Feature: Beverly Willis Makes a Place

Beverly Willis with a fresco she painted in Hawaii. Photo Credit: BWAFArchive

Beginnings – what attracted you to architecture (or related field), and how did you begin your career?  Was there an influential experience, or mentor, that helped steer you toward this field?

As a 20-year-old, I had great difficulty finding my career path. I studied engineering for two years, then switched to fine art studies. I enrolled at the University of Hawaii to apprentice as an artist with Jean Charlot, the renowned fresco painter. Concurrently, I studied Far Eastern art and philosophy with the great Gustave Ecke. Upon graduation, due to the lack of design professionals in what was then the territory of Hawaii, some of the high-ranking military officers asked me to design and build-out their offices and social clubs.  To do this, I had to hire architects — that introduced me to architecture. I was hooked. In 1966, now working in San Francisco, I passed the architectural practice license exams on the first try. In 1979, I was elected President of the California Council of the AIA, and shortly after was inducted as a Fellow of the AIA.

What does “architecture culture” signify to you, and how do you go about contributing to, and or changing, this culture?  What are your hopes and dreams for the future of architecture and the built environment?

Willis’s self-portrait. Photo Credit: BWAFArchive

Architecture culture over its long history, like that of engineering and construction, has been dominated by patriarchal thought. Processes, procedure and beliefs (including religion) have long been considered the exclusive domain of men. To change the culture, men have to learn to believe that women can do the same high quality of work that they do. After WWII, the government stepped in and set up quotas for women. While these proactive steps did not change the culture, it did open some doors for women to gain experience. To create change, men and women must value the design contributions of women and their important work must be included in the historical narrative. My dream is that BWAF can help make that happen.

Advice for someone interested in entering an architecture-related field?

Ask yourself this question – do I have the love and passion for the work? Whether it is in the design or administration of a project – or the advancement of the individual woman – there will always be challenges to solve and roadblocks to overcome. It is certainly not easy to take on these challenges. You need strength and determination.

The San Francisco Ballet Building. PHOTO: Peter Aaron/Esto Photographics

Favorite site, place, building? Why does this particular location speak to you?

My favorite project was designing the San Francisco Ballet Building in the city’s Civic Center, the first building ever built for the exclusive use of a ballet company. As I loved ballet, it was a great experience to be so closely involved and to research ballet spaces throughout the world. It was a great honor to design a monumental building in one of the nation’s most beautiful civic centers.

(Ed. note: for more information on Beverly Willis visit

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