As an immigrant twice over, first from Siberia, then from Toronto, I have always sought out mentors to guide me in my new contexts. When I started working after I graduated however, I no longer had a built-in system of mentorship, so I sought out my own. I first started interviewing women for ArchiteXX’s online journal, SubteXXt, my goal being to provide guidance for women such as myself who were first starting out. I discovered how much I loved the process of interviewing, editing, and sharing, and I knew I had to keep going. I launched MadameArchitect.org in May 2018, putting women’s narratives at the forefront, giving them a voice and a platform.
I’ve now published over 60 interviews–60 women, 60 stories, and 60 possibilities–and have learned so much. I’ve learned that young women, much like myself, express a lot of hope but also a lot of uncertainty. I’ve learned that the way in which women feel the impact of their gender as they move from junior into intermediate and senior roles is striking. I’ve learned that one cannot strategize an entire career, and that most decisions are made when they feel good, and for personal reasons. I’ve also learned that Madame Architect has grown into so much more than an editorial platform–it’s now a resource, a community, and a collective voice. A resource in that young women and those starting firms come to the site for advice from business developers, PR experts, strategists; a community in that women I’ve profiled are asking to meet, get to know each other, and collaborate; and a collective voice to represent architects that are women and to let the world know, loud and clear, that we are here.
I’m really excited to keep the momentum in 2019, and to expand as well–to profile a broader range of professionals in the built environment that influence the practice of architecture. Most of all though, I am excited to see how the field of architecture transforms once women are in the spotlight and how the world in which we live will be designed as more women rise up.
In the following interview, architect Andrea Simitch, chair of the Department of Architecture at Cornell University, shares insights on the creative process and how female architects are changing the game.
Madame Architect: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
Andrea Simitch: I wish I had a story of growing up always building Legos and knowing, but I don’t at all. When I first graduated from high school, I went to Occidental College in California for a year. I don’t know what I was doing there [laughs] – I was brought up in Europe, I had never lived in the States, and somehow I ended up in California, mostly to play volleyball.
There, I took classes in philosophy and math and art and I enjoyed things, but nothing was really it – it was all just texture. I went back to Paris, which is where I was living before college and I said to my parents, “Everyone I’ve met in college are like the people I’ve known in boarding school…there’s nothing really new.” And my father one day just said, “Why don’t you try architecture school?” To this day, I have no idea why, but I said okay [laughs]. There was the École Spéciale d’Architecture there, so I enrolled there for six months. I loved it, and so applied to a bunch of architecture schools back in the States, ending up at Cornell!
How was your time at Cornell?
I showed up for the first year right after I had spent the entire summer as a swimming and a volleyball instructor at Club Med, in the Mediterranean on the then Yugoslav island of Sveti Marco.
I arrived in Rand Hall tan, with bleached blonde hair [laughs], definitely not wearing black yet. I forget what happened that first week, but all I know is that it was Saturday night, I was working in the studio, and all of the sudden I realized: I totally loved what I was doing.
What did you love about it?
I always loved the tools of architecture – the instruments, the drawing, the craft of making drawings. I often wonder if I’d still be an architect if I had started today, where everything is digital.
I also always loved being in Ithaca – I had lived in Switzerland, and Milan, and Paris, where my father’s work had brought us, but there’s something about the Ithaca landscape that I was very attracted to. I was always planning on going back to Europe – I never thought I’d stay here – and little by little, well, here I am, all this time later.
How did you get your start in the field?
Immediately after I graduated in ’79 I taught the high school program for six weeks, and that was an incredible experience. Meanwhile, my sister had moved to New York and said, “Andrea, I found a loft, let’s move in together.” I went down to look at it, on Prince Street, and that was my first project! I came to New York and renovated the loft with my Cornell classmates Richard Olcott and Todd Schliemann. It was our first design-build project.
Your first official job was at KPF [Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, an American architecture firm]. How did this come about?
I showed up at a temp agency because I wasn’t quite ready to work full-time – I was still working on the loft and on my portfolio – and ended up interviewing at I.M. Pei’s office and at KPF. I walked into KPF, and Mark Strauss was there, the first Cornellian in the office. I was there for maybe two years. My time there was incredible – I think there were only fifteen people at the time, and they gave you as much work as you could take. I ended up working on a hotel in Philadelphia called One Logan Square, with a lot of responsibility. I ended up moving on after a few years, but it was a really great foundation.
