Award for Boston Firm Shows How Far Women Have Come in Architecture

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, July 21, 2007

For the first time in its history, the American Institute of Architects bestowed one of its top national awards, the Firm Award, to a female-owned partnership, Leers Weinzapfel Associates. The Boston firm, founded in 1982 by Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel, was cited for its record of consistently outstanding architectural achievement.

Yet does this award deserve attention just because it was won by an architecture firm led by women? Is this a manifestation of sexism?

What makes this particular honor newsworthy is the history of obstacles and uphill battles, dating to the 19th century, faced by women who aspired to be architects but were denied the opportunity.

Until a few decades ago, it was unusual for a woman to be admitted to a university architecture program. Previous generations of architectural academics, along with many parents, believed that architecture was too demanding and rigorous for women -- intellectually, technically and physically.

They couldn't imagine a woman walking around a construction site, haggling with foul-mouthed contractors and laborers, or demanding that something be torn out and redone to comply with drawings and specifications. Women were viewed as too emotional, soft and accommodating.

Anecdotes abound of young women either discouraged from pursuing architecture careers or bluntly told to forget about it. They were advised instead to consider professions better suited for the gentler sex. Teaching and nursing invariably headed the list of careers, along with marriage and motherhood.

When I studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s, there was one woman in my class. Of the 40 architects in my Peace Corps contingent in Tunisia, just one was a woman.

A few decades ago, if a woman managed to get accepted and make it through architecture school, entering the profession after graduation was another hurdle. Many firms refused to hire women, fearing that they would lack stamina and technical skills. Employers felt that women in the drafting room could distract male colleagues and thus lower office productivity. And many bosses worried that women would forsake employment as soon as prospects for finding a husband and starting a family appeared.

Because relatively few women became architects, it was exceedingly rare to find firms established and headed by women. Only in the past 40 years have women attended architecture schools and joined the ranks of the profession in significant numbers.

American cultural and social attitudes concerning professional women have changed. Women have demonstrated that they have as much creative talent, technical ability, persistence and fortitude as men.

Perhaps you wonder whether a building designed by a woman embodies visual clues and functional characteristics that somehow express a feminine sensibility. Can one look at an edifice and tell that its architect was female? Is there a female architectural aesthetic?

The answer is a resounding no.

This is abundantly clear from the project portfolio of Leers Weinzapfel Associates, best known for their many award-winning civic, institutional and academic buildings.

The 24-person firm, a mix of women and men, has designed classroom and laboratory buildings, recreation and community centers, libraries, and judicial facilities. Clients include Smith College, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Pennsylvania.

The Leers Weinzapfel aesthetic language is decidedly modern and appropriately inventive. Yet each project's form, structure, materials and details respond to contextual influences: site, climate, functional program, applicable technologies, energy needs and budget. Unlike some better-known male and female architects, the partners do not impose on projects any preconceived, formulaic design motifs or signature compositional gestures.

The result is architecture that is at once bold and delicate, geometrically rational and operationally practical. Colors and textures at multiple scales are used liberally, as is transparent or translucent glazing, thoroughly exploited to introduce daylight and provide desirable views.

The work of Leers Weinzapfel is neither masculine nor feminine. It is simply solid, purposeful architecture that looks great.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company