The Women of Woods Bagot: Architects Building New Futures

Building more equitable futures begins with community. For international practice Woods Bagot, the firm's three US studios are now each run by women, and their combined leadership is creating more inclusive and dynamic designs that rethink past traditions. Each Director has taken the reins before the global pandemic was underway, and now the trio is working to rethink how the practice can address diverse challenges in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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Confidential Client. Image Courtesy of Woods Bagot

Vivian Lee, FAIA, the New York studio Executive Director, joined the firm in February, a week before the city closed down. Maureen Boyer, AIA, was appointed to the same position in San Francisco in July, while Christiana Kyrillou, AIA, the Woods Bagot veteran, has risen through the ranks and opened the LA studio at the beginning of the year. In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, the three architects discuss their design inspirations and challenges, as well as what it's like to practice today.

Why did you each choose to study architecture?

Christiana: I grew up in a small village in Cyprus with traditional homes, some of which were made of mud bricks.  As a kid I would go around the neighborhood looking at buildings with my scale and my pencil, and try to capture them on a piece of paper. Growing up, I saw the traditional homes disappear as my village became a tourist resort and they became service apartments or hotels, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. The character of the streets I had walked to school disappeared, and the experience of the town square and village center vanished.  I became interested in capturing the cultural evolution of architecture through different stages, and in creating new experiences that endure and reflect a sense of place.

That’s what made me want to become an architect! I studied both Architecture and Historic Preservation with the intention of going back to Cyprus and joining the preservation movement. Instead, I joined SOM,  where I discovered mixed use tall towers which transformed my career and took me along a different journey.  I still appreciate older buildings – preservation, renovation, repurposing. You have to respect and cherish the old, learn from it, and then find a way to have it coexist with the new.

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BET. Image © Aydin Arjomand

When you were in high school Christiana, did you want to study architecture?

Yes, it was clear in mind when discussing my career options with my counsellor that’s what I wanted to be. I grew up in a traditional family, where women are not meant to aspire to careers but rather focus on home and family. With the support of my sisters, and seeing how focused I was and how hard I was studying, my dad helped make my dream a reality.

Vivian: I lived in Paraguay during my elementary school years. In third grade, I found my calling when I handed in my homework assignment about the sun's orientation. I had drawn with a floor plan showing room layouts that captured the sun and natural light. My teacher said, "Wow, this is really great. You might want to think about becoming an architect." When you are a kid, and a grown-up tells you something, it sticks. I have always been fascinated by how humans inhabit buildings.

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75 Park Lane. Image © Chris Cooper

Back then, my family lived in a primitive house with one single faucet. We drew water from a well, gravity-fed it from a tank with a hose through a hole in the wall. Every day, my dad went with a bucket to a nearby creek to get fresh water.  We had no other plumbing and used an outhouse. That experience made me aware that people can live sustainably, with very few resources, and use creative solutions to design a built environment.

I consider myself very fortunate because I always knew what I wanted to do. Coming to the United States, I charted my path to architecture.  To date, I have peers who are asking themselves if they are going to continue practicing. Still, I never doubted my decision despite all the challenges this profession encountered over the years.

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SFO Terminal 1 Boarding Area B (BAB). Image © Joe Fletcher

Maureen: Your stories are so different from mine. I was born and raised in Southern California to a pretty affluent family.  As was pretty typical for that time, I was the first person in my family to go to college. I was always artistic, dreaming, painting and sketching but never thought about architecture as a career. A lot of very modern houses were being built in my neighborhood. As kids, we’d go into the houses under construction. We weren't supposed to, but the builders turned a blind eye. Even as a kid, I knew which houses made me feel better, understood how deeply impacted I was by space.

I took an architecture class in college and absolutely loved it. I had found my calling. As you both have said, I knew it was absolutely the right choice. There was a point where I said to myself, this will be really fun but I'll probably never be an architect, will I? Will I? But you get your first couple of jobs and then you realize, oh my gosh, I'm qualified to take the exams. I've been through tough times in my career, but it's always sustained me.