When did you start teaching?
I was working 24/7 with both Todd and Richard on a few residential projects that got a lot of press, in Architectural Record and things like this. We were very fortunate. The three of us had a practice together but while I was working out of the loft on Prince Street, both Richard and Todd were working at Polshek’s. It was a bit of a lonely existence for me – at the studio loft all day, working on my own. Then, in 1982, the phone rang, and it was Jerry Wells from Cornell. He said, “Hey Andrea, do you want to come teach?”
I went. I taught with John Zissovici and Jacques Herzog – the three of us were the visitors that semester in 1983, all super young with great intensity. I would fly up on Mondays and back to the city on Fridays, still working on our projects in Pennsylvania and New Jersey throughout all that. At the end of the semester, I came back to New York, Richard and I got married, and I took a job working for a studio downtown called The Office of Thierry Despont.
Then Jerry called me again to come back up and teach in 1985. I did and realized that Ithaca and teaching were such magnets for me – I really loved to teach and realized I was good at it. I was enthusiastic, I could listen, I could connect – none of these deliberate things I tried to put into it but I just really naturally loved it. I also really didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in New York. My time there had been amazing and wonderfully intense but I had fallen out of love with it, so I left and came up to Ithaca, I applied for a tenure track line, and ended up being a full-time tenure track professor, and here I am [laughs].
How was going through tenure?
A challenge for sure. At that time, we didn’t have mentors or much guidance, and there were very few women – Mary Woods was the first woman to get tenure in the department, and she was an architecture historian. There were no women architects on the faculty – even when I had been a student in the ’70s, none of my professors were women!
I met Val Warke at Cornell, my now husband and partner – he just has an amazing, brilliant mind, and we really connected. But I never wanted to take any advice, and even though we were contemporaries, I had to feel that he didn’t help me get there. People assumed it all the time, and I had to prove it to myself. Because at the time, there was “the guy” and there was “the girl” thing, and everyone would always assume that the girl was always secondary and just helping out – it’s still true today – so I always made a huge effort to distance myself from advice from him or anyone else for that matter while I was going through the tenure process.
At which point did you have your kids?
Right around when I got tenure [laughs]. I went through reappointment when I was pregnant with my daughter in 1990, and then my son was born in 1994, the year before I went through tenure.
How did motherhood play into all this?
I tried to never let motherhood slow me down. We all just did things together, and that’s how I did it. Thankfully Val and I were equal across the board in most ways, in the sense that when I was nursing in the middle of the night, he would bring Eva in and read me 3-Minute Mysteries. If I wasn’t going to sleep, he wasn’t either [laughs]!
I read this interesting article where a woman wrote that when a man goes to work, he in a way is able to ‘turn off’ his family, but when a woman goes to work, she’s constantly thinking, “Does Johnny have his shoes on, did Amy remember her lunch bag, who will pick them up?” I was constantly delegating, managing, and juggling. We never really adjusted our lives because of the kids, still had lots of dinners, did competitions, worked hard. And we brought Eva and Dax everywhere – on summer programs, etcetera. It was actually pretty great, but in retrospect a bit stressful!
And great for them.
It was great for them, and I think that’s why still to this day they love to travel and they’re super comfortable in whatever they encounter. I think I was also the only and first faculty member that was juggling in this way – the other faculty members were male, who had partners who were primarily taking care of their kids, it was super challenging.
Tell me about “The Language of Architecture.”
Writing the book was fantastic and also really a challenge. I’ll never forget that phone call. This woman Emily Potts of Rockport press emailed that Sheila Kennedy had recommended that she get in touch with me about writing this book on pedagogy, and asked if I’d do it.
I realized – I had been teaching now for almost thirty years, and the only evidence are people like you! That’s our work [laughs] – we don’t make a book every semester, we don’t write an essay on a project or a problem – there’s no tangible record of what we do, we just put you guys out into the world! So I turned to Val, and Val’s a really amazing teacher as well, and asked if we should do this together.
What was it like working together?
We developed a really great way of working on it where he would be one voice, and I would be the other voice, and we would interchange and edit each other’s texts, captions and essays, so at the end of the day, we couldn’t tell who did what [laughs]. Perhaps a strange process but a great collaboration and ironically we found both of our voices through all this.
