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For the architects and designers at Perkins&Will, the profession is full of women who deserve to be celebrated. While gender inequity in architecture remains a serious problem, in March 2019 the firm set out to shift the narrative. For the last three years over the course of Women’s History Month, they have highlighted the amazing designers, researchers, managers and professionals who are building a move inclusive world.
This year for International Women’s Day, ArchDaily is featuring a week of curated content, with exclusive interviews and thought-provoking editorials. This interview features a range of women working at Perkins&Will, including Zena Howard, Yanel de Angel, Pat Bosch, Ming Ming Ong, Gabrielle Bullock and Dahmahlee Lawrence. They each shared their thoughts and perspectives on topics shaping practice today.
Why did you choose to study design?
Gabrielle Bullock: I was drawn to architecture at the age of 12 when I recognized the distinct disparity in living conditions between middle income and lower income communities, particularly communities of color, in New York City. I chose to focus on revitalizing public housing in Harlem as my senior thesis at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Pat Bosch: Being the daughter of architects, I knew I could use my profession as a platform to tell untold stories, effect change, and be of relevance to a society that could be informed and transformed by the power of design. The ability to reflect people’s lives and culture, and provide solutions within an interconnected global platform. Leaving things better than I found them.
Yanel de Angel: I chose to study architecture because I dreamed to be the change I wanted to see in the world. Growing up in Puerto Rico I became keenly aware of the impact the built environment could have on the health of people and the Planet. It was evident that socio-economic disparities and access to education had a direct impact in the health and success of communities. Back then, I did not understand how complex and constructed the equity problem was, but I could see the differences from one neighborhood to the other.
My most concerning priority at the time was sustainability. I spent a lot of energy understanding passive design to live with less use of resources. For example, how daylight could penetrate deeper into space, how could natural ventilation be controlled to provide a pleasant environment and how material health had consequences on people and nature. Today sustainability is important in my work, but equity and access are now layered as a priority because without policies that support change, is hard to get to justice.
Zena Howard: As a child I learned how the built environment profoundly impacts one’s quality of life and social well-being. I was intrigued by how design can help create shared experiences and nurture positive change.
What are some recent projects you’ve each been working on at Perkins&Will?
Dahmahlee Lawrence: I am currently working on a project for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHoP). The 17-story facility is a Physician and Administration Office Building that will allow CHoP to house many of their physicians in one location while a new patient bed-tower is constructed. My primary role as one of the project architects is specific to the execution of the below-grade, façade, and roof documentation and construction. The nuances of the project allow me to work closely with various Perkins&Will colleagues and an array of consultants, fabricators, and the contractor. Together, we are bringing the design intent to reality. Challenges for me arose during the documentation phase, as this is the most complex façade and foundation I have ever worked on, stretching my limits of using Revit as a design and documentation tool.
Luckily, I had support from my Perkins&Will colleague Helen Gorina, a digital practice manager, who taught me how to use the program in novel ways. This allowed me to provide useable contract documents to our consultants for engineering, fabrication, and construction of the enclosure system. I am grateful for what I learned along the way. The process challenged me, but also taught me how to improve my communication with my internal and external team, even while working remotely because of COVID-19. We are now at a place where the building is out of the ground and we can see the fruits of our labor. While my contribution to this project is a mixture of seen and unseen elements, I am looking forward to seeing its completion.
Gabrielle Bullock: Destination Crenshaw is a free outdoor public art and cultural experience in the Crenshaw District of South Los Angeles: The open-air experience will tell the countless and too often overlooked stories of the social, cultural, and economic contributions African Americans have made to Los Angeles and the world. Unlike traditional museums, Destination Crenshaw will not be contained by walls: It will run along a 1.3-mile stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard, anchored by permanent and rotating art installations, large-scale murals, sculptures, exhibits, new streetscapes, and 10 new parks. The experience will build on the community’s long-standing reputation as a creative incubator, while dramatically transforming Crenshaw into a global destination for economic growth, education, culture, and American history.
