Embracing Change: Gwen Conners on Community, Vision, and Fearlessness
By Julia Gamolina
Gwen Conners, AIA is a Principal at 1100 Architect and has over 30 years of experience designing a variety of institutional, commercial, and residential projects throughout the United States and Asia. Since joining the firm in 2008, Gwen has led high-end residential projects as well as transformative renovations for institutions including the Dalton School, the Berkeley Carroll School, and Brooklyn Friends School. She has been a guest critic at Williams College, Parsons School of Design, New York Institute of Technology, and Columbia University.
She received a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from the University of Washington in 1983 and a Master of Architecture from Columbia University in 1987. She currently serves as co-chair of the AIANY Architecture for Education Committee. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Gwen talks about being fearless and taking risks, advising young architects to embrace change and to build community.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
GC: I entered college already knowing that I wanted to study architecture. My mother was an artist. My natural father was a physicist. My adopted father was an airline pilot. There was always this sort of engineering side, as well as the art side of things. That exposure naturally made me want to believe that I have the skills to be an architect.
What did you learn about yourself in architecture school?
Early on, I got a lot of positive feedback from my professors that gave me confidence to feel like I could try anything. I could go out and step into the world as an architect. I worked through college; I worked for an architect in my first year of studio, spending the mornings in his office and the afternoons in studio - and the nights in studio [laughs]. I really loved the architectural community and the passion that was behind it all. I felt you could commit your life to architecture and it would give back in amazing ways.
Influential to my development as an architect was a professor, Astra Zarina, at the University of Washington. She had founded the Italian Studies program in Rome and a hill town north of Rome called Civita di Bagnoregio. Study abroad with her opened a world of culture beyond just the design of buildings. We learned architecture in the context of history, music, religion, cuisine, language, and art. Such a gift.
What was your first job out of school?
Out of school, I worked for an architect named Elaine Day LaTourelle. She’s still in Seattle, where I grew up, and I stay in touch with her. She’s an early pioneer in the field, and practiced architecture as well as landscape architecture and urban design. She was a great influence on my work.
What did you do next?
I went to graduate school. I applied to a bunch of east coast schools and chose Columbia because of the city more so than the school.
In the early 80s, New York was a gritty place, but being a west-coaster coming east to study in the biggest city in the U.S. was amazing. There was a real sense that anything could happen, and that you could do anything. My Columbia community has also stayed with me. There are a lot of us still in New York, which gives us a sense of family. It makes the city smaller.
What did you do after?
After Columbia, I moved to the Berkshires in Massachusetts to do work with a friend. As I worked on my portfolio during the summer, we found work and started a practice which we ran for a few years A summer had turned into a few years away from the city, but it called me back.
With some intention, I moved back to New York City and started working for 1100 Architect when it was David and Juergen, the two Founding Principals, and a few employees. It was a young practice and I developed the skills that I have today as an architect - the work is very sensitive to detail and materials and the experience taught me a lot about making space and constructability. Many of our clients at that time were artists.
When my son was born, I left 1100 Architect and started a practice. At that moment, I pivoted from a very nurturing environment at 1100 Architect to challenging myself and setting up an office.
Tell me more about that.
In some ways, having a baby and starting an office worked well together because I had full control over my schedule. I was able to put my pencil down and pick my kids up from school when I needed to. I have two kids, and I remember thinking to myself at that time that having kids is an experience that I don't want to miss. Having kids is just something that is so universal.
I had a partner, a classmate from Columbia. She and I acquired a couple of residential clients very quickly, and we became a residential practice. One of the highlights was a project that we did in Aspen, Colorado. I have memories of travelling there with my daughter, a newborn, and taking her to meetings. She would sleep next to me while I had dinner with my clients. It’s amazing what the kids have been through [laughs].
How long did you run your own practice for?
I had my own practice for about thirteen years. At some point within that, I did some work for a church - after working on a lot of residences, I realized that I wanted to work on projects that had more meaning.