Where do you feel like you’re in your career today?
One of the reasons why I decided that I wanted to be the Chair of the Department was because I wanted to think about the structure of the curriculum more explicitly, the direction of pedagogy, about the team working together to create a synergy, about ideas and conversation – so that for me was a really big step, to redirect.
So that’s what I’m doing, I’m trying to pull out for a broader view of where we’re heading – what is the relationship of the past to the future, what is our present, what is our identity as a department, as an institution, what are our strengths, since we can’t do it all, what do we want to do without becoming overly specialized, and how can we build on our faculty who have amazing strengths but who can’t just be a collection of bodies – there needs to be a cohesive vision of where we are heading.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
It’s been a challenge in some ways to develop an identity along the way – to have confidence in my contribution to teaching, to pedagogy, and to the profession. I’ve always had a design sensibility – loving to draw, make things, to design, but I didn’t do a Ph.D. or a Masters that might have required me to develop an explicit focus. I just wanted to be an architect – to build! And while I’ve always designed and built projects over the years, in the end, the construction of a pedagogy has been my largest ‘design project.’ The book was a good challenge in response to that.
Another challenge has been having to defend my contribution to collaborative works. At Cornell, I have had to do so at every level of academic promotion – be it for tenure or for promotion to full professor. You never want to feel like you’re proving anything, and I think for women in that sense, I’ve always had to do three times more work to prove that it was my work – and that has been the biggest challenge but also the biggest driver! I don’t know if I would be where I am today if I didn’t have that determination – to be a distinct voice from that of a partner or colleague or husband. So a challenge has always been to define my own identity and my contribution and that has been really important to me.
What do you feel like you’ve contributed to pedagogy?
A conceptual rigor. There’s a context in which all decisions are made, nothing is arbitrary. There’s a lot of room for intuition and instinct, but at some point, you need to zoom back out and make decisions based on context. If there’s any lesson that I talk about, day to day, it’s how does one create a context and a lens through which one filters and makes informed decisions so that they’re not arbitrary.
What are you most proud of?
The book – I’m super proud of it. The book has come out of Val and my collective sixty plus years of teaching, it describes the processes of design, but in a way, also, how I design, and how I was taught to design. The book was really difficult to write – finding the focus, the time, having to return to it again and again for an extended period of time, but in the end, as most difficult things are, so very rewarding.
I’m also proud of being able to contribute to my students’ enthusiasm and passion for architecture. I am proud to have encouraged their tenacity, their determination, and their confidence – for both women and men – and to serve as their mentor. We’re very fortunate in our profession to be surrounded by this wonderful group of 18 to 25-year-olds as we get so much out of them too. It’s really always a two-way dialogue.
And of course – I’m endlessly and immeasurably proud of my own kids.
What has been the general approach to your career?
I believe in honesty. Completely. I’m very direct and I think it’s really important – I always live in the moment but in that same sense, I don’t construct a persona and I don’t think about manipulating a situation to create an effect. So my philosophy I would say is that: honesty, and being very clear. And hard work!
What advice do you have for those wanting to teach?
Teaching is like coaching. You have to know when to build up, when to have them do 20 laps, when to tell them they’re amazing, when to bench. It’s a process that you have to have faith in for getting into shape and training – you have to get the student trained so that they can develop the knowledge and the confidence to be what they want to be.
We’re never really taught how to teach. When you first start, you teach how you were taught, and little by little, you get feedback, you figure out what you’re good at, the unique knowledge that you can bring to the table. How to toggle between being both part of a shared vision, and a unique voice is so important.
What advice do you have for recent grads?
Rem Koolhaas said this in a lecture – I quote it often now – “Build knowledge.” So many of our students go out and there are six practices they want to work out or two graduate schools where they want to go. If there were a way we could break out of that mold a little bit, that would be good. Move out of your comfort zone, follow your instincts a bit, don’t go for the brand name, go for what is a good fit for you. Long term, that is what will fill you up.
What advice do you have for those just starting architecture school?
This one’s easy – go all in. 24/7 [laughs]. Dive in, live it, eat it, drink it. Just immerse. Suspend disbelief. You have to suspend disbelief when you start out. Just buy into the studio, buy into the context, knowing at some point that it will all start to make sense. Every experience I’ve ever had informs who I am and how I think and how I work, so live fully and trust the process.