Beverly Willis, FAIA, an American architect renowned for her commitment to elevating female design professionals, has died at the age of 95 in Branford, Conn., following complications from Parkinson’s disease. Throughout a career spanning 65 years, Willis's achievements included several notable projects and leadership positions, but her labor went beyond shaping America's built environment. Disturbed by female invisibility in architectural history, Willis also helped mold professional architecture practice in the United States by highlighting accomplishments of, and advocating for, women in the building industry.
When asked why we should talk about the role of women in the architecture profession, Willis told ARCHITECT that "cutting-edge form and large projects have a place in architecture, but I believe most women are more concerned about society as a whole. Thousands of small interventions can make our cities a better place to live, while an occasional iconic, monumental structure does not. And then on the business level, there are more women executives today than ever before. These women are in the position to commission large projects, [and] I don't believe a single-sex team will make the grade."
Born on Feb. 17, 1928, in Tulsa, Okla., Willis was one of 200 women attending the University of Southern California in 1945. Shortly after, Willis studied aeronautical engineering at Oregon State University and, in 1955, she earned a B.A. in art from the University of Hawaii. After working as an independent artist for a decade, Willis founded her own San Francisco–based architectural firm in 1966 highlighting the potential of adaptive reuse throughout her practice and completing one of her best-known designs—the San Francisco Ballet Building—in 1983. In 1971, Willis also pioneered computer programming in firms with Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis, aka CARLA, a software developed in-house. Today, 13 of Willis's architectural designs are in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and her full archive of drawings resides in the Virginia Tech libraries.
In 2002, after 36 years of leading her eponymous firm, Willis noticed that architectural historians and textbooks often overlooked trailblazing female practitioners. "I looked back and realized that the arbiters of architecture culture had systemically overlooked some of the great women architects of my mid–20th century era," Willis told ARCHITECT in 2007. Aiming to correct this glaring omission, Willis founded the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, initially a database aimed at honoring the contributions of female design professionals.
"Recovering the stories of women architects is a greater gift to future generations than the singular preservation of my own legacy," Willis explained to ARCHITECT. "It's a living legacy, if you will."
Willis hoped that the foundation would emphasize why the building industry needed a multitude of perspectives to build "a better environment for everyone," she said. "If we incorporate the ideas of the many over the visions of the few, we will create, in my opinion, a much more equitable and humanistic environment for everyone. And, really, shouldn't that be the profession's larger ethical goal?"
In the years since its founding, BWAF has expanded its reach, advocating for and fostering female contributions to the built environment.
Willis also advocated for the rights of women in the building industry, penning an opinion piece with Julia Donoho, AIA, for ARCHITECT in 2018 after multiple women accused the Pritzker Prize laureate Richard Meier, FAIA member emeritus, of sexual harassment.
"I became interested in the topic of sexual misconduct when I was trying to understand why many women were dropping out of the design field within their first 10 years of practice," Willis wrote with Donoho. "These were young and talented women who had excelled in architecture school. They were also vulnerable. Recent headlines have made it clear how prevalent sexual misconduct can be when powerful men hold the keys to a person’s career and advancement. There have been too few consequences and too much looking away."
In addition to many professional accolades—Willis was elected the first female president of the California Chapter of The American Institute of Architects in 1979 and received the chapter's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017—Willis also co-founded the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1980.
Willis is survived by her spouse, Wanda Bubrisk. Willis's work is also highlighted in Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism, an exhibition on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.