University of Hawai’i, Bachelor of Fine Arts with honors, 1954
Robertson Residence, Saint Helena, Calif., 1960
Union Street Shops, San Francisco, 1965
Vine Terrace Apartments (renamed Nob Hill Court), San Francisco, 1973
Pacific Point Apartments, Pacifica, Calif., 1975
Aliamanu Valley Community for military family housing, Honolulu, 1979
Yerba Buena Gardens Redevelopment Master Plan, San Francisco, 1980
Computer Center Prototype (unbuilt), Covington, Ky., 1981
River Run Residence, Saint Helena, 1983
San Francisco Ballet Building, San Francisco, 1984
Manhattan Village Academy High School, New York City, 1994–96
Awards and Honors
AIA Bay Area Award for Union Street Stores Development, 1980 Union Street, 1967
Governor of California Award for Exceptional Distinction in Environmental Design for adaptive reuse of Union Street Stores, 1967
Phoebe Hearst Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Service to San Francisco, 1969
AIA Award of Merit, 1976 Homes for Better Living Awards Program, Vine Terrace Apartments, San Francisco, 1976
U.S. Government Delegate to “Habitat,” United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, 1976
Fellow, American Institute of Architects, 1980
Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, Mount Holyoke College, 1982
Gold Nugget Grand Award, Pacific Coast Builders Conference and Builders Magazine, for Best Recreational Facility, Margaret S. Hayward Playground Building, San Francisco, 1983
California Council of the American Institute of Architects Merit Award, Margaret S. Hayward Playground Building, San Francisco, 1984
National Association of Home Builders, Merit Award, River Run Residence, Saint Helena, Calif., 1985
Montgomery Fellowship, Dartmouth College, 1992
American Planning Association’s Metro Chapter’s Lawrence Orton Award for Excellence in City and Regional Planning cited Rebuild Downtown Our Town, co-directed by Beverly Willis and Susan Szenasy, 2003
Lifetime Achievement Award from Professional Women in Construction, New York City, 2011
AIA New York Special Citation to Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation for its significant contribution to the recognition and understanding of 20th-century women architects, 2015
New York Construction Award to the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation for Outstanding Public Service, 2015
AIA California Council, Lifetime Achievement Award to Beverly Willis in recognition of an outstanding contribution to the improvement of the built environment and to the profession of architecture in California, 2017
Willis Atelier, Honolulu, San Francisco, 1954–66
Willis and Associates Architects, Inc., San Francisco, 1966–90
Beverly Willis Architect, New York, 1991–2005
National Academy of Sciences (now called Board on Infrastructure and Constructed Environment), Washington, D.C., Building Research Advisory Board’s Executive Committee, 1971–79
Federal Construction Council (now called Federal Facility Council), Washington, D.C., chairman, 1976–79
National Building Museum, Washington, D.C., founding trustee, 1976–present
American Institute of Architects, California Council, vice president, 1978; president, 1979
American Institute of Architects, San Francisco Chapter, Board of Directors, 1978
Lambda Alpha Society, Golden State Chapter, president, 1981–82
Architecture Research Institute, Inc. (ARI), founder and president, 1995–2005
Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), founder and president, 2002–14
By Wanda Bubriski, Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation
For more than seventy years, Beverly Willis (b. 1928) has steadily made contributions to the architecture profession in the realms of design, planning, and practice, whether through research, innovation, leadership, or even filmmaking. An autodidact ever willing to take risks, Willis accepted commissions for which there were no built precedents, adopted practices that did not become mainstream until decades later, and sought research-driven solutions unique to each project. She pioneered adaptive reuse construction of historic buildings for urban revitalization in the Union Street Shops, San Francisco (1965); introduced computerized programming into large-scale land planning and design with CARLA (1971), a software program developed in-house by Willis and her firm; and created an enduring prototype for ballet buildings around the world with the San Francisco Ballet Building (1984). For these and the other significant projects in her design portfolio, Willis has received many honors, awards, and citations. Her designs combine an artist’s appreciation of light, color, and texture and a designer’s understanding of form and proportion that serve to enhance the experience of space and to communicate directly to the senses.
Early Life and Education
Willis was born in 1928 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and her parents divorced in the midst of the Great Depression, when she was six. Her father, Ralph William Willis, ran a company that supplied drilling rigs to extract oil, and she spent her first six years shuttling between an apartment in Oklahoma City and the workers’ shacks in the oil fields. The derrick towers were her playground.
