In Celebration of Women's History Month
Welcome back to our second edition of our new ‘Member Voices’ blog series! To celebrate and look back upon Women’s History Month, we asked members of the chapter to share their thoughts on the profession, equity, as well as a few fun questions to get to know them on a more personal level. As we work toward a more equitable and sustainable profession, we look forward to highlighting the voices and experiences of those who make our chapter such a great place.
What or who has inspired you to become an architect?
My father. As a high schooler growing up in El Salvador, I watched him develop housing for the working force. He was the head of the nation’s Social Trust for Housing, a governmental agency that built single-family homes by pooling funds from the workers, their employers, and the government. Previously, he was credit director of another agency that funded industrial and commercial development. On the weekends, we’d drive around, and he showed my siblings and I the empty fields where projects were proposed, and he’d take us later to the construction sites and grand openings. My favorite project was an entertainment park atop a huge hill with beautiful views of San Salvador and its surroundings. There was a restaurant and many rides, including a rollercoaster, and you could even ride a gondola to the summit and take in more sweeping views. At heart my dad has always been an artist and he wanted to be an architect but with a family to support he couldn’t attend architecture school during the day, so he became an economist. – Gracia Shiffrin, JD, FAIA
The majority of the male members in my family, including my father, were commercial union electricians for the City. As a child, I went with my dad to various job sites, which provided me with a brief glimpse into the intricate workings involved in constructing a building. During my middle school years, my teachers recognized my artistic talents, as well as my logic and reasoning skills. They encouraged me to pursue art, science, and drafting, and guided me towards a career in architecture. – Julie Michiels, AIA
I decided when I was 14 that I wanted to be an architect – I attribute that decision, which must have seemed to come out of the blue, to three buildings that made a significant impression on me.
The first was my grandparents house and neighborhood in Des Moines Iowa. My family moved every few years due to my father’s work. However each summer I spent two weeks with my grandparents – their house was a constant in my life. Built in the early 20th century it is known as an American Four Square . It is a 24’ square in plan with 4 rooms on each floor. The main floor typically had a stair hall, parlor, dining room and kitchen. However my grandfather remodeled it and as a result the stair hall, living room and dining room are open to one another and the space flows freely. In addition there are Craftsman details throughout. The furniture was also Craftsman – no doubt because it was inexpensive as opposed to the more fashionable Victorian. The neighborhood was relatively dense – houses were on 50 foot lots. City transportation, the grocery store and a lovely park were just a few blocks away.
On one of my yearly visits my grandmother and I took buses across town to the construction site of the second building I remember vividly, the Des Moines Art Center, designed by Eliel Saarinen. We walked through the construction mud all around the project. The museum is in a city park and was designed with three sides which embraced a courtyard which when finished had a pool with statues by Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. I of course visited the finished project many times – it was like going into another world – quiet, serene with beautiful light streaming in from windows that looked out into the courtyard and beyond to the park. There were light wood floors with very wide boards; I later learned that each board was gently rounded to cushion the feet.
The final building that was important to me I just caught a glimpse of when we were at a gas station on a hot summer day; that glimpse has stayed with me to this day. We were in Racine Wisconsin when I saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s’s Johnson Wax Tower. I was astounded at its beauty and unique qualities – and I still am. A strong and important quality of all three of these buildings is how they respond to and are situated in their landscape – the neighborhood of my grandparents house, the hill that the art center embraces and the relationship of the tower to the main Johnson’s Wax administration building are all critical parts of their design and success. – Cynthia Weese, FAIA
My friend’s father, who was an architect, became my mentor at an early age. After touring his design studio, I knew I was destined to become an architect. He guided me through the early years of my career and kept me on the path to licensure. This experience led to my pursuit in architecture with a dedicated focus and a continued sense of curiosity. – Susan Brain, AIA, PMP, LEED BD+C
It’s a bit random, I was introduced to the concept of architects while working on a career badge as a Brownie in Girl Scouts. Growing up, I didn’t know any architects or design professionals and didn’t meet one until I got to college at the University of Kansas, but after that first exposure, the idea of what an architect did really resonated with me and I never looked back. The profession is exponentially more than what I ever imagined, but that’s all for the better. – Ashlen Williams, AIA, NOMA
When I was in grade school, my parents had a new home designed and built, and our family regularly inspected the project site during the entire construction process. Then as our home was the first built of the 20 homes in the development, my after-school playground for the next several years was the next 19 homes under construction (no OSHA to keep kids at play out!).
