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Desert Companion

Taking the Lead

dc-jennwong_23a4948.jpg

Jenn Wong
Photography by Joe Buglewicz

STRUCTURING CHANGE Jenn Wong helped launch a symposium focused on women architects.

Women are building careers in the traditionally male business of architecture — but many challenges remain

“Men rule, and their power is made real through architecture.”

So wrote architect and writer Aaron Betsky 20 years ago in a book called Building Sex. 

Last October, Betsky was in town giving the keynote at the regional conference of the American Institute of Architects. At the end of his talk, a UNLV architecture student, Jenn Wong, stood up to ask him a question. Though his talk was not about gender, gender issues were on Wong’s mind — they were on everyone’s mind. That same week The New York Times had broken the Harvey Weinstein story. “When that happens, you think of your own industry and career path,” Wong says now. So she stood up at the symposium and asked Betsky a question about that line in his book.

 “I asked him, does he still think that today, 20 years later? And if so, what does that mean for me as a woman designing in Las Vegas, a city arguably built on two very powerful constructs: sex and money? Where do I fit in if that’s still the case today?”

Wong had come to architecture through a circuitous route. She studied psychology at the University of Hawaii but burned out as a substance-abuse counselor. She moved to San Francisco for a year and fell in love with design. Moving to Las Vegas and the master’s program at UNLV, Wong began in interior design but was drawn to the technical side of architecture. “I want to do the whole thing.”

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So there she was, at a symposium filled, not surprisingly, with mostly white middle-aged men. As soon as she asked her question, the atmosphere in the room became charged. Wong could feel the stares. “It was probably just me being nervous,” she says.

Betsky had no answer. He told her if she wanted to effect change, she had to be a role model for other women. That did not satisfy her. “It doesn’t help me. It doesn’t leave me anywhere. If I had to be a role model to others, who’s going to be my role model?”

But the symposium sent Wong on a path that culminated in her helping to launch a new design symposium — and showing Las Vegas just how many talented women architects and designers are shaping our increasingly urban community.

Less than a week later she was having dinner with one of her professors at UNLV, architect Eric Strain. The symposium was still fresh in her mind. A UNLV architecture graduate, Amanda Telleria, who works at the firm BWA, was also at dinner that night. The group talked about the lack of female role models. Architects as famous as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, and Le Corbusier all had important female colleagues and collaborators who shaped their work but received very little recognition, Telleria says.

There may be no more glaring example than the architect and urban planner Denise Scott Brown, co-author of Learning from Las Vegas, the seminal book that helped usher in a generation of irreverent, playful postmodern design. But it was her husband and partner, Robert Venturi, who won architecture’s highest prize, the Pritzker, in 1991; Brown’s name was left off, even though some of the work judges cited were a collaboration between the two.

Strain, not wanting to waste the moment, pushed the pair. “If we do a symposium,” he asked, “are you guys participating?” Strain did his part: The founder of assemblageSTUDIO put in money to support the event, and reached out to other city firms to do the same, including Carpenter Sellers Del Gatto,  SimpsonCoulter Studio, LGA, and BWA.

A few others came on to help organize the event, including Jaclyn Roth, another UNLV architecture student who works for assemblageSTUDIO, and UNLV architecture professor Maria Del C. Vera.  The event came together in just a few months. “They’re dreamers,” Vera says of the organizers. “They are warriors for what they believe.”

Students found an eclectic mix of speakers for the event, held at UNLV in February: Curator and writer Mimi Ziegler; L.A.-based designers Catherine Johnson and Rebecca Rudolph, who run a firm called Design, Bitches; and Meredith Bostwick, a project manager at the New York office of blue-chip firm SOM. The idea was to give a platform to  women who had forged successful design careers.

Figuring out what to call the symposium was another, perhaps deeper, challenge. “Naturally we were calling it the women’s symposium,” Telleria says, but some worried that the title would not celebrate the work and achievement of women in design so much as pigeonhole them as “women architects.” After all, as many of the professionals Desert Companion spoke to pointed out, no one ever talks about “men architects.”

They finally settled on a name: See Me. I’m Here. “It’s not just (that) they’re female,” Telleria says. “They have really cool work. They have an impact in their communities and our professional environment. Check them out. See me for my talent, not because I’m a woman.”

 

 

The Great Recession hit Las Vegas hard — and few industries in Las Vegas felt the blow more than architects and designers. Firms downsized or moved away or went out of business. But now that Las Vegas is building again, designers are in high demand. There’s a heady energy in the city, but especially Downtown, where rents are still cheap, and young firms can plant their flag on their dream of a brighter future.