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SFO Terminal 1 Boarding Area B (BAB). Image © Joe Fletcher

Vivian: Over 15 years ago, I worked on a new performing arts high school for gifted kids in Queens. During the design phase, the students invited our team to the end of the year show at their old school. After the performance, they all got up on the stage and thanked the architects for designing their new home. Even now I get emotional when I think about how these students recognized the positive contributions we were making in their lives.

Maureen: I'm extremely aware of, and profoundly affected, by places where I feel something new and important.  When I walk into Grand Central Station, for example, my life is being enriched.  A meaningful space can be a home, a room, a courtyard. Scale doesn't matter. But it's nothing to do with our gender.  We want to be recognized as architects first, and women second.  While we're proud of being women leaders, we're wary of tokenism.

Vivian: I completely agree. What do we bring to the table is not contingent on being female.

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Vivian Lee, FAIA. Image Courtesy of Woods Bagot

What are some recent projects you've each been working on at Woods Bagot?

Vivian: The New York studio just completed a pair of residential buildings in Newport, New Jersey called Park and Shore. The amenities and views are out of this world! It's actually the first condo building in Newport since the financial crisis of 2008. Tribeca Rogue is compact but muscular apartment building in Tribeca that's been winning awards, and was covered in ArchDaily! One of our specialties is adaptive reuse. We are putting the finishing touches on Gramercy Park, the complicated conversion of a former hospital to a four-building apartment building in a historic Manhattan neighborhood.

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SFO Terminal 1 Boarding Area B (BAB). Image © Joe Fletcher

Maureen: On the west coast, we have a new residential building at 2177 Third St., in the Dogpatch area of San Francisco. We designed it to maximize light, air, and nature. From the street, you can see right through the building to the bay. It also has a huge living wall that's already a neighborhood landmark. We were the lead interior designer of the Harvey Milk Terminal at SFO, a 25-gate concourse designed to elevate the passenger experience with high ceilings, abundant natural light, intuitive wayfinding, art galleries, integrated technology, comfortable furnishings and food halls. Woods Bagot collaborated with HKS on this design-build project, led by Austin Commercial & Webcor Builders Joint Venture.

Woods Bagot is a global studio, so designers can work on projects anywhere in the world.  We share expertise, so every client has access to the firm's cumulative knowledge.

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Maureen Boyer, AIA. Image Courtesy of Woods Bagot

Nearly half of all architecture students are women, but they make up about 20 percent of licensed architects and 17 percent of partners or principals in architecture firms. What accounts for the disparity?

Maureen: It's a long and arduous program of study. There are other professions where you make more money. Construction is still a male dominated industry and let's face it, construction is a really important part of what we do.  When you get to that part where you're actually building your building, some women may fall off.  I had a call today with a contractor - a real hard boiled, blustery construction dude. But you have to find common ground with somebody like that. We've all come across that kind of crusty old guy who tries to intimidate you. You either get used to it and rise to that challenge, or you say, there's probably other things I could do where I wouldn't have to deal with those types of men. What do you think?

Vivian: I think this is where mentorship and being a role model is so important for the future generation of women architects. I'm really proud to say, being the Co-Chair of the AIA New York Chapter Women in Architecture Committee for the last 2 1/2 years has been meaningful. It's something I truly believe in. I see the difference that I'm making in mentorship, panels, and discussions that bring people together and build a support system. And you know, Christiana, you're going to do the same in your new role on the Board of Directors at the AIA Los Angeles. It's a great organization.

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2177 Third St, San Francisco. Image © Scott Hargis

Sexism is still prevalent in architecture, but less and less. It's about building alliances between men and women. We need to let young women know we are here to support them when they take a stand.  

