A Retrospective and a Look Forward: Cynthia Weese, FAIA, Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient in Conversation with Emily Ray, AIA, Dubin Family Young Architect Award Recipient


Cynthia Weese and Emily Ray, Chicago Architect

In 1974, two major architectural exhibitions premiered at museums in Chicago. But Cynthia Weese, FAIA, noticed there was something missing. These exhibits, which showcased some of the best work in the city, featured no work from female architects. When Weese brought it up to a friend, he told her, dismissively, to “show me any woman’s work that deserves to be in them.”

Weese took it as a challenge. In 1978, she co-organized “Chicago WomenArchitects: Contemporary Directions,” the first exhibition of its kind, featuring the work of architects like Margaret Zirkel Young, AIA (RiverPlaza), and Carol Ross Barney, FAIA (University of Chicago Fieldhouse). At the time, women accounted for less than 2 percent of AIA Chicago membership. Due in no small part to the contributions of architects like Weese, this figure that has since risen to 32 percent. Women represented in AIA Chicago’s student members are closer to 50 percent — similar to the demographics of the city’s schools of architecture.

Early-career architect Emily Ray, AIA, is a testament to this growth and ispushing boundaries in her own right. In early 2019, Ray was one of several original founding members of AIA Chicago’s LGBTQIA+ Alliance, the first such AIA group in the country and now replicated or in development in a dozen other AIA chapters.

As a queer woman, she felt that the nature of “professionalism” often excluded people of marginalized identities, “[creating] two personas — the person I am at home and the person I am at the office.”

“Unless I tell them, no one has to know I’m engaged to a woman,” Ray said. “So, it’s easy to become susceptible to the idea that we suppress that part of ourselves to conform to the mainstream. But it always comes up. Someone inevitably asks about your home life or a personal question— and you face the dilemma of whether or not to come out to this person. It may not always be an easy decision, for example, on a contractor’s job site.”

AIA Chicago and the AIA Chicago Foundation recently honored both architects with awards celebrating their leadership and architectural practice. Weese, principal of Weese Langley Weese Architects, is the winner of the 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award, AIA Chicago’s highest individual honor, in recognition of her more than 50 years of leadership, design, and teaching experience. Ray, project architect at Wheeler Kearns Architects (WKA), is the recipient of the 2024 Dubin Family Young Architect Award, awarded by the AIA Chicago Foundation.

Cynthia Weese knew from the age of 14 that she wanted to design buildings. She was most inspired by Eliel Saarinen’s Art Center in Des Moines, Iowa; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Research Tower in Racine, Wisconsin; and her grandmother’s craftsman-style home built by her grandfather in Des Moines.

“You have somewhat naïve reasons at the beginning [for wanting to become an architect], but the image of thosethree buildings still is a powerful one with me,” Weese said.

She remembers, as a child, watching the Saarinen-designed building as it was being constructed. One day, she decided to take a closer look. “[Tromping] through all the construction mud,” with her grandmother following dutifully, they entered the back courtyard, which contained a sculpture by Carl Milles. Once the building was completed, she was finally able to peek inside, which she said felt like going to a different country. “The light was so lovely coming in through the big windows. And the sound was different. It was a really peaceful, serene environment —wonderfully Scandinavian.”

Weese graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 1965 with dual bachelor’s degrees in architectural sciences and architecture — an educational experience she found transformative. She met her husband, Ben Weese, FAIA — brother of the late architect Harry Weese, FAIA —when he was a visiting faculty member. She moved to Chicago to join him, beginning her career in independent practice.
“In the late ’70s, the women I knew who were practicing with their husbands were managing the office and making everything smooth sothe great man could do his work,” Weese said. “And I wasn’t going to do that. I thought it was very important to be identified as a distinct, separate person, not just [as] Ben’s wife who helps him a lot. It was several years before we worked on anything together.”

Throughout her career, Weese designed buildings such as the Chicago City Day School in Lincoln Park; the Art Institute of Chicago’s Kraft General Foods Education Center; A New Leaf, a florist and event venue; and Illinois Corn Crib, a farm building converted into a weekend retreat space near Champaign.

She was also active in the community, co-founding the revived Chicago Architectural Club and Chicago Women in Architecture and served as president of AIA Chicago in 1987 through 1988 as well as on the Board of the Society of Architectural Historians. She was invited to join the original Chicago Seven, a group of architects pushing against the status quo of modernism, as its only female member.

In 1993, while she was serving as vice president of AIA National, Weese became the dean of the School of Architecture for her alma mater, Washington University — the first woman to serve as a dean at the university. At the time, she was hesitant to pivot to academia full time because of her love of practicing architecture, but she found a calling in redesigning its graduate program — creating graduate semesters abroad in Buenos Aires, Helsinki, and Tokyo — and investing in the digital technology that would transform the industry in the next decade.

“The technological revolution had just begun. It was just in its early infant stages, and some schools [said], ‘We’ll never have computers here,’ and I knew that it was absolutely necessary.”

Growing up, Ray had always been creative. In school, she took dance classes, started a film club with her friends, and participated in school musicals. But architecture, for her, was an unusual obsession.

