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(Paul Warchol)

Unafraid to be unglamorous

A design firm run by women turns unsexy projects into award-winning architecture

It's hard to imagine a duller commission for an architect than the renovation of the Tobin Bridge Administration Building.

Perched in the framing of the bridge that spans Charlestown and Chelsea and suspended 120 feet above the ground, the structure has such a low profile it can barely be seen. "We're a box stuck up under the lower half of the bridge, nine stories off the ground," said former Tobin Bridge director Mary Jane O'Meara, now interim head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. "We are the trolls of Boston."

But back in 1983 when this rusting corrugated steel box needed an overhaul, Boston architects Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel had just started their own firm and were in no position to be picky. When the project came their way they made the most of it, designing an elegant, modern facility to house the mundane administration of toll collection that remains "a little gem hanging under the bridge," says Cambridge architect Charles Redmon, a principal of Cambridge Seven Associates.

With its airy, light-filled offices, vaulted ceiling, curved hallways, and glass block partitions, this little gem - along with other unsexy infrastructure projects, community buildings, campus buildings, and courthouses - earned Leers Weinzapfel Associates one of the country's top architectural prizes. The 2007 AIA Architecture Firm Award is the highest honor bestowed by the American Institute of Architects upon an architectural firm, awarded to only one US firm each year; Leers Weinzapfel Associates is the first firm owned by women to receive it.

There are no super-tall, attention-grabbing buildings in their portfolio, no grand residences of the sort noticed by prestigious magazines like Architectural Digest. At a time when there's a growing culture of architects-as-celebrities, one of the most striking things about their work is that so much of it is unglamorous.

Among the projects submitted to the AIA jury were the Hanscom Field Maintenance Building in Bedford, which provides for the repair and storage of snow plows and trucks; a chilled-water plant at the University of Pennsylvania; the Smith College fitness center; and the George Robert White Youth Development Center in Dorchester operated by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston.

"We gravitate toward projects with a public purpose," says Weinzapfel, who is immediate past president of the Boston Society of Architects. "Places that will be used by children, students, the public at large."

They have, of course, done projects with higher profiles - the expansion of the Harvard University Science Center; a Harvard University Library multi-service facility on Mount Auburn Street; a rebuilt MBTA Operations Control Center on High Street; the Cambridge School of Weston Mugar Center for the Performing Arts; the Fenton Judicial Center Courtroom in Lawrence. (Courthouses are one of the firm's specialties; they're working on courthouses in Florida, Taunton, and Maine.)

And the firm has recently converted the building that houses Harvard's Hasty Pudding Theatricals on Holyoke Street to the graceful state-of-the-art New College Theatre, which opens this week.

The firm's work is characterized by simple forms and simple materials, partly out of necessity, since many of their projects have small budgets. Natural light is another big theme, generously incorporated through the use of skylights, stacked windows, glass ceilings, and glass walls. "People do better work, better thinking, and are more joyous and less confrontational with natural light," Weinzapfel says.

Where some see an unevenness to the kind of projects the firm takes on, others hail its commitment to the public realm and to a design aesthetic distinguished by a clean Modernist focus.

"They undertook very interesting assignments from the public sector . . . that often have very meager budgets and people who may not have worked with architects before, and have provided them with wonderful places," says Redmon, a past winner of the AIA architecture firm award who presented Leers Weinzapfel's work to the institute jury.

The University of Pennsylvania chiller plant would seem like a structure better hidden than celebrated, given its prominence at the gateway to the campus. But Leers Weinzapfel decided to go bold with it. They seamlessly integrated an imposing 70,000-square-foot water cooler with the university's athletic field, wrapping the chiller plant in an elliptical, perforated stainless steel screen wall that gives the impression of being extraterrestrial. The project, completed in 2000, won a slew of awards and "raised the backwater of a physical plant of a university to the level of a civic monument," says Boston architect Nader Tehrani, principal of Office dA.

"We've always liked things that are gritty," says Leers "It prompts us to be very inventive. People don't have a preconception of what a chiller plant has to look like."

