friendship with Andrea.

Could you share with us a challenge you faced? How did you overcome it?

One challenge was teaching in an architecture program at a time when there were almost no women faculty. I went together with a fine male colleague to a luncheon and was introduced to a famous international architect who looked at the colleague and said, “Good luck.” It was not, let’s say, welcoming. However, teaching with Ed Allen and Lawrence Anderson was a welcoming and broadening experience.

Within the program there was a group that was very committed to a singular pedagogical direction. It seemed to be an ingrown group with some very influential faculty, and with students that subsequently became faculty with whom they shared a single world view. I was asked to participate in a curriculum review for the first year introductory class with this group. We individually prepared thoughts about what students needed to be introduced to initially. That  group shared a long discussion of facets of architecture in terms of binary opposites – strong/weak, light/dark etc. The discussion was enjoyable and developed a long list. Meanwhile, I put forward that it was also important for students to experience and build threads of connections - organic, spatial, proportional etc. in addition to the contrast of opposites being listed. But it seemed the group had no interest in incorporating difference or nuance within what seemed an academic bubble that was committed to a singular expression (and that seemed to me to result in rigid and formulaic student work). I found that really fascinating. And I thought, “Well, I am not going to be heard much here, but I can participate in both orientations to a degree, I can be bilingual.”  Fortunately, there were many other faculty who were not of this clique as well. I learned a tremendous amount from them, and I gravitated towards people coming at architecture from different ways. That has always been of interest to me. It is good to make ourselves aware of our bubbles and lift ourselves beyond them. I think that there is a strength of being a little bit different. Everyone is a little bit different some way or another, but I didn’t have the choice to NOT see that, both as a student and in academia.

Have you experienced any advantages being a woman architect?

We would be silly to leave our advantages at the door, wouldn’t we? Right now there are many women in architecture and there are still advantages and disadvantages. The uniqueness early on of being a woman in architecture was an advantage. People looked twice even if they didn’t like what they saw. The advantages then helped us to deal with the disadvantages. A very humorous anecdote - I was working on big architectural/engineering project for the MBTA Red Line expansion, and there was a powerful client and engineering group. All were distinguished men from the military, or from many mostly male organizations. Occasionally a man who came to speak about the project team wouldn’t know quite how to behave because there was a woman in the room. It was often a case of winning over people to understand that difference can be okay, which I think women are very good at. Women are very good at listening, understanding and making people comfortable (or uncomfortable if need be). Our strong client leader (a former naval officer, possibly a Commander) smoked a cigar at morning meetings. I frankly don’t mind a cigar, but I would bring in a fresh gardenia from home to most meetings for the table. If he was going to have his cigar, I was going to have my gardenia. It made everyone chuckle, but I was definitely accepted at the table and listened to there. Acknowledging the differences between us with a bit of humor sometimes can help make everyone more comfortable – a different type of confident, trusting team.

What changes in the design field have you observed throughout the years?

There are the architectural changes and there are changes in the work environment. The global influence is huge. There is a more vibrant interchange of ideas than when we mainly compared our ideas to those in Britain. Now there is quite an infusion of diverse ideas and fluidity of approaches. Even in our work environment now we have much more exposure to many different continents than we did not long ago. The explosion of formal idea differences and emphasis on new technologies makes this a very rich time right now; it makes us able to step out of our bubbles hopefully. The other difference is that there are many more women leaders now,  including a global diversity of women architects moving around the world and sharing their influences. I would steer young architects, men and women, away from any practice that didn’t have a lot women in it. What would it mean if you didn’t have at least that kind of difference of ideas and approach? I wouldn’t want to be there. I would want to be where it’s jumping, where there are many different ideas and they are in collision, where not all ideas are predetermined, where the design is going to evolve but we don’t know all the influences that will direct our path at the outset – but I am confident that we will fairly quickly find that path. I love that.

If you could change a policy in design, what would it be?                        

The national AIA and its local chapters are currently reviewing its Code of Ethics.  A Boston Society of Architects (BSA)’ Task Force is reviewing the AIA Code for adequacy and completeness, including the issue of Sexual Misconduct (including Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment, Retaliation, and Bullying.)  Our profession deserves better than glossing over these important issues that are at the heart of our expectation of ethical professional behavior, especially toward interns who must work under an architect’s supervision in order to apply for degrees, registration and licensure. Yet Sexual Misconduct by powerful architects with subordinates seems to have been known and condoned in firms and in academe. The BSA can offer a strong, clear and informed voice to AIA national on this issue. We all, men and women, should require them to do so.

