Knees Bent: Wendy Evans Joseph on Making Architecture and Giving Back
Wendy Evans Joseph is the founder of Studio Joseph. She leads the design for each of the firm’s projects and has completed a diverse array of commercial, institutional, residential, and cultural projects with a strong emphasis on public and community involvement. Wendy’s passion for art and museum culture has led to an extensive portfolio of exhibition design and installations, an arena in which Studio Joseph has claimed an international reputation.
Before founding Studio Joseph, Ms. Joseph had a distinguished twelve-year tenure at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners where she was a designer for large-scale public and institutional and museum projects. In this interview, Wendy talks about finding the work that has resonated with her and giving back to her community, advising young architects to choose carefully those that they align themselves with.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
WEJ: My father was an electrical engineer by training. He had a great shop in the basement, and I spent a lot of time with him making things. With electrical engineering, you not only make things — saws and such and nails and hammer, but they also light up. It was fun and a big part of my upbringing. I excelled at science and math in school — I liked problem solving and numbers. At home, though, it was always about art and creating.
When I was a freshman at Penn, an architecture student saw some of my drawings, and he took me to his studio. I remember walking in and immediately thinking, “This is for me. I want to do this!” Studio reminded me of my father’s shop. It was familiar — the models and the drawing — and that was it!
What did you learn studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania?
My teacher was Laurie Olin — the renowned landscape architect. He led an undergraduate program, called Design of the Environment. The premise was that there are no borders between disciplines: planning, design, social planning, regional planning, landscape, and building — everything was part of the environment.
That philosophy formed the underpinning of my design thinking to this day. It was very experiential in terms of the ways that we think about the ideas that shape the way we live, the “What happens when you walk in,” and such. I loved it.
What did you do after?
I wanted to work before going to graduate school to get a better perspective on the profession. I was married, and we moved to Boston, where I worked for Architectural Resources Cambridge (ARC). It was tough to get a job in the late 70s, the economy was weak, and honestly, there was a lot of bias at the time. There were no women in small firms. One person told me, “You ought to talk to Ben Thompson if you want a job because his wife is an architect, so he hires women.”
ARC was a great place to work. They were very generous. I first worked on the Kennedy School of Government. My job as a junior person meant that I went to the job site every day and found out what was needed to keep construction moving. I learned a tremendous amount as I could see how each of the trades was involved. I learned about project scheduling, organization, and management. The experience gave me a true understanding of the scale of a significant public building that has served me throughout my career.
You then went to Harvard — why? What did you learn there?
Harvard Graduate School of Design, at that time, was focused on very formal training, with emphasis on theory and history. It was the height of Postmodernism when I started, and the beginning of Deconstructionism when I graduated. I liked the intellectual content, the rigor, and the discipline as it helped me to focus my design ideas.
I know the next step after Harvard was particularly significant for you.
Harry Cobb, who was chairman of the architecture department at Harvard, offered me a job at Pei Cobb Freed and Partners were I ultimately worked for 12 years. During my tenure there, I was fortunate to win a Rome Prize and spent time at the American Academy and develop an appreciation for the historical context of architecture.
The PCF office was a fascinating place with a great sense of collegiality amongst the younger staff. We made life-long friendships and felt the encouragement of the partners. I possessed a skill for drawing by hand and was able to make perspective renderings very quickly. This made me a trustworthy participant in the design process, so I learned quickly and was included in meetings with consultants and clients.
All of the projects that I worked on were public or cultural buildings of large scale and, of course, quite a few skyscrapers as well as courthouses, airports, and urban designs. As the years went on, I had more and more of an opportunity to make a difference in the projects that I worked on and leave my personal imprint. I learned how to listen to clients, bring forth new ideas, and then listen again. This is a keystone of my practice today.
What was the catalyst for starting your own firm?
My last project with Pei Cobb Freed was the Holocaust Memorial Museum. That project was all-encompassing in terms of my personal dedication. My role as the lead designer working with Jim Freed allowed me great freedom, but also meant taking responsibility for a very controversial, sensitive site. I traveled with the interpretation team to all of the concentration camps and throughout Israel, talking with survivors and learning first-hand the devastation of that dark period. The other part of my role was to present in public forums where I spoke to the meaning of the forms that we made, the materiality, and how content could be imbued into the architecture. I challenged the modernist traditions of the firm and the status quo traditions that DC’s commissions were looking for.
