Pioneering Architect Beverley Willis

Pioneering Architect Beverley Willis

The life of pioneering architect, designer, writer and artist Beverly Willis recalls a Russian matryoshka doll, with one arresting facet tucked neatly inside another.

Willis put herself through college as an artist, opened her own design atelier, morphed into an independent architect who built a 35-person firm, wrote a book on architecture, then founded a think tank and, in 2002, a foundation (

The life she built is her own in the way that few can claim. Her story would make a pulp-fiction writer blush.

Willis was placed in an orphanage in 1934 at age 6, in the depths of the Great Depression, and would not be reunited with her mother for six years. She saw her father again when she was 14, during a summer of welding oil drill bits for his company, but never again thereafter. She spent her welding money on flying lessons and was soloing at age 15. She would learn the mundane business of driving a car later.

When Willis launched her own architecture firm in 1966, there were perhaps a handful of women of her stature in the profession nationwide. But she was undaunted, competing with much larger firms for projects. She designed the San Francisco Ballet Building and renovated the city's Union Street Shops as well as a high school in New York City. She built large apartment complexes, single-family homes and multi-family housing. Her style was modern, but not rigidly so. She took context into account. Put another way, her buildings don't shout, "Look at me, aren't I très modern!"

On the pop-culture front, Willis designed a bar at a Hawaiian hotel that featured an expansive (two-ton) sand-cast mural of seashells as its centerpiece. The bar would be used as the backdrop for the opening and closing scenes of every episode of the original "Hawaii 5-0" television show.

Sitting in the living room of her Branford home, a cape overlooking Long Island Sound that she bought six years ago and remodeled, Willis said she learned early how to stand up for herself, how to make things with her hands and, perhaps most important, not to feel sorry for herself. If she needed something done, she learned to do it herself.
or example, when she realized that the level of scholarship on Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and his role in hiring and mentoring woman was woefully lacking, she started researching it herself. It led her in 2008 to make a film based on her findings, "A Girl Is a Fellow Here: 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright." Not many people make their first film at age 80.

Willis, 82, spoke about her life recently from her Branford home.

Q: You had a rough childhood. Do you regret that, or was it a blessing in disguise?
A: In later years, I realized it was a blessing. It taught me so many things that are important to success. I learned to stand up for myself, to defend myself. I don't mean physically, necessarily, but this was a period in history when women were taught to support a man, to be in a secondary role. You were not brought up as a girl to say, "I can do this as well as a man." I had to take care of myself, so when I entered the professional world, it was second-nature. If I had to work with a client or a construction crew, I had no problem being taken seriously. I gave as good as I got.

Q: What prompted you to make this film?
A: My foundation was asked to do a woman's program for the Guggenheim's 50th anniversary in conjunction with an exhibit on Frank Lloyd Wright. Well, we could not find a single academic to sit on a panel who knew anything about women architects who worked for Wright's studio. There have been a ton of books written about him, but there was nothing about professional woman in his firm. They were not included in the historical record. So I began doing some research and started finding names here and there, in the footnotes, oral histories, and it turned into the film.

Q: I read that the state of design in the 1950s was so dubious that it inspired you to become an architect.
A: It wasn't so much that the architecture was so bad. There was a lack of design. Almost everything from furniture to the storefronts to buildings was not designed by anybody. This vacuum attracted a great many accomplished people who began designing teakettles, chairs, utensils, on up to buildings.

Q: How would you characterize your design style and philosophy, and has it evolved?
A: I have always been a modernist architect, but I also believed in contextual architecture. Very early on, I got involved in adaptive reuse of very old structures, and in San Francisco, we actually led what would occur in Boston's Faneuil Hall 10 years later with projects like Union Street, where we converted three small Victorian buildings into a shopping complex, which included several stores and two restaurants.

Q: As a painter and an architect, do you believe that architecture can communicate with people the way the other arts can?
A: Absolutely. I grew up in an era where you used design for specific communication purposes, sort of subliminal communication that you could control, using forms and shapes and colors, visually how things feel to influence people. It has always given me great pleasure if I could create an environment that I could predict people would walk into and feel good there, feel comfortable in that environment, even though it might have been a monumental building. In those days, if you were a strict modernist, you were creating spaces that repulsed people emotionally. It was not a comfortable feeling — although it might have been visually dramatic and challenging to the eye. I wasn't modernist in the sense of building severe boxes, and that was because of the tug between sheer modernism and contextualism.

Q: Is there a building or project you recall most fondly?
A: Well, actually, I have a little bit of a love affair with most all of the buildings I designed. I always tried to do something a little different with each, experiment a bit. One of the things that I did not understand when I was young was that to acquire recognition with the architectural press, you need to have a style and keep repeating it. That is not so true today. Artists went through the same thing: that painting is a so-and-so — you can recognize it. The designs of Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright are like that. I always wanted to do something a little different each time. As a result, it's hard to point at a building of mine and say that's a Beverly Willis design.

Q: Whose work do you admire today?
A: I must say I admire Zaha Hadid's work. But Jeanne Gang's building in Chicago [the 82-story Aqua Tower] is really a mind-blowing building. It's really brilliant. I toured it recently with Jeanne. It's simple; it's a box, a commercial building, but she used the smallest design touches to create something spectacular, an incredibly dramatic effect.

Q: The number of women in architecture school has reached parity with men but lags behind men as a percentage of practicing architects.
A: There is significant dropout in the pipeline. It usually takes about 10 years, and even today, many firms are not keen to hire a lot of experienced women on the theory that they are going to have children. And they will have children. Women have children. One of the issues that we are trying to deal with at my foundation is the fact that the archaic architectural management system does not fit contemporary life or modern computer practices. Today, design and modeling are done on computer, and multiple firms and consultants in different locations work on the same project by computer. You don't have to be in an office to work on a design project today; nobody has to be in the office. People work on projects while they are on airplanes.

Q: Many architects, particularly so-called "starchitects," have a reputation for imposing their design style on clients and for buildings that tend to be longer on aesthetics than functionality. Is that a fair assessment?
A: It's very fair. I know a number of these gentlemen personally. I love them, but they aren't into function. They are into skins. They design skins, not that they don't care about function. Gehry is doing a piece of sculpture, but he is very clever. The functional spaces within his buildings are simple boxes, rectangles and squares, and he coats it with feathers. It's not necessarily dull inside, just simple. The computer modeling today means you can not only design unusual forms but build them. These are forms only the computer can draw. A factory couldn't make the forms for these buildings without the computer pattern.

Q: What advice would you give today's female architecture students?
A: Become a technologist. The challenge of being an architect is that you have to be good at a number of diverse things. At the top of my list are computer and technology skills. Some young people are studying other disciplines, using biology, for example, as a key part of design, merging what they see and learn into architectural forms and practice. Architects should understand economics, the political process, how to make things with your hands — how to plaster, set stone, weld, how to wire.