After her parents divorced, her father disappeared, and her mother, Margaret Porter Willis, who did not earn enough as a nurse to support her two children—Beverly and a younger brother, Bud—placed them in Sunbeam Orphanage, then at St. Joseph’s Academy, where they worked for their keep. They rebelled against their confinement, and the result was a life lesson: that pushing boundaries was a way to survive.11For a biographical portrait of Willis, see Nicolai Ouroussoff, “An Image of Beverly Willis,” in Invisible Images: The Silent Language of Architecture, ed. Beverly Willis (Washington, D.C.: National Building Museum, 1997), 99–104; Beverly Willis, “Beverly Willis: A Life in Architecture,” conducted by Victor Geraci, 2008, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2008; and Beverly Willis with Harry Haskell, Blueprint for Life, an unpublished memoir, in the personal archive of Beverly Willis, Branford, Connecticut.
Willis had one final encounter with her father, when she was fifteen: she spent the summer of 1943 with him in Illinois, where he taught her how to weld drilling bits, hired her to work in his shop, and paid her a man’s wages. She used her salary to pay for flying lessons and soloed in a piper cub.
World War II provided new professional opportunities for many American women, including Willis’s mother: she found work on Liberty Ships anchored in Portland, Oregon, and finally had the means to reunite with her daughter and son. The war offered the daughter the opportunity to attend night classes in woodworking, riveting, and wiring—all of which helped prepare her for a career in the building industries. Wanting to contribute to the war effort, Willis volunteered for the Civil Air Patrol, where she achieved the rank of lieutenant. She went on to study aeronautical engineering at Oregon State University but dropped out after two years and went to work in a Portland printing plant. There, she met a professional artist for the first time and discovered lithography and two-dimensional design.
Willis then drifted south to San Francisco, the West Coast’s creative center, where she enrolled in classes at the San Francisco Art Institute and had her first solo gallery show of watercolors. Impelled by the desire to learn and to explore more of the world, she headed farther west—to Honolulu, where she entered the University of Hawaii to study art. She received a B.F.A. degree with honors in 1954. Two teachers influenced her profoundly: Gustav Ecke, a scholar of Chinese furniture, introduced her to Asian art and architecture22Gustav Ecke, Chinese Domestic Furniture, (Peking [Beijing]: H. Vetch, 1944). For additional publications, see http://www.worldcat.org/wcidentities/lccn-n85-373996. and instilled in her the idea that an artwork is not an isolated, autonomous object, but is anchored in process and context; and Jean Charlot exposed her to the history of European art and fresco painting.33See Karen Thompson, “Jean Charlot: Artist and Scholar,” Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawai’i, Manoa Library. http://libweb.hawaii.edu/libdept/charlotcoll/J_Charlot/charlotthompson.html#top.
Willis never received any formal architectural training. From Charlot’s teaching she developed a design philosophy that, forty years later, would culminate in her book, Invisible Images: The Silent Language of Architecture (1997). She learned to look closely at nature and to draw cross-sections of flower stems, among other natural patterns. Willis discovered that design, like nature, appeared to be part of a larger system—designing being just one part that could affect the whole, sometimes profoundly. The pursuit of finding and perfecting systems would become one of her central concerns.
Willis’s long career has had an unconventional trajectory, moving among different artistic mediums and disciplines. After studying and making art in Honolulu (1954–58), she developed into a prominent West Coast architect over more than three decades (1958–90), and in more recent years she has dedicated herself to philanthropy and filmmaking. Her career as an architect has featured many firsts—including adaptive reuse, innovative technology, large-scale housing, development, and new typologies.
In 1954, she opened the Willis Atelier in Honolulu, specializing in murals, fresco painting, and multimedia installations. Charlot helped launch her career by recommending her for commissions—including the United Chinese Society Fresco—and by introducing her to his network of patrons, one of whom was Louise Dillingham. Another early role model was Henry J. Kaiser, an industrialist whose businesses included the production of cement for Hoover Dam, Bonneville Dam, and Grand Coulee Dam during the 1930s; ship-building during the 1940s; and real estate development, with projects such as the Hilton Hawaiian Village (which opened in 1955), for which he hired Willis to create the Shell Bar. Willis was impressed by Kaiser’s confidence in his own ability to succeed at so many different businesses with just an eighth-grade education, and by his business motto, “Find a need (or hole) and fill it.” A second important commission also came from the military: Willis worked directly with five-star Rear Admiral Felix B. Stump on the design of his residential-like offices, a commission that in turn led to an assignment rebuilding officers’ clubs on the island. This experience led to her being hired for more interior and industrial design projects, ranging from product design to retail stores.
In 1958, Willis moved back to San Francisco, seeking more architectural and design work while building her reputation in the city for retail design in particular. In 1960, she received her first commission to design a residential building: the Robertson Residence, requiring a special program for a wheelchair-bound client with multiple sclerosis. Thirty years before handicap guidelines existed (such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), Willis custom-designed a variety of architectural features for her client’s needs: maintaining a single level throughout, widening doorways, and lowering doorknobs, countertops, and light switches. Among the single-family residences she designed was her own: River Run, a working farm along the Napa River that included a ten-acre vineyard. Surrounded by miles of cultivated fields and taking inspiration from Palladio, Willis sited her house with its symmetrical exterior and temple front on the hilltop overlooking the vineyard.
From 1963 to 1965, she undertook the conversion of three Victorian-era San Francisco buildings into a unified shopping complex of nine stores and two restaurants, known as the Union Street Shops. To preserve the buildings and to add square footage, Willis jacked up the buildings to add a floor below grade. The project not only initiated her into the design complexities of the city’s streets and neighborhoods, “it foreshadowed national efforts to restore old buildings in city centers,” according to historian Clare Lorenz.44Clare Lorenz, Women in Architecture: A Contemporary Perspective (London: Trefoil Publications Ltd., 1990), 134. To William Marlin, writing in Architectural Forum, the shopping complex “inspired community interest in the possibilities of adaptive reuse, making Union Street a linear Ghirardelli Square.”55William Marlin, “The Streets of Camelot,” Architectural Forum (April 1973), 29. Architectural Forum magazine covered the homebuilding industry and architecture until it ceased publication in 1974. Marlin, after serving as editor of Architectural Forum, went on to become associate editor of Architectural Record and editor of Chicago-based Inland Architect magazine. Revitalization projects in San Francisco, such as Union Street, set a precedent for future adaptive reuse construction, including, most famously, Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace completed in 1976.
A decade later, in another San Francisco neighborhood in transition, Willis created another innovative streetscape: Vine Terrace Apartments (now called Nob Hill Court Condominiums), a complex of forty-five residences. In response to the City Planning Department guidelines that called for bay windows, Willis inverted traditional voids and solids while offering balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows, and working fireplaces. Another distinctive feature of the complex was the large inner courtyard, providing residents with light, air, and a quiet, safe outdoor retreat.
Despite the wide recognition that Willis received for the Union Street Shops, the California chapter of AIA barred her from taking the professional license exams—because she had worked only with and not for other architects. However, with the help of Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye and California’s Governor Pat Brown, Willis received her license in 1966.66Beverly Willis, in conversation with the author, August 8, 2014. Within a decade, she was running a 35-person firm with national recognition and commissions. As her firm and reputation grew, so did the scale of her projects. Her willingness to “be experimental and . . . to re-think things was part of her creative power,” observed fellow San Francisco architect Stanley Saitowitz. “That was her big-scale sort of thinking . . . part of her fearlessness”77Stanley Saitowitz, “Beverly Willis Oral History Project,” conducted by Lisa Rubens in 2006, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley (2008), 15.
Willis and her firm brought a systematic approach to large-scale land planning for multifamily housing, especially for the nascent condominium market. She was one of the early users of computerized design: prior to the founding of Microsoft, Willis formed an interdisciplinary team to develop a software program called CARLA (Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis). Efficient, cost-effective, and a catalyst to expanding design possibilities and the scale of building, it quickly received national attention and was adopted all over the country. Willis used the program in 1979 in the Aliamanu Valley Community for Military Families, a town of 11,000 inhabitants in Honolulu.
Once computer technology became available to the government, the Internal Revenue Service envisioned a billion-dollar project to construct computer facilities at each of its nine campuses across the country, and Willis’s tech-savvy firm won the project. Rekindling her college fascination with geometry, Willis explored different geometric volumes that could fit each campus. To maximize space, the program also called for interior walls and ceilings devoid of mechanical equipment, for which Willis invented a raised-floor plenum to house the machinery (which is now common practice, thirty-five years later).88The fiscally cautious President Carter vetoed this visionary project, which remained unbuilt. Willis, in conversation with the author, August 8, 2014.