When the building opened, I was pregnant with my first child. After my short maternity leave, I was pregnant again with my son [laughs]. I told the partners I was pregnant and that I wasn’t sure it was the right time to work on an exciting project they were offering to me in Kuala Lumpur. They told me that the door was always open, and they left it up to me to do whatever I wanted.
However, it was time for me to leave. I wanted to be involved in every aspect of what it meant to make architecture, and you can’t do that in a very large office with projects of scale as there is specialization required. I wanted to do it all. Also, I had ideas that I had been started to explore and needed to pursue.
I wanted to be more involved with cultural buildings and a different kind of design — steeped in modernism, but with more nuanced, bespoke forms, and materiality. I was interested in adaptive reuse and forming strong partnerships with my clients.
At that time, my personal life was also complicated by the fact that my husband died, so it was just me and two very young children. Miraculously, different circumstances brought me two very large projects. So, while quite unprepared, I moved forward.
I hired a few recent Columbia architecture students, and somehow, we managed to get both projects built — a women’s history museum in Dallas, Texas and an infrastructure project involving a pedestrian bridge in New York for The Rockefeller University. Both of those projects took four years, and by then I had a viable practice.
How did you get the projects?
For the projects at The Rockefeller University, I was rewarded for seizing an opportunity and by being entrepreneurial. I was at a fundraiser dinner for the university where I was seated next to the president of the university. He told me that the university was divided by a major off-ramp of the FDR Drive, and this created a dangerous situation. He wanted to build a pedestrian bridge connecting campus housing to the laboratories but couldn’t find a solution that would be cost effective. I told him that I had an idea. He didn’t know what to make of that [laughs]. He said, “Sure, why not?” It went from there.
The other project was even more serendipitous. I was featured in an article in Working Woman magazine talking to women working with technology. The piece showed a picture of me at home with a computer, the kids and toys scattered around on the floor. It was charming. But what my client, Cathy Bonner, saw was that I worked on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She thought to herself, “A woman architect knows how to build a museum!” Her idea was to build the first Women's History Museum in Dallas inside the existing historic Coliseum on the Fair Grounds, which by chance, featured a colossal statue of a woman emerging from a cactus. She realized the power of having the right story, and that the right women team would be able to make the project a reality.
What does it take to run a business?
For the first ten years, I didn’t think so much about the business of the practice. I had no infrastructure, no particular process for getting work — the projects just seemed to roll from one to the next. I’ve kept some of that early spontaneity but have tempered it with more experienced staff as we tackle more significant and complex projects. However, I don’t work according to traditional business methods. I see my practice as a studio or workshop. We discuss all relevant ideas and spend an immense amount of time weighing options and making drawings to test the look and feel of spaces. No project manager is saying, “Pencils down; you’ve exceeded the number of hours you can spend on that project.” We just keep going until we find what we find the right solution and the right way of making it happen.
With public work and increasingly intricate exhibitions, we require more in-house expertise. I’ve been fortunate in finding the right people to work with me all along. In particular, Monica Coghlan is now Design Director leading all of the exhibition design projects and José Luis Vidalón, our Project Director, is tremendously proactive in his way of realizing projects and everything they take — from having an idea to fabricating it and being thoughtful about even the smallest elements. Highly detailed and well-crafted work requires a lot of prototyping research, and trial and error. Alexios Bacolas brings senior technical oversight to all our work as our Managing Director.
How has motherhood played into all this?
I have not made career decisions based on motherhood per se. Motherhood is fantastic. I’m delighted to have two incredible children. My husband brings his two sons and now four grandchildren to our nuclear family. I never stopped practicing architecture and I have never stopped working for my community, my profession, and the cultural organizations I’m committed to.
I have had the honor to be president of the AIA New York City Chapter; President of the Architectural League and chairman of the AIA National Committee of Design. My passion for performing arts has also involved me in leadership at the American Ballet Theater and the Second Stage Theatre. Being socially and politically engaged has been very important to me.
But, to be honest, I take offense at this question. One thing to consider is that women have had a traditional problem of others evaluating their lives in terms of their balance between work and home and making choices. It isn’t a question that is asked of men.
Should it be asked of men? Or should it not be asked of anyone? What about the women that wish people would acknowledge that they are also mothers?
For my generation of women architects, we were worried about being taken seriously. I never participated in programs that were explicitly oriented toward women. I just wanted to be an architect; I didn’t want to be a “female” architect. I didn’t want anyone to ask me if we did kitchens or bathrooms. I wanted to be taken seriously and do work of consequence to my community and that would be recognized by my colleagues at the highest level.
