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Laura Crescimano's 'Pipe Dream' is to Redefine Architecture

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This week, Curbed National is examining what it's like to be a woman working in architecture. Today, writer Lamar Anderson profiles Laura Crescimano, of San Francisco's SITELAB.

[Photo of Laura Crescimano by Brenden Mendoza.]

Laura Crescimano is sitting on a folding chair in the middle of an alley, talking about leftover spaces. The alley in question is really a tunnel that runs between the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner buildings in the city's South of Market district. After the papers moved their printing operations offsite in 1992, the tunnel became a kind of leftover space, one that was unfriendly to pedestrians. "You really didn't want to walk through here," says Crescimano, principal of the San Francisco design firm SITELAB Urban Studio. On her lap she is balancing a paper boat of Thai chicken and rice from one of the food trucks parked nearby. Behind her, a musician plays the keyboard as people on their lunch break scarf down tacos and hot dogs with dirty names—the Skirt Lifter, the Cocksman—that conjure the neighborhood's skeevier past.

The food trucks are among the most visible changes so far in this part of SoMA, which is anchored by the Chronicle Building at Fifth and Mission streets. With developer Forest City, Crescimano and her fellow SITELAB principal, Evan Rose, have begun transforming Hearst's underutilized real estate into a kind of creative-class concentrate, with maker spaces, arts programming, tech firms, and, eventually, residences. A later phase will amp up pedestrian paths, increase square footage, and replace a parking lot with a central public gathering space.

With 1.8 million planned square feet and a roughly four-acre footprint, the 5M Project, as it's known, is a high-profile gig for a young firm and a young designer. At 36, Crescimano has been rising in the city's ranks of urban influencers since founding SITELAB with Rose two years ago. "She's a fighter for the public realm," says Trent Tesch, design principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), which is collaborating on 5M (the name is a contraction of Fifth and Mission streets).

[The proposed groundfloor activity for the 5M project. Image via Forest City/SITELAB.]

Unlike the typical sidewalk mall—where shopping feels almost compulsory—the 5M Project is all about the social dimensions of placemaking, not just the architectural ones. "When you put together a network of people who are interested in art, entrepreneurship, making, and community, they start to make a place together," Crescimano says of the 5M model, which came out of research by Forest City. "Instead of your anchor tenant being Bloomingdale's or whatever, your anchor is this cluster of people who then steward the overall life of the place."

"Laura is on the cutting edge of where design is going," says Forest City senior vice president Alexa Arena. "She brings a more experience-based approach to design, working from the ground floor up versus working from the physicality of the architecture down."

Crescimano's rising reputation is a small feat in this gender-lopsided field, where only 17 percent of principals and partners are women, according to the most recent numbers from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Through an initiative of the AIA's San Francisco chapter, the notion of the Missing 32 Percent has become both an ongoing project and a catchphrase describing the architecture gender gap. (Though numbers on women's absence are hard to pin down and shift from year to year, the project has made 32 percent the reigning shorthand.)    

"I kept making these choices to research, write, and teach on top of my job, and I found those things were more fulfilling and gave me more opportunities for leadership. It was hard to rationalize to myself why I would step away from all of that to get licensed."—Laura Crescimano

For all her accomplishments, Crescimano is actually one of the missing. Though she studied architecture at Yale and trained at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), she cannot legally call herself an architect without a license—the hard-won piece of paper that, after seven or eight years (PDF) of interning and exam taking, gives architects the power to do liability-related things like sign off on construction documents. Instead, Crescimano made a detour into the related discipline of urban design. In some ways this more conceptual role gives her greater power—she shapes the sandbox that architects build in—but it comes with less visibility. SITELAB's name won't be associated with 5M's architecture (Kohn Pedersen Fox developed the concepts for the project's built form), and Crescimano will never even have the chance to be passed over for the Pritzker, because she's not officially an architect.

How did this happen? How does someone with Crescimano's talent and training end up leaving architecture? And, if she's doing so well for herself outside the discipline, do labels really matter?

[The site of the 5M project, via Forest City/Shae Rocco.]

Unlike our other two profile subjects, who dreamed of becoming architects in elementary school, Crescimano began life at Yale as an English major. But in an intro to architecture class, she found herself drawn to the narratives embedded in buildings. "That class was about how the spaces we make and the way we use them tell us about us, and how that can very subtly change how we experience the world," she says. "It hooked a lot of architects at Yale."

