The most striking thing about Marianne Kwok, 50, the design team leader for the massive Hudson Yards project in Manhattan—KPF’s part of the job includes the master plan and two commercial towers rising 1,227 and 895 feet—is that she’s not the only woman at the table. “I try for a 50–50 mix,” she says of her team, and mentions that she’s also seeing more diversity on the client’s side: “It’s great to see more and more women at the table at these big development firms.” Note that the project is considered the baby of KPF founding design partner Bill Pedersen, FAIA. “He sets the design direction,” says Kwok, “but it’s very much a collaboration and a team dynamic.” Or, as Pedersen frames it, “Marianne is superb at getting everybody involved and allowing everybody to contribute in a way where they feel meaningful to the project.”
I ask Kwok, who has designed tall buildings all over the world, whether it bothers her that no one says, “That’s a Kwok tower.” She replies, “No, not at all. I’m not that kind of person.” At KPF, she adds, “I don’t think that any of us need that. There’s such satisfaction in seeing a contribution to the skyline. It doesn’t need to be a Marianne Kwok building.”
In her response, Kwok, who cuts a stylish figure in a slim black tunic and cropped pants, offers insight into one mystery about women in the profession: Why they are generally invisible when it comes to major architecture awards, even though they are increasingly pivotal within large firms. After nearly 20 years at KPF, Kwok has the skills and experience to oversee a hugely complex $20 billion undertaking, a development erected on a deck over active railyards, without having the ego to claim it as her own.
After Kwok got her graduate degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in the early 1990s, her story began like that of many young female architects: She took on small-scale projects with her architect husband, John Ostlund, in her hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. But the city was too sleepy then for her ambitions, and she didn’t believe she and her husband could achieve the “balance” necessary for a stable professional partnership. Instead they moved to New York and, through friends at KPF, Kwok landed a job. Her first projects were modest ones, a three-story building in Wisconsin, an art gallery in South Korea.
“And then I started working in London, and the scale got bigger.” In school, she says, no one discussed the set of skills associated with the design of tall buildings. For example, no one taught her the art of configuring elevators. She theorizes that because they don’t learn how to design skyscrapers in school, “fewer women gravitate toward firms to do towers.” Kwok, for her part, finds the design of towers, like the 1,378-foot-tall Suzhou International Fortune Plaza tower she worked on in China, “exhilarating.”
“When I first started here, I never imagined it would be [for] so long,” she says. “But you start working on a project and it’s super interesting, and the next one comes along.” Kwok found mentors who helped her stay in the game while having two children. Today, she’s one of six female directors at KPF (out of a total of 27); 209 of the firm’s 629 employees worldwide are women. She argues that if you give women challenging work, they’ll be much more likely to return after childbirth: “You look at that little face. It’s impossible to tear yourself away,” she says, and pauses. “Unless there’s something really compelling to go back to.”
Other Emerging Women Architects: