Graduate Architecture

Posted November 3, 2019
  • WEISS/MANFREDI, Novartis Visitor Reception

    Photo: Albert Vecerka/Esto courtesy WEISS/MANFREDI

Converging Horizons: An Interview with Marion Weiss

This conversation is excerpted from the volume Women (Re)Build: Stories, Polemics, Futures (Applied Research and Design, October 2019), edited by Associate Professor of Architecture Franca Trubiano and graduates Ramona Adlakha (MArch’18), and Ramune Bartuskaite (MArch’18). Marion Weiss is Graham Professor of Practice in Architecture at the Weitzman School, and principal at WEISS/MANFREDI, and was the keynote speaker at the 2017 symposium “[RE]Form: The Framework, Fallout, and Future of Women in Design.” Following the event, Weiss spoke with Adlakha and Bartuskaite about her background, professional experience, and hopes for the future of women in the field of design.

When did you decide that you wanted to study architecture and to be an architect?

As a child, I had parallel dreams of being a concert pianist, film director, and an architect. While I was mostly focused on becoming a concert pianist, I was also inspired by our Danish uncle—really a close family friend— who designed modernist homes on the steep hillsides of the Bay Area in California, where I grew up. His collection of Habitat publications inspired me to build a series of doll houses—really more like stackable modules—that could be configured to shape linear parks, define courtyard housing, or become high rise towers. By seventh grade I had built twenty- one units. Parallels between music and architecture are endless, but my own experience has made me appreciate the enduring impact that form—both explicit and implicit—can have to support infinite freedom and creative expression.

Shortly after winning the Women’s Memorial competition in 1989, you were quoted in the Los Angeles Times regarding the experience of women in the profession, as stating, “I wish I could say it was easier, but it is difficult for women to get ahead…I’m optimistic that there are more and more role models for women.” Do you think things are different now? To that end, do you identify yourself as a “feminist”? If so, how?

Things are profoundly different now. The number of women doing extraordinary and inspiring work has grown with intensity and, in part, this is because the media has brought visibility to their work. You could argue that the media was less interested in their accomplishments before, and there were fewer opportunities for them to achieve legible impact. And feminism, effectively, articulates the agency and capacity women have to lead and invent.

You have been a longstanding faculty member at Penn. What else have you taught in addition to design studios?

I have also taught seminars on modes of representation and the impact of overlapping media: these are parallel interests in my coursework. Research studios are opportunities to combine all these preoccupations in the creative act of design. I am especially interested in graduate level design research studios that have provided the forum to explore with both intensity and depth, the potential for architecture to cross the traditional disciplinary boundaries of architecture and landscape.

In what ways has teaching informed your professional projects?

Teaching has had a profound impact on our professional projects. Both Michael Manfredi and I have been simultaneously teaching and practicing since we began doing competitions together as young faculty members. Teaching ensured that we had the opportunity to ask more compelling questions than those afforded by the early commissions we were able to get. We found the conceptual inquiry afforded in the academic setting offered the necessary preparation to create work that has yet to be conceived of. Without the intensity of academic inquiry, the work itself could not take on both territorial ambition and depth.

You titled a previous talk at Penn’s 1995 “Inherited Ideologies” conference focused on the Women’s Memorial project as “The Politics of Underestimation.” Can you expand on this?

It’s a very interesting story. Our client for the Women’s Memorial, General Wilma Vaught, was a retired General. She had a dream of creating a memorial that honored all the women who had served in the military and with her board of directors, was in search of a site to do this. One day, she was driven around the Washington, D.C. area by the director of the National Park Service to identify potential sites. The sites were in remote and unremarkable locations and as they were returning the van, they passed by the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery—directly on axis with the Lincoln Memorial—defined by the then decrepit McKim, Meade & White retaining wall, overgrown with weeds. She asked, if she promised to renovate the wall and gateway to the cemetery, could she have permission to locate the memorial on this site. The NPS director couldn’t come up with a reason to say no, and Congress ultimately approved the site selection in the shortest ever time frame recorded in Washington. No one expected her to request a more prominent site for the memorial, and no one was able to say no to an offer to rejuvenate the symbolic gateway to Arlington Cemetery.

