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Curbed Groundbreakers 2018: Beginning a conversation on architecture and mentorship

Four years into our annual award for innovative architecture, we’re rethinking our approach

In a year that’s seen the architecture profession grapple with issues of sexual harassment and gender-based workplace discrimination; racial representation (or a lack thereof); and architects’ abilities to help mitigate the effects of a warming planet, one thing has, once again, been made clear: Design doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

That idea has always been the drumbeat of Curbed’s annual Groundbreakers awards. For the last three years, we’ve highlighted up-and-coming architects working at every scale in an effort to show that smart design can lead to stronger blocks, communities, and cities.

This year, though, we’re doing something different: Rather than conduct our usual nomination process, we’ve asked previous jurors and Groundbreakers winners to talk to us about mentorship and collaboration, in an effort to further dispel the myth of the virtuosic architect working alone—and learn about the folks whose work we should be keeping an eye on.

“It would’ve been great to have a mentor right out of school—and outside of [my] friends,” says architect and 2016 Groundbreaker Nadine Maleh, who serves as the Institute for Public Architecture’s executive director.

When asked about her experiences with mentorship, formal or otherwise, “my instinct was: ‘I haven’t had that experience,’” says Maleh. “Most people have those professional allies or confidantes in their lives,” she adds, name-checking her own (like her former boss, Rosanne Haggerty, of the housing organization now known as Breaking Ground, and of Community Solutions). But as a student—and, later, as an early practitioner—Maleh did not.

Stella Lee, a 2015 Groundbreaker and cofounder of New York architecture and design studio Bureau V, echoes Maleh’s sentiments. In October, Lee, one of five women who came forward last March with sexual harassment allegations against Richard Meier, published a New York Times op-ed about the architecture profession’s apparent disregard for sexual harassment among its ranks.

Like Maleh, Lee noted a lack of institutionally sanctioned mentorship opportunities during her years in architecture school. “It’s only now, as a practicing architect, that I feel I have a community I can turn to for advice,” says Lee.

And both speak of continuing to find inspiration in their peers. “The people who I go to for advice are often women and are often a little older,” says Maleh, “whether or not they’re specifically [in architecture and design].”

2017 Groundbreakers juror Marlon Blackwell, principal of Arkansas studio Marlon Blackwell Architects, spoke of being taken under the wings of both professors and practitioners, which, he admits, involved a not-insignificant amount of privilege. “Early on, I had principals at firms I worked with who said, ‘Here—here’s a project you can do on the side to [expand your skills],’” says Blackwell. “I had mentors in firms in Boston who showed me how to edit, and how I could solve a problem with one or two ideas, rather than 22 ideas.”

And, in the end, a conversation about mentorship is really about what Blackwell describes: access to advice, experiences, and opportunities. What kinds of talent could the profession nurture if more people had that kind of exposure, Lee mused?

It’s a big question with no small or easy answers. But next fall, Curbed will host a Groundbreakers symposium, open to the public, that will aim to offer answers to that question—and shine a light on the emerging architects tackling design issues big and small.

Watch this space for more, and in the meantime: Dig into the details of Curbed’s approach in 2019.