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Marion Weiss Aims to Collapse the 'Hero Architect' Trope

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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 New York City-based Marion Weiss of Weiss/Manfredi.

[A rendering of Weiss/Manfredi's proposed building for the Cornell NYC Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, courtesy Weiss/Manfredi.]

It was the summer of 2001, and the architect Marion Weiss was out of ideas. A decade earlier, she and her partner and husband, Michael Manfredi, had enjoyed a speedy rise to prominence when, as two unknowns, they won a high-profile competition to design the Women's Memorial and Education Center at Arlington National Cemetery. As a small, polyglot practice in New York, Weiss/Manfredi had over the years built a reputation for turning out rigorous, sliced and stepped earthwork-style projects that treat landscape and architecture as a single medium.

But now they were stuck. Weiss and Manfredi had been furiously working on a design competition entry for Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle. It was a tall order: find a way to design an art park and pavilion for the Seattle Art Museum, using three disconnected strips of land wedged like industrial afterthoughts between a highway, railroad tracks, and the waterfront 40 feet below. "We just kept on coming up with one unresolved design after another," says Weiss. "We had that sort of pit-in-the-stomach feeling. We hadn't nailed it."

Frustrated, exhausted, and growing desperate, the pair walked from their office on 29th Street to the Odeon in TriBeCa. "We were definitely at that moment of, 'Oh, shit, this thing's due in two weeks,'" says Manfredi. They ordered a couple of margaritas and sat at the bar, talking and toying with a business card. "We just started messing around," says Weiss. "We literally just started saying, 'It could be this, and it could be this,' and we tore the business card up into three bits and pulled it up." In a single gesture, the architects resolved the disjointed site with a slanting, Z-shaped green that bridged over the highway and railroad in one deft descent to the water. "That was it," recalls Weiss. "We just knew it."

Creative people, and those who consume their ideas (or regurgitate them as TED Talks), will recognize in this story the familiar pattern of struggle, distraction, and breakthrough, with one exception. Instead of a lone inspired creator throwing back tequila and crumpling bits of paper as night draws in and crisis looms, here there are two.

Not long ago, that fact would have been ignored; today, it is contested at best. Even as the status of women in design has improved, architects who practice with their husbands do not reliably get their due. As we noted at the beginning of this series, the Pritzker Prize jury still makes a habit of overlooking the wives in husband-wife partnerships (Denise Scott Brown in 1991, Lu Wenyu in 2012). The only male-female collaboration ever to win, SANAA's Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, in 2010, are not a couple—suggesting that a woman's contribution only counts if she is not also a wife.

For Weiss, our culture's impulse to salute a sole creator is a property of narrative itself. "When we find ourselves as an audience in a film or a written work, we find it individual to individual," she says. "The complexity of what really goes into making anything happen is too muddy to compress into a single story that captures people's imaginations."

That's why Weiss and Manfredi make a point of concealing their creative tracks. If they even remember who made the first telltale tear in the business card, they're not saying. Weiss subsumes her artistic identity in the practice, but so does Manfredi. Working this way requires a lot of effort, humility, and significant time getting the publicity right—none of which comes naturally to either of them. "We both have powerful egos," says Weiss. "It's a hard decision for both of us, one that doesn't come without the sacrifice of an artist wanting, in a sense, to hold the paintbrush."

[A photo of Weiss as a child, making modernist houses out of loose roof shingles during her parents' home construction.]

Weiss was not born a collaborator. Growing up in Los Altos—a little town in the hills south of San Francisco—she displayed a designer's single-minded streak from a young age. When she was seven, her family was building a house, and she and her older sisters would play in the sand pile. Weiss became an expert at arranging loose roof shingles into miniature houses and instructed her sisters to follow her lead, showing them how to cantilever the shingles off of each other, in imitation of the Richard Neutra house over the next hill.

Like the ziggurat form of Olympic Sculpture Park, Weiss's choice of career seems inevitable in retrospect. In grade school, she compulsively built dollhouses out of discarded grocery boxes, which she cut up, covered in contact paper, and configured into modular houses with fruit-basket handrails and darkroom-basin swimming pools. By seventh grade, she had 23 stacked in her closet. An uncle later helped her wire them for electricity. For eighth-grade graduation, her parents bought her a jigsaw. As a teenager, Weiss thought seriously about becoming a filmmaker or a concert pianist. It's a virtuosic list—the arty kid's version of "If I don't make it as a movie star, I'm going to be an astronaut." But Weiss's tone is matter-of-fact as she recounts the memory. More than anything, she sounds unstoppable.

[Weiss/Manfredi's nanotechnology center at the University of Pennsylvania, which opened last year. Image by Albert Vecerka/Esto.]

