Ask the Architect: Liz Leber


Liz Leber, managing partner of New York practice Beyer Blinder Belle, drives her firm to work with clients who have a clear “mission”, but also strives to extract their core project objectives. She explains the “creativity, pragmatism, and optimism” she brings to the job

What made you want to become an architect?
The father of a close friend was an architect; he designed the family’s house, which was very contemporary in style at the time. It opened my eyes to thinking about space in an entirely different way. I never lost the bug to become an architect from age 8 onwards, though I’m glad I went on a few tangents during my undergraduate years.

What do you like about it most?
I love that I am learning every day, even at this point in my career. And I love knowing that the spaces we create will have a positive impact on occupants.

Can you give an example of your ‘inquisitive nature’ in practice?
In the early phase of a project, I treat programming interviews like I’m moderating a talk show – the more questions I ask, the deeper I get to the heart of the matter. And I am still involved with consultants on some of my projects. The multi-disciplinary aspect of that work feeds my curiosity and love of knowledge.

How do you go about extracting clients’ core objectives?
I ask a lot of questions, I listen very carefully, and I synthesise what I hear. The less they try to translate their objectives into spatial ideas, the better – I want to hear them in their own voice, their vocabulary, to truly understand where they are coming from before I (or they) make any design assumptions.

Is architecture sometimes more about being a good diplomat than being an extraordinary designer?
I wouldn’t say it’s more important, but it’s an important part of the job, particularly with my institutional clients. For as much time as we spend getting the design just right, I spend the same amount of time framing the narrative and facilitating the decision-making process with the client team.

How do you maintain a healthy equilibrium between work and personal life?
I love what I do and I have chosen to make it my time priority. But I also love seeing friends and family, practising my hobbies, and being outdoors. It doesn’t take much time away for me to feel restored and energised to continue working.

Can you name a favourite project you’ve worked on?
That’s like naming a favourite child! My favourite projects are the ones that are tapping into the best part of my brain space on any given day. A sampling at the moment includes hometown icons New York Public Library and 92nd Street Y; transformative academic projects at Harvard, Penn, and Phillips Exeter Academy; and my work for Jewish institutions, which have personal significance to me.

Do you think the pandemic has changed you?
The pandemic has certainly made me scrutinise many issues I might not have in the past. It’s made me a better leader, I think. It’s put a magnifying lens to issues and working methods that happen every day in our firm, or in any business, and has compelled me to think more deeply, react a bit more slowly, and consider many perspectives.

What’s your biggest current design challenge?
Most of my projects involve existing buildings, historic fabric and campuses. My biggest design challenge these days is to effect timeless design in those contexts, adding a chapter to the story of a place. There’s a lot of communicating, facilitating, and educating to bring clients along on that ride.

Do you design on paper or on computer?
I don’t design on the computer. Sadly, when the industry converted to Building Information Modelling, it felt late for me to try to pick up that skill. I rely on trace and lots of markers when I actually get the time to draw. And I’m a pretty skilled editor within PDF documents – my own 21st century red pencil.

What do you most enjoy about being at BBB currently?
I’ve been our firm’s managing partner for just over a year now. That’s my new adventure, and I’m really enjoying it. It’s allowed me to have a new perspective on the business of architecture and fix my eyes on the horizon a bit more. I enjoy doing what I do for BBB so that my partners and all the staff can shine at what they do.

How do you think having a good ratio of female to male partners and principals benefits the firm?
I believe more female leaders benefit any endeavour, including BBB. We’re not fully there yet, but we’re getting better. I don’t want to generalise about gender characteristics, but I know from experience that our women leaders – at our firm, in our industry, of our clients – bring a different perspective that is much valued and much needed.

What industry innovation would really give a boost to architects?
Besides fees that value our creative time and energy? Any innovation that bridges the relationship gap between architects and contractors is welcome. For the best projects to be built, we need to be on the same team, and not just contractually. It’s a two-way street, and there are process and technology changes – some of which BBB is researching and implementing – that would make it easier for us to be better partners.

What’s your current favourite material for use in designs?
There are so many. I love felt as an acoustic material for its warmth and colour possibilities. I love wood for its connection to nature, even in the most urban of projects. I’ve always loved cork as a flooring material that can last for more than 100 years, and still look timeless.

What’s your big short-term goal?
Finding the best balance of remote work and in-person collaboration and mentorship for our field. I can’t wait to settle into whatever the new normal ends up being – I’m confident it will be a happy and creative place.