Leers Weinzapfel Associates takes the firm award, A first for women architects

While it might be sexist to call attention to the fact that this year’s AIA Firm Award winner—Leers Weinzapfel Associates—will be the first woman-owned firm in history to win AIA’s top firm award, there’s no doubt it’s timely. A number of architecture magazines recently featured stories on the role of women in architecture [see “Not Only Zaha,” December 2006, record, page 58]. Clearly, honoring a partnership like the Leers Weinzapfel duo is cause for celebration in a profession that seeks to loosen the knot on the tie of the old boys’ network.

James Stewart Polshek, FAIA, wrote in his letter of recommendation in the award submission: “It would be nice to be gender blind, but our social construct is not yet reconfigured to allow that luxury. The fact is that for a woman-owned firm to succeed as spectacularly as Leers Weinzapfel did required persistence, diligence, and inventiveness.”

 Polshek’s choice of words couldn’t be more apt. Diligence is revealed in the team’s dogged willingness over their 25-year history to undertake the design of many unsexy, utilitarian structures, which served as training grounds to refine their problem-solving and design acumen and weather the ups and downs of the construction market. As well, their persistence in working as Modernists in Boston’s conservative, tradition-bound design culture has served them well, learning as they have to use historic buildings as inspiration for binding the past to the present in many of their designs. Lastly, inventiveness resides in their honesty about who they are; rather than making a case for a signature style, the firm tailors its design strategy to the challenges implicit in each project.

Andrea Leers, FAIA, and Jane Weinzapfel, FAIA, opened their Boston-based practice in 1982 in a converted warehouse in Boston’s Fort Point Channel district, which served as their home for a quarter century. They’ve recently moved the 24-person firm to a light-filled, open studio space in Chinatown.

This is a partnership rooted in a long-term friendship. Even after a career’s span of working as partners, Leers and Weinzapfel are not only best friends, but find their professional relationship continues to grow. From the outset, they have worked together, alternating from project to project, with one serving as the other’s assistant principal, allowing clients to have a single point of contact, while encouraging a dynamic exchange of ideas between them. This collaborative pattern continues today with new partners, Joe Pryse, AIA, and Josiah Stevenson, AIA, who joined the firm in 1989 and 1986, respectively, and became principals in 1997. With four principals managing work, each project receives the close guidance  of two partners from inception to completion. 

 Sketches, computer renderings, and models of various scales reside in the studio pin-up areas and project meeting spaces of the firm. “Although we are trained to visualize space before it exists,” says Weinzapfel, “we use many methods to describe the evolving spaces to ourselves and to each other in the studio.” Together in the studio, they develop a shared understanding of the specific project, its spaces, enclosure, and site integration. This process pays off: “As our clients are exposed to the results of these studies and to our shared project vocabulary, they become adept at visualizing the spaces and the ideas behind the emerging designs. We are lucky to have clients who have become sophisticated architectural aficionados this way,” Weinzapfel explains.

The jurors for the award cited the firm’s resourcefulness; sensitivity to the client, site, and program; and its high standards of design and craft. Its careful handling of often complex and constrained urban sites also won praise.