Two Questions, Four Women

Published by the National Building Museum

On March 8, 2012 we presented Women of Architecture: Architecture and the Great Recession, featuring a panel of four building industry leaders and moderated by Mara Liasson of NPR and Fox News. In advance of the event, we asked each panelist the same questions:

During this period of retrenchment, what are some of the changing priorities and values you see emerging in contemporary architecture? Do these changing priorities and values have any particular significance for women and gender?

Sheila Cahnman
Group Vice President / Regional Healthcare Leader, HOK


Sheila Cahnman

My field of expertise for the past thirty years has been healthcare design and planning, an exciting specialty, ever-changing due to market conditions and the evolution of medical practice and technology. The current ‘double whammy’ of declining revenues and uncertainty regarding legislative initiatives has fundamentally altered the healthcare industry. Major capital expenditures have been reallocated to meeting mandated information technology requirements such as electronic medical record-keeping or for mergers and acquisitions.

The changing priorities and values emerging in healthcare design have necessitated significant efforts at master planning to establish long-range goals and vision. In some cases, this is supported by recommendations to change the physical environment, sometimes it is not.  More and more, our skills as architects and planners are put to work as expert listeners and problem solvers. Our management skills are utilized as consensus builders and organizers; our creativity is tapped to define the questions, not just provide building solutions.

I believe that women, in general, are particularly adept at the planning skills mentioned above and also at leading the team approach in the industry-wide trend toward integrated project delivery. Very few women have broken through as ‘starchitects,’ but, thankfully, the practice of architecture now revolves more around assembling a team of complementary talents to create projects. We may not be building much the next few years, but we can still guide our clients to plan for the future in a thoughtful, strategic way.”

MaryAnne Gilmartin
Executive Vice President and Director of Commercial & Residential Development, Forest City Ratner Companies


MaryAnne Gilmartin

“During the last economic and real estate boom from 2004 to 2008, many developers, cultural institutions, and municipalities started focusing on design to create value. For developers, name-brand architects and world-class design create tremendous value over going with a traditional, efficient ‘developer-friendly’ firm. In New York particularly, the sales prices achieved by projects such as Richard Meier’s West Side developments, Herzog & de Meuron’s Bond Street project, 15 Central Park West by Robert A.M. Stern, as well as office rents achieved in the New York Times building by Renzo Piano, clearly demonstrate this value proposition and prove that ‘good design pays.’

When the recession hit, it reset the bar for the new economic reality of developing and building. The rules changed—suddenly we had to do more with less and fight harder to defend bold and ambitious development initiatives. Nowhere was this more evident than in the work at 8 Spruce Street in lower Manhattan. For example, Frank Gehry approved the use of his name in marketing of 8 Spruce Street and at one point even offered up personal babysitting services to help with renting the 900 units! Today, we are more interested in working with architects who recognize the need to create value by producing well designed, efficient buildings at the target budget. In our quest to build in this new economic environment, our company has invested resources to explore an alternative construction methodology that will change how high-rise residential towers are built. This innovation could not have been achieved without the “outside the box” approach of both SHoP Architects and Arup engineers.

In my experience with design firms, I rarely see women architects in principal roles. Other than Zaha Hadid, there are few women with the profile and stature of a Renzo Piano or Frank Gehry. This obviously needs to change. Perhaps it’s the mediocre compensation paired with the grueling hours required that prohibit women from advancing in the architectural field or maybe they’re savvy and move into related fields that provide better opportunities and compensation such as real estate development.”

Cathleen McGuigan
Editor-in-Chief, Architectural Record


Cathleen McGuigan

“In this period of retrenchment, as the profession of architecture suffers the loss of work in many sectors and regions, we’re seeing new strategies and directions for the under-employed, particularly on the part of younger architects. One is the groundswell of public interest in design—which Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, calls ‘design for the other 99%’—and in the choices of practitioners, who are engaging more in pro bono work or work for small stipends in programs such as Architecture for Humanity. In addition, as the field becomes more collaborative and with an emphasis on teamwork across disciplines, those with architecture training may be exploring work outside of conventional practice to a greater degree, such as research, planning, and other design fields. Since women make up 43% of enrollment in architecture schools but are licensed at a far lower rate than men (only 18% of architects are women), it’s likely that they’ve already been demonstrating a greater flexibility in applying their skills beyond work in traditional firms.”

Claire Weisz
Principal, WXY Architecture + Urban Design


Claire Weisz

“In the built environment, an emerging key question is whether the nation’s growth and prosperity should continue to be tied to the image of the single-family home. With the increasing evidence of the social and economic importance of cities and social networks to the economy, the focus on single-family dwellings shuts out many people from affordable ways to live independently. Contemporary design thinking is very synergistic with the positive economic data supporting density and cities in terms of true sustainability. Revitalizing urban areas offers more diversity of choice and spawns cultural innovation and dialogue, creating opportunities for more people and thus affecting women of all ages and backgrounds.

Emerging in contemporary architectural practice is the value of knitting private and public investments in shared spaces, infrastructure, and public realm improvements with strategies for optimizing energy and water resources. New ways to bring nature into our public places as well as incorporating different uses in the buildings and structures we already have are good examples of this. The question is, ‘can the American dream shift to investing in new ways to grow while making the best use of what we have?’”

The Women of Architecture series is a collaboration between the National Building Museum and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation to celebrate Women’s History Month.