With its head-twisting hills and viscous light, the landscape of the Bay Area can instill in anyone a love of spatial riddles. "You get such a sensibility of the importance of the relationship to the horizon, to the vista, to land. It's a very physical sensation," says Weiss, who ran cross-country in high school and took daily jogs through the Los Altos hills. "You can't educate yourself into having a feeling about topography." If Weiss had grown up in, say, Culver City or some unlovely suburb of LA, perhaps we would be talking about her movies instead of her buildings.

At 17, Weiss had her pick of architecture schools. On the advice of Ernest Kump, a prominent California architect, she chose the University of Virginia (UVA) for its emphasis on landscape and architecture together. Unlike a lot of other architecture programs in the late 1970s, UVA's was fairly well integrated. Women made up about 30 percent of Weiss's class. But the pedagogical style was firmly old school. "The tenor at the time was a kind of hazing," she recalls. "It was very much a 'Look to your left; look to your right; only one of you will be left at graduation' tone." One professor, Ralph Lerner, who went on to become dean of Princeton's architecture school, had a way of sniffing out the unserious. "He would cruise the studio at two in the morning and see who was hardcore," she says. "If you weren't there, you weren't there."

The lone creative genius begins life, in architecture school, as the studio rat: a harried, unwashed creature whose ranks Weiss joined at UVA and, later, in the master's program at Yale. Studio rats could be male or female; gender was, like sleep, beside the point. If being home at 2 a.m. betrayed weakness, having the time to shower and change clothes was outright laziness. "Studio rats looked like hell," says Weiss. "The scruffier the better. It was the only way to show that you were just about to fall over, because you had knocked yourself out for such a sustained period of time that you would never consider doing anything other than your studio work." (More recently, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, where Weiss is the Graham Chair Professor of Architecture, the old model has given way to a type she calls studio rat plus, who are no less pressed for time but are allowed to be well dressed.)

After graduating from Yale, Weiss spent a year looking for work in New York. Her hireability had less to do with being a woman—she says she did not find her prospects hampered by her gender—than with being an architect in the gig economy of the 1980s New York design world. "Nobody would offer you full-time work, but everything was a charrette" for a specific project, she says.

Weiss set her sights on Mitchell/Giurgola, the architecture firm responsible for Australia's elegant, hill-hugging Canberra Parliament House. Every month, she would stop by the office to drop off an updated resume. "I took very seriously everything I learned each month, typed it up, and brought it over," she says. "I think I was kind of amusing to them." The firm didn't budge, but Weiss's luck turned when a developer who was impressed with her work on yet another charrette tried to hire her. When Weiss explained that she wanted a job at an architecture firm, the developer asked where she wanted to go. "I said Aldo Giurgola, and she said, 'Why didn't you say so?'" Weiss recalls. The developer got her an interview, and soon Weiss was reporting for work.

Among artistic careers, architecture is notorious for attracting extremely well-rounded thinkers who, depending on where they land, may spend years attending to the finer points of elevators before they author a single design. So when Weiss got to Mitchell/Giurgola and discovered that she would be spending the next eight months configuring every last staircase—about 29 in all—for a new IBM executive education center, she took it hard. "I remember going home that day really upset, thinking they had no idea about my capacity," says Weiss.

That assignment turned out to be a revelation. The technical straightjacket of designing within such a rigid framework taught Weiss a great deal. Here, in essence, was the toughest landscape she could find. "There's nothing as intolerant as a stair, and so fraught with recognizing what topography means in a building," she says. "Over the course of the eight months, I learned more about architecture than I ever actually learned wholeheartedly again." In some sense, Weiss has been designing staircases ever since, from the staggered, multilevel gathering spaces at the Barnard College Diana Center to the cascading landforms at Olympia Fields Park and Community Center in Illinois.

At Mitchell/Giurgola, Weiss met Michael Manfredi, who was moving on just as she arrived. Manfredi had grown up in Rome and, as a graduate student at Cornell, studied under Colin Rowe. The two bonded over a shared social conscience—"We had a common sense that it was kind of shameful that architecture only happened for those who had the wealth to create it," says Weiss—and parallel attachments to the hilly terrain of Italy and California. "It was an instant way in which we felt an aesthetic connection," says Manfredi. They shared another dream: they each wanted to own their own practice. Solo.

[Brooklyn Botanical Garden image by Albert Vecerka/Esto.

After three years at Mitchell/Giurgola, Weiss was ready to strike out on her own. She left her job with a renovation project for an apartment on Fifth Avenue. And she began teaching at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, thinking she would support her architecture habit with a teaching salary as she gradually built her portfolio. By now, Weiss and Manfredi were firmly set on their own professional courses. For fun they had joined forces for a few pro bono design competitions, but never took seriously the idea of collaborating.  

