An Interview with Architect Wendy Evans Joseph

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with Architect Wendy Evans Joseph

December 21, 2005

During her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), Wendy Evans Joseph followed a friend into an architecture studio and was hooked. "I loved the energy, the creativity, the drawings and model building," she says.

She subsequently earned a bachelor design of the environment from Penn (1977), spent a year working in the field, and decided she needed a broader perspective on the field that could only be attained with more education. She received her master of architecture degree with distinction from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1981.

Ms. Evans Joseph spent roughly ten years in with a well-established architecture firm, as well honing her craft for nearly two years at the American Academy in Rome. She didn't necessarily intend to leave the firm where she spent the first decade-plus of her work life. But the challenge of having two young children and a terminally ill husband suddenly demanded more flexibility in her work life.

She teamed with a college friend to work sporadically for a two-year period, then with two major commissions in 1996, she established New York-based Wendy Evans Joseph Architecture. The rest, as they say, is history. Ms. Evans Joseph's firm has worked on projects ranging from institutional to commercial to residential, with projects of note including the Rockefeller University Pedestrian Bridge & Plaza, numerous museums including The Women's Museum in Dallas, hotels, and an acclaimed home observatory project in Ghent, N.Y. For more details on the firm's projects, click here.

A fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Ms. Evans Joseph is currently the president of The Architectural League of New York and has served as the president of the New York State AIA chapter and chairman of the national AIA committee on design; she is also actively involved with a lengthy list of cultural and professional boards and organizations. In addition, she frequently serves as a jury member for various architecture and design competitions and acts as a speaker at both the academic and professional level.

Ms. Evans Joseph has received numerous awards and recognition for her architectural design work, as well as extensive media coverage. With her breadth of experience working with both students and professionals, she offers the following advice to prospective architecture students: "Pace yourself. Keep a broad perspective. Be inquisitive. Spend time in the studio testing ideas. Try and discover your own voice. Don't model yourself after any architect or professor."

You & Your Career

Tell us about your career in the field of architecture. How did you build on your experiences with other firms to establish your own business?

I worked for Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (PCF) from 1981 until 1993, with the exception of the nearly two years I spent in Rome at the American Academy. There I worked on large-scale public buildings and master planning studies in the United States and abroad.

At the PCF office, I learned how to begin design projects: meet with clients, come up with initial ideas and present them in a way make them compelling. I learned how to work with large teams of people, to respect consultants and how to gain knowledge from them. I learned about quality, the importance of detailing and how materials can best be put together. I learned to be honest about the design process so that everyone – client, contractor, consultants – is on-board together.

What led you to do establish your own firm?

I didn't necessarily plan to leave the PCF office, but after I had two children in quick succession, my husband became terminally ill, so I needed a flexible schedule. I opened a small practice with a college friend, and worked sporadically for about two years with him and his partner doing mostly residential projects and small offices in the New York area. In 1996, I was fortunate to get the commissions for two large projects, an 80,000-square-foot museum in Texas and a long-span pedestrian bridge in New York City. It was with these two projects that I founded my own firm; for the first four years, the museum and the bridge were the only projects that I worked on.

What types of architecture projects do you specialize in?

I don't specialize in any building type. I take projects with clients who have a unique vision and want to work with me. I have done two boutique hotels and a few museums and exhibitions, but the rest of the work is varied in scale and type. Many of my projects are renovations of historic buildings. If my clients have future needs, they come back to me for the next project. This is very rewarding.

Describe a typical day (or week) of work for you. What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities?

I have a small firm, so I wear many hats. I travel for work about three or four days a month depending on what projects we have. I design all the projects and am involved in product selection, but I discuss all things openly with the others. On a typical day, I talk with clients, look for new work, write proposals, work on award applications, make drawings, answer and write e-mails, work on contracts and work with the professional and cultural organizations that I am involved with. I work every day from 9 in the morning until 6 or 7 at night, usually eating lunch at my desk.

It has never been my style to work under pressure of deadlines. I work a few hours on the weekend, mostly catching up on letters and making design sketches by hand. I am married and have four children (an 11-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl of my own, and two stepsons in their 20s). My family is important to me and I make sure that there is enough time at home with them. At times, I do things with my children at their school.

What are the most challenging aspects of running your own firm?

Finances. I find it difficult to keep the cash flow even. It's hard to gage how much work will come in and how long it will take to do it. My brother is lawyer and helps me with my contracts, which makes it easier.

What are the most rewarding aspects of running your own firm?

I love when my clients call and tell me how much they love what I have done for them. For the public work, it's really fabulous to get letters or calls from people who I don't know saying that they really like the work. For the hotel that I did at the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla., I am always moved when people recount to me how much they enjoyed staying there and how well the design goes with the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture.

Who (or what) were the biggest inspirations for your career?

Both of the partners that I worked with at the Pei Cobb Freed office were inspirational - Harry Cobb and James Freed. They both taught me a lot about the ethical practice of architecture and how keep creativity as a primary objective, no matter how complex a building is or how difficult the parameters. My colleagues, ex-classmates and architect friends are always willing to give advice and lend a hand. This camaraderie is very strong in New York, and makes it that much nicer to practice here.

What projects rank among your favorites?

It seems that my projects are like my children and I can't choose a favorite. I will say that the observatory was the least stressful and the purest in terms of the program, the open site and the supportive client (who is now my husband) made this a very special opportunity.

What are the tools of the trade you use the most?

I love to draw with pencils. Usually we scan these drawings into the computer, but they are used in original format to show concepts and the feeling of a place. I use Office Photoshop and Form z to design the three dimensional and more realistic aspects to a place or space. We make a lot of study models in wood and cardboard. If the model doesn't look good, chances are the building won't.