Zena Howard: Remembrance Design, an urban and architectural design process that engages historically under-served and negatively impacted communities to redress painful issues, bridge diverse experiences, inspire resilient communities, and infuse culture into projects. This process embraces cross-disciplinary collaboration as an essential design tool to integrate a broad range of experience and specialized knowledge, such as urban design, public policy, art, history, economics, and anthropology, into the architectural process.
The Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza was created to redress the leveling of a neighborhood targeted by urban renewal. Through a community engagement process that included a group of former church members, we designed a commemorative space that honors the history of Sycamore Hill and gives room for residents to collectively heal and reclaim a piece of that heritage. Towering stained glass walls rise from the ground on the original footprint of the church following the pattern of the original walls, windows, and bell tower.
Nearly half of all architecture students are women, but they make up about 20 percent of licensed architects and 17 percent of partners or principals in architecture firms. What accounts for the disparity?
Gabrielle Bullock: The architecture profession has historically been male-dominated. It is also a profession that is slow to change. The gender disparity we see today is a result of maintaining this status quo over decades. While gender balance may be more easily achieved in academia, it has not fully transferred to professional practice and the board room. It will take a deliberate and intentional focus by firm leadership to recognize and address the systemic challenges women face, including gender pay inequity. It will also require a public recognition of the value of women’s perspectives and talent in design and practice. Beyond firms, clients are more diverse than ever—in age, gender, race, and ethnicity—and are expecting their hired teams to be just as diverse. Until we all challenge the status quo and are deliberate and intentional in advancing equity, the disparities will continue to be perpetuated in the profession.
Ming Ming Ong: Many women leave the profession after having children; long hours and demanding responsibilities from our profession can be challenging to balance work and needs of family. Another reason for this low number is the lack of opportunity or being pigeon-holed into limited roles that made work unrewarding. The lack of female mentors/champions also make it difficult for women to get out of their limited roles. Women need to speak up for themselves or put themselves out there and work harder than men to proof themselves in this profession.
Perkins&Will’s ‘We Are Women, We Are Here’ platform shared many great stories from my co-workers, about what keeps them inspired and what keeps them going in this profession. It is great and reassuring to see that a great number of us are (still) here; all of these women are an integral part of our teams, all while having different roles and responsibilities and supporting each other as we create our work together. From within the office, it is easy to forget, overlook, or even connect with the imbalance in our profession as shown in the statistics.
I would also like to share an experience during the construction of a residential tower project at 1700 Webster Street in Oakland, California. During one of the construction coordination meetings with Suffolk Construction, we realized that all the participants in the room were women! That was an empowering moment for all of us. It was also a good reminder for me that there are many women out there. in similar male-dominated professions, working alongside me, who whose efforts may not be recognized or celebrated. I wish women from all other professions could have similar platform to share their stories.
Pat Bosch: Opportunity for growth in the industry, and the acceptance of flexibility and diversity. We don’t all need to deliver or grow within the same metrics or imposed structure. The industry should accept a more diverse definition of success, growth, and leadership. As an industry, we are still bound by old-school conventions and perceptions. It seems women’s best course for success is often to have their own business with their own name on the door in order to control their destiny. Corporate structure and criteria for growth are still, in many firms, “one size fits all.”
Yanel de Angel: The gender disparity in licensed architects and partner-level leadership exists is because the female designer’s path is full of challenges, preserved inequities, and access control. The few that traditionally had the privilege to hold the gate keys can control access and therefore have the responsibility to open the gates.
At different points in the career path of any individual, there will be challenges. But women face some unique challenges. They must break social norms or expectations, such as being a working mom, or choosing to concentrate on a career rather than a family. Or they must break through misconceptions like women make great project managers because they can multitask. Often, they must work harder to be noticed or prove themselves more to get to the same level of recognition or salary than a male counterpart. And, while many of these norms, expectations, and misconceptions are finally changing, we must still focus on building a support system to mentor and coach with intentionality; Opportunities need to be offered, too, because it can be tiring to continually knock-on closed doors without a response. It takes a lot of energy to persevere.