One day in 1989, an envelope arrived in the mail. It was a clipping from a Washington, D.C., newspaper announcing the design competition for the Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. The article was from Manfredi's mother, who had enjoyed a distinguished career as an Army nurse but had to resign her commission when she became pregnant with Manfredi. "She was very emphatic," recalls Manfredi. "She said, 'You owe me. I put my career on hold for you."

In their proposal, the architects repurposed a granite hemicycle retaining wall at the foot of the cemetery as the facade for a new exhibition space and memorial excavated into the hill. Atop the wall, an arc of ten glass pylons would glow at night, like abstracted versions of upstretched arms, visually buttressing the cemetery above. Their entry, one of 137, made it onto a shortlist of four.

Weiss and Manfredi made their final presentation to the jury, led by retired Air Force brigadier general Wilma Vaught. "She said, 'Do you have a firm?'" recalls Weiss. "We said, 'Ummm, yes.'" They won the project. Vaught asked how to reach them at their office, which did not yet exist. The architects scrambled to get a business card produced the next day.

[A design for a new architecture school at Kent State University in Ohio.]

Overnight, Weiss and Manfredi went from life as a pair of architecture professors with a few side projects to partners in a newly minted firm with a national commission. "We never went through the slow development from small to large projects," says Manfredi. "All of a sudden we were thrust into the limelight, facing the challenges of designing a public project for a story that had not been told." (The glass pylons in particular caused a political dust-up and disappeared from the final design; some had complained that it changed the view of John F. Kennedy's grave. Even symbolically, women must stay out of the way.)

With a business card to get out the door, Weiss and Manfredi had to settle on a name for their new firm. To decide whose name would come first, they flipped a coin. Weiss won. But the choice was also a deliberate one. "We were conscious that if it was the other way around, people could look at it as the other way around," says Weiss, "but if it were my name first, it could be perceived as more balanced."

Over the years, the pair have found that that equilibrium is just as important to sustain inside the practice as out—and is something that requires active policing. "There was one time where somebody asked who came up with the generative move on a project," says Weiss. "We acknowledged it and regretted it forever."

"Rem Koolhaas got the ball rolling 15 years ago with the initials OMA. Now they've all started coming up with these names like Organism 2 and Uneven 4 and We Can Do It All 6."—Marion Weiss

On the subject of her experiences as a woman in architecture, Weiss is more reticent than she was in 1989, shortly after winning the Women's Memorial competition. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, she said she wished there were fewer barriers in her profession. "I wish I could say it was easier," Weiss told the reporter, "but it is difficult for women to get ahead. But I'm optimistic that there are more and more role models for women."

Now, of course, Weiss is one of those role models. But she did share one story from her own days in the trenches. One early project had complex landscape requirements on which Weiss had collaborated closely with a civil engineer. In a meeting with the owner and contractor, Weiss presented the strategy, but her audience directed every question at Manfredi. Each time, Weiss answered, and each time, the follow-up questions went to Manfredi. "This went on for a half-hour," says Weiss. "It was amusing and surprising and distressing at the same time. But even then that was a rare example, one which I haven't encountered since."

Today the architects are at work on an academic incubator building for the Cornell NYC Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, and they're designing a new architecture school for Kent State University in Ohio. Last year their new nanotechnology center opened at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 2012 the firm won a competition to build a new Sylvan Theater on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The design replaces the old theater—a wood bandshell overlooking the bus drop-off—with one of Weiss/Manfredi's radical yet simple moves. The new theater will take the form of an inhabited mound with trees on top, giving the audience a view of the Washington Monument. "It's a completely new earthwork that appears to emerge from the landscape, but from the Mall you would never guess that it hadn't been there all the time," explains Weiss.

Collaboration is as old as the architecture profession itself, but only recently has the spotlight begun to expand beyond the image of the lone creator. As we noted on Monday, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) ruled last summer that partnerships of two now qualify for its top honor, the Gold Medal. Younger architecture firms are eschewing surnames and even initials in favor of collective nouns and acronyms. "Rem Koolhaas got the ball rolling 15 years ago with the initials OMA," says Weiss. "Now they've all started coming up with these names like Organism 2 and Uneven 4 and We Can Do It All 6." (None of these are real firm names, by the way, which means they're up for grabs!) The trope of the hero architect, singular, is starting to crack.

—Portrait of Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi by Shuli Sadé/ Sadé Studio.
· How Women Are Climbing Architecture's Career Ladder [Curbed]
· AIA Wunderkind Courtney Brett Bridges Architectural Worlds [Curbed]
· Laura Crescimano's 'Pipe Dream' is to Redefine Architecture [Curbed]