Driven by Hope: Peggy Deamer on Navigating Teaching, Negotiating Parenthood, and Developing a Legacy
By Julia Gamolina
Peggy Deamer is Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Yale University and principal in the firm of Deamer Studio. She is the Founding Member and the Content Coordinator of the Architecture Lobby, a group advocating for the value of architectural design and labor. Peggy is also the editor of Architecture and Capitalism: 1845 to the Present and The Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labor, the Creative Class, and the Politics of Design. She is co-editor of Building in the Future: Recasting Labor in Architecture; BIM in Academia; and Re-Reading Perspecta.
Articles by her have appeared in Log, Avery Review, e-Flux, and Harvard Design Magazine amongst other journals. Her work explores the relationship between subjectivity, design, and labor in the current economy. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Peggy talks about navigating academia and finding her style in motherhood, advising young architects to be driven by their hopes and to go after what they want.
JG: How did your interest in architecture develop?
PD: I was a philosophy student at Oberlin, and I took an architectural history class. One of the assignments was to find a house in the town of Oberlin and analyze it. I found probably the only modern house there, and I just remember thinking, “How interesting!”
In comparison to my philosophy assignments, that assignment was easy and fun, and the discipline of architecture became attractive. I remember coming away from that assignment feeling like architecture was something I could do.
What did you do once you realized you wanted to pursue it?
I decided to stay and to finish my BA at Oberlin, and then I went for my B.Arch at the Cooper Union. Between Oberlin and the Cooper Union however, I was an intern at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. That was really interesting because they connected philosophy and architecture, and showed that architecture could be an intellectual endeavor. At that point, Peter Eisenman was concentrating on linguistics and deep structure, and I was amazed that one could connect to ideas that I had studied via Wittgenstein. The Institute is how I found out about Cooper Union.
What did you learn about yourself at the Cooper Union?
Cooper was a fabulous education formally; I feel extremely lucky about the design confidence it gave me and linking that to the intellectual side. Cooper also indicated in some way that a formal education was about ethical commitment; it wasn’t just incidental that you would have formal abilities, but there was an intentional commitment to an enterprise that had social and ethical values.
What did you do after?
I first worked for a small architecture firm, but pretty quickly I got an invitation to teach at the University of Kentucky. I’d say one half of my career was mostly practice, and the other half became mostly teaching. The irony is that after I was teaching, I really wanted to practice, but I also felt that some of the things I had experienced teaching made me want to know more, around history in particular. That wouldn’t happen by going to get an M.Arch, since all my time would be spent in studio, so that’s when I thought that I should look into a PhD program.
I wasn’t interested in the PhD itself but more in “catching up;” history and theory were not Cooper Union’s strength. The PhD in some way was a big detour for what I knew I wanted to do, which was to practice, with some teaching on the side.
What did you do after getting your PhD?
I asked my then partner and husband whether he would want to become partners with me in an office. Eventually I persuaded him to leave his work, and we started.
Around the same time, I got an invitation to teach part time at Parsons and did that, but was still mostly practicing. Then I was invited to teach at Barnard, and taught at both Barnard and Parsons, while still practicing. Then I also taught at Princeton, still practicing, and then moved on from Princeton to Yale. Throughout this series of part-time teaching gigs, I kept up my practice.
Tell me about Yale.
I started teaching there in 1993, and that eventually turned into a full-time position, which then turned into tenure. Deamer & Phillips, the office I had with my partner, I backed away from when I got tenure at Yale, which was in 2001, after 9/11. Work had slowed down then and had stopped being fun, so I concentrated more on academia.
Tenure at Yale was obviously a huge thing to have built - what did it take?
Around the time that I was offered full-time, and my kids were young, I remember making a real clear decision that the fact that I lived in New York and the fact that I have kids was not going to stop me from proving that I was going to be full-time committed. I didn’t want the faculty to have any excuse whatsoever to say that choosing me for that position came with drawbacks.
I think that was important, but it was hard! I relied on my partner a lot - my husband and my partner at work. He gave huge support, both within the family and within the practice. I also think the kids got used to a crazy mother…
A busy mother.
...yes, a busy mother, who put them on a schedule, too. We had to be out the door at such and such time for me to catch the train; we had to match soccer practice with my getting back to the office, things like this. The carpool schedule had to be this; the dinner schedule had to be that.
On the other side, on the Mondays that I taught, I would be back after my kids’ proper bedtime, and I remember negotiating with my husband, “Oh, I know it’s past their bedtime, but I’m just going to bump in there to see them,” and they too, even though they were in bed, would stay awake for some time together. There was a lot of negotiation around a schedule that wasn’t always convenient for everybody.
How did you know it was time to start a family with everything you had going on?
That’s a good question - a really important one, given the work that you’re doing. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to have kids, and my partner and future husband said he wouldn’t marry me unless I agreed to [laughs]. I was 33 or 34 at the time, and when we married, it was with an agreement to have kids. Then deciding on the time to have kids had to do with finishing my PhD.
At that point, I remember thinking, when my husband was offered a job in LA, “Oh wow, if that means that I follow him to this job and LA, and sit around a pool with kids - OK with me!” [Laughs] It’s not what happened, but that idea and the completion of the PhD rolled things along. We opened our own office instead of going to LA, which then gave us further flexibility to have kids.
I’m finding in a lot of these interviews that women are having kids when they start their own firms.