By high school, while I had always enjoyed drawing, most of my drawing efforts did not live up to what I was trying to portray. That changed radically when I had the opportunity to take several years of architectural drawing/model building classes in high school. In addition, while still in high school, I had a semester of architectural history.
The combination of my fascination with construction projects and my high school classes led to my decision to major in architecture in college. (P.S. While the high school guidance counselor recommended I take physics in high school in preparation to be a architecture major, she also recommended I go to a university that also offered home decoration as a major, so I wouldn’t have to change universities when I dropped out of architecture as my major!) – Laura Fisher, FAIA, LEED AP
What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?
“Don’t be afraid to take up space. Don’t deny the world your voice.” Too often I found myself worrying that I was taking too much space, be it in a crowd or in a conversation. It was rarely if ever true and I definitely missed opportunities to grow for not speaking up.
It’s layered and complicated and it was hard to unlearn, but it’s something I try to share now when talking to younger colleagues, ‘your voice and contributions are important and should be shared.’ – Ashlen Williams, AIA, NOMA
Advice I would give a younger version of myself would be to get all different kinds of experiences that you can in the profession. Work at small firms and large firms. Then when you are ready to start your own firm know the direction that you want to take and stick to it. At first it will be challenging financially and emotionally, but it will be worth it in the long term. – Linda Searl, FAIA
Be confident while remaining humble. Think big and remain persistent. Great things will come! – Susan Brain, AIA, PMP, LEED BD+C
I have three pieces of advice for a younger version of myself: 1) Understand Corporate/Firm Cultures – All workplaces (and bosses) are not the same. Find ones that fit you. If it is not a good fit, or someone you work with/for is a jerk – move on. The jerks are few, and there are many, many more great people to work with (instead of working with jerks). 2) It is your career – own it. Know what you are good at and what you like to do. Start a “Career Folder” – keep track (and inventory so to speak) of your professional and volunteer activities. You never know when/why you may need to provide a list or summary of them, and you should be able to provide it quickly and accurately. 3) Volunteer – Be it AIA activities, professional groups, church building committees or condo boards – whatever interests you. Your talents are invaluable to those organizations, and the real connections you make can be life long (in addition to what you will learn). – Laura Fisher, FAIA, LEED AP
To begin with, I would remind myself to stay curious! During my academic and early professional years, I often found myself exploring various interests that deviated from the conventional career trajectory of a designer. While others seemed more driven towards a singular path, I found myself looking in many directions, interested in all of the different forms this career could take. However, these tangents ultimately enriched me both personally and professionally, enabling me to accomplish things in my career that would not have been feasible otherwise. It wasn’t a competition, and I learned that I could carve my own unique path.
Secondly, I would stress the significance of being courageous. As a young individual, it’s easy to accept authority figures’ opinions at face value, but it’s crucial to realize that everyone has their own perspective and priorities. Critical thinking and the willingness to disagree with others are essential components of charting one’s path. I may not always be the loudest voice in the room, but it doesn’t lessen the value of what I have to say. – Julie Michiels, AIA
Continue searching for the right mentor and realize that your peers are as clueless as you are at the start of every endeavor. – Gracia Shiffrin, JD, FAIA
What does equity mean to you?