One of the main reasons women used to drop out of the profession was inflexible work hours. But COVID is changing that. We can now work from home, manage our schedule, and stay connected with the team, clients, and consultants remotely.  There is a silver lining to the pandemic: we are finding more flexible ways to collaborate. This paradigm shift will have a profound impact on the pipeline of women architects. Once, unfortunately, women had to choose between picking up their kids and staying in the office to work. Of course, the family would come first, and their team members or clients might not understand when you have to leave. I hear this from women constantly. But now, everyone is working from home.

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The Amberly. Image © David Sundberg

Maureen: It’s really important to tell our stories about being a professional. I don't want to hear a man talk about how he met a challenge on a construction site to the same extent I’m interested in how a woman deals with situations. It's incredibly valuable for young women in our profession to hear our experiences as well as those of our male colleagues.

I was working in Singapore on a big construction project and we were having a really hard time with another one of these hard boiled project manager types.  I was in my early 30s, and he was on the  late side of 50.  I scheduled weekly meetings with the guy. I was sick to my stomach before each meeting because I knew he’d chew me up and spit me out. Talk about meeting your fear! But this was my job. I had to advocate for my team and for our vision.  I bet you both have had similar experiences -- those moments when you really had to confront your deepest fear and all your feelings of inadequacy. Those stories are really important to be able to share. 

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Christiana Kyrillou, AIA. Image Courtesy of Woods Bagot

What are some concrete changes we can make, as an industry and as a society, to achieve gender equality?

Building alliances with men
Telling, and listening to, women's stories
Ensuring flexible work schedule

Christiana: We still have a long way to go, because by nature women are caregivers. We choose to give birth to children: that's a natural instinct for most women.  We should recognize that care-giving also is becoming more important to men, and at other levels beyond children.

How do we help women get there?  By making sure that they can speak up rather than shy away; by supporting them in seizing a seat at the table.  We all want permission at times, but it's recognizing that you don't need that permission to do whatever will take you to the next level. You don't need an invitation to the table. You don't need permission to express yourself and find your voice and contribute in the firm’s vision, decisions and future direction. Maureen and I were talking earlier about how quiet some of the architects were about as simple a thing as a holiday celebration. Speaking up and being vocal might not propel you to principal or to a partner, but it increases your confidence, your engagement, your visibility. It makes you more confident to get more engaged, to get you speaking more with your colleagues and participating and contributing in the firm. Participation is important if you want to get to that next level. 

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75 Park Lane. Image Courtesy of Woods Bagot

Vivian: I want to emphasize we are not just women leaders; we are leaders, period.  We lead our entire studio -- not just the women. We are leaders because of our empathy, our experience, our grit.

Maureen: Exactly! And we don't want to just be leaders, we want to be great leaders. We are all three passionate and driven. I don't think there's anybody better suited than we are because we're thoughtful. We give a damn. We're lucky to work for an organization that places empathy as one of its core values. Notwithstanding the terrible business climate we're going to do it together, because we care.

Christiana: COVID brought us together to leverage each other’s strengths, and our staff’s strengths.  We can’t do this alone. By understanding the stress our staff is under, that our business is under we can support and learn from each other and stay positive and forward thinking. By having transparent conversations, leaning on each other and having each other’s back we will drive the business out of the recession.

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Confidential Client. Image Courtesy of Woods Bagot

As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?

Maureen: The other really important challenge that we need to talk about is climate change. The COVID crisis will end but global warming will not unless we as architects take action. Our industry accounts for so much of the waste. We have a fundamental responsibility.

Vivian: The culture is so important in moving forward during tough times. At Woods Bagot, it is about empathy, sustainability, design, equity, diversity. We agree it is hard to build and sustain a positive culture with all that's happening. We need to cultivate mutual respect. As leaders, we need to set an example and remain strong. We need to support our staff, and we would like them to support us!

Christiana: That's very, very well said, Maureen and Vivian. Our shared belief that we can grow our studios and our staff based on these values is what Woods Bagot is all about.

About this author
Cite: Eric Baldwin. "The Women of Woods Bagot: Architects Building New Futures" 17 Dec 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Tribeca Rogue. Image © Matthew Ziegler Photo Inc.


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