Biography: An Image of Beverly Willis

On a cold day in 1932, a five-year-old tomboy climbed out of a truck from alongside her father. It was late at night, and they had just ended a twelve-hour drive back from the nearest town, carrying with them replacement machinery for a broken oil rig. In front of them, the road faded into the dust of an Oklahoma oil field. The barren earth, dotted with creaking steel machinery, was saturated with a thick oil film. In the darkness, circles of blackness gleamed under occasional spotlights.

Beverly Willis’s life as an artist and architect begins here. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1928 and weaned on these Midwestern oil fields, Willis experienced an America awestruck by the machine, nostalgic for the days of westward expansion and determined to preserve its puritan ethic. From the landscape of oil fields and pioneer homesteads, and later from institutional homes, Willis was drawn into the world of building.

Willis became an architect in part to make sense of American rural ideals. Her architecture reveals none of the grand theoretical abstractions that dominated the work of the European avant-garde during her youth. Instead, it stems from rural pragmatism—from a desire to tackle the reality of life. The anguish of building, of clearing and shaping the land, coupled with attention to the forces that allow a project to come into being: the social factors and know-how that a working architect must assimilate.

Rooted in early images and myths, Willis was able to forge a path unique in a profession that still scorns the abilities of women builders. She has explored painting, industrial design, architecture and urban planning. By the late seventies, at the zenith of her career, she headed one of the few architectural firms in the country run by a woman, had several large-scale civic projects in the works and had built herself an estate in the Napa Valley. In short, she found her voice.

Willis’s father, Ralph William Willis, married Margaret Elizabeth Porter, a nurse, and founded the ambitiously named National Tool Company while still in his twenties. In doing so, he put an end to a long line of pioneers extending back to the early eighteenth century. His daughter never knew the pioneer life, but the image was deeply ingrained in her. Willis’s paternal grandfather, Charles William Willis, had struggled to forge a community and tame the wilderness. The family lore glorified his experiences.

Charles William Willis built a fashionable mansion in Broken Bow, Nebraska, symbolizing the triumph of rural innocence and persistence. As a homesteader allotted a parcel of land under the federal government’s Homestead Act in the boom years of westward expansion, Willis made his fortune pioneering. At the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair, he found an impressive prototype of a Queen Anne-style house, which he took back with him to rural Nebraska.

The vast dwelling was firmly planted on a hill. Willis, together with his extended family, refashioned the raw property using trees gathered from his lands. With a gabled roof, sweeping porch, shingle cladding and erect demeanor, the house echoed another persistent image in the American collective unconscious: the castle on the hill with the pristine picket fence. Here everyone contributed to the work, and the images of home and creator fused: to live was to build.

The Broken Bow house was not only a victory over harsh elements but a model of how permanent connections to the land are forged. The young Beverly Willis took great pride in her connection to this symbolic structure. She yearned for such a home, an ideal that she experienced only through photographs. The stately mansion stood in strong contrast to the more brutal images of her own childhood landscapes.

The Oklahoma oil fields of Willis’s own youth constitute another cultural layer, aggressively focused on an industrial future. Here, life was most visible in the rigid, violent rhythms of the pumps that rocked back and forth twenty-four hours a day and the derricks that sometimes spouted without warning. Scattered haphazardly among the machinery, the workers’ housing was, like everything else, temporary: wood-frame, one-story, shotgun-plan huts, covered with tar paper to protect inhabitants from the harsh climate.

There were few women around. The men, bound in a struggle with machines, worked around the clock according to the rhythms of the pumps. As they groped over the derricks, moving in and out of the darkness, Willis followed them. She was both attracted and disgusted by this landscape: the energy and tension contrasted with the horror of the soot and oil that stuck to her body.

It is tempting to see Willis’s later career as an architect as a quest to rediscover the more pristine landscape of her grandfather’s family, but both the genteel and the brutal images are equally romanticized. More importantly, both convinced Willis that the world could be shaped on any scale, by anyone. They are images of struggle against adversity: man struggling with the massive and relentless machine and an untamed natural landscape shaped by rural persistence and idealism.