Equity means creating a level playing field for historically disadvantaged groups and establishing a nurturing environment where everyone can have the same opportunities and access to continuing education. As architectural professionals, we bear a key responsibility in advancing inclusivity in our profession and in society as a whole, whether that means remedying gender and racial wage gaps or ensuring all individuals are compensated fairly and elevated to leadership positions. – Sarah Godbee, Affil. AIA Chicago
Equity means not being told I cannot do something because of my gender. When my aunt entered college in the 1950’s, her school counselor stated she could not study architecture because women were not architects. Though I did not learn my aunt’s story until my acceptance to architecture school, it instilled a sense of opportunity I pursued my architectural studies with courage and persistence. My aunt beamed with pride during my college graduation ceremony and when I advanced to becoming a registered architect. – Susan Brain, AIA, PMP, LEED BD+C
In my opinion, equity involves inviting individuals to the table who represent the communities they serve. However, it’s crucial to go beyond just inviting people; we must actively listen to all the voices present and consider their impact on the work. It’s not enough to have a token representation here and there. We must strive to include everyone who reflects the community, including those who offer support. Everyone must have an opportunity to be heard, and we must listen to each other and evaluate the outcomes of the work we do at every level. – Julie Michiels, AIA
Equity means many things, including justice and fair treatment of everyone. That we can all share our neighborhoods, and that we all have the same freedom of expression, movement in our cities, and educational opportunities. It is painful to see a person’s rights infringed. – Linda Searl, FAIA
What is the most effective step you’ve taken in your work toward a more equitable and sustainable built environment?
Probably the most equitable step I have taken is to volunteer. When I joined the plan commission there were places in the city that would not include affordable housing in their wards. As duly appointed representatives of the city we were steadfast pushing for change.
Also, the AIA Chicago Bridge program mentoring has meant a lot to me. The one-on-one meetings are great, but also the group meetings and discussions were extremely valuable. – Linda Searl, FAIA
I think my participation in NOMA and AIA is the most meaningful, and I hope effective, step I’m taking towards a more equitable built environment. Being a voice that’s advocating for sustainability, equitable representation, work-life balance, and other issues challenging our profession IN the room where decisions are being made is important. – Ashlen Williams, AIA, NOMA
While in Virginia, I launched an AIA sub-committee called Women in Design – Hampton Roads. It started with about ten individuals responding to a call for ‘inspiring women’ and quickly grew to over two hundred local design professionals. Together, we united women designers across our region with educational and inspiring programs, which highlighted women design leaders. The group’s dynamic energy fueled career development and opportunities for so many, proof that women are stronger together. – Susan Brain, AIA, PMP, LEED BD+C
Recognizing that my interest (and talents) in architecture were more in project management than design, following getting my B. Arch, I went on to get an MBA in Finance. My career expanded to include stints in the property and real estate groups of major corporations, managing many significant projects across the US and overseas. – Laura Fisher, FAIA, LEED AP
What has been the most valuable resource to you in your career? (This can be a mentor, scholarship, organization, initiative, program, tool, etc.)
My university architecture program allowed one to spend the 4th year of architecture school as a work/study intern. This was a career changer for me. I spent my 4th year working at SOM under Adrian Smith, FAIA, and became exposed to the broad practice of architecture – a far more reaching view of architecture than what was covered academically. – Laura Fisher, FAIA, LEED AP
Without a doubt, I can say that NOMA has been an invaluable resource to my professional development. Coming into the organization as a young professional in my first job in architecture, I really had no idea what I was doing. NOMA gave me the community and support I needed to grow as an architect and a leader. Having that community to share experiences with and learn from keeps me connected to why I’m passionate about the work that we do. – Ashlen Williams, AIA, NOMA
The experience of studying at the School of Architecture at Washington University. I met the dean, Joe Passonneau, in the summer before my senior year in high school. This was a time in the late 1950s when there were few women architects. I later learned that the year I entered architecture school there were only 200 women in the entire country who identified as working in architecture. Joe’s wife Janet was a bio-chemist who had experienced much sexism as she pursued her PhD at Harvard. She was very forceful in her views about the importance of women professionals – and he took his cues from her. He said at our first meeting “We need more women here.” (He was absolutely correct; In my freshman class there were 3 women in a class of 80. The second semester there were two and the second year I was the only one. Joe actively recruited me to the school – and gave me a scholarship which made it possible to attend the relatively expensive private university.
