Susan Maxman (neé Abel) became in 1992 the first woman elected president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Her practice, for many years based in Philadelphia, has received acclaim for its user-centered, ecologically-conscious work. In addition, Maxman has enjoyed prominence as a public figure; she has received over fifty honors and awards from numerous organizations, including the American Institute of Architects, at the national, state, and local levels. In 2011, she was named by President Obama to the board of directors of the National Institute of Building Sciences.
Early Life and Education
Susan Abel (hereafter referred to as Maxman) was born in Columbus, Ohio, on December 30, 1938, one of three daughters of a middle-class couple. She was educated at the Columbus School for Girls in a community where it was assumed that women would stay at home, except for social events and charity work. Her father, Richard J. Abel, a businessman, was supportive and encouraging (though at times skeptical) of his daughter’s professional ambition. Her parents expected her to be a housewife like her mother, Gussie Seiden Abel, who enrolled in college without earning a degree. Gussie Abel wrote books in Braille, but she neither had a career nor sought one.11Based on a phone interview with the author, April 4, 2013. All personal details about Maxman’s early life and education are from this interview.
While growing up, Maxman did not know any women professionals, but nevertheless recalls wanting to become an architect from an early age. She was a good student in almost every subject. Her mother encouraged her drawing practice, though she was also careful to discourage Maxman from pursuing art as a career. In 1956, Maxman enrolled at Smith College and realized, in the all-women educational setting, that women were capable of succeeding in all disciplines. This notion would be challenged when she began to pursue architecture.22Maxman was a student at Smith College the year Betty Friedan surveyed her former Smith classmates, whose discontent as wives and mothers would greatly contribute to the material in Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963).
In the spring of 1958, after two years at Smith, Maxman married Leonard Frankel, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and transferred there to be with him. She remembers that when she expressed interest in Penn’s undergraduate architecture program, she was told that the program was “no place for women.” She enrolled in an art history program at Penn’s women’s college instead. After becoming pregnant a year later, in 1960, she left college without a degree, and within four years she was the mother of three children.
Leonard Frankel came from a traditional, well-to-do family where women were expected not to pursue careers. He was a partner in E. J. Frankel Enterprises, which became one of the largest real estate development companies in the country.33Lisa Ellis, “Leonard Frankel, 56, Partner in Major Development Company,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 2, 1992. In 1965, the couple commissioned a Philadelphia architect, Louis Sauer, to design for them a weekend home in New Jersey, an event that would be instrumental in Maxman’s decision to pursue architecture. As the client, she was highly involved in what turned out to be a very successful design process. Articles on the house were published in architecture magazines that same year.44Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Frankel House, Margate, N.J., Architectural Record (May 1971), 54–55.
After her marriage with Frankel dissolved, Maxman married William Maxman in 1971, and the two remained married until his death in 1997. Both spouses entered the relationship with three children each from their previous marriages.55Their family arrangement was not unlike the popular television show The Brady Bunch (1969–74), in which six children, three boys and three girls from each spouse’s previous marriage, are raised together. In fact, Maxman acknowledges the importance of the television show to the family’s ability to adapt to the new arrangement. The six children, ages four to ten, made the household a hub of activity. Their family arrangement was so unusual that Maxman remembers friends from Bryn Mawr who would come to study their household for sociological purposes.66Phone interview with author, April 4, 2013. After William Maxman’s death, in 2001 Susan Maxman married Rolf Sauer, a landscape architect.
Compared to her previous husband, Maxman found William “much more of a modern guy.”77Ibid. He was an encouraging intellectual partner and supported her pursuit of a career. All the children were in school when the couple married, and Maxman was able to begin work as an interior designer. Around that time, after reading a Time magazine feature on Louis Kahn, she was inspired to return to the University of Pennsylvania as his student. In 1972, Maxman was admitted to the School of Fine Arts on the condition that she complete remedial courses in physics and calculus. Despite discouraging comments from professors of these classes, she excelled.
Maxman was thirty years old and the mother of six when she enrolled in architecture school. Recalling the intense stress of the program, she said, “I felt like I was running every minute.”88Cheryl Weber, “Report from the Front: Are Women Architects Still Waging War against the Glass Ceiling?” Residential Architect, May 2007, 24–37. Her graduate class at the University of Pennsylvania was unprecedented for the number of women students attending; there were eleven in Maxman’s class, in contrast to past years, when there were usually about three women per sixty students. Maxman remembers her female professors, including Stanislawa (Siasia) Nowicki and Anne Tyng, being quite excited about the increased number of women students. Maxman’s age and experience gave her a different and more independent outlook on her education than that of her classmates. As a student, she challenged her professors’ ethos of “high design” in favor of a collaborative and socially engaged design process that gave priority to the needs of the community over the artistic expression of the architect. For her thesis project, Maxman designed a low-income housing complex, which she developed in conjunction with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and which evolved considerably as a result of her extensive community consultations. Her final project countered her professors’ belief that “there is no design in affordable housing.”99Phone interview with author, April 4, 2013.
Despite graduating with her master’s degree in architecture during a recession in 1977, Maxman cut through many of the trials young architects normally endure after entering the workforce. She gained enough experience in her first job, with Kopple Sheward and Day in Philadelphia, to pass the professional license exam in three years. She made quick progress despite minimal mentorship from supervisors and lower pay than her male colleagues.1010Ibid.
In 1980, only three years after completing her studies, Maxman founded Maxman/Sutphin Architects with Ann Sutphin, a former classmate at the University of Pennsylvania. The firm quickly outgrew their studio in Maxman’s house as they developed a client base through work that was primarily residential. The partners moved into a space that they renovated in Center City, Philadelphia. After five years together, Sutphin left the firm, and in 1985, Maxman became the sole proprietor of a growing company, now called “Susan Maxman Architects.”
Maxman acknowledged that her career as an architect was influenced by her gender, which, in her view, brought with it certain advantages and many disadvantages. For example, shortly after she started her practice, one client refused “to believe she was an architect until he saw the registration credentials in [her] office.”1111Ibid. However, she also received public-sector commissions as a certified Woman-Owned Business Enterprise. These experiences taught her the benefits of membership in professional organizations, such as the Women in Architecture group within the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which she joined beginning in the early 1980s. She later wrote:
I saw how women felt about the profession at the time, how hostile it was for them, and how downtrodden they were, I thought the best way to show them that you can do whatever you want if you want to do it hard enough is by example. You can get beyond the barriers and go forward and not think about being a woman, just about being the best you can be at something.1212Heather Livingston, “Doer’s Profile: Susan Maxman, FAIA,” AIA Architect (February 15, 2008). http://info.aia.org/aiarchitect/thisweek08/0215/0215dp.cfm
Maxman was frustrated with the negative attitudes among her female colleagues, which she perceived to be unproductive. To her, the most logical way to take on discrimination was to join and hold positions in professional organizations such as the AIA. As one of the only women in architecture in Philadelphia, Maxman was placed on the board of the Pennsylvania chapter of the AIA, even though she did not have any particular institutional aspirations at the time. After becoming president of the Pennsylvania State Society of Architects (the Pennsylvania chapter of AIA) in 1987, she was nominated to serve on the national board of the AIA. Maxman recalls male mentors in the organization who encouraged her ascent through the ranks and eventually pushed her to become the first female president of the organization:
A lot of men kept pushing me and saying that you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to run. It was never in my game plan at all to be President of the AIA. I just was not interested, though I was interested in promoting my ideas and trying to get the profession to look at things differently. I became interested when I talked to women architects around the country.1313Ibid.
One of Maxman’s goals as president was to make connections with members throughout the country, to learn about their concerns, and then attempt to address those issues. Unlike her predecessors, who focused on representing the American architect abroad, she spent considerable time traveling around the country, talking especially to women, and offering encouragement to those whom she felt lacked confidence.
Beyond her feat of breaking into the “boys’ club” of the AIA (which remains overwhelmingly male today1414“Gender and ethnic diversity continues to grow as 16% of all AIA members are female compared to 9% in 2000, and ethnic minorities now represent 10% of all AIA members compared to 7% in 2000,” according to The Business of Architecture: 2012 AIA Survey Report on Firm Characteristics, The American Institute of Architects (2012).), Maxman also actively advocated for sustainability and an ecological consciousness in design—concepts that had not yet entered mainstream practice in 1993.1515Michael Crosbie and Nancy Solomon, “New Directions in Project Delivery,” Architecture, May 1992: 87. Her views on design were influenced by speakers at the 1991 AIA convention who addressed energy conservation and material efficiency; these talks inspired her to change her approach to the building she was working on at the time, the Women’s Humane Society Animal Shelter in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. As president of the AIA (December 1992–December 1993), Maxman made sustainability the focus of the 1993 convention in Chicago, which was held in conjunction with the convention of the International Union of Architects in Chicago on the occasion of the centennial of the Columbian Exposition. That year, she presided over the largest gathering of architects to date, welcoming over four thousand professionals from across the nation and around the world.