Willis also took on large-scale urban development projects. In 1980, she entered the volatile, high-stakes arena of international commercial development, organizing the Design-Build Partnership of Olympia York–Marriott Hotels–Beverly Willis. The team won an international competition to provide the conceptual plan and design for Yerba Buena Gardens on a twenty-four-acre industrial wasteland site near downtown San Francisco (south of Market Street). At the time, it was one of the three largest developments in the world.
The crowning work in her portfolio of more than six hundred projects is the San Francisco Ballet Association Building, an eight-story structure disguised within a four-story elevation located within the city’s Civic Center. When the building was completed in 1984, it was heralded by Architecture magazine as a structure “without precedent in our country,”99Allen Freeman, “City Beautiful Civic Center,” Architecture (December 1988), 82–85. Allen Freeman was the managing editor of Architecture magazine from 1976 to 1989, and senior editor of Preservation from 1990 to 2002 and of Landscape Architecture from 2002 to 2004. and identified by TheNew York Times as “the first building in the United States to be designed and constructed exclusively for the use of a major ballet institution.”1010Jennifer Dunning, “San Francisco Ballet Opens New Headquarters,” New York Times, December 17, 1983. Willis worked together with Michael Smuin, the ballet company’s director, to understand everything about a dancer’s life in order to create the perfect building.1111Michael Smuin, “Beverly Willis Oral History Project,” conducted by Lisa Rubens in 2006, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2008, 2–7; see also note 1, Willis oral history, 69–75. Structurally, the building relies on a truss system between floors to support the 2,400- to 4,800-square-foot spans free of columns for the dance studios. For Saitowitz, its architectural importance lay above all in the fact that “it didn’t mimic the buildings around it but came out of the program . . . like [an] abstraction and manifestation . . . of the idea of ballet.”1212Saitowitz, note 7, 29. Or, in Willis’s words, “solid and void, curve and plane play in constantly shifting light and shadows. The monumentality of the mass is softened by transparent layers that reveal an inner space of creative possibility, awaiting the birth of dance.”1313Willis, Invisible Images, 15. See also Built for Ballet: An American Original, directed by Tim Sakamoto, 2013, BWAF Film Library Series, vol. 3, DVD. Three decades after it opened, it still serves as a prototype for ballet buildings around the world.
Starting in the 1970s, Willis complemented her architectural practice with professional leadership, often holding positions never before held by a woman. As president of the California Council of the AIA, she instituted a committee structure that expedited major changes; as chair of the Federal Construction Council of the National Academy of Sciences, she worked with the construction directors of all federal agencies to streamline overlapping projects. As a convener of power networks, she was the first to bring together Northern California’s leading women, among them Dianne Feinstein, leading to the formation in the mid-1970s of Women’s Forum West, an organization to provide women with career opportunities and support. As a cultural visionary, Willis was a co-founder of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., from 1976 to 1980, for which she was honored in 2008 with the inauguration of its Beverly Willis Library.
After four decades of making and building, Willis stepped back to study and reflect on the theories, philosophies, and histories of architecture. In 1995, she founded the Architecture Research Institute (ARI), a cross-disciplinary think-tank for architectural and urban issues. The touchstone of ARI’s programs was “Rebuild Downtown Our Town (R.Dot),” a civic coalition created immediately after the September 11 attacks devoted to rebuilding Lower Manhattan.
She founded the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) in 2002 to combat the patriarchal culture of architecture and its persistent systems of exclusion, in practice and in history. Among its efforts to restore women into the historical narratives, BWAF created the online Dynamic National Archive of women practitioners, and produced documentary films, starting with “A Girl is a Fellow Here”: 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, written and directed by Willis, which premiered in 2009 at the Guggenheim Museum. Debuting at age eighty as a filmmaker, Willis created a sensation with her 18-minute documentary, which revealed a side of Frank Lloyd Wright that no other historian had investigated: namely, that Wright recognized women’s talents as architects and hired them. Willis subsequently collaborated on several other film endeavors, including Built for Ballet, An American Original, which traces the design and construction of the first building in the U.S. designed solely for ballet, as well as two additional shorts documenting her careers in art and architecture, respectively.
Willis believes that design is greater than any one building: it incorporates the complete fabric of our lives—what we see, touch, and experience on a daily basis. Similarly, designers belong to an environment that extends well beyond the office where they themselves have to be part of society’s decision making.