Beverly Willis: Pioneering architect

April 21st, 2010  |  by  |  Published in People

Beverly Willis

UH degree: BFA ’54 Mānoa
Roots: Born in Tulsa, placed in an orphanage at age 6
Role model: Hawaiʻi developer Henry Kaiser
Best known project: San Francisco Ballet Building
Founded: National Building Museum in 1979
Cameo appearance: In the Charlot mural at Mānoa’s Bachman Hall
Other skills: Learned to fly a single-engine plane at 15 hoping to join the Women’s Air Service

A woman of restless energy and eclectic interests, Beverly Willis studied engineering in Oregon and art in California before pursuing Far Eastern art history in Hawaiʻi. After graduation, she founded the Willis Atelier in Waikīkī, continuing her fresco work.

Pioneering a technique for sand-cast mural panels, she designed the Shell Bar at the Royal Hawaiian Hilton that became a backdrop in the television series Hawaiʻi Five-0.

Returning to San Francisco, she opened Beverly Willis Design, which grew into a nationally competitive 35-person firm. In the 1970s she harnessed the computer to develop the Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis to employing environmental planning techniques in large-scale, multi-family housing projects. CARLA’s reliance on a site’s natural terrain to guide building placement was used in the Āliamanu Valley community.

Often the first woman in leadership positions (she was president of the California Council of American Institute of Architects, a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Conference on Habitat and member of the National Academy of Science’s Board on Infrastructure and Constructed Environment), Willis established the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation in 2002 to recognize American women architects of the 20th century. The foundation supports research about women in architectural and environmental engineering, landscape design, building arts, urban planning and historic preservation, as well as architectural history and criticism.

“Women are excelling in schools of architecture in the United States. Professors tell me that women tend to be their best students,” Willis says. Yet women comprise only about 15 percent of the membership of the American Institute of Architects. “The challenge we face is to change the culture of the practice to remove the roadblocks that drive women from the profession.”

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