Reinventing Herself: Heidi Blau on Building on Confidence, Experience, and Knowledge
By Julia Gamolina, cover photo courtesy of Smith College’s Alumni Magazine
Heidi Blau has over 30 years of experience providing insightful program development, project management, and attentive design direction for educational, cultural, and municipal projects. As a Partner at FXCollaborative, recent projects under her direction include a new building for the United Nations, adjacent to the historic campus on the East Side of Manhattan, and the complete redevelopment of Lincoln Center (with Diller Scofidio + Renfro). Because of her extensive library design expertise, Heidi was a featured speaker at the “Building the 21st Century Library” Seminar. She has also been recognized as a Woman of Achievement by the Professional Women in Construction, and received a 2014 Outstanding Women Award from the Women Builders Council. Heidi pursued a liberal arts education at Smith College before receiving her Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University.
JG: How did your interest in architecture develop?
HB: The interest started in junior high and high school. I sang in the choir and performed in musical theatre, and as I got older, I started to build sets and costumes. Eventually I started thinking about permanence – theatre is a short term experience and I wondered what it might be like to create environments that were lasting.
You first studied fine arts at Smith, and pursued architecture later. Tell me about this.
I took a drafting class in high school, and enjoyed it but not more than a lot of my other interests. I played tennis, wrote for the school newspaper, exceled in math, and participated in music and theater performances. I had too many things going on to focus [laughs] so I chose to do a studio art undergraduate degree, but architecture was in the back of my mind throughout that.
Then, I spent my junior year abroad in New York City, taking classes at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies - a think tank that Peter Eisenman started with many amazing, thoughtful, interesting people exploring architecture and developing their own theoretical foundations, like Mario Gondelsonas, Diana Agrest, and Tony Vidler. IAUS attracted critical thinkers from all over the globe to write and speak about their theories on architecture energizing our education and that finally solidified my desire to pursue it.
What was your first job in the field?
My first job out of graduate school was in 1983, at Hagmann and Mitchell Architects. They formed from coming in second in the Hong Kong Peak competition that Zaha Hadid won in 1981. They got a 50K prize, and said, “We can split that money and keep working where we’re working, or we can start a firm.” Back then you could start a firm with 50K [laughs], so they did. Months later, they were looking for help and John called Bob Stern’s office, where my roommate worked, and she let them know I was available.
John took me under his wing and he was a wonderful architect and mentor – he took me to meetings with the clients, read through contracts with me, we wrote specifications together, and he would show me how to draw since we drew by hand back then. He included me as a peer in everything that he did, and it was an amazing two-and-a-half year education. We were doing small institutional work – a church – and some private residences – houses and apartments. I was learning absolutely everything all the way along, but not always excited about the type of work.
When did you decide it was time to move on?
Eventually, John told me that they were going to dissolve their partnership. I went home for a couple months, for the summer, trying to decide if I stay in New York or return to Boston to continue my career. I didn’t get far into the debate when I got a call from Sam White. Sam had been classmates with my co-worker Tony, and I had met him a couple of times over the years. When Tony told Sam that the partnership had dissolved, Sam asked him where I was. Tony gave him my mother’s phone number – I was sitting in Boston, at the kitchen table, and Sam White called me and said, “I want you to come work for me.”
How was working for him?
I ended up working for and with him at Burtis White & Buttrick for sixteen years, so that’s how it was [laughs]. BWB was a very different office – we had 30 people, which seemed huge! There also was a large group of people who had been out of school around the same number of years and we all banded together to get our work done. Sam had an amazing ability to hire interesting, energetic, and bright people, folks you enjoyed having lunch with, and to this day I count four of those people I met in the first months of work as my friends.
The work was also different - larger in scale and mostly focused on schools. With Harry’s connections at the Harvard Club and his church, we worked with a large number of the elite private schools on the Upper East Side. The first project I was on was the Lower School & Gym addition for the Chapin School and this project really resonated for me.
What resonated with you?
All of these schools have always made do with such tight space constraints. They are amazingly creative in their use of space but all I could think is that they are shaping the leaders of tomorrow - don’t they deserve something better than a re-purposed broom closet for a math lab? The ability to create spaces for teachers to do what they do best felt like a calling that I wanted to follow.
At one point, I know you focused on libraries. How did this come about?
During the late 80s and early 90s there was another downturn in the economy. Institutions weren’t doing a lot of work, so we took on some commercial, retail, hospitality work, and all of that felt a little superficial. With retail and hospitality, in five years they’ll rip it out and build something else in its place. I really liked the sense of permanence that working with institutions has.
Eventually the practice turned around and I started collaborating with Shepley Bulfinch. They approached us for a project up at Fordham, for the Walsh Family Library, which then turned into the Brooklyn Public Library, which then turned into the Frick Art Reference Library, which turned into the Avery Library expansion, and the Teacher’s College’s Gotteman Libraries. Focusing on libraries for nearly ten years was a meaningful segment in my career – creating environments for different students and different institutions was wonderfully challenging and rewarding - we were making spaces where people can learn, gather, and grow, and for me that was wonderful.
What happened next?