I think that it would be better not necessarily to ask women about work and children specifically, as, if it is relevant to the story, let it be an answer to other questions. Once you create this artificial category, you freight it with significance it doesn’t necessarily have. I think it’s more revealing when it’s the backstory. When I was pregnant with Danielle, my first child, I didn't tell anyone in the office. Well into my fourth month, I was presenting at a project for a prominent office building. I’m up in front of the client team when my skirt that is safety pinned together begins to part, and one man precedes his question with “Excuse me, little mama...” Harry Cobb just went white [laughs].
You know, I completely agree with you that zeroing in on motherhood with one question lumps it into its own category and perpetuates this notion of motherhood versus work, where motherhood flows through practice, and vice versa.
What I’ve found though, is that if I don’t ask the question specifically, people don’t mention their children or that aspect of their lives and I think it’s a shame. And in fact, I’ve found that these days, a lot of women would like to talk about it and not pretend that that part of their lives doesn’t exist. I think instead of not asking anyone about children, you should ask the fathers too. Anyone should be able to talk about the factors that influence their lives, and hence their work. Maybe what I should do is if I know that someone is a parent, or any sort of care giver, is first ask if they’d like to talk about that.
I will say that when I formed a partnership with Chris Cooper (2008–13) my kids were 13 and 14, and that was exactly the time when I needed help to get through those difficult early teen years, when I wanted to be there to have my eyes on everything. Especially in New York — you have to be very focused. I was there at that key time, and I do believe that it made a difference.
Right. A great example of how all the things in your life affect each other. You had the professional support you needed because of and during a significant time for your children.
Where do you feel like you are in your career today?
I feel like a 20-year-old startup. I have enough experience to take on larger projects, more sensitive projects — things that have a greater impact. I feel brave enough to continue working in the public realm and take that up a notch as well with more community-based and educational work. I’d like to expand our reach into new places. We’ve worked in London and California and Texas, and I see that these different environments have fostered new ideas for site-specific context. The balance between exhibition design and architectural design is not easy to keep in line but working in both realms has been extremely rewarding as we let content imbue our architectural strategies. At present, we are both architects and exhibition designers for a new National Women’s History Museum in Washington, DC. This project is particularly exciting as it presents an opportunity not only to tell new stories but to create a totally integrated environment that brings education and social interaction in one immersive experience.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career?
The biggest challenge is finding the right clients and the right way to work with each client. I don’t choose clients based on their resources or how together they are or their schedule. I am interested in working with clients who are interested in a partnership in order to develop and then realize their vision. This type of tremendously strong rapport comes with research, listening, and active dialogue. And to make it work, I also count on the help of consultants, contractors, and many others. That increases the potential for creativity but also raises the levels of complexity and risk.
We have designed over a dozen different exhibitions for the Museum of the City of New York. Because of that longevity, we have built up a level of trust that has brought forward not only some of our most inventive installations, but we have been able to have a broader impact on the institution as a whole and their flourishing role in our city. Recently, we worked with the National Museum of the American Indian on a new permanent exhibition that changes the paradigm for how their visitors understand America's complicated relationship with Native Peoples throughout our shared history. Again, working with the curators in an atmosphere of mutual respect, we were able to design a new type of experience finely tuned to their unexpectedly original vision.
The practice of architecture, for me, is the least interesting part of being an architect. I don’t enjoy the business of the studio as it takes away time from doing what I love, which, frankly, is every other aspect of our profession.
What has been your general approach to your life and career?
Breathe. Knees bent.
What does that mean?
You keep your knees bent when you ski or do other sports, to absorb any shock and rebound. That’s what life is about — how you react to whatever unexpected issues come your way. You have to be resilient; you have to be optimistic, and you have to breathe into it. Architecture is a team sport. You have to choose your associations well and then believe in others. I think that clients count on me for my nature, for my commitment to them no matter the difficulties. They know that I’ll stick with them, be flexible, and never give up on quality and their vision.
What advice do you have for those just starting their career in the field?
You have to choose carefully the people with whom you align yourself and then earn their respect. If you learn in the wrong place, you will not develop the best professional skills. But, more than that, learn to treat everyone with respect. Maintain empathy. Look at the broadest consequences of all your actions. Look beyond just the design of things to their impact on people.
I believe in giving back to the community and that everyone should start early and with consistency help others. Make the time to be a member of something you believe, whether professionally or to help with the environment, culture, or justice. There are many opportunities to help others who need an architect's creativity and organizational thinking. Be generous.