17 March 2020

Power to Move Forward: Frances Halsband on Giving Back, Staying in Touch, and Ethical Behavior

11 March By Julia Gamolina, Madame Architect

Frances is a founding partner of Kliment Halsband Architects. Her varied roles as a designer, faculty member, and peer reviewer have provided a unique perspective on the many voices that shape planning and design today. She was the first woman president of AIANY and the Architectural League of NY. She is a former Commissioner of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, and has served as an Architectural Advisor to the US Department of State Office of Overseas Building Operations and the Federal Reserve Bank.

Frances received a Bachelor of Arts from Swarthmore College and a Master of Architecture from Columbia University. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Frances talks about change that she’s seen in her time in the industry and her new focus, advising those just starting their careers to not plan a career arc and instead to look around at opportunities in front of you.

JG: What first sparked your interest in architecture?

FH: My grandfather was an artist and my mother learned a lot from him. When she didn’t like something in our house she would just get out a paintbrush and paint a mural on the wall. I always thought that everyone did that – that if you didn’t like what you had, that you just went out and changed things. I found out later that apparently it’s not what people do, and in fact, very few people do that!

My first experience of meeting architects was in Woodstock, NY – my parents had a country house there. An art teacher from RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute] would come down to teach in the Art Students League there [in Woodstock] every summer, and he would bring with him some of his architecture students. I was fifteen or sixteen and surrounded by these glamorous nineteen-year-old men who were all architects.

All men?

Of course. It was a long time ago. We would go out drinking and I would think, “Oh, this is the life!” I got very interested in what they were doing and saw that it was a cool thing to do.

Then when I went to Swarthmore, one of [the architecture students I had met] was in Louis Kahn’s masters class at Penn, just about 10 miles away. I used to go there and charrette for him and build models, hang out and listen to Lou Kahn. That’s what did it.

What did you study at Swarthmore?

I started as an English major but I realized that if I wanted to hang out at Penn I needed to take fewer courses. I became an Art History honors major, so that I had to be there [at Swarthmore] only two days a week. And the rest of the time I was at Penn, which was incredibly exciting. Kahn was there and [Robert] Venturi, and the whole Philadelphia School, and there were amazing juries where grown-ups in suits would debate important issues. And so again I thought, “That’s what architecture is – sounds good!”

You then actually studied architecture at Columbia. What did you learn both about architecture and about yourself in studying it?

I learned that Columbia was not as good a school as Penn, at that time. Columbia was deep into Team 10 and theoretical issues, and I was more interested in what I had learned about architecture at Penn. But then Aldo Giurgola came from Penn to the Columbia program and suddenly everything changed. I became part of it. I didn’t have a career trajectory, I just looked for the most interesting and most fascinating people and things and attached myself to those things. I think that’s been my method all along.

That’s a good method. What did you first do out of Columbia?

It seemed to me that Mitchell Giurgola was the place to be, so I went there. Robert Kliment was my boss. After three or four years of working for Aldo [Giurgola], we woke up one morning and said, “Wait a minute, we can do this too, we can do this better. Let’s start an office.” So we did!

How long has it been now?

Oh my gosh, that was 1972! We have just started talking about planning for the 50th anniversary of the firm, in 2022, to see what we’ve accomplished.

Congratulations. I imagine it’s been an extraordinary ride. Take me through those 50 years – we have about ten minutes [laughs].

Well, we didn’t have a plan. Robert started [the business] and I continued to work at Mitchell Giurgola for a year so that we would have some money to live on. It took us three years to get up to $0 as an income level! When we would have a meeting with a client, we would call our friends and ask them to sit at the desks [in our studio at Carnegie Hall] and make it look like a real office! Sometimes a would-be client would go around and ask them questions about what they were working on. They would make things up [laughs]. But it worked, it definitely worked.

A couple of our first projects were given to us by friends. We also knew some people in Woodstock who were part of the art gallery scene, so early on we got to design a museum gallery and that won a Progressive Architecture Award. Suddenly, we were in the news and things took off.

Also we were both teaching at Columbia. Jim Polshek was Dean of the school then. Up until that point, the rule at Columbia was that if you were teaching there you could not design architecture for them, because they [Columbia] felt that it needed to be separate. Then Jim reversed that rule. Brilliant! We interviewed and got to renovate an old nursing home that they were turning into a dormitory. Again, that turned out to be pivotal because suddenly we could say that we designed university buildings, because we had done one! Most, if not all, work comes from being able to say to a client, “We’ve done this before.” Once in a while, a client will hire you because you’ve never done one before, but rarely.

Link to interview.

Madame Architect Frances Halsband

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