Under the strains of the Great Depression, Ralph Willis’s business foundered. In 1934, Willis’s parents divorced. Willis and Ralph Gerald (“Budd”) Willis, her only sibling, were taken from the oil fields and left in an orphanage. There, enclosed behind concrete-block institutional walls, they encountered a predictably oppressive world. The dreariness and the rigidity of the institution reinforced each other: the children were taught that the imagination was worthless. They were not encouraged to forge their own paths.

Willis pitted this image of a drab life under the crushing weight of unfeeling institutions against her early memories of rural life, even at its most violent. One could either overcome one’s environment, as had the men in her youthful memories of the oil fields, or be destroyed by it. Willis rightfully credits the images of ruggedness that had framed her childhood as allowing both her and her brother to establish a fierce—while resented—independence at the orphanage. In fact, these images liberated her curiosity and drove her to design.

The social changes that faced women with the advent of World War II fed this deeply embedded sense of independence. Suddenly women had broader—if short-lived—opportunities. By the time Willis was seventeen, she had worked in a welding shop, learning to rivet, to wire equipment and to practice woodworking. She dreamed of enlisting in the Woman’s Air Corps and did learn to fly a plane, but she was too young and had to content herself with a pilot’s license.

With the end of the war, Willis entered Oregon State University to study aeronautical engineering. She sensed, however that the door of opportunity that had been opened briefly to women was beginning to close. Not satisfied with the path offered to women in the post-war period – marriage and motherhood – Willis was still searching for her calling. After two years, she withdrew from Oregon State and worked for a brief stint in a lithographer’s studio. A year later she left for San Francisco.

San Francisco—the city that would one day become the center of Willis’s creative work—was at this point only another way station. She entered the San Francisco Art Institute, apprenticed as an actress and built sets. Her art studies led to a one-woman show of watercolors at a local gallery, but Willis did not find sufficient opportunities to test her skills. Prodded by two Chinese artist friends who saw connections between her paintings and Asian art, Willis drifted further west to Hawaii.

For Willis, Hawaii relentlessly fueled the exhilaration that comes with making things. Perhaps the calm isolation of island life gave her a first taste of rootedness. Willis quickly inserted herself in the island culture and made Hawaii her home. She studied fresco painting under Jean Charlot at the University of Hawaii, graduating in 1954 with a Bachelor of Fine Art. She continued to paint and began to explore abstract techniques, such as those practiced by the Dutch De Stijl, an early modernist movement.

Hawaii, with its lush soil and greenery, offered the antithesis of the machine. Willis began designing: a bar and tables for the “Shell Bar” of the Sheraton Hawaiian Village Hotel, being developed by Henry Kaiser. Featuring sandcasting embedded with Pacific Ocean seashells, the project used a variety of indigenous materials and organic forms. (It later became the stage set for the television series “Hawaii 5-0”.)

Willis worked closely with Kaiser, who became a role model. He possessed the mettle and aggression of the oil-field hands but also owned a contracting company, a cement mill, and aluminum, steel and automotive factories. Kaiser was equally drawn to Willis, who shared his entrepreneurial spirit. Their conversations gave Willis an insight into a scale of operation that helped her fuse her interests in art and building.

Willis returned to San Francisco in 1960—still with no formal architectural education—with a new sense of mission. She continued to pursue her many interests and talents, now compressed and distilled by her Hawaiian experience. Willis opened a self-styled design firm that took on an array of projects: furniture design, a set of mixed-media panels for United Air Lines, the renovation of a supermarket display and the design of office interiors. She embraced the design tenets of the early sixties: good design equaled profit, and Willis soon profited from her talents.

Meanwhile, the population of San Francisco had swollen during the postwar years, and the city was entering the early phases of a preservation and renovation boom—a movement that foreshadowed similar efforts across the country. Willis, despite her rural sensibility, began to immerse herself in urban designs. She found that her interests ran parallel to those of local architects like William Wurster, who designed Ghirardelli Square and Joseph Escherick, who designed the Cannery.

