Women in Architecture: An Interview with Gisela Buzzelli and Susan Chandler
“The boys won’t let us play in the block corner,” I remember my daughter telling me on her way home from nursery school years ago. Today it is exciting to see girls and boys alike playing with first sets of blocks, Legos, and a variety of magnetic tiles as they design their own creations. As reported recently in The New York Times, currently nearly half of architecture students are women. But “where are all the female architects? Why are so few sticking the industry after graduation?”
Two women in our firm, Gisela Buzzelli and Susan Chandler, respond to the Times article as they reflect on their own architectural trajectories.
What significant experiences drew you to the field of architecture?
GB: In high school I took some art classes and drafting. But really what interested me the most was analyzing the shapes and the spaces between them. I was very interested in art but my family encouraged me to think of a more practical career. They probably would have preferred engineering, but I preferred drawing and architecture.
SC: I really wanted to be an artist and go to art school, but I also have a practical side. I happened to have a friend whose father was an architect and that kind of made a bell go off in my head!
What would you advise girls today interested in becoming architects?
SC: You should find out as much as you can about architecture and what it’s like by talking to people in the field. Try to get a tour of an office or an internship job at a firm. But your job should not be getting coffee for the people working there! It is a very satisfying profession. You’re going to have a great time, although it is going to take years of training and vision, if you want to have your own firm someday.
GB: I had my first internship with a female architect in an interior design firm and even though architecture and interior design are very different, it was a great experience. She took me under her wing and taught me how to speak up and say exactly what I mean as far as what needs to get done to get the job done. Finding a mentor can make a tremendous difference.
What continues to motivate your work in the field?
GB: It’s so gratifying to see a line drawn on a plan become a reality! I enjoy applying things I have learned and being able to guide people to resolve the problems in their space or dwelling to make it more comfortable. You have to find the balance between your own opinion and understand and accept the client’s visions.
SC: I love always learning something new. It’s just a magical process. The creativity is greater than the sum of its parts, and you can come up with a wonderful project.
What are some particular issues you faced as a woman in architecture?
GB: I remember my first project for the owner of a construction company. He referred to me as the secretary. “No, I’m the architect, here to design your apartments,” I said, and the entire time he called me “sweetheart.” I knew not to really react to it, but I really just wanted to wring his neck. To this day, very often you go into a construction site and they question what you know, just because they don’t think you can put things together.
SC: There’s also a human issue of what you do when you want to take time off for family, whether it’s for children or parents. When you get away from it, you feel it’s harder to get back. You have to have some way to keep in the game, continuing education or part-time work.
GB: In a previous job, when my employer found out I was pregnant, he said, “Having one child is manageable, having more than one child is questionable.” Those were his exact words. You have to have your priorities figured out, and that changes throughout the years.
What personal attributes contribute to your success in the field?
GB: You have to have a nuanced understanding of space. You have to be able to think on the spot, to revise ideas, and to read people. It involves psychology, to understand what people’s real needs are and to read between the lines.
SC: You have to bring a vision to the work. What’s most gratifying is working with really great clients and coming up with something that they love and appreciate. You feel really good about something new that’s never been created before.