Beverly Willis, plucky advocate for women architects, to be honored in Monterey

The architect Beverly Willis, at 89, is about to receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Institute of Architects, California Council. Her confidence and resilience comes from an adventure-filled life that included time spent in an orphanage; crash-landing a plane at 15; and running her own firm at a time when the profession was almost exclusively male.

Beverly Willis, photographed summer 2017 at Santa Monica College by Avishay Artsy

To succeed as an architect you need a basket of skills, including resilience and confidence. Many fledgling designers acquire those on stepping stones like the grueling design studio juries in architecture school.

Not architect Beverly Willis, however, who gained an early training in pluck through an adventure-filled life that included: spending part of her childhood in an orphanage; learning to fly, and crash-land, an airplane at age 15; mastering the construction of a radio set and other useful devices during the war; and running her own firm at a time when the profession was almost exclusively male.

This Friday Willis, who turns a youthful 90 next February, will receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Institute of Architects, California Council, at the organization’s annual Monterey Design Conference.

The conference itself was one of Willis’ creations; she was the first female president at the AIA/CC and in that role was pivotal in creating a conference for the profession that would be specific to California and that would talk about inspiration and design.

Willis got her start in design as a multi-media artist in Honolulu and went on to found her own architectural firm in 1958. Her buildings include Union Street Stores, San Francisco (1965); Yerba Buena Gardens (1980); San Francisco Ballet Building (1982); River Run Residence, Napa Valley, California (1983); Manhattan Village Academy (1996). She was an innovator in the application of CAD to siting buildings; she also co-founded the National Building Museum, in Washington, D.C..

Then, realizing that women’s contributions to architecture were not included in the historical narrative of architecture, she founded the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, in 2002, with the goal of changing the culture for women in the building industry.

Beverly Willis recently visited KCRW and we talked about her eventful life, her thoughts on the architectural profession (and its insularity), her changing views of urban planning, her mission to put a spotlight on women who build, and the importance of adversity in shaping a person.

Fresco for United Chinese Society, completed in Honolulu in 1954; courtesy Beverly Willis Archive

DnA: You grew up during the war. Tell us about that.

BW: Oh yes! I was in high school during the war. It had a major impact upon me and my career, because that was the period of time when you had to go to night school to learn all the trades, whether you were 8 or 80.  I actually made my own radio set out of crystals and wire.

DnA: Let’s talk about how you got into this profession because you had a different experience from women who are 50 years younger than you.

BW: Well, yes, I am an eccentric.

DnA: Eccentric! Eccentric is a good start. How eccentric was that?

BW: Well, I don’t have an architectural degree to begin with. I have a degree in art. I only learned about architecture by hiring architects.

When I graduated from University of Hawaii I was hired by the military to redo officers’ clubs. And that involved the construction and furnishing and interior design and artwork — all on one little purchaser. And so I would have to hire architects for the structural work. And I was always making negative comments about the design and one of the architects one day turned to me and he said, “Well, if you think you’re so smart, why don’t you become an architect?” I thought, well, why not!

Self-portrait by Beverly Willis

DnA: But let’s go back a little bit further. You brought a fearlessness to your career and that comes from some formative experiences.

BW: Yes. Well, I learned to fly when I was 15 years old and I had to do a crash landing.

DnA: Because you ran out of fuel?

BW: No, that was back in the days when you didn’t have a starter inside the airplane. You had to start the airplane by flipping the prop. So I was practicing my moves in order to qualify for my flying license. And I forgot to prime the engine and the engine just stopped. So there I was, 2000 feet up, and I had to land that plane.

DnA: And obviously you did because you’re sitting here now.

BW: Very successfully. No damage to the plane at all.

DnA: But was it a terrifying moment?

BW: Well, it was a moment that you had to say to yourself, calm down, take a deep breath and just do what you’ve been taught to do. And I did. And it worked!

DnA: So you essentially turned it into a glider.

BW: Yes.

DnA: But why were you learning to fly at age 15?

BW: Well, it was the beginning of the war and I wanted to be part of the Women’s Air Service, and to be part of the Women’s Air Service you had to have a license and I couldn’t get a license till I was 18. And of course by that point the war was over. So I became part of the Civil Air Patrol. 

DnA: You grew up in Oklahoma. I’ve read it was barren, and that fueled your desire to be a designer.

BW: Yeah. You know I left there when I was about 15. I really disliked the terrain; it really was a very deep, emotional dislike. But I was actually conceived here in Los Angeles.

DnA: So you’re a real Angeleno!

BW: My mother was a nurse and she graduated from the Los Angeles General Hospital School of Nursing and so my parents were on their way to the Oklahoma oil field boom of the 1920s and they stopped by Tulsa to have me. So my very early days were actually memories of oil fields with all these derricks and oil. I mean everything was oil, and it smelled and it was sulfur. It was not a pleasant environment.

DnA: But that was your playground?

BW: It was my playground, correct. I climbed derricks.

DnA: This is a sidebar question but when you look at the upbringing now of a child would you say it’s fairly designed and planned?

BW: Well, you know helicopter parenting is…. it’s amazing to me really how…

DnA: Cosseted. . .

BW: You know it’s hard for me to find the right word but I’m a great believer that adversity helps make you who you are. Life without adversity, or a childhood without that, doesn’t really give you the full potential of who and what you can become, because education can only do so much for you.

DnA: And in fact you spent time in an orphanage.

BW: Yes. From age from 6 to 12. It was during the Depression and people were literally starving to death. And it was not unusual for parents who were not earning enough money or felt they were not able to feed their children to place them in an orphanage. But you know obviously there was something about me that did not like the orphanage; I didn’t like what I call the institutional life. But it’s a challenge at a young age. So you learn to go to work with the system so to speak. But during that time I read a lot. I would raid the library and found myself a cloak room where I could hide away and just read — and I would read book after book after book.

And so I read this one book called A Girl of the Limberlost, and she had a similar situation — but she devised this idea of catching butterflies and selling the butterflies so that she could buy clothing and she could do things that she wasn’t able to do you know without that additional money. And I thought, well that’s an interesting idea. And so when I became an artist, I thought, well, this is good because I can make things with my hands. And then I can sell them because that’s part of it. And then I don’t have to get involved with another institution which you know often businesses are institutions. So you know I just became determined never to have to work for anybody, and I have never worked for anybody in my life.

River Run Residence and Vineyard, designed by Willis as her own residence, Napa Valley, California, 1983; courtesy Beverly Willis Archive

DnA: So you were dismayed by the hostile environment of Oklahoma and this inspires you to create beauty and become a designer.

BW: Correct. 

DnA: And so where do you go next?

BW: Well from there I went to Portland, Oregon and started college at Oregon State University. I was in engineering there. I dropped out after two years because I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do and I love to draw. So then I went to San Francisco and painted watercolors. I had a one-person show of watercolors in San Francisco and everybody commented on how Asian my work looked. An Asian friend commented on how Buddhist it looked and I was stunned. I knew nothing about Asia and knew nothing about Buddhism. I mean back in that day we were very insular in the United States and I thought maybe I should go back to school and find out what this is all about. And I think the University of Hawaii was one of the three schools in United States that taught foreign history. So that’s what motivated me to go to Hawaii.

DnA: So you become an architect and you think a lot about a humanist approach to architecture. You wrote a book, called The Silent Language of Architecture. What do you mean by that?

BW: Well, I think there is a communication between a building design and the human being. I believe that it’s an organic connection because a human being is organically constructed and the building is organic. The design process is organic. So I think there is this communication. And therefore I’ve spent a great deal of creative time trying to make sure that the colors or techniques or shapes or things of this nature that I employed in my design work would communicate.

DnA: So at the same time as you’re developing these ideas about the humane role architecture can play, you’re also getting on the ground floor of computer aided design. 