Favorite gadget?

My electric eraser.

You have served as the president of the New York State American Institute of Architects chapter and on various key national AIA projects and committees, as well as on numerous other academic and architectural field boards and organizations. How has involvement contributed to your career?

I am a believer in giving back to society, and that includes being a responsible member of the profession. Holding a leadership position is a great honor. I have learned a great amount through these involvements in terms of architecture, but mostly, I have grown personally. Leadership encourages a generosity for spirit that is useful in all aspects of life.

You have also actively been involved with serving as a jury member for various architecture and design competitions and with speaking engagements at an academic and professional level. What drives you to be so involved in this area?

I like to talk about my work in different places. It helps me to rethink the design ideas and put them in to coherent form for discussion. It is always interesting to see what the audience reacts to.

You have received numerous awards and recognition for your architectural design work, as well as extensive media coverage. What does such recognition mean to you on a personal and professional level?

It is a great honor to be recognized by the AIA and other professional groups for the design of my projects. The clients also enjoy the accolades, as they too are invested in the product and proud of the time and resources that they have put into the project. I always share the awards with them and the consultants and contractors, and I am careful to make sure that if I work with an Architect of Record, that they get credit as well.

What are some of your professional goals for the future?

I would like to maintain the same diversity of project type and scale so that I can design smaller, free-standing buildings for individuals and institutions while also being involved in larger planning and building projects.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your undergrad architecture education at the University of Pennsylvania and your master of architecture education at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

I have an undergraduate liberal arts degree with a major in what was at that time called "Design of the Environment."

My second degree is a Master in Architecture at Harvard, graduating in 1981. Both schools were very positive experiences and I have maintained an involvement with each.

How did you choose your schools?

I originally choose Penn with an eye to study math and physics, but during my freshman year, I followed a friend into an architecture studio and was hooked. I loved the energy, the creativity, the drawings and model building.

What led you to purse your master degree in the field?

After Penn, I worked for Architectural Resources Cambridge, a small firm in Cambridge, Mass., for about a year. It was there that I realized that in order to practice architecture in the best possible way, I would need more training. I picked Harvard because it was a large school that offered may different types of courses. I was interested in taking planning and landscape courses, as well as pure architecture, to round out my understanding of the built environment.

How has your education benefited your career?

The comprehensive idea of architecture as a part of the entire environment was something that has stood me well over time. It has helped me to make design decisions in the broadest possible light.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your architecture education?

I wish I had known how long it would take to understand architecture is in the fullest sense.

How can prospective architecture students assess their aptitude?

Can you draw freehand? Can you imagine rotating three-dimensional objects in space in your head? Architectural education requires technical, artistic and theoretical expertise. Inevitably you will have greater skills in one area, but you should at least be motivated to excel in all three areas (and incidentally, many more!).

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an architecture school?

I think it is important to get the broadest possible perspective on the field.

Are there different considerations for those who know they want to specialize in a certain area?

I don't think it is possible to specialize in specific areas of architecture while in school. It would be better to wait until later, during practice.

What benefits should potential post-graduate students expect from attaining their masters in the field? When is a good time for students to pursue their masters? Is it necessary to be successful in the field?

I think that having two degrees can be a powerful tool (landscape and architecture, urban design and architecture, history preservation and architecture, etc.) My general feeling is that it is good to have some work experience between college and graduate school, but if you aren't able to get a job that is meaningful, it might be better to pursue the masters first.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

Maybe at the first, but once you have been in practice for a while the quality of your own work becomes more important.

What can students applying to architecture schools and programs do to increase their chances of being accepted?

I think that the Career Discovery program at Harvard is a great way of learning about the design fields. It is also a good way to build a portfolio with which to apply to schools.

What should architecture school graduates expect in the area of continuing education and/or licensing requirements?

Check with your state AIA for the requirements.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education in architecture?

Pace yourself. Keep a broad perspective. Be inquisitive. Spend time in the studio testing ideas. Try and discover your own voice. Don't model yourself after any architect or professor.

Career Information & Advice

Are professional collaborations important in the field of architecture?

Yes. I love to collaborate with other architecture firms. I also enjoy working with consultants. Good engineers can really help shape a project. The trick is to start working with them at the beginning of the project so that they make a relevant contribution.

How has the popularity of the Internet impacted your profession?

The Internet is a great resource, but you have to be careful to research carefully. Product selection is so much easier (How nice not to have shelves filled with huge catalogues). It's great to have a website that clients can look at and learn about your work.

What specialized computer programs do architecture professionals typically use?

CAD programs, 3-d drafting programs and graphics. The quicker and more versatile you are on the computer the better. It's a great way to get a good job. At the beginning of your career, your facility with production is important but it's never the only thing that is required. A good employer will expect content and skill.

What are the hottest architecture specialties? What other kinds of job tracks are available to graduating architecture students?

I wouldn't focus on what is hot. Choose a specialty that really interests you. My feeling is that if you really learn about architecture first, you can always go later to other related disciplines. Try to get at least five years of experience and your license before going off to real estate or web design or other disciplines.

How will the job market develop over the next five years and beyond?

It's hard to know. But then again, you can't let the economy rule your life. Architecture is certainly cyclical in nature, but in good times and in bad there are always opportunities for talented and dedicated young people.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about architecture in order to be successful in the field?

Of course: Without passion, you will never be successful nor fulfilled any field.

Editor's note: If you would like to follow up with Wendy Evans Joseph personally, please send an e-mail through her company's web site at www.wejarchitecture.com. To submit your resume, please forward a hard copy via standard mail to: Wendy Evans Joseph, FAIA; Wendy Evans Joseph Architecture 500 Park Avenue, 16th Floor; New York, NY, 10022

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