Newsletter | May/Jun 2012

Wendy Bertrand: Enamored with Place: As Woman + As Architect

by Eliza Hart

Eye on place Press is pleased to announce the launch of Enamored with Place: As Woman + As Architect, a memoir by OWA long time member Wendy Bertrand.

Wendy Bertrand’s thought-provoking memoir strikes a distinctive chord, chronicling the experiences of a working single mother on a mission to thrive in her chosen field—both personally and professionally—despite the odds. A licensed architect, Bertrand received her architectural degrees from UC Berkeley in 1971 and in 1972, a time when only 3 percent of architects were female. Although her career trek began 40 years ago, her story is surprisingly pertinent today. Ironically, for the first time in recorded history, women outnumber men on the nation’s payroll (New York Times, 2010), yet salary inequity has remained unchanged since 1972; women still on average earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar. But, there is much more to social equity than money. Wendy Bertrand innately sees through the glass ceiling and beyond; a sense of vision that demands action. Inspiring, informative and sometimes heart-wrenching, Bertrand’s book is as much the memoir of an innovative and creative professional as it is a clarion call to redefine workplace “norms” for working women, most of whom are also working parents.

Raised in the 50’s by a free-thinking single mother who designed airplane wings for a living and collected folk art from around the world, Bertrand was by nature a designer, a lover of place and a maker of things. She’d grown up in a home free from conflict about gender roles, accomplishment or ambition. Launching into the world with an inquisitive and independent spirit, she found the road ahead filled with unexpected challenges, detours and alliances — experiences that significantly developed and honed her thinking. Her adventures spanned the globe and continued a lifetime. A shoestring-budget trip around the world at age 19 included living and studying in Paris, hopping a barge carrying crates of oranges to the Port of Alexandria, and crossing the Sahara in the back of an open truck filled with cartons of cigarettes and North African men. That trip sparked a lifelong love-affair with place; its personality, visual impact and cultural implications. Her brief marriage to a deceptively charming Frenchman simultaneously led to the discovery that she was well suited for a career in architecture (the thought had never crossed her mind)—and two years later to the birth of her daughter in a Communist Chinese hospital. Defying gender expectations of her day to become an architect, Ms. Bertrand spent 18 years as a civil architect for the Navy, finding ways to apply her passion for social justice to building design and management style as she advanced up the professional ladder. For instance, in 1975, while overseeing the early design stages of a large recruiting facility in San Diego, Bertrand insisted on including women’s facilities for female dentists—over objections from the Navy, who could not foresee the existence of female dentists and therefore saw no need to accommodate them.

Bertrand now divides her time according to the seasons: winter for writing, summer for weaving, and traveling in fall or spring. Through it all, she has never lost her personal style, designing her life, clothes and homes to suit her practical and artistic sensibility. In the epilogue, Ms. Bertrand shares with us her concerns about the architectural profession’s long-standing conservative workplace culture and structure. She also offers up practical wisdom and controversial topics worthy of discussion by a wide audience—students, professors, citizens, workers, and managers— and introduces a bold futuristic concept about the making of place: a concept she calls "placitecture".

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