February 24, 2015

100 sites, 5 boroughs, and countless female builders

The Brooklyn Bridge, whose lead engineers received significant support from Emily Warren Roebling. Photgraphed by Libby Farley.
Engineers of the Brooklyn Bridge were guided in many ways by Emily Warren Roebling. Photgraphed by Libby Farley.

This past December, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) announced the winners of its inaugural Built by Women New York City (BxW NYC) competition, which aims to bring greater visibility to the role of women in our city’s built environment. Through this competition, a jury selected 100 outstanding structures and environments that were crafted by teams led by women in architecture, landscape, engineering, and construction.

The truth, of course, is that women have played key (and, often in the past, uncelebrated) roles on many recognizable structures throughout the city. This becomes palpably clear through the list of selected projects in the BxW NYC competition. The awareness this competition will catalyze adds a delightful layer of understanding to both the historic and contemporary buildings that we encounter in our 5-borough rambles.

Over 130 years ago, Emily Warren Roebling was a critically important participant in completing the Brooklyn Bridge, a structure that figures prominently in almost everyone’s eyes as a source of inspiration. Because of her role, Roebling is now known as the “first woman field engineer.” Even further back, in 1643, Lady Deborah Moody founded Gravesend, a colonial settlement whose town square can still be found embedded in the city’s street plan. She received an Urban Planning award from BxW NYC. More recently completed, though still in the category of celebrating under-recognized women in our architectural history, are two notable corporate structures in Manhattan by former SOM “senior designer” Natalie de Blois: 270 Park (the Union Carbide Building) and 500 Park (the Pepsi Cola Headquarters).

Sephardic Community Center. Photographed by Jeff Totaro.
Sephardic Community Center. Photographed by Jeff Totaro.

Overall, the BxW NYC awards and BWAF’s related programming will contribute to the cultural shift happening in architectural practice today. A wide variety of contemporary projects by women can easily be found across all of New York’s boroughs, including the Queens Botanical Garden Visitor & Administration Center, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Sephardic Community Center on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, and the ongoing renovations and developments for Staten Island’s Freshkills Park. (Full disclosure, my partners at BKSK Architects, Joan Krevlin and Julie Nelson, were responsible for two of these.) Those listed here represent a few that I have visited personally; in the warmer weeks to come, I intend to see many more of the BxW NYC award-winning projects.

Queens Botanical Garden Visitor & Administration Center. Photographed by Jeff Goldberg/ESTO.
Queens Botanical Garden Visitor & Administration Center. Photographed by Jeff Goldberg/ESTO.

In each of these projects, there is evidence that a diverse team worked together to build an elegant and often complex urban solution. Programs like BxW NYC showcase not only these achievements but also the people behind them. Most poignant, perhaps, is the message that these programs provide to both aspiring and emerging professionals: architecture holds opportunities for recognition, professional fulfillment, and multifaceted success, regardless of gender.

To further promote women within the building industry, the BWAF teams with organizations such as the local chapter of the AIA’s Women in Architecture Committee, which is supporting an upcoming exhibition of the BxW NYC winners. Hosted at the Center for Architecture, the exhibition will open on March 2 and run through April in honor of Woman’s History Month. Related future events will include activities at the 100 BxW NYC sites themselves, as well as panel discussions, walking tours, and other programming.

In all of its initiatives, the BWAF is working to change the culture of the building industry so that women’s work from all periods and geographies is acknowledged, respected, and valued. To support the BWAF mission or get involved in upcoming events, such as their Leadership Awards Gala on February 26, visit bwaf.org.

This post originally appeared in Crain’s 5boros. To read the piece as originally published, and a variety of other content about the dynamic neighborhoods of New York City, visit Crain’s 5boros online.