Women in Architecture: Beverly Loraine Greene

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting someone who accomplished many firsts in the architectural world, Beverly Loraine Greene. Greene’s drive helped to catapult her into the Chicago and New York City architectural scenes, where she would later revolutionize the lives of many. Learn more about her extraordinary life and work below: 

The Life of Beverly Loraine Greene

Greene was born on October 4, 1915, in Chicago. Her family was part of the Great Migration of the early 20th century that transformed Chicago’s South Side into a vibrant community. After spending her childhood in Chicago, Greene moved to Champaign, Illinois to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign where she studied architectural engineering. 

At school, Greene participated in the drama club and the American Society of Civil Engineers, where she was the only Black and only women member. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1936, the first Black woman to do so, and decided to stay an additional year to complete a master’s degree in city planning and housing. 

The Chicago Housing Authority’s Ida B. Wells Homes, 1941, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Following the completion of her master’s degree in 1937, Greene moved back to Chicago, where she was hired by the city’s Housing Authority. In Chicago, she supported local theaters by painting and designing sets and costumes and began establishing contacts with notable Black architects of the time, which would lead to some of her first major projects. 

Notable Work and Achievements

Greene’s first official architectural job began at Kenneth O’Neal’s architecture office – the first Black-owned architecture firm in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood. The same year she returned to Chicago, Green and a group of 20 others organized by architect Paul R. Williams developed preliminary architecture plans for a public housing project on Chicago’s South Side. After years of struggle, the Chicago Housing Authority acquired the site for the project named the Ida B. Wells Housing Project, honoring the anti-lynching activitst and journalist who shared the same name. 

Because she was working for the Chicago Housing Authority, Greene spent much of her time drafting and designing the Ida B. Wells housing project, built from 1939 to 1941. The project included 1662 units and was built to house Black families in Bronzeville. The need for housing was so great that more than 17,000 individuals applied to live in the Wells project after its completion. 

The UNESCO Headquarters, 1957, Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries
The UNESCO Headquarters, 1957, Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries

In 1942, Greene registered for her architecture license in Illinois and became the first Black woman to be licensed in the state and the country. In 1944, Greene left Chicago to work in New York City as an architect with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Greene worked at Met Life for only two days before leaving to become a full-time student at Columbia University, where she completed her master’s degree in architecture in 1945. 

Greene spent the next few years in New York City working for architects Isadore Rosefield, Edwards Durell Stone and Marcel Breuer. Much of the work Greene completed under Rosefield involved hospital design. With Stone, she helped design the University of Arkansas’ new theater in 1949 and part of Sarah Lawrence College’s Art Complex in Bronxville, New York, in 1952.

While working with Breuer, Greene helped complete two separate renovation projects in New York City. She also assisted Breuer in his designs for the UNESCO United Nations Headquarters in Paris and various University Heights Campus buildings of New York University. 

Greene was a spearhead in her field, being the first Black woman to accomplish many of her achievements. Even after facing every hardship she faced in her career and life, she found work in some of the country’s most acclaimed architecture firms and was a champion for the countless Black women who followed her.

A Brief History of the Wassily Chair

When we set out to build intentional spaces, we extend our design sensibilities into every finish and furnishing. And with most of our selections, each piece has a story behind it. Today, we explore the history of the distinct and iconic Wassily Chair.

The chair itself started with Marcel Breuer, the Hungarian architect and designer. Breuer studied at the Bauhaus under Walter Gropius, quickly becoming his protégé with his outstanding sense of design and ingenuity. By the early 1920s, he was considered a master carpenter at the school. The legend goes that Breuer purchased his first bicycle and was so inspired by the lightness of its frame, he wanted to experiment with something similar in furniture design, using curves and tubing in construction. Thus, the Wassily chair was born.

Marcel Breuer sitting in a Wassily Chair. Image courtesy of Britannica
Marcel Breuer sitting in a Wassily Chair. Image courtesy of Britannica

Fabricated using the techniques of local plumbers, the tubular-steel structure would become Breuer’s signature touch on furniture. At the time, the design was only technologically feasible because German manufacturers had perfected the process for seamless steel tubing. Without a welding seam, the tubing could be bent without collapsing. The structure was finished by straps of fabric, pulled tightly to create a sturdy but comfortable place to sit. Like many other designs in the Modernism movement, the Wassily Chair has been mass-produced since the 1920s, its allure is still impactful today. At present, the trademark name rights to the design are owned by Knoll, who integrated the Wassily Chair into their catalog in the 1960s. 

Whether it welcomes residents as they enter the lobby or invites conversation in an amenity space, the Wassily Chair plays perfectly with the design aesthetic and sensibility of our spaces at Optima. 

100 Years of Bauhaus

This fall, we honor the historical significance of 2019, which marks 100 years since the Bauhaus movement was founded. 100 Years of Bauhaus, a centenary exhibition, gives us the opportunity to look back on a school of thought that has not only influenced our own design, but the design and thinking of the world for over a century. 

The Bauhaus School of Design was borne out of necessity 100 years ago during the harsh political climate of post-World War I Germany. Founded by architect Walter Gropius, the school sought to combat the rise of industrialist manufacturing that was swiftly outpacing human craft and comfort. The ease and speed at which product was created at that time had greatly diminished aesthetic value and the way that design affect those that interacted with it. Things were, quite literally, looking bleak.

The Bauhaus solution was to bring back craftsmanship, combined with fine arts to make it stronger. The school aimed to combine all art forms in order to create one unified piece of art that could bring a sense of beauty and wonder back to the viewer. The Bauhaus did this through a sharp focus on form, function and aesthetic, ultimately creating art products that were abstractly beautiful and evocative. 

Stacking Tables designed by Josef Albers.
Stacking Tables designed by Josef Albers.

Most notable products of the Bauhaus school were furniture and wallpaper — including Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel “Wassily Chair,” inspired by his bicycle, and Josef Albers’ stacking tables.

In 1933, the school was closed due to the increasing pressues of Nazi Germany, causing its students and members to disperse across the world. As the disciples of Bauhaus spread, so too did its unique theory and ways of thinking and creating. The last director of the Bauhaus before its closing, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, came to Chicago, where he rethought and revitalized the architecture program and campus at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Mies’ vision for IIT earned the school the title of “the second school of design,” with the Bauhaus being the first. His involvement at the Bauhaus heavily influenced the new architecture program at IIT, and therefore influenced David Hovey Sr., co-founder of Optima, as he studied there years later.

One can see the influence of the Bauhaus, Mies and the Modernist masters that came before us in the designs of Optima. Like the Bauhaus, we place a heavy emphasis on form and function in all that we design; and like Mies, our work places emphasis on open space and revealing materials. When Gropius first decided that the Bauhaus School of Design must involve all processes into the creation of one, higher art form, it set in motion the ideologies and design principles that have shaped who we are today.

Today, Bauhaus thoughts and designs continue to influence all fields of design — and if something isn’t made in the Bauhaus school of thought, it was probably made in counter-response to it. At Optima, we continue to be influenced by, and inspired by, the fascinating, careful and unique emphasis that the Bauhaus has brought to the way we create. 

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