I was made partner at BWB in ’97, but in ‘99 Harry Buttrick decided to leave the firm, to start a new partnership with his daughter, which is now Murphy Burnham and Buttrick. Soon after that Ted Burtis died after a long battle with lung cancer and in 2001our other partner Leo decided to go back to being a sole practioner. This left Sam White, who had hired me sixteen years before, and me.
Sam really enjoyed the residential projects and working for yacht clubs and private elite schools - he is also 11 years older than me, and was at a different place in his career than I was, so we spent a year talking together and with other firms before we decided to go our separate ways.
Is it tough to dissolve a partnership?
It’s emotional. When I was made a partner, I remember thinking, “This is it, this is my forever, I’m set with where I’m going and it’s all good,” but within three years I realized that it all wasn’t so good. I knew I would be fine, and I had projects of my own that I was working on – my biggest concern when we separated was finishing them off well.
I cared about my reputation, I cared about the clients being relatively unscathed and the employees too – I didn’t want anyone to feel that their lives were being turned upside down. Sam and I agreed that I would finish out those projects wherever I landed. I then had to decide do to go out on my own or join up with an established firm. The first option seemed daunting, finding office space, hiring people, getting liability insurance, all while keeping the clients happy, so the second option seemed much more possible.
How did your relationship with FXC form and how did you know that was the place to go next?
Annie Rolland started six month before I did at BWB in 1986 - we struck up a friendship on the tennis court and have been working and playing together ever since. In 1997 she left BWB for Fox & Fowle, so in late 2001 when I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, she reached out to me and said “You need to talk to people here.”
At the time, the firm was looking for someone to direct a studio together with a talented design partner. After a few meetings and some negotiation, I came to the office as the studio director for the Public Architecture studio. After a few years, Bruce floated out that he wanted me to join the partnership, and that he wanted me to help lead the Lincoln Center team, and these felt like two once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
What has defined your sixteen years at FXC?
Overall, the scale of the projects are bigger. The opportunity to work for 7 years on Lincoln Center was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, both in terms of the clients, the complexity, the scale, our huge team, and the degree of design.
In the last few years, my work had transitioned from solely cultural and educational projects into hybrid, mixed use projects, which I find very interesting. It is a typology we are seeing a lot of in the City. My initiation into that world came with the design of the UN Consolidation Building through a collaboration with Maki’s office. It was an impactful building, and I was exciting to be a part of it. Unfortunately it didn’t end up moving forward, but introduced me to a very different typology - both a “corporate headquarters” and a cultural building with large scale conference capabilities, classrooms, a library, and dining facilities.
Where are you in your career today?
I currently have some wonderful projects – I’m working with Covenant House and they’re amazing people doing God’s work, literally. I’m also working with the Webster Apartments creating a community for young women coming to New York. Nothing makes me feel more satisfied then creating places where people are nurtured and supported to reach their potential. I am always on the lookout for more of those institutions and those kinds of projects – another hat I wear as a partner.
I’m also focused on mentoring the next generation! At this point, I’m 35 years into this career, and it’s about empowering the next group of architects. We have some great project architects and designers and business development coordinators [laughs], so it’s my job to give them the tools and the platform to take off and fly.
What advice do you have for mentors?
To figure out your mentee’s passion, and try and focus them on the skills that will enhance them. For me, mentorship is a support system, so letting my mentees know that I have confidence in them, giving them some rope, letting them succeed, but also being there as a safety net and taking responsibility if things don’t quite work out, is very important. I love with the unique skills that people bring and combining them to see how we can build something creative and meaningful together.
Looking back, what have been the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenges have been all of these professional restarts – having to reinvent myself or go out to seek new kinds of ventures, those kinds of challenges have been there throughout. What I enjoy is that each situation has been a learning and a growth experience. No two projects are the same, and no two situations are the same, and that’s what keeps things interesting for me.
What have been some highlights?
The collaboration with Shepley Bulfinch on the Brooklyn College Library expansion/renovation that took seven years, and the collaboration with DSR on Lincoln Center which also took seven plus years have been the most visible highlights of my career. Breathing new life into older buildings, contributing to the quality of life in the city, and creating spaces for people to grow and learn is what gets me out of bed every day.
I love the teamwork that is required for all of our projects - everyone has to be working together for success. The large scale, complicated projects with big teams of designers, engineers and specialists are what I find most challenging and rewarding.
What has been your general approach to your career?
Building upon my experience and knowledge and apply it to the specific circumstances of each project. Even though the situations may be different, you can apply principles from what you’ve learned previously and the outcome will be completely new; you just have to have confidence in your experience to use it as your foundation.
What advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
Learn from everything you’re doing and ask a lot of questions. Most people will answer you gladly and directly, and it’s better to ask a simple question than to make an assumption and go off in a wrong direction.
I also think you need to find your passion, whether it is a typology, a phase of the work, creating beautiful documents, models or images, developing relationships with contractors or clients, thinking big, or small – whatever it is, you need to hone those skills to become your best self. For me, it’s designing schools and educational places that make people come together to create a sum that is greater than its parts. People are learning, building each other up, and creating our society and that’s what I focus on.