Her position generated some resistance among women, however. While some architects praised Maxman as an inspiration and role model, others criticized her for giving women architects “pep talks” and not adequately addressing issues underlying gender inequality in architecture. A collective of architects in Chicago, the CARYATIDS (Chicks in Architecture Refuse to Yield to Atavistic Thinking in Design in Society), staged one of the strongest attacks during the 1993 convention in Chicago. The group, a splinter organization of the Chicago Women in Architecture, organized an exhibition, More Than the Sum of Our Body Parts, to demand greater action from the AIA to expand women’s opportunities in the profession.1616Correspondence shows Maxman and the CARYATIDS exchanging ideas, with Maxman asserting her belief that the committees and initiatives were enough, and that the status of women was improving within the profession. Their correspondence is held in the International Archive of Women in Architecture in Blacksburg, Virginia.
After the end of her term as president, Maxman continued to be a leading advocate of sustainability in architectural design. She was named to the Eco-Efficiency Task Force of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development and represented the architectural profession at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. She began to lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and was offered numerous speaking engagements throughout the country. She was also the founding leader of the environmental committee at the Urban Land Institute. In 2011, President Barack Obama named Maxman to the board of the National Institute of Building Sciences.
In her practice, Maxman was among the first to adopt computer modeling as a tool in the design concept to evaluate a building’s “ecological footprint.” She insists that in her career, she did not seek out projects focused on sustainability, but rather she sought out clients who valued sustainability and efficiency over purely aesthetic concerns. Still, many of her buildings employ recognizable or vernacular features in their design: square windows, pitched roofs, stone fireplaces, and symmetrical façades.
Throughout her career, her design work has ranged in scale and type, from renovations to new projects, prototypes, and joint development plans. One of the most notable projects, Camp Tweedale, was a camping facility for Girl Scouts outside of Philadelphia, which earned Susan Maxman Architects the AIA Honor Award in 1990. The design, with its cluster of wooden cabins around a central assembly hall, recalls camps of the early twentieth century. Large windows and French doors allow interaction between the indoors and outdoors, and exposed wood throughout the complex enhances the connection to the outdoors.1717Margaret Gaskie, “Winter Quarters: A Year-Round Cabin Complex Makes Camping an Event for All Seasons,” Architectural Record 178, no. 7 (July 1990): 64–67. At the scale of urban design, her firm produced in 1997 a model for manufactured housing that proposed changes to zoning laws to accommodate this new type of affordable housing.1818Susan A. Maxman and Muscoe Martin, “Manufactured Housing: Urban Design Project,” Urban Land 56 (March 1997): 49–51. Another innovative project was her renovation of the motherhouse of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisterhood (2001) in Monroe, Michigan; this work was widely publicized as an ecologically conscious plan to “fulfill the spiritual and moral mandate” of the sisterhood by installing advanced systems such as geothermal heating and cooling system.1919Jerry Rackley, “Geothermal System Helps Sisters Fulfill Spiritual, Moral Mandate,” Geo Outlook online, 2007. http://www.igshpa.okstate.edu/pdf_files/publications/outlook_articles/premier/convent.pdf
Susan Maxman Architects has received more than 65 awards, including 14 AIA design awards and 14 honors commending environmental responsibility.2020Susan Maxman, New Biographies of Former AIA Presidents, American Institute of Architects. http://www.aia.org/about/AIAB096648#P492_99713 Beyond the firm’s accolades, Maxman’s political and architectural career has been widely celebrated. Maxman has been selected as juror for more than 30 competitions and design juries, including the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. She was inducted to the AIA College of Fellows (1991) and made an honorary fellow of both the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and La Federación de Colegios de Arquitectos de la República Méxicana (1993). She holds honorary doctorates from Ball State University (1993) and the University of Detroit Mercy (1997). In addition, Maxman was honored with the Mayor’s Commendation from the City of Philadelphia (1993), named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania (1995), and was presented with a Shattering the Glass Ceiling Award by the Women’s National Democratic Club (1993).
In 2011, Maxman retired from Susan Maxman Architects in order to enjoy retirement in Elbow Cay, the Bahamas. There, she lives with her husband Rolf Sauer, a landscape architect she married in 2001, in a house of her own design.