Joan Blumenfeld, FAIA, IIDA, LEED ID+C, is a design principal and Regional Interior Design Director in the New York office of Perkins+Will, an architecture and interior design firm with global offices in 24 locations. Ms. Blumenfeld’s work spans the corporate, higher education and institutional sectors, for clients in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.
Beginnings – What attracted you to architecture and how did you begin your career? Was there an influential experience, or mentor, that helped steer you toward this field?
I had never met an architect and had no idea of what they did, so I had no idea that it might be a career for me. I wanted to go to art school, but was dissuaded by my practical parents and the fact that I also was fascinated by so many other things. So instead, I majored in something called Philosophical Psychology, a hybrid of religious studies, psychology, and philosophy, in hopes that I would find the true path–when I got my degree I realized that I probably never would. After four years of waiting on tables supporting my husband while he finished his Ph.D., I realized that I needed to do something a little more challenging. My dad suggested architecture, because he worked with a few and he thought the fact that I loved to draw and that I also loved math and physics might mean I was well suited. I asked everyone I knew if they had any architect friends, and went to see five of them in their offices to find out what they did. It was the middle of a bad recession, and every single one of them tried to discourage me (including one woman architect who told me it was a terribly tough career choice for women). But being the visual person I am, I ignored their words and instead was completely taken with the drawings, models, and the creative atmosphere of their offices.
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?
I think architecture is more a cult (in a good way) than a culture. It is a collection of individuals who share a passion for creating positive interventions in physical space at all different scales. That is why it is so diverse; architects can design things that we interact with at the scale of the body–like furniture or household objects–or at the scale of the room, the building, or the city.
I would hope that my personal contributions lie in being instrumental in the design of environments that allow people to live or work better, that improve their health and well-being, and that tread lightly on the planet’s resources. Unfortunately, the cult of architecture has traditionally been male dominated, and while it has been gradually changing, it will take a long time to come to equilibrium for women in the field. But I am hopeful that it will change.
The future? Humans will always seek after beauty; there will always be a place for those who work to bring it into physical form. So those architects who at least aspire to that lofty a goal, regardless of their success, will find their niche within our society.
Advice for someone interested in entering an architecture-related field?
You have to put up with a lot of nonsense to be an architect, regardless of gender. If you don’t love it, you will not be happy. The money is not great, the hours are long, and you will frequently be frustrated by ignorance and lack of respect. But if you get a thrill out of seeing something you helped create get built, it can compensate for all of the misery, at least enough of the time to make it worthwhile.
Favorite site, place, building? Why does this particular location speak to you?
That question is a little bit like asking someone to name their favorite child. There can be so many of them, and they are all different, and lovable in their own ways! For the sake of brevity, if I limit it to New York and to interior spaces, a small sampling of my favorites are the Brasserie, because it is still fresh after most restaurants would be so yesterday; the inside of Grand Central station, because it is a heroic space with a cast of thousands every hour; the reading room of the New York Public Library on 42nd street because it is the essence of what all libraries should be; the Hayden Planetarium because when you visit you really do feel like you are taking a journey into space. And because it looks like it may be doomed to be demolished, I have to mention the American Folk Art Museum, which is a beautifully crafted gem, both inside and outside.