Many of your academic and cultural projects focus on revealing what goes on inside. You even mentioned that architecture is a public education. What is public about architecture?

I’m really interested in the gifts that architecture can offer that allow projects—even if they’re privately conceived and privately funded—to transform the public realm. The Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle was a dream to take the often-exclusionary world of the museum and create a public setting without walls where art had room to breathe. The Barnard College Diana Center—with its luminous terracotta-colored glass diorama on Broadway—reveals the slipped volumes of the café, library, and art and architecture galleries on the façade. In our recent book Public Natures: Evolutionary Infrastructure, we were interested in expanding this idea to include landscape and infrastructure—identifying new terms, conditions, and models that generate productive connections between landscape, infrastructure, and urban territory—to create an architecture that is distinctly public in nature.

How do you think the profession should handle issues of equity and gender balance?

Issues of equity and gender balance are evolving in mostly positive ways. Schools of architecture—including both students and faculty—are more balanced by gender than when I began teaching. Architecture, which benefits from intensity and focus, will never be easily slotted in the nine-to-five day. If support systems can evolve and grow, I think the potential for new models of leadership will continue to expand to include an even more diverse community. I am impressed by the breadth and depth of architects that are emerging—both male and female—who are simultaneously teaching, practicing, raising families, and publishing incredibly remarkable work.

Were there any particular influences early in your career?

I think the first lessons came from piano. What I discovered is that it took an enormous amount of effort for something to finally become intuitive so that it could come out in an effortless way. That insight was one of the most useful things I discovered in architecture school. As an undergraduate, I took a figure drawing class with Carlo Pelliccia. One semester I took it for credit and continued to audit it every semester after that because it touched something I was unable to express in the studio courses. Charcoal afforded the ability to suggest rather than describe something completely and it was intuitively possible to achieve more with less. My final architecture studio was also taught by Professor Pelliccia, and while I was continuing to attempt equal success with every aspect of the assigned project, he suggested that I might benefit from focusing—just as I did with figure drawing—on the most compelling part of the brief. This has become an enduring lesson for me and we work hard to identify the essence of the question, rather than pursue the indexical compliance with every possible obligation of the project. In graduate school at Yale, I was fortunate to have design studios with both James Stirling and Andrea Leers. Jim Stirling was obviously a great hero of mine and illuminated the essential legibility of the diagram. Andrea Leers—both a terrific architect and teacher—insisted I abandon my inclination to drift indefinitely in search of the perfect scheme and instead pick one of them, any one of them, and bring intensity to it to make it better. In each case, I was learning the same thing in different ways—every creative endeavor requires incredible intensity, rigor, and judgement.   

Can you expand on the ideas of layering and memory in landscapes, which are prevalent themes in your work?

Landscape has a lot of connotations, from the picturesque to the systemic, from the territorial to the intimate. This issue of memory recognizes that landforms and landscapes have had prior lives—sometimes profoundly worth restoring. In other cases, there are narratives of disconnections that can be threaded back together in completely new ways. I’m also very interested in geological history. My mother taught cultural geography and geology, and my father was an aeronautical engineer and their shared passion for maps illuminated the value of multiple histories—often registered through landforms and strata—that we like to unpack when we begin our research for a project. We like doing incredibly deep research before we begin a project and postpone the desire to design too quickly. This way, our intuitions can be informed by the broadest range of information, and resonances between these discoveries can guide what has the potential to become both precise and resonant.   

Would you say that in your practice with partner Michael Manfredi, you practice differently than Michael?

Yes, we complement each other in very different ways: we also share the same appreciation for what needs to come forward in the architecture. That’s where, I would say at a certain point, both our egos have to be checked at the door because we need to nourish the DNA that’s emerging in order for the ultimate design to thrive.

The prompt for your keynote lecture during the [RE]Form symposium centered on cultivating leadership practices and under the theme of “Converging Horizons” you presented a beautiful range of work from your professional and academic career. As both a practicing architect and educator, do you find these roles easily co-exist, or do you think one influences the other more deeply? And if so, to what extent?