Four young entrepreneurs commissioned Willis to convert three small Victorian buildings into a complex that included several stores and two restaurants. The result influenced the design of Union Street between Gough and Pierce streets as it is today. Willis preserved the original buildings but jacked them up an entire story so that she could add an extra floor below. Willis’s masterful and unabashed blend of marketing and architecture was an aesthetic and commercial success. As such adaptive reuse of historic structures proved profitable, the movement gradually flowed east, influencing the adaptation of Faneuil Hall and other sites.

Meanwhile, Willis’s ebullience and energy continued to push her into new arenas. Still unwilling to confine herself to a single focus, Willis opened a gourmet cookware store on Union Street. The shop, which Willis finally sold in 1970, was a financial watershed.

By 1966, Willis, in her mid-thirties, was a licensed architect and the only woman in San Francisco with her own firm. Her work increasingly took precedence over her personal life. In building, she could create an ideal environment—one devoid of the conventional domestic role—a tradition that she felt had failed in her own childhood home.

As a woman without the traditional architectural academic training, Willis felt uncomfortable within the strict borders of architectural practice in San Francisco. Instead, she cultivated a social life similar to that of her early life in Hawaii. She spent time with developers, businessmen and political figures, as well as with architects, and she inevitably entered the politics of architecture and planning. Willis served on the United States delegation to the United Nations conference on “Habitat” and became a trustee and founder of the National Building Museum in 1976 and the president of the California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1979. Her work became more politically engaged as she took on projects nationwide.

As the firm grew to thirty-five people, Willis began working on several large-scale prototype buildings, including an unbuilt design for nine regional computer centers for the Internal Revenue Service. Her belief that a universal set of principles could guide architecture was expressed most clearly in her early work with computers. Here she could also address the issues that most affect building a new world on an enormous scale: planning, density and land-use economics.

CARLA (Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis)—a computer program that Willis developed with Eric Tiescholz and Jochen Eigen—comes from a time when many felt that architecture could engineer the social fabric with machinelike efficiency. Willis’s firm was one of the first to explore such systems across regional boundaries. CARLA received national attention and was used all over the country, including back in Hawaii.

Willis returned to Hawaii to work on a project unimaginable twenty years earlier, when she first came to the islands. She now worked on the scale of the social engineer, designing 525 buildings, nestled in the crater of an inactive volcano, for some 12,000 residents. CARLA programmed the density and siting to ensure that the results were “ecologically scientific,” taking into account simple landscape issues that had been all but forgotten by developers who were essentially strip-mining plots of land throughout the sixties and seventies. The project was constructed in less than two years.

Such large-scale projects culminated in the design of the San Francisco Ballet Association Building. Completed in 1984, this was the second building added to the city’s historic, French neo-Renaissance Civic Center. Fusing many of her ideas, the Ballet building was a prototypical machine for dance, that also responded—if abstractly—to the local scale and proportions.

Despite the growth of her firm, Willis adjusted her interests once again. The economy of the eighties entered a tailspin, and large projects (most notably the 24-acre Yerba Buena Gardens redevelopment project in the heart of San Francisco) were stalled or cancelled. Moreover, San Francisco was far from the intellectual debates that were beginning to stir up the profession. Willis, secure in her professional and financial accomplishments, increasingly wanted to engage these discussions directly.

Her trips to the northeast seacoast became more frequent and lasted longer. In 1991, she moved to New York City permanently. Two years later, Willis was awarded the Montgomery Fellowship at Dartmouth College. Her work there, primarily her featured lecture, led her to a reappraise the images that inspired her career and work and generated the underlying theme of this book.

Willis’s eclectic experiences encouraged her to grapple with many facets of art and architecture as well as to confront the practicalities of building. Yet the consistency of her underlying images make the work coherent. These images are the memories that drove Willis to design.