Human-centric approaches to better design buildings, cities, and surroundings are a 21st-century phenomenon. Concepts of adaptive reuse, interactive public spaces, environment-friendly designs, conservation, urban planning, and policies are new-age coined words which are developing with time. If one looks back, Architect Beverly Willis has been doing all this since the 1950s. Working with up-and-coming design trends and with her New York City-based foundation that is helping women in architecture grow and gain deserved recognition. 

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Beverly Ann Willis_©

Early Life and Education 

She was born in Oklahoma in February 1928. She went to the orphanage at age six because of her familial and financial background. She learnt to fly planes when she was fifteen to support the war effort during World War 2. Her life and these experiences inform her pioneering work. Being an orphan shaped her professional approach. She has always taken risks and done new things without prototypes. In the architecture, engineering, and construction industries, she incorporates new methods without hesitation in her structures.  

Careers and Office 

In 1954, she graduated from the University of Hawaii and established her art atelier in Honolulu. In addition to painting on canvas and fresco murals, she also created wooden sculptures and sand castings. She was commissioned to create pieces by clients such as the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the Hilton Hawaiian Village, United Air Lines, and the United Chinese Society.

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Beverly Willis Mural_©

Her accomplishments as a large-scale artist led her to be commissioned by military officers stationed in Hawaii, for whom she completed interior design and renovation work for their officers’ clubs after World War II. She learned to manage projects and organize architects and contractors at this job. In 1958, she opened a design office in San Francisco, California. 

The two years she commuted to Honolulu to complete her commissions were a great learning experience. 

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Beverly Willis at work on her fresco for the United Chinese Society, Honolulu _©

She became nationally recognized for her skills as a multi-media artist in San Francisco, where she designed retail stores’ interiors. She became a licensed architect in 1966, qualifying for the licensing exam as a self-taught professional.

Her previous design privileges were limited to buildings under three stories in height.

Work and Project 

The first designed house is in Napa Valley in 1960 for Roxanna and Abbott Robertson. In the years following her licensure, the architect designed many types of buildings. She took a different approach by applying the same design sensibility to every building and establishing a recognizable identity. Using organic proportions, new materials, textures, light, and colour that visually communicate to the senses, Willis designed buildings that communicated effectively to the occupants or viewers. As well as fitting easily into their surroundings, her buildings were environmentally conscious. Therefore, each of her buildings is unique. 

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Abbott and Roxana Robertson country house_©pioneeringwomen

Her designs were a base for new approaches toward building typology. She designed and transformed Victorian houses on the 1900 block of Union Street into shops and restaurants as an adaptive reuse project. This design was appreciated as the start of the modern historical adaptive reuse movement. She also co-founded the United Street Merchant association and assisted as a designer for the other store owners. She designed The Capricorn, her cookware store, to define a new niche of industrial design theory of ‘Good Design Sells’. 

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Union Street Shops Drawings_©pioneeringwomen

In the 1970s, she presented a new national model for urban churches, which were getting neglected and losing their importance. As many moved from suburbs to cities, many churches were left behind, and Glide Church was one of them. She designed a church as dual function church with a multi-purpose room. She created two-way sound and high-tech systems that allowed the audience to interact. This new building helped attract people from all over San Francisco. 

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Glide Church_©

Willis and her associates adopted a new town approach when suburban development was booming. Willis developed and coded a computer program in-house to achieve specific design goals for large-scale housing and land developments. CARLA (Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis) was set for large-scale land planning for the first time in the United States. Across the country, it was implemented. An American Institute of Architects Fellow was elected to honour her achievements in 1980.

Famous Structure – San Francisco Ballet Building

The San Francisco Ballet Building in 1983 was the first in the United States designed exclusively for the use of a ballet company and school. Willis developed a prototype design based on her observations of dancers and their movements, her analysis of the company’s activities, and her laboratory tests of various flooring and lighting designs.

The final building design accommodated all company and school activities except set storage. In addition to their 56 by 40 feet size, all eight rehearsal and classroom studios have a 15-foot-high ceiling to accommodate lifts. Aside from administrative offices and a library with advanced audio-visual equipment, the design provides multi-purpose spaces for academic and choreographic studies and meetings. A computer room, a physical therapy room, showers, locker rooms, and a gym are available to students and company members. A community outreach studio on the ground floor and the ballet shop are also open to the public. 

San Francisco Ballet Building_©pioneeringwomen

Design, according to Willis, encompasses more than just buildings: it encompasses everything we see, touch, and experience daily. Similarly, designers are also part of environments that extend far beyond the office and play a vital role in making decisions within society.

References :

Beverly Willis (2017) The Montgomery Fellows. Available at:  

  1. (No date) Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation. Available at:  
  2. Beverly Willis: A biographical essay (no date) Beverly Willis (Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress). Available at:  
  3. Bubriski, W. (1928) Beverly Ann Willis, Pioneering Women of American Architecture. Available at:  
  4. Stratigakos, D. (2016) Where are the women architects? – places books, Places Journal. Princeton University Press. Available at:  
  5. Beverly Willis Architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright foundations among national endowment for the humanities grant recipients (no date) Archinect News. Available at:  
  6. Cubarrubia, E. (2020) Beverly Willis’ legacy: Architect pushes deserved recognition for women, Engineering NewsRecord RSS. Engineering News-Record. Available at:

Radhika is a storyteller first and an architect second. She believes that architecture is a powerful tool to address society. It is one of the easiest forms of art which is directly used and understood by every person, for ages. She is a writing enthusiast, who loves to capture the world and her ideas with pen, paper and lens.

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