Madame Architect, the platform dedicated to the built environment and to the empowerment, advancement, and visibility of the women who work in it, has just reached a milestone, publishing over 250 interviews with the females who shape our world. “Designed to break the architect’s mold”, the website was founded 3 years ago by Julia Gamolina, an architect that shaped her own path in the field, becoming Director of Strategy at Trahan Architects, focusing on the business, its development, growth, and evolution.
Archdaily's Christele Harrouk had the chance to speak to Julia Gamolina, Founder, Editor-in-Chief of Madame Architect, and one of Professional Women in Construction's "20 Under 40", to discuss her career choices, the online magazine, the business of architecture and communication.
Read on to discover more about Julia's work, Madame Architect, and the platform's latest venture.
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Julia Gamolina: Madame Architect is an online destination about, for, and by the extraordinary women that shape our world. We feature a variety of content – from feature profiles and daily routines, to essays and advice. We also have a growing team! Amy Stone and Gail Kutac are editors who conduct their own interviews, Kate Reggev is our historical columnist, Kate Mazade is our critic, and Nina Cooke John is our urban experience storyteller. Finally, Nashwah Ahmed most recently joined us as an editorial assistant. I’m excited that women are interviewing and celebrating other women, and that others have a dedicated space to voice their expertise.
Madame Architect started from two themes that have been constant in my life from early on – writing and mentorship. I always loved writing, and up until architecture school, the practice had been a significant part of my identity. Once I graduated, I was actively looking to reintegrate it into my daily life. Mentorship had been something I always sought out as well, having gone to my teachers and professors for guidance. When that built-in system of mentorship no longer existed once I was out in the world – it does at bigger firms, but I was working for boutique firms where women were a minority if they worked there at all – I sought it out very intentionally by attending events in the city. Once I met a number of amazing women and was feeling so energized by our conversations, I just thought to myself, “I have to share this.” Since I loved writing so much, the interview format was a natural step, and everything really took off from there!
AD: What would the ultimate purpose of Madame Architect be?
The ultimate purpose of Madame Architect is to bring attention and exposure to how many brilliant women there are who are transforming the field, and, by doing so, providing role models for young women considering a career in architecture. There are so many women, all doing different and unique things, and for too long they have been under the radar.
JG: Our purpose has been evolving the more and more interviews we’ve done. We have just launched a series of interviews with men, and are integrating these conversations into the platform. The purpose for this is to make sure that the transformation of our industry for the better doesn’t rest on the shoulders of women and minorities – that is a huge responsibility and expectation, and one that everyone should be striving for. So, we are not just interviewing men for the sake of interviewing men. We are interviewing men in ways they haven’t been before – by asking them about who helped them along the way, who they mentor and how they choose who they mentor, what their biggest challenges have been, how they integrate their identity as architects with their identities as fathers and caregivers, and more. Everyone should be having these kinds of conversations, not just women.
AD: You have officially profiled over 250 women for the site. How did you pick these voices? What are the main criteria behind these featured women? What can you tell us about the diversity of the selection?
JG: The criteria have evolved over these past three years. At first, I was interviewing women who had achieved leadership positions at prominent firms, asking them how they got there. Shortly thereafter, I integrated interviewing women earlier in their career, who weren’t looking back at it all perhaps, but were in the trenches, talking about how they were starting firms and families, in real-time. Then, the criteria evolved to feature women who were leading the charge on really new and interesting things in the industry, and professionals who were often underrepresented in design publications – women focusing on communications, on business development, on journalism. Now, the main driver is variety, in every sense of the word – variety of focus, origin, background, race, age, and more. We want to make sure every new interview that we publish is a fresh new take on the field of architecture, and what one can do in it.
AD: Along the 3 years of Madame Architect and your long career, did you find recurring themes and subjects that a lot of these women brought up? Can you recognize global headlines? What would those be?
JG: The number one theme that I see is the advice given by the people I’ve interviewed to those starting their careers, which is to be open to interesting opportunities and to not be afraid not to follow the “traditional” architect-designer path that has been modeled to us all for so long.
The truth is that our interviewees have found so much meaning and satisfaction in doing a variety of things, and in having their careers unfold in unexpected ways, that I’m really optimistic for the future of architecture and in people “practicing” it in myriad ways. There are a lot of choices out there.
