Frances Halsband began working as an architect when few women were in that profession. Four years after graduating from architecture school at Columbia University in 1968, she and her husband, Robert Kliment, founded their own firm, Kliment Halsband Architects, eventually developing a specialty in cultural and academic institutions. She also served as dean of the School of Architecture at Pratt Institute, was architectural advisor to the US Department of State, Brown and Harvard Universities and Smith College and was a commissioner of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. She was the first woman to be elected president of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and served as president of the Architectural League of New York.
Halsband has reached the heights of her profession, but that hasn’t interfered with her deep engagement with Woodstock, where she has been a weekend resident since the age of 1. It was in Ulster County that she and her husband got their start, designing the Woodstock Village Green. Some of the firm’s other local projects include the Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park and the Sangha House for the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper. Halsband serves on the board of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild and contributed drawings for the just-published book by Gail Godwin, Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir. She recently spoke about her architectural practice and shared her professional insights with Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods from her Manhattan office.
What prompted your interest in architecture?
My parents had a country house in Woodstock, and when I was a teenager I used to go to the Arts Students’ League’s summer school there. [My instructor] Ed Millman taught art at the Architecture School at RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], and he would take his architecture students to Woodstock. They were 22 or 23 years old and glamorous, fabulous young men. What they were doing and talking about was so interesting. I thought, “I need to be doing this too.” I was fascinated by the combination of architecture and making drawings, and that it could have a social and cultural purpose.
You’ve attributed your success to being able to listen to different voices and then synthesize that into forms that respond to the aspirations and needs of your clients. That contrasts with the cliché of the architect as someone who imposes his vision upon the world.
For me, design doesn’t start out as an aesthetic approach, but from understanding a place and the people on the ground. Almost all of our experience is in working with cultural and academic institutions. It’s different from the development world or working for the government. We start by talking to and listening to the clients who will be using the place. We’re trying to find out about everything they want and need, and how they see themselves functioning in the new space.
I do a huge amount of research on the history of place. When you study the history, you find sometimes people are hanging onto an idea of the place that is no longer true, or the opposite. Either way, that is often a key to understanding the place that has been forgotten. What is this place and who are these people? Your job is to synthesize all designs to make the place more real and inspired.
Can you give some examples?
A few years ago we did a master plan for Smith College. They felt they had run out of space and needed to reorganize the campus and expand. Smith was built along the Mill River, and in the mid-19th century that river was a terrible, nasty place, with dumping from the mills. For that reason, the college was built close to the street and far from the river. But the river had been cleaned up – the part that ran through the campus has been renamed Paradise Pond – and the street had become a dangerous place, where students have been hit by cars. We said, “You have it backwards! You want to reverse the focus: to be close to the river and far from the street.”
When we looked at where they could expand, there was another place along the river, but they said, “You can’t build there,” because it had been a floodplain with railroad tracks. The tracks had been taken out and it had been turned into a beautiful rail trail and green space. But in people’s minds there was this 50-year-old memory that something was wrong. They hadn’t stopped to say, “Wait a minute, it’s been transformed.” We had to take the trustees over to see it. Now it’s the site of new engineering buildings.
Two years ago we finished a building at the Zen Monastery at Mount Tremper. That site had been through a lot of changes, and there was an old collapsed swimming pool, from when it had been a boys’ camp. We thought, “If we could put the new building there, we could repair the damage from the pool and make the place a crossroads for the monastery. We could fix it and make it better.”
How has your profession changed since you started in the early 1970s?
When we started, the history of a place was in our minds; but now the environmental issues about a place are absolutely in the forefront. We always knew that the more windows and natural light, the more wonderful the space would be; but now there are metrics to understand the number and size of windows. There are a lot of studies about how people function better in natural light and great computer programs that can measure the amount of light coming into a room, so you can design windows for the maximum amount of daylight and/or sunlight.
Before, if you walked into our office, you’d see people sketching. Now they’re at the computer, of course. It used to be, once you had those metrics of windows, you’d make a drawing for each alternative. Now you create a computer model and you can set up 100 different alternatives. The computer is a design tool that has transformed that whole process unbelievably. As a technical tool, you can also look at systems while you look at the planning.
Is there a downside to the computer?
What’s lost for the younger architects in our office is a sense of how big something is. On a screen, nothing has a size: The entire building is an inch high, and if you say to somebody, “How tall is that table?” they don’t know. You lose that sense of scale.
Do you engage with new materials as well?
A lot of new things have been invented, but we tend to be very conservative about materials. We once had a client at Columbia University who said, “I don’t care what my building is made out of, but it has to have been in successful use for 1,000 years.” He got a stone-and-brick building. You have to be cautious about new materials. You don’t know, for example, if a new sealant holding two pieces of glass together will hold up over time.
What about sustainability? Energy-efficiency is obviously a given today.
We’re interested, but very cautious about technology. We try to think of passive systems that will work. Let’s face the building toward the sun and not rely on mechanical things that might not survive. When we were doing the Zen Monastery, we all felt it had to be on the cutting edge of modern environmental systems. We looked at geothermal to heat the building, but when we studied it, it turned out there wasn’t a way to make it cost-effective, because the monks didn’t want air conditioning. When you took out the need for AC, you didn’t need to build an underground system that would provide cooling [as well as heating].
Of course insulation is much better now, and the double- and triple-paned windows are great. Those are passive elements.