Diversity in architecture has always been important, we can’t serve the communities of world without looking more like the world around us. Architecture still seems a luxury in terms of equity in many minority communities. I think there is an aspirational disparity as well: if there are opportunities out there for more financial reward, architecture certainly isn’t the field that is going to compete with international finance or law. How to have more diversity in architecture has not been answered over several decades. There are certainly fabulous firms of color that are doing great work and that are absolutely terrific at inspiring others. There are educational programs that are more accessible to diverse populations and that are more equitable. The Boston Architectural College (BAC) is one of those. It has a spirit of welcome, accessibility and encouragement that for American kids is quite different than some of our standard and perhaps more prestigious ways of getting to be an architect. Another  important avenue is to strengthen the state Bachelor of Architecture programs and support them in that mission of accessibility; UMASS Amherst is a good example. We don’t yet have the solution, but it is important to make visible the diverse energies and opportunities in architecture to more communities. The BSA has that opportunity. When I was President of the BSA some years ago, that was one of my interests - diversity and inclusion of our international crowd, our under-involved groups our women, and our young people from many communities that don’t know much about architecture or even the building trades as a career. I think working with the City of Boston is very attractive to diverse groups, and they can make a real difference within the public environment. We can take leadership in programs that support the interest and development of more minority architects. It is a great loss to not have more minority architects. We should ask and individually pay attention to what more we can be doing.

What positive / negative qualities do you see in emerging professionals?

We are so lucky here that we have talented emerging professionals with many skills. We attract a focused group who want to participate and learn. I see similar evolving challenges for young people. I think that there is just as much energy and interest in the challenges that we face together as there ever has been with young recent graduates. There is so much that you learn in your first couple of years of practice - with sponge-like interests filling up in many different areas. Certainly, the digital skills continue to expand architectural design. On the negative side, doing digital plans and sections without a sense of scale to me is a great loss. When I was teaching, we used to go into different spaces and imagine their size, document what we imagined in plan and section and then go and measure the actuality. The digital reality and its connection to physical reality gets refined very quickly in the first years of practice.

There was a not too distant time period, when people felt they were ‘CAD monkeys’ – as if early experience in practice was divorced from learning and exploration. I think that we have to be aware of how people’s individual growth can interweave with the needs of projects and the types of projects that are available at a certain moment. Employee reviews are important to articulate what interests and disinterests exist and also to get a flavor of the individual’s as well as the larger cohort’s needs. I am not sure that we do enough discussion about that. We would hope that all interns and emerging professionals are getting their objectives met and a wide range of experience under their belts as they move forward. I don’t know that we have a formal policy for having that happen so much as trying to listen to people, what their objectives are and trying to find a match as we go forward. That’s an ambition that always could be enhanced, so that people continue to grow. Leaders must be aware of individual objectives and not just have  immediate needs and the project availability of the moment guide them exclusively of everything else. In my mind, young people coming into the office are brilliant and sometimes surprisingly limited in certain ways. That is what you find out fairly quickly, and then you work to help them take the next steps in responsibility and to broaden their experiences so that you encourage and expand their abilities.

What advice would you give to emerging professionals?

Really think about the direction you want to go and what you want to accomplish in the next year or years. Be flexible about how you get there. There are many ways forward. For empowerment, annually think about three other things you could be doing. There are organizations where you can hit a dead end or you are pushed in directions with limited opportunities. If people give you too many limits, you can go and do these other things. Tell yourself, “I am empowered and I am taking my ideas to the table.” I think an annual appraisal of  what you want to be doing next is important - it keeps you empowered. We try to do it in our annual reviews and try to have people think about that. Another empowerment is to get licensed as an Architect.  Also, if you find yourself for example, in the suburbs as the only woman in an office, try something else. You can look elsewhere. Look at the profile of an office and if that is too uniform, ask some questions. It is more real and rewarding to work in an environment that is more mixed and diverse. And it certainly lets you have a richer experience whether you are a woman or a man. And take an opportunity each day to be bolder than your comfort level would normally allow.