“I grew up a voracious drawer and constantly drew houses and airports,” she said. “I loved trying to work out the flow of people, cars, and planes at an airport in the plan. And I drew all the houses in section. I have no idea where I learned to do these things. I have no architects in the family, and I never met anyone who was an architect.”

Ray graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Texas at Austin, where she also took courses in historic preservation. Determined to move to a larger city, she found a position at HBRA Architects despite never visiting Chicago and having no connections there. Her first project, ironically enough, happened to be at the Chicago History Museum, where she helped renovate the historic McCormick Theater.

In 2016, she participated as a mentee in AIA Chicago’s Bridge mentorship program and attended her first AIA national conference. “I realized the architecture community in Chicago is very supportive, open, and non-competitive. Everyone here wants to do their best for the city and its inhabitants, and we look at our work as contributing to the overarching fabric of the city rather than as individual buildings in a vacuum. It’s a very altruistic, non-egotistical approach to practicing architecture wherethe whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

A few years later, in 2019 and 2020, she took on the biggest projects of her career to date: designing the Broadway Youth Center, a 20,000-square-foot health and social services center for LGBTQIA+ youth in Lakeview, and the Great Lakes Academy Charter School in South Chicago.

“I thrive on delivering projects for grassroots organizations and clients who dream beyond their means and envision a world that does not yet exist,” Ray said. “It’s so easy to get discouraged by the building process in Chicago. There’s no shortage of pitfalls, setbacks, and hurdles. While some clients may have connections or resources to make those problems disappear, most grassroots organizations must face them head-on.”

Katherine Myers-Crum, founder of Great Lakes Academy, was impressed by Ray’s ability to listen and create “beautiful, joyful spaces” on tight budgets. During the renovation, Ray helped convert a vacant church into a state-of-the-art enrichment center for arts and athletics programs, which were formerly unavailable to students.

“It is a truly awe-inspiring space to be in,” Myers-Crum said.

Ray also suggested making all newrestrooms gender-neutral to ensure inclusivity for all current and future students, to which Myers-Crum readily agreed.

“For kids on the North Side, it’s expected that they have a nice building,” Myers-Crum continued. “On the South Side, when kids have a nice school, they’re considered lucky. This space communicates to our children that they’re deserving of an amazing space, day in and day out.”

Ray is involved in her community of East Garfield Park, where she moved and bought a two-flat with her partner in 2021. The first floor of their home has served as a photo studio for drag performers and LGBTQIA+artists and as a community space for creatives and artists, emerging entrepreneurs, and community organizations such as Peace Runners, Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, and Westside Rising.

“We are committed to supporting people in our city who are creating something new — be that art, a small business, or a better future for our neighborhood.”

Weese and Ray had not known each other prior to this article, but despite differences in background and age, they found they had a lot in common— and a lot to admire about one another. During a chilly day this January, they took one another on tours of two of their projects: Chicago City Day School and the Broadway Youth Center. Weese had not visited the school in more than 30 years and was struck by how its caretakers had embellished it over the years in new and creative ways.

Weese and Ray said they both loved working with values-driven clients and testified to the importance of architects in creating social change.

When Weese was actively practicing, she specialized in affordable housing and participatory design, which Andy Metter, FAIA, design principal at Perkins&Will, said was unheard of at the time. Weese and her husband were “at the forefront of social change,” Metter said.

Weese believes that architects need to be more concerned with issues that affect low-income people and suggested that AIA could marshal its resources and members toward solving the city’s current migrant housing crisis, which has left thousands living on the street and in temporary shelters. Too many architects are interested in glorifying themselves, she said.

“We are people who serve the larger community and do things for them and make their lives better by good design, which doesn’t mean fancy finishes. It means space that you can use well and use correctly.”

While working on the Broadway Youth Center, which is down the street from a hospital, Ray learned that, for the young people the center would serve, sirens could be triggering. From the start, her team decided to use triple-glazed windows to ensure a tranquil, soundproofed environment.

“Every decision needs to be based on equity,” Ray said. “You need to be empathizing with every different type of person who’s going to be entering these spaces and putting yourself in their shoes. How are they going to experience it? How can I impact all the different senses to make sure that this person gets the most out of the space that I’m designing for them?”

Mentorship has also been a priority for both. Weese said that she felt “enlivened” by the presence and the critical thinking of her students. Metter, who has participated in portfolio critiques and juries alongside her, said that her listening skills in particular make her special in the industry.

“Whenever she makes a critique, students take it to heart because I think that they feel that she, through her listening ability and empathy, understands what you’re talking about, what your priorities are, and what you’re trying to do to achieve your goals. I think thats why she’s so well respected,” Metter said.

This winter, Ray has again been participating as a mentor for the ACE Mentor Program, which teaches high school students about the architecture, construction, and engineering fields. Their assignment was to design something — anything — in Steelworkers Park on the Southeast Side. Using their own research, they learned that the adjacent neighborhood, South Chicago, lacks many grocery stores and food resources, so they decided to include a market with local businesses that is accessible to residents via public transportation.

“A lot of their decisions are guided by equity without even having to betold that,” Ray said. “They have this incredible empathy. It’s really a joy to witness it each week. I’ve left each Wednesday this winter feeling reinvigorated about the future of the profession.”

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