AD: What is your most cherished conversation(s) on the website? And why is that?
JG: I truly love them all – everyone has such unique experiences and has shared them so generously, that it can be really hard to choose. Some that stand out currently are our interviews with Anooshey Rahim, Suchi Reddy, Alice Shay, Sharon Prince, Kelsey Keith, and Jean Brownhill. All of these people have either started new and unique entities – a tech start-up, a human rights foundation, a new landscape architecture firm – or have brought together things in a new way in their focus on the built environment.
AD: What is also your favorite memory with Madame Architect?
JG: I love this question – I haven’t thought about this before! I will never forget coming up with the title “Madame Architect.” I remember very clearly spinning on my office chair, in this office nook I had in an old apartment, trying to come up with a name. This was in 2017, and what was on everyone’s mind at that time, in the United States? “Madame President.” Unfortunately, we did not get to have our first female president – we will get there – but I think having heard “Madame President” across the media that year so much, I remember “Madame Architect” coming to me rather quickly. It was so easy, and I named the series then and there, without considering any other option.
AD: Do you believe when referencing an architect who happens to be a woman, should we still emphasize her gender, or in other terms use the word “women architect”? Or should we switch to just saying "architect"?
JG: You know, this is so interesting and I’m glad that you ask this. For the most part, what I’ve heard from the women that I’ve spoken to, is that they do not want the word “woman” in front of the word “architect” when they are being referred to – they just want to be presented as an architect, period. That being said, I have come across some that want it to be known that they are a woman architect and that this identity and experience is something they are proud of and that adds to their practice as an architect. I think it's nuanced and it depends on which context you are saying what in, and also the preference.
AD: You have a background in architecture, but on a daily basis, you work more in business development, strategy, and communication. How did you do this shift in your career, from a rigid traditional architectural path to a more open and multidisciplinary journey?
JG: The shift was certainly gradual. I’ve always loved getting to know new people and making new friends – you have to learn to love this moving around as much as I have – and I also loved writing, as I mentioned. I started to find that when I worked as a designer and was spending my days in AutoCAD, Rhino, and Photoshop, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to attend a client meeting, or even to write an email. One time, I took an email I wrote to a client, to one of my early mentors, Vivian Lee, and asked her to mark it up. I remember her saying, “It’s so interesting to me that you’re not bringing me a drawing set to mark up; you’re bringing me a piece of writing!”
I knew I wanted to integrate writing into my career and that thought kept coming up more and more as my career progressed. Then eventually, a firm I was working for hired a new Director of Communications, who was this German Art Historian, Aurelia Rauch. I was fascinated with her and wanted to learn from her, so offered to help with all things communications when my project was on a lull. That experience really opened my eyes to the full lifecycle of a project – not just its design, but then its promotion, its features in media, its life post-occupancy. After that experience, I knew that I wanted to be exposed to the business development and communications sides of the business, so I sought some experiences in these realms, and eventually, put it all together in a Director of Strategy position.
AD: Why is it important for an architect to be versatile? What would you advise be for the younger generation?
JG: The importance of being versatile is crucial to both the work architects produce, and the businesses they run. Architects ultimately design for people’s daily lives, and aiming to get to know as much about these lives and ways of living, as possible, will result in more relevant and richer projects.
The more architects can accumulate skills that are about running a business and telling a compelling story about who they are, what their work stands for, and who they choose to partner with, the better the work will be as well.
AD: You had countless conversations with people in the field. Personally, how do you perceive the future of architecture? Generally speaking and specifically for women: those who are building these spaces and those who are living in these spaces.
JG: I’m really optimistic in that I see the scope of architecture, and the way to practice it, continuing to expand. In terms of the future of architecture, generally speaking, I’m excited to see the redefinition of successful and impressive architecture. I moved to New York during the birth of the “supertall” building boom, which is certainly a feat of engineering, but not exactly a feat for public or accessible architecture. I’d love to see clients and architects prioritize things like the Oslo Opera House, which is both shelter and landscape, both a celebration of art and daily life. For women, I see the future of architecture being much kinder and more open to them, and I love that Madame Architect is taking a part in this. For people that get to enjoy the spaces we create, I know that we as an industry will make sure that more people get to, with our focus on landscape, public space, arts and culture, and community.