I think they absolutely overlap. I’ve been fortunate that our practice has grown from a seed. What started out as nothing but teaching and competitions turned into something that’s more robust and comprehensive. It used to be that academia was informing practice exclusively, but I would say now there’s a reciprocity. Practice is also informing teaching. The incredibly complex problems that we’re interested in require an enormous amount of strategic thinking to be realized in real life. I don’t want students to be off the hook on that. Their ambitions are nourished directly through academic inquiry. One of the most important things about being an educator is that we need to be clear about what’s at stake, how we may get there both independently and together, and why it matters.

At the [RE]Form symposium, it was particularly interesting when you featured two images side by side, one of Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark and the other of Denise Scott Brown from Learning from Las Vegas. Citing Scott Brown’s role as an active collaborator versus Roark’s depiction as a singular author, you emphasized the idea of standing on the shoulders of those who came before as well as side by side with those who are here today—both in our education and engagement. Do you feel that the future of women in architecture needs more collaboration? And if yes, what are some strategies for this to occur?

I think they’re not mutually exclusive. I think that we do stand on the shoulders of those who come before us and the view to the horizon is so much better because of this. I met Denise Scott Brown when we were struggling to get the Women’s Memorial approved by the multiple agencies in Washington, D.C. We were a year and a half into the process with little success when Denise shared a similar experience she and Bob had for the park and plaza they had designed in Washington. She was familiar with the agency roadblocks we were facing and gave me a copy of Learning from Las Vegas, where she inscribed the words “stand on my shoulders so you can reach for the stars.” She continues to be an inspiration and embodies the long distance run that architecture truly is.

When I mentioned the collaborative act, the fact is that architects draw—they create designs. It takes a legion of people to realize it, to see it built, to fund it, to engineer it, to collaborate, to push it, to advance it. To think otherwise is profoundly arrogant. If we can learn from those who invest in it from all the different places, including our collective offices, consultants, contractors, subcontractors, and owners—if we can all keep our sights on the same horizon, but bring different strengths to the table, I think magic is possible.

You mentioned your interest in historic sites, studying what came before us, and what marks were left behind. How do you make sure that you honor the history of both the place you design in and the people that have contributed to it?

Sometimes history has less depth and importance than we might think—even if the forms look historically significant. The McKim, Mead & White retaining wall that had been the base of the Women’s Memorial and which we transformed was from an office no longer led by McKim, Mead, or White. From our point of view, it was time to introduce a new history to honor women who had served—break through the wall, cut through those barriers, create a space, and a gallery of celebration, rather than preserve a wall that was just retaining the twenty-plus-foot grade change between the cemetery and the terminus of the memorial bridge. At the site of the Museum of the Earth, water originally traveled through the site and divided it, but this had been covered up. This inspired us to reveal the water’s journey; to alter it, to have it do new things. We used the site for water retention and to reveal how engineering obligations and water purification could be part of the story of the Museum of the Earth, even if the site looked like it had no deeper history than a parking lot and existing building.

You mentioned that you’ve worked with a lot of inspiring women—who have faced many challenges. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from them?

We have been fortunate to have a number of inspiring women clients. Mimi Gates, the director of Seattle’s Art Museum; Ruth Simmons, president of Smith’s Women’s College; Judith Shapiro, president of Barnard College; General Vaught, President of the Women’s Memorial Foundation, and currently Kathleen Van Bergen, President of the Artis-Naples cultural campus. The list goes on, and in each case what I’ve learned from them is that they don’t get discouraged; they share a contagious optimism and expectation that transformation is the future we all want to be a part of.

You noted that in architecture, you get to ask questions, find other ways of looking at things, set new passages, new horizons. What do you see on the horizon and what are you working towards?

I see a lot of opportunities for architects to reframe and reassess the questions that are being asked. And I see the opportunity to determine what must be done and what should be done in a commission. I believe in a future where architects can assume both the role of the instigator and the designer. I look forward to the potential to have influence beyond our capacities as designers.

What advice would you give to young designers starting out today?

I would say the most important thing to a designer starting today is to know that you should begin anywhere and follow your hunch about what you think is important. Then you should put all your energies and passion into seeing what that hunch can reveal. It will lead to great things—even if you don’t know where you’re going.