BW: Well, it was a real challenge because what happened post-WWII, with the construction of the new highway system in the United States, suburbs began to pop up and builders would go in there with bulldozers and start bulldozing land which created flash floods and mudslides and great destruction, in some cases actually killing people. And they were big plots of land — 100 acres or 500 acres or even 7,000 acres — but in school they taught me to walk the site and memorize it, which you can’t do if you’re talking about a lot of acreage. So we were at an impasse there.

When I was hanging around the airports, when I was 15, I remember hearing about the sites that were being used for the bombers during World War II where there was a software program that drew the site. So the bomber could know when exactly to drop the bomb. And I thought, well, I could find that program. Eventually I found it at Kansas State University and they made modifications to it so we could use it in-house with a young architect from Germany via Harvard who actually knew how to code. Coding was not something that many people even had heard about.

And then we would pop (the development specifications) onto a piece of land and we would see what the impact would be on the drainage and the environmental aspects of it.  

A 1974 brochure featuring Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis (CARLA), a digital software for land planning development in-house by Willis and Associates in 1971. Courtesy Beverly Willis Archive.

DnA: And it has a woman’s name?

BW: Yes, CARLA, the Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis.

DnA: The development of the suburbs and the freeways was very optimistic at the time. But now we’re seeing some of the disbenefits of that period of planning. With your humane approach to architecture, do you look back at that kind of development in a different way?

BW: Yes I do. I used to be a person who did not really believe in vertical living such as we experience in New York and Chicago and even L.A. nowadays. But then I began to realize that vertical living permitted you to have literally a village at the base of the building on the street. You could have all the wonderful things that come from having a tight knit village within walking distance so that you really didn’t have to use a car, which goes back to Jane Jacobs and her advocacy for neighborhood development.

DnA: How has the profession changed in the time you’ve been active?

BW: The field has changed so dramatically since I became an architect. I received my license in the mid-’60s and even though I started my work in the mid-’50s, it was so different then because you were literally a master builder. I mean you did everything. And now of course architects specialize more in design.

DnA: Do you think that’s a good thing?

BW: Well, I’m prejudiced actually. I like the idea of the architect having broader knowledge. But then I’m also an advocate for an architect playing a leadership role in society at large and I think we live in a bubble. I think it’s important to try to break out of that bubble. Architects should be reaching out in every way possible to the general public. Because right now the profession basically talks to themselves.

Willis leading a staff meeting, 1979; image courtesy Beverly Willis Foundation

DnA: As a woman in a field with very few women at that time, did you face challenges?

BW: Well, the interesting thing was that the era of challenges came towards the late ’60s and ’70s. And I was established with my own practice starting in the ’50s actually. There was a novelty about my being on the job site; it was sort of fun. So I never really had to experience that type of antagonism that women had to experience later.

What happened in the early ’70s was that all of a sudden a group of women… not a huge group but much larger than the five or six firms ran by women across the United States… appeared in various cities around the United States and they of course wanted jobs at architectural firms and they were told basically, we don’t hire women. And and so the women organized to correct that. And then there was a very nasty period where a firm would hire one woman and say “well, we’ve hired our woman.”

And then finally the dam broke open and and more and more women were hired and things became normalized in terms of allowing women to actually work in a firm. And a lot of women opened their own firms at the same time.

The fight that we have today is getting women into the big firms and to the very top leadership positions so that they’re in the C-Suite.

DnA: You have found that women simply don’t make it into the history books. You’re working on a film that will highlight the women who helped build New York.

BW: This film is tentatively titled “Unknown New York: The City That Women Built.” It came out of a very successful program that the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation conducted, which was called “Built By Women” and the thought was that perhaps there were, in New York City, a hundred buildings and property spaces designed and built by women. And people said, “oh, you can’t do that. I mean it’s just not an accurate figure.”

But anyway we went ahead and put out a call for submissions and we got 350 responses! And then we plotted them on the map and we were stunned to see that basically they covered Manhattan. I mean it was just an amazing number of projects in Manhattan. And so I’m making that into a film now.

Willis on a project site, 1982. Courtesy Beverly Willis Archive