Beverly Willis, FAIA, pioneering architect and a champion of women in architecture, died at her home in Branford, Connecticut, on Sunday, October 1, from complications related to Parkinson’s disease. She was 95.
“We share with deep sadness the passing of our dear founder, Beverly Willis FAIA, a titan in many fields, who showed us, among other lessons, that women can have many careers as they grow and find their true voices,” writes Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, AIA, executive director of Beverly Willis Architectural Foundation, in a statement shared with SAH. “Bev always wanted to be remembered for her work as an architect, but that was never enough for her: she became a real estate developer, an artist, an author, a producer and an impresario of intellectual activity creating institutes of study including BWAF, Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, her most recent venture, which emerged first as a means for scholarly recognition of women in the building industry, but which became a vehicle for creating a more inclusive and equitable culture in those professions. She truly did encourage and inspire other women throughout her life, stiffening their backbones and opening a new chapter for their achievement.”
Willis was born on February 17, 1928, in the heart of the Great Depression in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to a nurse, Margaret Elizabeth Porter, and an oil man, Ralph William Willis. After they divorced when Willis was six years old, she was placed in an orphanage. She attended Classen High School in Oklahoma City and later Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon. Willis enrolled at the University of Southern California in 1945, one of 200 women, and later studied aeronautical engineering at Oregon State University. She graduated from University of Hawaii with a bachelor’s degree in art in 1955 and began her career as an independent artist before establishing her own architecture firm in 1966.
For over 65 years, Willis made significant contributions to the architectural profession. Her trailblazing work included retail spaces, residences, commercial structures, and cultural facilities. Willis adopted practices that became mainstream decades later, sought research-driven solutions to her projects, and accepted commissions for which there were no built precedents.
Together with William Wurster and Lawrence Halprin, she pioneered the concept of adaptive reuse. Her reconstruction of the 1890 Union Street Shops in San Francisco (1963) was an internationally recognized project and an example of reconstruction and reuse of residential buildings for urban revitalization that launched a worldwide movement.
In 1971, Willis introduced the first computerized programming into large-scale land planning and design with CARLA (Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis), a software program she developed in-house with her firm.
Willis designed several architectural works that inspired new ways of thinking about building types, including her 1972 renovation of Glide Church and her prototypical design for Manhattan Village Academy Charter School. She is best known for the San Francisco Ballet Building (1983), the first ballet building in the United States and a design that influenced many ballet buildings that followed.
Willis co-founded the National Building Museum with Wolf von Eckhardt, Clothiel Woodward Smith, Cynthia Fields, and Herbert Franklin in 1976. The museum was established to “advance the quality of the built environment by educating people about its impact on their lives."
In 1995 Willis created the Architecture Research Institute, a think-tank to develop and advocate urban policies through interdisciplinary partnerships between academics, government, corporations, and the public. After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the institute co-founded Rebuilt Downtown Our Town (R.Dot), which helped guide the rebuilding efforts and establish a planning framework for the city of New York.
After 35 years of architectural practice leading her own firm, Willis was “astounded and dismayed” that women were not represented in the architectural history books. In 2000 she contacted architectural historians Diane Favro and Lian Mann, who shared her concern. Together with Heidi Gifford, they provided the research that led to the formation in 2002 of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), a nonprofit with the mission of advancing the knowledge and recognition of women’s contributions to architecture.
Said Willis, “I founded the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) to fight to ensure that women in architecture have the same opportunities as men to realize their dreams and to be remembered. The creation of BWAF meshed with my broader lobbying efforts for change, including the 1978 resolution, passed by the American Institute of Architects, to support the Equal Rights Amendment. Forty years later, the profession has yet to live up to the promise of equality. Whether women will finally be able to achieve democratic equality with men depends on our collective will to forge a new professional culture of inclusion. Working together, with financial support of all committed to this mission and with our innovative programs, research and leadership, we create a more equitable future for women in the building industry.”
Willis’ architectural work and art have been featured in five exhibitions since 1952. She is the author of several essays and the book, Invisible Images: The Silent Language of Architecture (National Building Museum, 1997). She led the creation of several films about her work and women in architecture, including 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright – “A Girl is a Fellow Here” (2009), produced by BWAF, and the documentary short, Unknown New York: The City that Women Built (2018), about the many female architects, engineers, and builders behind 234 projects in Manhattan.
Her many awards and honors include the 2018 AIA New York Visionary Award (Center for Architecture in New York City), the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award (National Association of Professional Women in Construction), an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Mount Holyoke College in 1982, and the 1969 Phoebe Hearst Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Service to San Francisco.
Willis was the first woman president of the California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and a Fellow of the AIA, its highest distinction.
Willis was a longtime member and supporter of the Society of Architectural Historians. From 2005 to 2016 the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation Travel Fellowship provided travel funding to the SAH annual conference to an individual whose paper “best advanced the status of women in architecture.” SAH also partnered with BWAF to present a fellowship that supported the research and writing of a dissertation focused on the history of women’s contributions to the production of architecture.
Willis is survived by her spouse, Wanda Bubriski. Donations in Willis’s memory may be made to the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation at bwaf.org/support.
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