The interesting thing about being an architect is that I am always there when someone needs a change. Nobody hires an architect if everything is cool and settled – people hire architects when they want something different. Embracing change and finding ways to express the forward-looking hope and vision of a particular project is what’s inspiring to me about architecture. Being able to latch onto that forward motion and support it and be a part of it is a great thing.
What prompted you to return to 1100?
There was a point when I realized that the work you do leads to the next work you do. Unless you find a way to get yourself out of a certain path, it’s very difficult to switch gears.
At this point, I had a conversation with David, the co-founder of 1100 Architect. He was giving me mentoring advice to try and get me out of the tyranny of sameness. A couple of weeks later he called again and said “I take it all back. I think you should come back to 1100 Architect and help form a leadership team.”
I turned him down. I had a practice and a responsibility to my partner. But, then, I thought about it further and realized it was a great opportunity to change my trajectory and would help me find a way to build a different practice - a practice that was about things that I believe in.
What have been the significant moments from your time there?
I’m the leader of the education initiative at 1100 Architect, both in going out and finding the work but also leading the work as it moves forward. I find it really exciting. Education is one of those fields that is always changing, and the schools that we work with tend to be very progressive. They are always looking at the best ways to provide a facility that gives their students the most exposure. It’s been wonderful to be alongside that and finding ways architecture helps express that. That’s exciting to me.
Right now, I’m doing work for Convent of the Sacred Heart, which is an all-girls school. We are doing their science center, and we are looking at ways to support girls in science, which is not traditionally a girls’ field. By looking back at history as well as looking forward, we are finding ways to help the students visualize themselves as contributors to the field. It is really exciting to give them that vision and opportunity.
Where do you feel you are in your career today?
It’s a funny thing when you suddenly realize that you’re the person that should be mentoring somebody. You don’t see it when it happens - there is no defined moment when you suddenly become the mentor rather than the mentee. I certainly still have mentors, but now it’s about teaching, leading, strategizing, thinking about what’s next, and having a team of people that I trust and have trust in me.
What have been some of the biggest challenges throughout your career?
The work-life balance, as every woman probably grapples with. I have a very supportive, wonderful husband who is also a feminist. He’s an editor of academic journals, a very smart person, and very supportive. We have a wonderful family life that is in some ways a refuge for all of us.
Being an architect, I feel so compelled by my work. Understanding that my relationships are just as important as whatever project I’m working on has been a breakthrough for me. Having kids is a great thing. They make the world a better place.
You mentioned one highlight - working for Sacred Heart - what have been some other highlights?
I mentioned the Aspen House. That was an amazing experience.
My highlights are working with my clients as much as they are my projects. My Berkeley Carroll School client is so visionary, and such a good citizen. I love spending time with them. I feel that way about all my clients.
Another highlight is travel with my family. We’ve done some influential trips. I took my kids to Egypt about ten years ago when they were still relatively small. The photographs of everyone sitting and sketching are just wonderful. My kids saw a part of the world that made them realize how much we have as Americans and, and it allowed them to see themselves in a more global context.
What has been your general approach to your career?
Being fearless - stepping out there and taking risk. In terms of my work, one of the things I remember noticing when I started a practice was being somewhat surprised at how when you say, “Here I am! I’m an architect and I’ve got a practice,” work comes your way. It is very validating.
What advice do you have for young architects? Especially those who are just starting their careers?
Embrace change and understand the field that it is today is not going to be the same field in ten years, or fifty years. Over the thirty years that I have been in practice, it is definitely a different discipline today than it was when I started - this has to do with technology, with the way that we execute. Also people’s values - the roles of sustainability in the work, how we exist within this great earth. Our role in responsibility goes beyond just making buildings. It’s about giving people vision.
Finally, what advice do you have for those wanting to start their own practices and have their own firms?
Stay in touch with your community. Part of the time when I was in the Berkshires, I was painting and found a community of painters. Walter Hopps, who was a curator and gave Andy Warhol his first show, came and critiqued our work one time. When asked the question, “How do you make it as an artist today?” he said, “Support your friends. When you get a show, bring your friend in.” So, be there for each other. Make your community. Find your people. Be part of the community. Give back to it.