That’s what seemed natural to us, exactly because of that flexibility, especially when your life partner is your work partner. You can go into it knowing that you’re not the only one that will run back home when they’re sick or you need to breastfeed; you’re really in it together. That was a huge part of the confidence.
Tell me about The Architecture Lobby.
At a certain point, I began to really think about why most of my friends who were architects were unsatisfied, and why they had, in many cases, backed away from practice. My research up until that point was about digital craft - what is craft in the age of BIM and parametrics and CadCam; it researched the nature of design work in this new context. This made me conscious of how one does or doesn’t feel satisfied and creative about design work, which led to the realization that design was a small part of the happiness equation and the research morphed into being about architectural labor.
There were a number of other different things, and one struck me, which was an architecture talk that was for some reason at the law school at Yale. There was a sign in the hall that said “Top 10 Family-Friendly Law Firms”. I remember being so struck by that, and wondering why you would never see this at an architecture school - do graduating students not care? Do we teach them to think its not important? Do we not know how to get the data? That and a number of things got me to think about how it is that we work, why we’re not satisfied, and why, at the same time, students and young employees are happy to work 24/7, and all that. You get it.
What are you focusing on with Architecture Lobby now?
One of them is a campaign that’s called “Just Design,” which will eventually give certification, but is now giving attention to firms that have good labor practices and are supportive of their employees - giving them a certain amount of autonomy, creative independence, legal labor practices, family leave, and being respectful of diversity and being diverse. We’re profiling firms once a week - this just recently went public.
Looking back, what have been some of your biggest challenges?
My biggest challenge was definitely my time at Yale. I’m unbelievably grateful to Yale - I feel like it’s offered me fabulous colleagues, a great platform, tenure, security, great students, but it was tough working under a dean, before Deborah Berke’s time, who had a different idea of architecture and architectural success, and who was completely unaware of diversity. I’m not positive I handled that gracefully, but I feel that in that struggle, I could say that I felt honest. I questioned why things were the way they were.
On the other side, what have been the biggest highlights and what are you most proud of?
I am proud that I decided to go into architecture - there was no proof that I’d be good at it, so I’m proud that I plowed through. I’m also proud that I decided to do a PhD - I’m not a historian and I’m not good with languages, and I’m proud to have challenged myself in this way. I’m proud that I had two kids in the midst of this, and I’m proud that I held my own at Yale. I think my colleagues came to see me as someone they could rely on to poke away at things. And, I’m proud that I started the Architecture Lobby, of course.
I’m also proud about deciding to build a house in New Zealand [laughs]! In 2007, I felt it was time to see whether maybe I could run a school, and I was headhunted to be Head of School at the University of Auckland. I sat on that for a while, and then asked my kids, and both of them said, “Oh my god mom, do it!” I went to New Zealand, interviewed for the job, got the job, and took the job - my son was about to start college and my daughter was about to start boarding school, so that’s how I could do that, and from there, my love for New Zealand began. I ended up coming back to Yale, but from then on, I would go back to New Zealand every summer to teach and keep that relationship alive. The commitment to design and build a house there still feels brave to this day.
What has been your general approach to your career?
At my first job, I remember one of the partners saying to me, when I asked if I should try this teaching thing, “You should plan your career around how you hope it will go and not how you fear it will go.” Something like this. Don’t back yourself into a corner by thinking, “Oh gosh, if this happens, what will I do.” Plan it according to what you want! I felt so lucky for that advice, to be optimistic about the things that matter to you.
What advice do you have for those that both want to practice and teach?
Be realistic about your commitments so that you don’t drive yourself crazy. I definitely think it helps to have a partner, and not necessarily to have a partner in business, but somebody who will support the gap that you’re leaving as you go to one and leave behind the other. Also be realistic so that you’re not hard on yourself! Don’t be naive about the limit on your time, and then be hard on yourself because you’re feeling like you’re not doing enough, or you’re doing everything half-assed.
What is your advice for those who want to be mothers?
It’s similar - I remember thinking a lot, why didn’t people, or why didn’t feminists, tell me that we couldn’t have it all? That was a big lesson - you can be successful, you can be happy, but it definitely was the case that, given my choices, I wasn’t going to be the kind of mom that other moms were going to be. I wasn’t going to make their Halloween costumes, I wasn’t going to be the head of PTA - I just wasn’t. When I came to grips with that, my kids - I hope I am not deceiving myself!- adjusted. They just realized, “Ok, I have this kind of mom, not that kind of mom.” [Laughs].
Finally, what advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
It’s important to have your own identity. Even when you go work for a firm where you have to “prove” your devotion, so to speak, it’s really important to keep up your own work. It’s unfortunate that the most common way to do that is to enter competitions - I’m very anti-competitions - but I think there are other ways of being entrepreneurial, and aligning yourself with something that represent you…. like what you’re doing. Work on your local co-op board or your local community board and gain organizational skills and know-how. Find a forum of like-minded people to develop an expertise and push a cause you are interested in. You need to be able to prove that there’s something of your own legacy that you keep alive.
I also think that finding groups that offer an outlet to share stories and find support is really important. The idea that you’re out there on your own, and you’re competing against the other people at your firm who started around the same time, and questioning the projects they’re working on versus ones you are working on, and wondering when they versus you are getting promoted or getting raises - it all makes you feel that everyone is in it by on their own. But you’re not in it by yourself, and the more you work together to change the system, the better.