Women who are architects and designers in Las Vegas are not simply a feel-good story about increasing diversity in the profession. Just as women across the nation and world are putting their stamp on significant institutional projects — Sharon Johnston in L.A. and Houston, Jeanne Gang and Carole Ross Barney in Chicago, Billie Tsien and Elizabeth Diller in New York — women here have established themselves, quite simply, as among the best practitioners of shaping the built environment. They’re actively rethinking, reimagining, and building a cooler, more sustainable, more urban city — a better city.

 “There are plenty of opportunities right now for men and women,” Wong says. “The city as a whole is booming.” 2018 is a moment in which women are asserting their talent in a field long associated with men. “There’s an old-boy attitude here,” says Anne Johnson, founder of Sparkflight Studios, “but this is a city of reinvention where people come to be who they want to be. … That spirit overrides male bias.”

Still, there are plenty of challenges. Architecture programs are slowly approaching parity between female and male students, but numbers in the industry have yet to catch up. “As you progress in the industry that number shrinks drastically,” Wong says. “By the time you get to principals or managers, that number is insignificant.”

Landscape architect Anna Peltier, principal of Aria Landscape Architecture, which has completed work ranging from the Neon Museum to the Southwest Career and Technical Academy, described the atmosphere at a prominent firm where she’d once worked as “pretty male-centric.” “It felt like a culture that considered women as being drama queens, they weren’t respected as much as the male professionals.” That firm asked her to complete a 12-month training program for a managerial position, but after 10 months a man was hired for the slot. “Two years later I was running my own firm.”

Carly Mossman, who spent years in the Las Vegas office of international powerhouse firm Gensler, almost quit the business during her first job at a local firm. There were no other women in leadership positions. She remembers seeing a male colleague receive a promotion and raise for equal work. “That was so frustrating for me,” she says. “I kind of turned inward and did a lot of research on women in business, how to survive in a man’s world.” But, she realized, “I don’t want to fit another mold. I want to be me.” She eventually spent years working in resort and hotel design at Gensler before starting her own firm, Kora Architecture (the Greek word kora translates as “authenticity of place”). Mossman and her business partner, Alexis Bailey, are working on a mixed-use project called the Monarch Castle, featuring wedding and event spaces, gardens, hotels, and restaurants.

If male-dominated architecture firms represent one level of challenge, the tougher hurdle is dealing with construction trades in the field. “There is, especially in the trades, a sense of machismo that can be hard to ... be taken seriously in that type of situation,” Roth says. “You feel like you have to come in overprepared and all guns blazing just to balance that.”

Tina Wichmann

CORE VALUES
Tina Wichmann, co-founder of Bunnyfish Studio, has been a notable figure in rebuilding Downtown. Photo by Joe Buglewicz

“Construction is a man’s world,” says Tina Wichmann, co-founder of Bunnyfish Studio, which has played a leading role in Downtown’s rebirth, designing spaces as varied as the interiors of the Gold Spike and Carson Kitchen. “A lot of the guys have the advantage of having done construction as summer jobs. Usually when you see a woman, she’s holding that sign that says, SLOW.” Guys in the field can be gruff and can whistle — “that has happened,” she says. “Automatically, they just assume you don’t know how to build things.”

“It is intimidating,” says Yanina Allord, a UNLV graduate who spent years working for Bunnyfish. “I definitely feel the intimidation factor being on site with people who have been building buildings all their life.

“I have to work twice as hard, stay up most of the night, and research things to make sure I have a good grasp on the week ahead to make sure I don’t look like an idiot in front of someone else,” Allord says. “The men can roll their way through it, even if they don’t know it, either.”

Even the simple act of wearing heels — and women’s professional attire in general — becomes (intentionally or not) a political act. “If you wear heels to a job site, why are you wearing heels?” Allord says. “Tina would show up in her big stilettos for a site walk, and she’d own it. If you’re confident in yourself, your attire should be the last thing you’re worried about.”

Women architects were leery about defining their design acumen solely in terms of gender — women tend to design one kind of project, men another. But some were keen to point out the advantages of being a woman in the design fields. “I don’t know if our view affects design so much, but it does effect relationships a little bit. Client relationships. Women tend to soften things a little bit,” Wichmann says.

Roth is practical: “Women bring into the discussion and the career the points of view of the other 50 percent of the world. Both genders are very capable of doing the same work, but when you just have one gender, you’re missing a huge population of the world.”

Yanina Allord

WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY
Yanina Allord of RAD Studio seeks to challenge gender stereotypes in the architecture field. Photo by Joe Buglewicz

Amy Finchem, a residential designer with custom homebuilder Blue Heron, staged her own symposium in 2012 championing women designers through her innovative Downtown gallery/studio COLAB. She found herself walking the same tightrope the See Me organizers experienced — the desire to celebrate women in design without losing sight of the high quality work they produce.

Today, Finchem wants to see more focus on celebrating the differences between women and men in design. “How do we co-exist in the work place? Thrive? Let’s celebrate these differences so we’re more powerful and successful.”

