Mary-Jean Eastman Helps Pave the Way for Women in Architecture

03/07/2019 By Robert Nieminen

Architecture is a man’s world. Women aren’t hired as often, paid as much or given as many opportunities for leadership as their male counterparts. In fact, women account for just 11 percent of employees in the architecture and engineering fields, according to the World Economic Forum. And only three of the world’s 100 largest architecture firms are headed by women, just two of which have management teams that are more than 50 percent female, according to a survey from Dezeen.


Photography courtesy of Perkins Eastman

That’s all in the process of change, however. CNN reports that the gender gap is closing in architecture schools, with nearly as many women graduating with degrees in architecture as men today. While parity is still a long way off, it is coming.

But well before equality was even considered a possibility in this field, there were women who broke the mold and forged their own paths to success in a male-dominated industry. Women like Mary-Jean Eastman, FAIA, co-founder of the global architecture firm Perkins Eastman.

Making a Mark on the Built Environment

During the course of her illustrious career, Eastman has worked on a number of notable projects that have garnered multiple awards and etched her imprint onto the architectural landscape. She is proud of the early work she completed in the public sector that remains as relevant and beautiful as ever. “The wonderful thing about public buildings is that they’re built to last; they’re still there, they maintain them, and they look great, so that’s extremely gratifying,” she says.

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Among the more recent examples of her firm’s impactful work is the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Josie Robertson Surgery Center in Manhattan, a 179,000-square foot, 16-story facility focused on providing the most technologically sophisticated surgical care for outpatient cases. The first of its kind, it is specially designed to engage patients and their families in their care, allowing them to return home quickly after their procedures. 

“Sloan-Kettering recognized that they had to get away from their reputation of only being a research organization and to become patient-centered, and we were privileged enough to be the firm who made the physical embodiment of the way they treated patients [happen],” she says.

Globally, Perkins Eastman has also worked with Half Century More, a significant leader in Japan’s senior care revolution, for nearly two decades completing seven communities for the country’s aging population. The first of those projects is the award-winning Sun City Takatsuki in Osaka Prefecture, featuring a building plan that utilizes the U.S.-based cluster design of small-scale neighborhoods.

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“Japan had no tradition of large public buildings other than temples,” Eastman observes. “So, the first hotels built in Japan were very influential. The public spaces [at Sun City] are kind of like hotel spaces, and it was wonderful to work with the craftspeople, and we collected local designs and used them for the custom patterns in the carpet and all of those things, so that was another wonderful experience,” she adds.

A Seat at the Table

Growing up in Montreal, Quebec, Eastman says her father’s lifelong desire was to be an architect—a passion he set aside during the Great Depression out of necessity to support his family by becoming a food chemist instead. Sharing her father’s interest in architecture, Eastman recalls the feeling that it wasn’t a viable career path even at an early age. “I certainly remember that I wasn’t supposed to do that when I was 10 years old. I told everybody I wanted to be a teacher even though I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher,” she says.

But after enrolling at McGill University and doing well in honors mathematics, Eastman decided to switch to the college’s architectural program (her class of 70 had six women in it). Upon graduation, she was accepted to University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture, which led to a summer internship with the prominent English architect Colin St John Wilson. The firm was working on a project for the British National Library, which gave Eastman the opportunity to engage in programming for the facility, as well as studying libraries across Europe.

“That [experience] was very formative for me because I realized that I was interested in difficult problems, and programmatically complex buildings certainly interested me,” she says.

In 1974, Eastman moved back to Montreal and landed a job working on the planning, design and operations of all the facilities for the 1976 Olympic Games—her first exposure to “big room” projects that would prove to be a pivotal step in her career. “From the beginning, the construction managers and all the engineering disciplines, everybody worked together in the same room. And that was a wonderful experience because I was 26 years old, and I got to see how everything came together and how all of the disciplines work together,” she says.

Eastman then relocated to New York where she met her current business partner, Brad Perkins, FAIA, who was working at Llewlyn Davies at the time before moving to Perkins+Will. Eastman later joined him before the duo left and founded the firm of their namesake in 1981. Although it was practically unheard of for a woman to co-lead an architecture firm at the time, Eastman says she and Perkins worked side-by-side on projects together, often out of necessity.

Photography by Chuck Choi ►

“At the very beginning, I recognized that you had to have a man at your side to work with development clients,” she recalls. “In general, the development community was closed to us [as women].”

During the late 80s and 90s, as opportunities to work on public projects in New York City opened up—including a library, a police station and a courthouse—so did Eastman’s ability to take the primary role as an architect. “I could lead those projects because the people on the other side of the table were women. In government, women were your clients,” she observes. “Then, I started working on healthcare projects and, again, the healthcare industry is still dominated by women, even at leadership levels. So, those were client groups that were very accepting because there were women on the other side of the table and that actually was an advantage to be a woman with those clients,” she explains.

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Providing women a seat at the table and ensuring diversity remains alive and well is something Eastman is passionate about. In fact, Perkins Eastman employs a number of women in leadership positions (see accompanying photo on p. XX), many of whom have worked at the firm for several decades. “We have a group of women who are very diverse and several of whom have worked with us since the 80s. We are all over 60, and I’m 71, so we’ve been around a long time. I guess we joke that we broke the glass ceiling,” Eastman says.

Passing the Torch to Next-Generation Architects

When Perkins and Eastman founded their pioneering practice 38 years ago, their plan was always to pass it along to the next generation. To that end, Perkins Eastman announced in February a transition of leadership within the firm. Shawn Basler, AIA, Nick Leahy, AIA, and Andrew Adelhardt III, Esq., will lead the 1,000-person firm going forward as co-CEOs. While turning over day-to-day leadership responsibilities of an organization that they collectively grew for close to four decades, Perkins, Eastman and J. David Hoglund, FAIA, president of the firm, will remain full-time in executive leadership roles supporting the success of this new generation of leadership and will lead strategic initiatives that align with their individual passions and focus areas. Basler, Leahy, and Adelhardt will develop Perkins Eastman’s services and design capabilities on a global scale and will continue to serve markets where the firm can make a positive impact on people’s lives.

“Eight years ago, Perkins Eastman decided that we were going to be an employee-owned firm,” Eastman recalls. “Previously, we hadn’t insisted that our principals be the owners of the firm, but now we are aggressively transferring our ownership to the next generation of leadership. [Recently] we announced that we have transferred the top leadership of the firm to the next generation, and I will be working to transition my role as managing principal and focus on the architecture that I’m passionate about,” she says.

Eastman says the firm has also decided to divide its board into three councils that are responsible for office management, design leadership across practice areas, as well as developing third-generation leadership. The members of the latter group were selected based on merit from the firm’s various offices, and Eastman says eight of the 12 members are women, which speaks to how much the profession has changed.

“More than half of the people graduating from architecture schools are women, and they certainly have much more confidence than we did in my era, when we sort of knew to not to be overly aggressive,” she observes. “They show wonderful leadership, so we feel very fortunate.”

To young architects in their careers—both women and men—Eastman reminds them that “architecture, particularly in a large firm, is a team sport.” While some may be interested in the more technical aspects of design, others like Eastman may be inclined toward management. Whatever the case, she suggests: “You need to find out what you want to do,” and then go do it with passion and purpose.

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