Faculty members were all young and their wives were scientists, artists – there was no sexist language, I was not told that I was taking a man’s place – I was instead encouraged. I was in the first class that went through the 4 plus 2 program – the first two years were liberal studies with one design course each semester. Joe made sure that we took courses with the most distinguished faculty in the University – these years were an important base for the 4 years of intense architectural studies which followed. Also there were many visitors – distinguished architects from around the world who came for a semester – often with their families – and were a part of the life of the School. It was an intensely vibrant community. It was an important way to start the explorations which have occupied me ever since. Indeed 30 years later when I became dean at the school I wanted to create the same kind of community and give students an equally strong beginning. Interestingly toward the end of my 12 years as dean 65% of the freshman class was women! – Cynthia Weese, FAIA
This is a hard one, so I will just list a few:
- AIA Chicago was a great resource to me as a new firm owner.
- Other architects who help me find answers to the issues in running a firm. Their support has been inspiring and brought confidence in myself. Some of these architects included Cynthia Weese, FAIA, Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, Margaret McCurry, FAIA, Joe Valerio, FAIA and Mark Dewalt, AIA Jack Hartray, FAIA.
- My mother – she didn’t think I had to take the usual path in life. She was mayor of of our city when I was in high school. She would always tell me that I could be anything I wanted to be. And her efforts in the community made me realize that I had to give back.
– Linda Searl, FAIA
In my experience, I have had several unintentional mentors emerge throughout my career. Although I never formally designated them as such, they have become mentors to me through shared experiences and friendships. These individuals have served as sounding boards and provided advice, often without even realizing it, as I navigate various work situations both in the short and long term. These mentors have included colleagues, bosses, peers, and even younger professionals who have offered valuable perspective in the industry. I firmly believe that this business is all about people, and these relationships have been instrumental in my professional growth. I would also add that, while not a resource, a definite inspiration and learning opportunity has come through travel. I have had the opportunity through my project work to places that I never dreamed I would go one day. – Julie Michiels, AIA
My most valuable resource have been my mentors, those individuals who have believed in the uniqueness of my career path and have given me unconditional support, guidance, and friendship over the years. – Gracia Shiffrin, JD, FAIA
Actively participating in professional organizations, such as AIA, has provided leadership growth and priceless industry connections. Volunteering introduced me to amazing talented architectural professionals across the country. It has increased my understanding of the broader profession, brought career opportunities, and provided avenues for making a lasting impact. – Susan Brain, AIA, PMP, LEED BD+C
What has been a large challenge or obstacle as an architectural professional and how are you working to/have you overcome it?
After several few years of happily learning the profession working for midsize firms and becoming licensed in California, I stopped enjoying the day-to-day work. I felt unmoored and couldn’t’ find any guidance. I was disappointed and frustrated after investing so much time in architecture. In an environment of swim or sink, I decided to switch gears. At around the same time, I got married and moved to Chicago, so I took advantage of the move and went to law school. The combination of fields opened many exciting opportunities and gave me the thrill I was missing. I found mentors and the support to believe in myself and flourish. Since then, I’ve followed my interests and have not missed the traditional practice of architecture. I’ve focused my attention on economic development and the creation and preservation of affordable housing in the public and nonprofit sectors. Sometimes you have to look outside your circle to overcome obstacles and find yourself. – Gracia Shiffrin, JD, FAIA
For the first decade after school I had a solo practice – doing residential remodeling in the Lincoln Park neighborhood as young “urban pioneers” made the decision to raise their families in the city. They bought the old houses which in some cases hadn’t been touched since the late 19th century or had been turned into rooming houses and we brought them up to date for 20th century life. During this time by and large I encountered no obstacles – clients didn’t hire me if they couldn’t work with a woman – and contractors were obliging and taught me a great deal.