[The chalkboards at 5M. Image courtesy Forest City/Shae Rocco.]

For Crescimano, who is always looking for ways to make cities feel more democratic, one of those subtle changes could be as simple as a row of chalkboards mounted on the side of the Chronicle Building. On a walk through the 5M site, Crescimano points out the installation, a temporary project by the 5M tenant Intersection for the Arts. The chalkboards are there for anyone to use, and today they're covered in semi-legible scribbles and drawings. "There was some initial concern from security guards who thought there would be problems," she recalls. But instead of conflict, the opposite was happening. "People from all walks of life were writing and drawing and expressing themselves," she says. "The guards thought it was improving the quality of life, and they asked that it be made permanent."

As a student, Crescimano began paying attention to communal spaces when she started classes in the art and architecture building at Yale. From the outside, the Paul Rudolph–designed structure was a Brutalist fortress, but inside, the students treated the building as a massive ongoing art project. "Everything was fair game," she says. "You'd walk up the stairwell and someone had stenciled messages on the risers of the stairs, and someone else would edit that." One day, Crescimano walked into the elevator and found it decorated like a closet, with a rack of clothes, a row of shoes, and one of those single light bulbs with a pull-chain dangling. "You'd get in and you'd be standing in the closet with people," she says. "I have no idea who did it. It was just there one day and gone the next."

[A rendering of the Pier 70 project. Image courtesy of Forest City/SITELAB.]

When Crescimano got to Harvard in 2002, women made up nearly half of the student body at the design school, but, she says, the institutional culture tended to favor men. "Some professors would spend more time with male students, there were fewer role models for women, and there was a kind of fear of talking about it," she recalls. "If you tried to talk to female professors, it seemed like they were afraid to acknowledge that their experience was any different for being a woman." At the time, there was just one female architecture professor with tenure, and the student group Women in Design—the same one that launched last year's petition to retroactively award Denise Scott Brown a Pritzker Prize—was not yet a major presence on campus.

In 2004, Crescimano took over as president of Women in Design. The following year, Harvard's then-president Larry Summers made his famously foot-flavored comments about the scientific aptitude of women. His gaffe turned into a gift for the women at the GSD. "It suddenly opened up this room to talk about the issues," recalls Crescimano. "It galvanized many of us and gave people an emboldened sense that it was an issue that needed to be addressed." That spring, the group organized a symposium, "Taking Stock: Gender and Design," which packed the auditorium with standing-room-only crowds. They handed out a fact sheet that tracked the numbers of women professors, TAs, visiting critics, and lecturers. The figures did not look good. "We were able to say, 'We're not making this up; something is happening,'" says Crescimano. (The GSD's gender record has since improved. Over the past 10 years, the proportion of tenured faculty who are women has doubled, from 12.5 percent in 2004 to just over 25 percent in 2013. And of the 90 honors and prizes awarded to last year's graduating class, just over 40 percent went to women, according to the university's communications office.)

2004 had been an election year. Crescimano marveled at the organizing prowess of, which, through its website, mobilized thousands of supporters in simultaneous actions around the country. "You end up with an intensely local event, like a bake sale, being a part of a national movement," says Crescimano. "But they were doing it with no physical infrastructure." What would architecture for MoveOn look like?

[Crescimano's MoveOn Winnebago design.]

For her thesis, Crescimano designed a fleet of modded Winnebagos that could support a range of activities, from hosting a movie screening to caravanning to Washington. At once functional and symbolic, the vehicles would equip organizers with mobile gear while telegraphing a common identity—the architectural equivalent of a flag or a team uniform. The project was a finalist for the Harvard thesis prize. "At the same time, some professors were saying it wasn't a legitimate architecture thesis," says the designer. "My mentor at the time said, 'That means you're doing something right. If you've got people that up in arms, you've hit something.'"

Next, on a postgraduate fellowship from Harvard, Crescimano traveled the world studying how historical protest movements had unfolded in cities and, in the process, altered the meaning of the public spaces they occupied. In the lead-up to the fall of the Berlin wall, East Germans in Leipzig found themselves blocked from their march to the central square, so they filed onto Leipzig's ring road and encircled the city. In one collective gesture, they turned a dusty bit of infrastructure into a new symbol of dissent, like tactical urbanists in mob form. This same dynamic, in a softened (and business-friendly!) form, informs Crescimano's concept for 5M. "How do we make sure that these are places that can be appropriated for people, even as chalkboards?" she asks. "It doesn't have to be—and shouldn't be—an aggressive act like protest."

