Julia Gamolina is the founder and editor of Madame Architect where, since this interview, she has published more than 100 interviews on women in the field.
In the past years, numerous articles have been written documenting how women architects have been erased from history. Madame Architect is altering this path by celebrating and documenting the achievements of women in architecture. Thank you, Julia.
You are an inspiration for those considering a career in architecture, recent graduates, and those of us who have been practicing for decades.
Julia received her Bachelor of Architecture at Cornell University and is also currently the Director of Strategy at Trahan Architects, the #1 design firm in the United States as ranked by ARCHITECT magazine. In 2019, she was named one of Professional Women in Construction’s “Top 20 Under 40.”
The following interview is an updated version originally published on Sub_teXXt, the online journal of ArchiteXX.
Nicole Dosso: Tell me a little about yourself. What made you want to bring awareness to women in architecture?
Julia Gamolina: I was born in Russia, immigrated to Canada when I was eight, and immigrated again to the United States at fourteen. Even though my parents were my rocks and guided me through these transitions, they didn’t always feel that they were able to help me navigate my new contexts as they themselves were in new lands. My mom encouraged me to seek out my teachers for guidance at a young age. I did and I sought out women – my teachers and professors have always been my allies and supporters and have been invaluable in my professional and personal development.
When I graduated, I found myself at a great firm, but with no women in my immediate context to look up to and guide me. Thankfully, my former professor Nina Freedman was just starting ArchiteXX with Lori Brown, so I got involved to meet women in the field who had years of experience and could help me navigate professional practice. After I met an amazing mentor there, I wanted to thank her and share the advice she was giving me, so I posted my first interview on Sub_teXXt, and then interviewed a few more women at different stages in their careers. My original intentions were simply to share advice I was receiving from my mentors, but when ArchiteXX invited me to do a series, I realized the full scope and potential of the project.
You have selected a great line-up of women architects, all who represent diverse career paths. What drew you to interview these particular women?
Part of it had to do with wondering what everyone was going through at different stages in their careers as I was going through mine. After having profiled two women who had achieved top positions at distinguished firms and were looking back at their path, I wondered what women were doing and thinking as they experienced their “firsts” in real-time. I profiled two women earlier in their careers as they were going through transitional moments, like having a baby and starting a firm, and wanted to continue to profile people as they went through unique challenges related to the stage of their career.
Then part of it had to do with me trying to find my own niche in the field and seeing all the very different and interesting directions that my peers were taking. My B.Arch program was also amazing in that it had students and professors from all over the world – Spain, Turkey, Brazil, Russia, China, Japan, South Africa, etc. I wanted to showcase as many different starting points and possibilities as I could, and the series grew from focusing on mentorship to profiling women from different backgrounds, with different focuses, and at different levels.
What are your thoughts about the future of women in architecture and how might the conversation evolve for a more equitable design industry?
I hope that in the future people will not talk about “women in architecture” or “female architects” but Architects, period and immediately picture women when they do so – women with kids, women that are also marathon runners like yourself, women that are social and out and about. Thanks to Michelle Pfeiffer, I was lucky that my first exposure to what an architect is was through a woman, albeit a fictional one. She played Melanie Parker, an architect and single mom, in One Fine Day – I saw the movie for the first time when I was nine years old, and anytime I heard the word “architect” after that, I always pictured her.
In terms of a more equitable design industry, there are so many young men in the profession that are also asking the same questions and I hope that they look up to these women as well. Your mentor does not have to be of your gender – young men should look up to women, and men should mentor women as well. My little brother is turning sixteen and is starting to think about college and all that and I know he is learning a lot from these interviews.
I also want to make sure that everyone visiting the website can find a profile of someone they can relate to in terms of where they come from and where they want to be, and also a profile of someone that is completely different from them, so they can see all the possibilities and circumstances that exist.
How do you think academia will change to address an evolving practice?
It’s funny, the further I get away from my time in architecture school, the more I see the benefits of the curriculum and the more grateful I become to have studied architecture no matter what I do next. I do think academia can better address all the areas of focus that are possible for a career in the field beyond the making of buildings. I’d love to see the whole scope of “professional practice” be integrated into the curriculum through various creative electives, instead of the one required course. Management and communication are intellectual pursuits as well and it would be fascinating to create a hybrid course between architecture and those fields of study.
Some may argue that you can learn these “professional” skills on the job, to which I’d reply that you can learn all the building technology information and representation skills on the job too. And, by saying that you will learn all these on the job, you are assuming that you are learning from someone that does it well, which is not always the reality. I know that Cornell recently introduced a business minor – I would love to take a class where a professor in architecture and a professor in the school of management put their heads together.
Do you have any lessons learned since your graduation that you can share with upcoming graduates?
I have learned all of them, and I’m glad that I have [laughs]. I’m a huge proponent of mentorship, but nothing beats personal experience, so I’d advise upcoming graduates to get out and about, meet and talk to as many people as you can, make decisions, dive fully into the decisions you make, and then move onto the next thing when it is time. Take stock.
The biggest lesson has been that working with the right people is number one. There are a lot of elements that will shape your professional experiences – the roles you play in an office, the type of projects you work on – but nothing will affect your experience as much as the people you work with and report to. Part of the reason I transitioned into communications in 2016 was because I found the Director of Communications at the firm I was at to be immensely fascinating, and I wanted to spend time with and learn from her. Life is too short to not work with good people and I fully support making decisions and accepting jobs based on who you will be working with and learning from.
What are your thoughts on mentorship? Have you had mentors or role models that have influenced your career?
Mentorship has been extremely important for me but people shouldn’t feel dissuaded if they don’t have an official “Mentor” in their field – it’s really just about having a network and community of support and guidance. For some, the same guidance can come from their grandfather, their aunt, their older brother, their best friend’s mom. When we left Russia, and then Canada, we left our built-in support systems behind, so I’ve always actively sought out mentors in my field because, besides my parents, that was who was most accessible. I do highly encourage people to talk to as many people as they can to collect good information and realize the various circumstances and possibilities that are out there.
As for my own mentors, two professors at Cornell, Caroline O’Donnell, and Nina Freedman, introduced me to architecture and to professional practice in the best ways for me. In my post-grad years, Vivian Lee has been absolutely amazing. She has so much going on and yet is incredibly giving and cares a lot about young architects. I’m still in awe of all the people who have made time to talk to me when I was a self-conscious and tentative grad and learning a lot of hard lessons – it’s because of them that I’m happy to say I haven’t lost any enthusiasm.
Where are you in your career right now?
I think I’ve built a really nice foundation of experience for myself these past five years – in design, in communications, in business development, and with these interviews, even a little in journalism. When I first graduated, I read “The Corner Office” by Adam Bryant, a book based on his New York Times column for which he interviews CEOs. One of the lessons in that book was, “Don’t plan a career, prepare for one,” meaning gain as many different experiences and as much knowledge as you can so that you are in the best position possible for new opportunities that come your way. I feel pretty well-rounded with the experience I have and am curious how I will combine everything in the future, but I hope to be where I am now for a while – focusing on strategy and special projects for Trahan Architects, continuing to learn more about architectural practice and the industry at large, meeting extraordinary women at the Wing, and meeting and talking to more extraordinary women for Madame Architect.