However when we started our firm in 1977 I had to confront inherent sexism. It was important to call out and address some issues directly. For instance I replied to a supplier who was stringing me along – “Stop calling me “honey” – just do what I’m asking.” He was totally shocked, complied with my request and from then on I was “Ma’am.” Sexist behavior from contractors when I was the architect on a large job was not so direct; however it was clear that they wondered what I was doing there and wanted to ignore me. For the most part these situation resolved themselves over time as we worked together toward the larger goal of getting the project done well. I think that one has to be patient, honest and stubborn. I applaud women who speak out about inequity when they see it. It’s also important to encourage other women as they chart their path. At a certain point exhibitions of the work of women architects were useful; I organized one and worked on several others. This year Chicago has much to celebrate with Carol winning the AIA Gold Medal! – Cynthia Weese, FAIA
A regular challenge I have faced as a Black woman in this profession is navigating a world where stereotypes about what it means to be a Black woman has a direct impact on how my leadership or direction is received and how often it is challenged and second-guessed.
Having supportive friends and peers that understand these issues and can share advice/commiserate and allies that can advocate for me when it’s necessary is critical to managing that side of the work. – Ashlen Williams, AIA, NOMA
In my opinion, one of the most difficult skills to acquire is finding the right balance between being an attentive listener and asserting oneself to be heard. This is particularly challenging for a designer because it involves both receiving and recognizing others’ perspectives while providing valuable and constructive feedback. This skill becomes even more challenging in larger groups, and as someone who has never been the most outspoken, I have had to work hard to develop this skill in ways that work for me. – Julie Michiels, AIA
In a male dominated profession, women often lack leadership role models. My architecture school graduating class was only 20% women, statistically, less than 10% of those would become registered architects. Entering the profession, I saw few female architect leaders. An advocate for mentorship, I support career development of emerging professionals and aim to serve as a positive female architect role model. – Susan Brain, AIA, PMP, LEED BD+C
In what ways can women advocate for each other to ensure firms are more equally represented in their leadership structures?
Women can be powerful work allies. Continually invest time and energy in the next generation of women architects who are the potential future leaders of the architectural profession. Women can encourage stretch assignments for female colleagues, spotlight their accomplishments and identify leadership opportunities for aspiring qualified candidates. – Susan Brain, AIA, PMP, LEED BD+C
When women so often don’t have the power to ensure equitable representation or elevate other women to leadership, it’s hard for me to see the best way to advocate for each other in that regard. Showing up for each other is never the wrong move, though.
One way that leaders can advocate for women in the profession is to ensure that non-promotable tasks are equitably distributed across the team. When women are disproportionately responsible for these tasks, they do not have the same time available to dedicate to excelling in the tasks that are reviewed for job promotion and performance. – Ashlen Williams, AIA, NOMA
Mentor others and let others mentor you – reach up, reach down and reach laterally. Male or female, bosses or peers, inside or outside your firm – they all count and you can share, learn and grow together. Virtually every job or project I have been hired for in my 40+ year career has been the result of a referral. Always do your best work, but connect with others and stay connected! – Laura Fisher, FAIA, LEED AP
As a Marketing Coordinator for a woman-owned and led firm, amplifying the voices of our architects and their accomplishments, from designers to principals, is vital to our progress. The mentorship from the Women in Architecture committee at AIA Birmingham was essential for building relationships and potential job opportunities, and continuously set an example for YPs to ensure women’s perspectives are heard and valued. Through these collective efforts and mutual support, we can diminish obstacles and cultivate a more representative industry. – Sarah Godbee, Affil. AIA Chicago
As a leader, it is essential to observe and acknowledge the people around you, especially within a company, and keep track of those who are on the rise. Fortunately, I have received tremendous support from my colleagues and friends, and it is my responsibility to ensure that others also receive similar encouragement and opportunities.
I also believe that this support should also start at an early age. I co-taught a high-school freshman level class at Marwen where we not only helped young adolescents develop their skills but also introduced them to various career paths available to them. I was fortunate to have supportive teachers during my middle and high school years, and it’s vital to pay it forward and support the next generation. – Julie Michiels, AIA
Provide the opportunities for women in the firm in the same ways that everyone is provided opportunities. Our firm has hired an equal group of men and women since its inception. We want all of our architects in the office to shine and pursue their interests to grow in knowledge and experiences. – Linda Searl, FAIA
What is your favorite building and why/how has it influenced your design work?