[Crescimano's diagrams of protest spaces.]

Crescimano emerged from graduate school with this untraditional body of work, full of Winnebago designs and diagrams of European cities. "I came out trained as an architect, knowing that I wanted to do this broader thing but not knowing what the job for that was," she recalls.

In 2008 Crescimano landed at Gensler's San Francisco office. She was piling up internship hours, working on campus planning and office projects for clients like Hewlett-Packard and Kaiser Permanente. In her spare time, she co-taught, with Public Architecture, a studio on small-space interventions at California College of the Arts. She was also collaborating with the intelligentsia at the San Francisco urban-research nonprofit SPUR, frequently writing and speaking on the future of work. Crescimano still wanted to become a full-fledged architect, but all of these career-boosting extracurriculars interfered with the rigorous bouts of studying that the licensure exams (seven in all) demand.

By sheer time investment, becoming an architect is less like becoming a lawyer and more like pursuing one of the higher-order medical specialties. For instance, 2012's batch of newly minted architects spent roughly eight years (PDF) completing their licenses, which is longer than the residencies of most plastic surgeons (five years) and even heart surgeons (seven years)—all for pay at the lower end of the professional scale. For Crescimano, that was a calculation that just didn't make sense. "I kept making these choices to research, write, and teach on top of my job, and I found those things were more fulfilling and gave me more opportunities for leadership," she says. "It was hard to rationalize to myself why I would step away from all of that to get licensed."

Crescimano had always wanted to launch her own practice. Friends were telling her that she needed to meet Evan Rose, a former principal of SMWM who had founded the firm's New York office, before it merged with Perkins+Will. When the two sat down for coffee in early 2012, they discovered that they had been leading parallel lives. "He was like, 'Wait, I did my architecture project on the public realm.' And he was about to be teaching a studio on protest at Penn. We had a lot of the same anomalies," recalls Crescimano.

[A rendering of the Pier 70 project, via Forest City/SITELAB.]

"It was a bit uncanny, honestly," says Rose, who is 49. Forest City had already been talking to him about 5M, and they knew Crescimano's work as well; it was as good a time as any. "We said, 'There's nothing to lose. Why don't we take the leap?'" says Crescimano. They launched SITELAB less than six months later, in July 2012. In addition to 5M, the firm is working on another ambitious Forest City master plan, a mixed-use development on 28 acres of formerly industrial waterfront at Pier 70. The design team also includes Grimshaw, David Baker Architects, and James Corner Field Operations.

"I have a pipe dream that there could be different ways to be an architect and that could be recognized legally. I'm not saying I should be allowed to stamp drawings for a skyscraper, but that it's all or nothing seems misguided. It pushes away people who want to contribute but have different approaches."—Laura Crescimano

For Crescimano, handing over architectural responsibilities means keeping her old architect ego in check. "I have to let go of some amount of control and let the architect take it the last couple of miles, but I get to set the direction of the thing itself," she says. "The idea of being on the inside and the outside is, in retrospect, where I'd like to be. I've always switched back and forth between research and design, strategy and design, politics and design. I've had people advise me to pick one, and somehow I haven't managed to do it. I'm happy that I haven't."

Crescimano's story is both heartening and discouraging. She battled Harvard's latent sexism only to confront a licensure process that was hard to fit around her nascent career. It's tempting to equate missing architects with failed architects. But in Crescimano's case, going "missing" was the key to her success. The price she pays for that choice is not in job satisfaction, but in visibility. Here is a woman with nearly a decade of architecture training, who has served on the board of AIA San Francisco, who teaches architecture students, and who owns her own design practice. If she isn't counted in the 17 percent of firm leadership who are women, how many others like her do we overlook?

Crescimano still thinks of herself as an architect, even though she would not claim to be one officially. "I have a pipe dream that there could be different ways to be an architect and that could be recognized legally," she says. "I'm not saying I should be allowed to stamp drawings for a skyscraper, but that it's all or nothing seems misguided. It pushes away people who want to contribute but have different approaches. Instead of architecture expanding, the profession will just get more exclusive."
· How Women Are Climbing Architecture's Career Ladder [Curbed]
· AIA Wunderkind Courtney Brett Bridges Architectural Worlds [Curbed]