Architecture as a business

In the early days, says Reiser, no one worried about making any money—you just did it “because you could create beautiful work.” Judy DiMaio, AIA, who is the dean of the School of Architecture and Design at NYIT, says that today it’s not just about the passion, and emphasizes that women now are far more aware of the need to know about setting up architecture as a business. Yet the women interviewed did not have business training while studying architecture—nor did they think architecture school was the right place, with so little time to absorb everything else about design, structure, theory, and history. All say they learned the business on the job. Some, who had had male partners, were surprised to find they were better “businessmen.” Joseph says she retained a good business consultant to come in and train her and her senior staff. Bausman depends on a financial adviser to help with her investment portfolio in order to get over the ups and downs of the economic work cycle. Riley suggests it’s good business to be discerning about the clients—“especially the ones who use up an inordinate amount of the office energy, when the projects lead nowhere.”

Photo © Paul Rivera / Archphoto
Luce et Studio Architects, Nissan Design America, offices and design studio, La Jolla, California


And for the next generation

Many women architects teach, and say that the best way to encourage women to enter the profession is for them to see women on the faculty of architecture schools. They note that having women deans helps. (Donna Robertson, AIA, is dean of the College of Architecture at IIT, Karen Van Langen is dean of architecture at the University of Virginia, Adele Santos is dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, and, as noted earlier, Mori is chair of the department of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and DiMaio is dean at NYIT.) Beha says students at the various schools where she has taught tell her, “You have changed the way we thought about practice.” They reaffirm her role as “an agent for change as well as an agent for design.”

Thirty years after her influential exhibition, Susana Torre finds herself as an “accidental developer” designing and constructing a residential complex in Carboneras, Spain. Looking at the current state of affairs, she observes that “female architects no longer have the historic burden of credibility with clients and contractors typical 30 or even 10 years ago. But most women seem to be heading small practices, producing small projects that don’t capture the public’s and the media’s attention.” Matlock advises women to get experience in large firms to keep from “getting stuck doing tiny projects later.”

Some urge rethinking the idea of success. Peggy Deamer, who has been assistant dean and architecture professor at Yale, with her own office, Deamer Studio, in New York since 2002, maintains, “We need to put forth a different image of success in the profession when we choose teachers as role models. There are multiple ways of being a star—this affects how we award prizes to students as well as whom we hire to teach them. The models we have now are oriented to a male idea of success (even Zaha), and it’s pretty limited and depressing.” Deamer, who is taking over as dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland in New Zealand in February, will have the opportunity to test her convictions, albeit a bit far from these shores.

In the final analysis, one could argue that definite progress has been made over the past 30 years, in the number of women running their own firms and in the range of commissions they get. More needs to be done for them to crash through the famous glass ceiling, and it should happen first in architecture schools. After school, the decision is up to women. They can have successful, happy lives within larger firms, or as partners with men. Or they can go it alone. But the women interviewed agree that in addition to talent and organization, architects who want to run their own businesses need specific personal qualities: ambition, persistence, grit, determination, passion, and a thick skin. (Charm doesn’t hurt.) While they are not Zaha Hadid, her success is helping bring to the public the notion that a lone female architect can indeed create significant, even great architecture. So most of the women can cheer her on, all the while strapping themselves into their own vehicles to enter the race.