 

Becoming a licensed architect is a rigorous affair — years of internships and a series of exams. The process can take years, and often just as women are approaching the moment to seek licensure, they may also be trying to start a family.

When students graduate with their master’s degree, they may be in their mid- to late 20s. Add three years of internship and a year of prep and test-taking. “Where the process puts you, you’re right in the sweet spot,” Wichmann says. It’s hard to be testing and working … and thinking about starting a family.

“As driven as some of these women are, and I’ve hired some myself, once that baby’s in your arms, it’s over,” Peltier says. “Once that connection happens, your priority changes. They scale back, they take off time …”

But doing so can cost women their careers, especially in a field that is slow to help them do both. Roth suggests firms just listen to the “issues we’re facing as a gender and see if they’re surmountable.” The firm of an acquaintance of Roth set up a nursery after she had a child. Having several people working on a project part-time can also allow women to navigate family and career.

 “Let people share one position,” Mossman echoes, so that it’s no longer a “death sentence to go on maternity. I think our industry will continue to suffer until there’s more focus on family development.”

Finchem recalls a male colleague and mentor noting that when an important meeting ran late, the women in the meeting had to leave to get children. Finchem was a single mom for many years and says it impacted her ability to get licensed. “There are folks who have been in the industry 20 years, raising kids, still trying to work on registration,” she says.

Increasingly, more and more women in Las Vegas are simply starting their own firms.

Anne Johnson began her own architecture and graphics firm, Sparkflight Studio, in part to have flexibility in raising her 9-year-old son. She also worked with one of her employees who was starting a family, to offer a part-time schedule. “It was recognizing she was an amazing employee and had the right to start a family. Now I have a really loyal employee because we worked together to make it happen.”

But obstacles remain. Allord recently left Bunnyfish to join RAD Studio, with her husband, Ryan. “What I see the most in my interactions with clients and construction and (general contractors),” she says, “is the architect is always seen as the male, and I feel like the women — we’re seen as the decorator or the secretary. It doesn’t seem to change.”

Allord says that even when her husband introduces her as an equal, it doesn’t always register in the minds of clients. Many are more apt to tell her she’ll get along with the client’s wife and have fun picking the finishes. “I haven’t been in a meeting yet where the same questions being asked to Ryan are being asked to myself. The architecture questions are directed to him, and the finishes and interior decor are more my role, and that’s not how we operate. We do everything together.”

Cecilia Schafler, who runs Lage Design Inc., a landscape architecture firm whose projects include CSN and the Historic Westside School, says a manufacturer of products the firm uses has sales reps — all men — who never market to any of the women in her firm, only the men. The men get invited to dinner or tours of the factory. The women do not.

“As the owner of the firm, it’s a little annoying, and also from the perspective of, everything is ultimately on me,” she says. “If they don’t spend the time to educate and engage all of us, then I’m not comfortable with their company and products, and we’re not going to use it.”

 

All the women we spoke to talk about the need to mentor younger professionals on the ins and outs. “It was huge, so big, so important, for me seeing Tina in that leadership role, and seeing how she held her own and dealt with clients and kept her composure … and seeing how strong you have to be to do what they do on an everyday basis,” Allord says. “For me it can be very emotionally draining and feel like a hurdle — not just career-wise, but for being a woman in general. We have such a great community. It’s important to keep and have those relationships.” (The AIA offers a mentorship program for young women and men graduating from UNLV.)

“Right now, we have a great pool of women graduates from UNLV, a talented group,” Allord says. “I think we’re seeing more of that group deciding to stay and build their careers here, which I think is exciting and the most important thing. More and more women are getting licensed. I think we’re building a bigger, better community pool.”

UNLV is planning a follow-up See Me symposium on November 2. The list of confirmed speakers includes Susan Sellers, founding partner and creative director of 2x4 in New York; Julia Koerner, assistant adjunct professor at UCLA, who teaches courses in Architecture and 3-D Printed Fashion; and Katherine Darnstadt, principal of Latent Design, Architecture + Urbanism, in Chicago.

As with the February event, one of the keys is to highlight the range of careers possible with an architecture degree. “I don’t think every student in our school (of architecture) wants to be an architect or have their own firm,” Telleria says. “You can be a set designer, architectural photographer. There’s more out there, and it’s okay if you take that path.”

Wong landed a job with Caesars — and is now working on the company’s bid to win one of three gaming licenses in Japan.

Months after we first spoke, Wong says she was still considering what Las Vegas would look like if it had been designed principally by women. “I think Las Vegas wouldn’t revolve around sex and money,” she says. “I think the arts would play a lot larger role in Las Vegas. We still don’t have a world-class art museum. We have a ton of strip clubs.”

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