Favorite building – Is there just one? I love Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, but it’s more beautiful counterpart is Eileen Gray’s E1027 house. It’s even better! They were built at the same time, and Le Corbusier was very jealous of Eileen’s design. – Linda Searl, FAIA
The Carbide and Carbon Building. The black granite and green terracotta façade is undeniably stunning and distinguishes it from its modern high-rise counterparts. An exemplary testament to the Art Deco era, its restoration efforts highlight the importance of architects and preservationists and the profound impact they have on our urban fabric. – Sarah Godbee, Affil. AIA Chicago
I have many favorite buildings – the three I listed earlier – Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel, Bramante’s Tempietto, Cistercian monasteries, the Marshall Field Wholesale Store, Ronchamp, Taliesin West – these are a few. I also admire the work of Rafael Moneo and the Barcelona architect Elias Torres Tor. The work of Alvar Aalto and many Finnish architects has had a lasting influence on me. I appreciate the use of natural materials and the humane scale in their work.
Good architecture to me has to have that humane scale, be beautifully crafted and sit well within its context, whether that be a city block or a pastoral landscape.. It’s also important to practice responsibly. When we started our practice we had two goals – one was to remain small, the other was to work only for people whose vales we shared – hence our work focuses on affordable housing and education. – Cynthia Weese, FAIA
Aqua Tower graced the cover of Architectural Record a couple years prior to my relocation to Chicago. At that time, I was designing multi-family mixed use high-rises and was inspired by Jeanne Gang’s sculptural undulating façade. Functional and beautiful curved white balconies cascade like rippling water creating visual interest and unique building form. I remember viewing Chicago’s skyline from an airplane window and delightfully catching my first glimpse of Aqua Tower. – Susan Brain, AIA, PMP, LEED BD+C
It’s impossible to name a one and only favorite but I’ll say Steven Holl’s Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City is a project that I enjoy seeing anytime I’m able. It’s a beautiful addition and the way it’s situated on the site, there aren’t many projects that you can engage with in that way. It’s a wonderfully unique experience. – Ashlen Williams, AIA, NOMA
What change would you like to see in Chicago’s built environment?
Equity in all ways. Neighborhoods that welcome everyone. A more streamlined transit system that more easily gets us where we want to go without a car. Schools that inspire. Buildings that are innovative and sustainable. Zoning laws that promote the above. – Linda Searl, FAIA
I would like to see more preservation, especially in disinvested communities, and more thoughtful, affordable multi-family development that supports sustainable, dense urban living. It’s so commonplace to see these unaffordable, uninspired 3 and 6-flats go up that do nothing but water down the character of our neighborhoods and make them more unaffordable.
A lot more could be done to support the kind of sustainable density and equitable development that is needed to repair the damages done by past policies and practices of our profession. – Ashlen Williams, AIA, NOMA
I would love to see the maintenance and preservation of our existing buildings prioritized, emphasizing the importance of adaptive reuse or repositioning when necessary. We have an outstanding architectural heritage that we must continue to improve upon and make more accessible to a broader audience. – Julie Michiels, AIA
I would most like to see greater pride and care of built structures. Graffiti distracts from the beauty of our city. Chicago’s cityscapes are beautiful. Let’s respect, honor, and celebrate our city together. – Susan Brain, AIA, PMP, LEED BD+C
Is your firm looking to take steps toward advancing gender equity? AIA Chicago’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee has a wealth of resources, both local and national, that can aid in the process, including the AIA Guides to Equitable Practice.
Susan Brain, AIA, PMP, LEED BD+C
Senior Interior Project Manager, Associate, Perkins&Will
Laura Fisher, FAIA, LEED AP
Principal, IPM Consulting Ltd
Sarah Godbee, Affil. AIA Chicago
Marketing Coordinator, HPZS
Julie Michiels, AIA
Senior Associate Principal, Interior Design Leader, SOM
Linda Searl, FAIA
Principal, Searl Lamaster Howe
Gracia Shiffrin, JD, FAIA
Financial Analyst, Enforcement Center, Office of General Counsel, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Cynthia Weese, FAIA
Ashlen Williams, AIA, NOMA