So, what can be done? Listen and respond to women’s unique needs with empathy. Be equitable when offering support, flextime, mothers’ rooms, and access to leadership programs, mentor-mentee programs, and client-facing opportunities. Identify individuals who want to progress to a leadership position and craft a plan that can be revisited year after year to keep everyone accountable. Then, when the time comes, position, elevate, and lead by example—open the gates.
Changes due to COVID-19 have been swift. How do you think the pandemic will shape design?
Dahmahlee Lawrence: I hope this pandemic will democratize design. Democratization is often talked about as an aspirational goal that is always limited by funding or factors. Perhaps now, we in the design industry can work with policymakers to ensure all persons in the U.S. have access to proper housing and medical facilities in their neighborhoods. We should not limit our designs to specific buildings; we should include habitable and safe outdoor spaces, too—which means we need to work with Landscape Architects and Urban Designers/Planners. There are some firms and entities that do an outstanding job of generating holistic spaces for all users, but we have a long way to go before this kind of approach is universal. I hope that the design industry understands that it is our responsibility to build for humanity, ensuring equality for all in the spaces we create. And from a design to construction standpoint, architects need to look toward integrated design delivery methods with our partners in fabrication and construction.
Ming Ming Ong: The impact of COVID-19 will be long-lasting. To cater to the future (unforeseen) needs, design of built space and structures will need to be adaptable. The structural design of new buildings (column spacing, floor to floor heights, construction types, etc.) should be planned and designed for multiple uses. This is typically avoided due to inefficiencies in design and front-end hard costs. However, doing so will allow for the flexibility to repurpose a building without major demolition and be able to respond quickly to new economic and social demands. I also think there will be desire for interior infrastructure/components to become moveable and adaptable kits of parts to cater to different operational and functional needs when program is changed without requiring major rework.
COVID-19 has required us to take a hard look at the sizes of our residential units. In small apartment units, especially studios, units are unable to provide a dedicated space to support work from home. As more and more people are now working from home, these units will need to increase in size. We will likely see unit layouts with bigger footprints and a dedicated den for work/study.
Zena Howard: The pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in our communities particularly related to food, shelter, education, and healthcare. Design will need to change to better support our most vulnerable populations by strengthening affordability, physical and social accessibility, and community partnership and engagement.
In some instances, pandemic life and social upheavals have accelerated the trends already underway across many sectors of the economy. For example, I’ve watched museums flex their range even further to engage audiences. They are doing invaluable work right now, connecting people through culture into networks of curiosity, creativity, and learning. During social distancing and shelter in place, these community-building efforts have necessarily relied on digital communications and virtual experiences. It is likely that these experiments will spill over into hybrid environments now that people are starting to inch their way back to trusted shared spaces. I, for one, am exploring the possibilities for evolving in step with the places we design. As the architects and designers who partner with museums to shape their spaces, we have been drawing on our firm’s multidisciplinary strength to expand the traditional suite of services we provide.
Why was it important to tell your story via the We Are Women, We Are Here platform?
Dahmahlee Lawrence: It was important to tell my story because my story is a reality for many women of color. Sometimes you need to be able to see someone in a role you may want to pursue so that you know it is possible. It is important that Perkins&Will did answer and challenge the NY Times piece asking where we are. Implying invisibility among women in design when we are clearly present, competent, and working does women everywhere a huge disadvantage. Our numbers may be small, but our impact is large.
The response to my story from family, friends, and peers was full of pride, support, and great discussion. It is imperative that women understand our possibilities are endless. A few years ago, I doubt I would have been so candid to write about myself, but if doing so means I can inspire both women and men to be confident, to act to make our industry better, then sharing my story is my duty. We as an industry must continue to acknowledge that representation matters; as individuals, we must carve our own yellow brick roads to break down barriers.
