As Vice President of Flansburgh, Kelley Banks has been practicing architecture for twenty years. She has a wide range of experience in project types including performing arts centers, dormitories, libraries and classroom buildings and has international work in places like Lebanon, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Nepal. As busy as she is, Kelley was able to squeeze in time between traveling the country and working on award winning projects to give us insight on the importance of hard work and knowledge. Read her thoughts and advice to emerging professionals here.
How did you get to where you are, Vice President at Flansburgh?
Being hardworking, being flexible and able to adjust to what clients or supervisors might ask for. Being willing to do mundane tasks as well as tasks that seem over my head. Being dependable, having a very high bar of excellence and making sure I have done everything I can possibly think of before showing something to a boss. Never using the phrase “good enough.”
What do you love about Architecture? What is your favorite project?
I love the combination of mathematical order with sublime beauty. I love the idea of making beautiful geometry. My highest goal is to make a building that can come as close to beautiful as something in nature. My favorite project is what I am working on now. By the time I am finished with a project, I rarely love it - seeing everything I should have done better. My favorite building in the world? Too hard of a question. The modest MIT chapel is up there, the Alhambra in Spain, jealous of the Shed in NYC.
What motivates you every day?
Definitely having a project type that I feel is a noble pursuit - design of schools - motivates me.
Have you had to make any sacrifices because of Architecture?
Other interests because of the time demands of the job. For the past 7 years I’ve been traveling a lot for work so I can’t really take a class if I wanted to or plan things without the possibility of having to cancel. I chose not to have kids, so I don’t consider that a sacrifice.
What challenges have you faced while establishing yourself as a leader in the field and howdid you overcome them?
Mainly challenges of confidence - just feeling like there was so much I didn’t know for the first 10 years. I definitely remember feeling at the 10-year mark, “Ok, now I think I have a handle on this.” Then it becomes about trying to get better and better.
Have you found any advantages / disadvantages of being a woman architect?
I have not experienced many blatant examples of sexism although it is notable how many times I am the only woman at a table, or certainly on a job site. And there is no question that being young and female makes it a challenge to have any sort of gravitas required to command a situation. At 43, I am only now beginning to feel I have some bit of that gravitas. I have sensed women clients not trusting me, which is a societal problem. I am not sure there is an advantage to being a woman architect, at least not at this point in our culture. I might say being able to listen is an advantage but I have many male colleagues who are very good at that too.
In your years of experience, how has the culture of design changed?
It seems different in every firm. In terms of non-architects, I think the value of design is at a general cultural low especially in public buildings and middle class housing, at least in America. Imagine being an architect in the 1880’s when every library, post office and bank was a beautifully designed little structure. It makes being an architect even more challenging because you have to sell the value of good design which some people just can’t understand or bother to care about.
If you were able to change any work-related policy in the Architecture field, what would that be?
I really don’t like the architect-as-workaholic ethos, which starts in school. I am a well-rounded person, I like to play sports, I like movies and books, but I have not been able to do nearly as much of that as I wish because of the culture of single-focus. I guess that is not really a policy, more of a culture thing.
What positive / negative qualities do you see in young professional designers today?
I see young designers being fearless, being confident which is really good. I worry about the “screen-view” limitations on designers now with very few young designers ever taking out paper and pen. I believe in a brain-hand connection and the kind of thinking and overview that can be had on paper, where you can see the whole plan in front of you at once. I myself am drawing less than I used to as well, and it is something I want to get back to. Luckily, our office uses the tool of physical models for all our projects and that allows for some of that same creative thinking.
What challenges do young designers face from your perspective?
External challenges of a changing future with climate change and economic uncertainty. Our profession gets hit hard with low economic periods and one has to foresee that and position themselves in a way that might minimize their chance of losing their job. Internal challenges of finding a project type that is meaningful to them and figuring out how to take ownership of even the smallest part of a design. Once you start taking ownership of things and really caring about them, that’s when you get noticed.
What is the relationship between more experienced staff with young designers in your office? What works well?
Our office is an open studio and experienced staff are available for young designers to go to at any time with questions. We are small enough that people can easily walk over and seek advice. We operate in a fairly flat way, where everyone is often working on their own project. This gives younger designers some real opportunities for self-direction, but I think that can be also a danger, if an inexperienced designer doesn’t know what they don’t know. We do tend to have an office of fairly high experience-level, 7+ years.
What practical tips would you give to young designers?
My practical tip would be to become knowledgeable at as many aspects of the profession as you can: construction detailing (notice that is first), design, marketing, proposal writing, etc. No amount of networking or collaborating can take the place of pure knowledge. Knowledge gives confidence, which leads to respect and value, which leads to advancing in a career. Also, set yourself a high bar of excellence within the time allowed for even the smallest things - everything matters.