The 30-person architectural firm behind all the kudos is a surprisingly humble operation in a profession known for being "quite rarefied," as Andrea Leers sees it. (They were joined by two other principals in 1998, Josiah Stevenson and Joe Pryse). In contrast to other high-profile Boston architecture firms with artsy, interactive websites and austere offices making bold design statements, Leers Weinzapfel Associates in Chinatown's old Boston Costume building is decidedly low-key.

The office is a single open space, accommodating the firm's collaborative approach to design. ("There is no ownership of ideas here," Stevenson says.) It's a cheerful office infused with natural light; a glass-topped table in the waiting area spoofs the famous iconic one by Isamu Noguchi; the base is colorful kids' toy plastic instead of wood.

And in the spot usually reserved for a traffic-stopping receptionist there is a vintage grand piano, played from time to time by both Leers and Weinzapfel.

"When we moved into our former office we decided we could either get nice lobby furniture or a piano," Weinzapfel says. "There are days when the piano is solace. Occasions when it's been a very trying day and it's just you and the cleaning person and the piano."

You get the impression they have a lot of those days. "There are only three guaranteed good days in every project," says Leers, the day after she got back from Paris, where she gave a series of lectures, in French, on courthouse design. "The day you get the job, the day the bids [for construction] come in low, and the day of the dedication, when everyone stands up and takes a bow. In between there is so much hard work, and some really hard days."

She adds: "This is one of those other good days."

Leers is sitting in the auditorium of the just-completed New College Theatre in Cambridge, settled into one of the brand new lush crimson seats; the building is finally completed after two years' of work, and she's brought a photographer to take pictures of it.

"I'm really loving being in the auditorium," she says, with obvious delight. "Loving it! It's such a nice space."

She says she feels a tremendous sense of authorship toward this building. "The design and building process is a very long one, and usually the architects are the only people there from beginning to end. College presidents come and go. The project managers come and go. The users come and go."

Leers, 65. grew up in Springfield, and studied art history at Wellesley College and architecture at Penn; she teaches at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Weinzapfel, 64, grew up in Tucson and studied architecture at the University of Arizona.

Both were deeply influenced by legendary architect Louis Kahn - Leers directly, since he taught at Penn while she was a student there, Weinzapfel because her own professors had studied with Kahn.

"He had tremendous interest in materials and structure and light, and in timeless forms that were not ephemeral," says Leers. "Those are the underlying things I took away from him."

Their mutual respect for Kahn "was a shared vocabulary, a way to think about architecture that remains important," Weinzapfel says.

They also shared the experience of being among a tiny handful of women studying architecture in the 1960s, a time when few women were entering professions. "When they did, it was medicine - at least it was one of the helping professions," Leers says.

She became hooked on architecture after a post-graduate semester at MIT. "I was really quite oblivious to the unusual-ness of the choice," she says. "There weren't even enough women around for us to talk about it."

She met Weinzapfel when they were in their early 20s and both interning for the same Cambridge architecture firm. They went in different directions for about 10 years, and in 1982 decided to form a partnership.

"It was a novelty then for two women to have their own firm, and we thought, 'Was this going to be too weird for people to handle?' " says Leers. "Then we said, 'So what?' Those people just didn't become our clients. We appealed to risk takers, people who wanted to do something new and different. Not to people who wanted [architects] just like themselves - big corporate clients. "

A quarter-century later, they say their profession is still not welcoming to women. Although increasing numbers are entering architecture schools, women represent only about 13.6 percent of the American Institute of Architects, a demographic Leers attributes to a stubborn perception that architecture is "technical field-oriented work that is traditionally men's work," and to a diehard "old boy's network" that excludes women from many referrals.

They remain best friends. "We placed our friendship first; that has been the premise," says Weinzapfel. "There is a very deep level of trust and understanding over many years. I feel like Andrea is another sister, and she feels the same way."

They know it's inevitable that there may be architects who feel that they received the award because it was time for a women's firm to be honored.

"The award is not because we are women," Leers says. "We are architects first. Alas - alas - it's news [when women win an award.] It should be normal. For us, it's just the backpack we have carried, and we don't even notice the weight of it."

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