Pat Bosch: I need to be, for others, the person I needed when I was starting my career. I need to break the barriers and pave the road so that my daughter and those after her can be empowered and live the change. I need to inspire and influence that army of unstoppable women out there, to help them know that design is a powerful platform for change, and that our success can be of consequence. I’m emboldened by adversity and propelled by what many would consider “obstacles.” I see only opportunities via my determination and resilience. My story is the story of many, and it needs to be told.
Yanel de Angel: To me, it was important to participate in Perkins&Will’s We Are Women, We Are Here campaign because sharing our stories empowers others to see they are not alone, and to feel inspired to advocate for the changes necessary to move forward. For a long time, I thought the challenges I faced were unique to me. I believed ‘it must be me, there is something that I am not doing right.’ But when you hear the commonalities that many women face in the design industry, you are reassured that it is not you, but a system that needs to be deconstructed.
Telling my story was also liberating and therapeutic. I once kept secrets in an attempt to protect others from confronting their own wrongdoing. Now, I am open to putting my vulnerabilities and experiences on display–and in doing so, I have been able to heal, advocate for others, and stand up for something that needs to change. It takes time and a concerted effort to deconstruct decades of social norms and bias. But most importantly, it takes an empowered community of women, wingmen, and a culture of openness to enact change.
Zena Howard: It is important for me to share my insight via this ‘We Are Women, We Are Here’ platform so that the next generation can visualize architecture as an accessible and successful career for women, particularly African American women.
As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?
Gabrielle Bullock: Yes! Designing for and with the communities we serve—without preconceived assumptions about what is best for them. Recently, I co-authored an AIA white paper with my colleague Bill Schmalz, FAIA, about creating and implementing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion programs within architecture firms. It’s essentially a best practices guide—a “how-to” to help firms get started. I’d like to share an excerpt of that paper here, as it pertains to your question:
“Diversity” has become a buzzword in the profession, but it’s more than just the latest business fad. It’s a new way of thinking about who we are, who we work with, how we design, and for whom we design. It means moving beyond barriers and stereotypes about culture, ethnicity, skin color, race, religion, age, sexuality, physical abilities, political opinions, and economic settings to form diverse teams of talented professionals to create excellent and culturally competent work. It means matching the diverse clients, users, and public we serve with equally diverse design teams. It means understanding how diversity affects architectural design. And it means making the kind of workplace that attracts a diverse talent pool. Understanding diversity will give firms the edge they need to thrive in future economies. In short, diversity helps make architectural firms competitive in today’s global marketplace. It gives architects the opportunity to practice with integrity and to raise the standards of their profession.
Pat Bosch: We should focus on being futurists, on understanding the challenges ahead of us and responding to them now. It’s about inspiring and influencing and creating the opportunities to better our communities and educate the next generation. It’s about permanence. Not the short-term goals, but the more global long-term drivers and principles, too. Most important, we are a diverse global society; it is in embracing this fact that the solution lies. When we work together and understand the synergies between cultures and traditions, race and religion, we enrich our dialogue and thus facilitate a more integrated and equal society. Designers are great synthesizers, critical thinkers, and problem solvers; we have the key to lead by example.
Zena Howard: Collectively, Perkins&Will has recognized the importance of having robust community engagement at the core of our design process and have done so for quite some time. Every year we have committed to strengthening this and believe that this should be front and center for all architects and designers.
For me personally, a key factor in my work is telling stories through the built expression. Every site has a story – that unique blend of physical, cultural, and historic character that differentiates one place from any other. Leveraging this narrative involves this substantive engagement with the people and communities that the design serves; often people who have historically been denied a voice in the design of their own environments. This is critical in creating designs that are meaningful, relevant, and enduring.
Cite: Eric Baldwin. “The Women of Perkins&Will Designing the Architecture of Tomorrow” 11 Mar 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed .
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