by: AIA New York
Beverly Willis, FAIA, was a pioneering women’s advocate and industry leader whose legacy lives on across the U.S. through architecture, urban planning, and public policy, and through the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), which she founded to help create a more equitable future for women in architecture. AIA New York and the Center for Architecture were saddened to learn of her passing on Sunday, October 1, 2023, in Branford, Connecticut, due to complications caused by Parkinson’s disease.
Born February 17, 1928, Willis began her career as an independent artist in 1954 and established her own firm as an architect in 1966, developing a design philosophy of humanism. In 1980, she was a founding trustee of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. In the 35 years she spent leading her own firm, Willis discovered that women were not represented in the practice and study of architecture. In 2000, she began working with architectural historians Diane Favro, Ph.D. and Lian Mann, Ph.D. Joined by Heidi Gifford, together they developed the research that led to the formation of the BWAF in 2002 as a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization with the mission of advancing the knowledge and recognition of women’s contributions to architecture.
According to a statement from BWAF, before her passing, Willis said: “I founded the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation to fight to ensure that women in architecture have the same opportunities as men to realize their dreams and to be remembered.”
Throughout her career, Willis received many accolades including the American Institute of Architect’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2018, AIANY and the Center for Architecture awarded Willis and BWAF the NYC Visionary Award, recognizing her leadership in advocating for equal treatment, equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal recognition for women in architecture and related professions. (Watch the video of her acceptance speech here.) She also produced, wrote, and directed several films on women in architecture, including 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright – ‘A Girl is a Fellow Here’ (2009), and Unknown New York: The City that Women Built (2018). Today, Willis is included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art on view through January 20, 2024, Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism, for her pioneering work on computer land analysis.
We’ve compiled several tributes from her friends and colleagues as follows:
“Bev was an amazing, complex and brilliant personality. I loved her partly because she reminded me of my dad; a take no prisoners, straighten up and fly right kind of person. Woe be-tide you if you didn’t measure up! Insightfully, she founded an organization that tackled gender inequality head-on by striving to get at the roots of the problem rather than (the more usual approach) dealing with the symptoms. Her ingenuity and persistence were remarkable; she came up with projects or solutions that could at first seem outlandish, but with her drive and intelligence, she would will them into success.
What a force she was! I guess I assumed that like the weather, she would always be there, and now that she is gone I will truly miss her. She left a big hole in my mental and emotional landscape that will be hard to fill.”
– Joan Blumenfeld, FAIA, FIIDA, LEED ID+C, Perkins+Will
“I have had the fortune to have known Beverly Willis, FAIA, over many years, having hosted her at FXCollaborative to speak about her career and support for women in architecture as well as bestowing her with the AIANY NYC Visionary Award in 2018, while I was President of AIA New York. She was a champion of advocating for equal pay, equal treatment and equal recognition for women in architecture and related professions. Through both her practice and the Beverly Willis Foundation she worked tirelessly to raise the awareness of female architects and their achievements. Beverly was a giant in the industry, and we will miss her, but her legacy will have a lasting impact on generations of architects and allied professionals.”
– Guy Geier, FAIA, FIIDA LEED AP, FXCollaborative; 2018 President, AIANY
“Beverly Willis, FAIA, devoted so much to making a lasting impact, not just on individual women in architecture, but on our whole community in New York. She was a force of nature, and by creating the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, she ensured that the amazing work she did will continue to reverberate for many more years to come. We’ve been proud to work with her and BWAF over the years, and our thoughts are with the many people who have been touched by Bev’s indomitable pursuit of equality for women in the profession. Her work does not end with her passing, and we are grateful to her and to those who will carry her legacy onward.”
– Jesse Lazar, Executive Director, AIA New York | Center for Architecture
“Our dear Beverly Willis has been a hero to me since I first met her in person at the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit in 2017. She devoted her life and foundation to championing women in architecture, those emerging in our profession, those leading now, and those who came before us. Her tireless effort in acknowledging, cultivating, and valuing women’s contributions and achievements in the built environment inspired me to do the same as the AIA New York Women in Architecture Committee Co-Chair for the past six years—in promoting, elevating, and advancing women in our industry through programs and events focused on Design & Leadership, Professional Practice & Development, Workplace Culture, and Advocacy & Activism. I remember serving alongside her on the AIA Brooklyn Women in Architecture Panel: Paths to Fellowship in 2020. She said: ‘We need to continue advocating for gender equity in leadership, as our collective voices will make an impact.’ Let’s all come together to support each other and pay tribute to her unwavering effort to date. Beverly’s dedication to her mission motivated me to do the same with the work I do for the AIANY WIA Committee. I hope we can forge ahead and help carry on her legacy. Our profession has lost a role model and an incredible woman. She will be greatly missed, but her spirit will remain with us.”
– Vivian Lee, FAIA, LEED AP, AIANY WIA Committee Co-Chair; Design Director, Gensler New York
“Beverly Willis was a force of nature who inspired and encouraged generations of women to take risks and own their place in the profession. Bev was a unique role model and one of our last remaining connections to the generation who did the hardest work to open architecture to women. I will miss her encouragement, her provocation, and her urgency to make change. Most of all, I will miss her friendship.”
– Julia Murphy, AIA, LEED AP, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill