The Source for Richmond Architecture and Design Information

Interview: Helene Combs Dreiling

Helene Combs Dreiling is executive director of the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. Dreiling oversaw the recent foundation of the Branch, which evolved from the Virginia Center for Architecture which she also headed. In 2014, she served as president of the American Institute of Architects after some two decades on the national board of directors. Dreiling has practiced architecture throughout Virginia including at her Roanoke based firm, The Plum Studio. Dreiling spoke with ArchitectureRichmond’s Don O’Keefe earlier this year at the Branch Museum.

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What was your introduction to architecture?

I had always thought I was going to go into art. Then, very late my senior year, my father said “have you ever thought about architecture?” Going into that field, you could utilize your creativity but, more importantly, you could make a difference in the world and help people. It was sort a life changing moment to hear him say that because back then the number of women going into architecture was quite few and my guidance counselors would never have steered me in that direction.

Diversity is a big issue in architecture.

This has been an issue for as long as I can remember. Interestingly, when I went to school, there were a lot of women at Virginia Tech. I don’t think it was quite 50% but it was really high for the late 70s. There were models of women and people of color that we could look to and I think that’s part of what we suffer from as a profession; there aren’t necessarily those role models for young people.

What contribution has the American Institute of Architects (AIA) made?

Things are getting better but it is still very slow. We still are at a point where probably 20 to 25 percent of the profession is female. The numbers of AIA members who are women is growing; it’s almost up to 20 percent. A very high percentage of the women who are licensed are members of the AIA. I think … that it’s going to become, over time, a non-issue. It’s going to take years, maybe two generations, which is a really long time to wait. But because of where I see our associate members, and those who are graduating schools of architecture, [there are] already much more diverse attitudes. The perspective that women and minorities have is different than white males and that is a good thing.

You have been with the AIA in some capacity for more than 20 years. How did that start?

When I graduated college in 1981, my boss [was] president of the AIA Tidewater chapter and I had to work closely with him to manage his AIA activities. I became involved more significantly when I moved to Roanoke in 1986. I was quickly asked to chair the design awards for AIA Blue Ridge and from there I moved into the leadership track. The unusual thing is that I leapfrogged over the state level and went straight from the being president of AIA Blue Ridge to the national board of directors. I started when I was 37 which [made me] the youngest director to have ever been on the board. That was 1995, so for two decades I have been involved at the national level.

During your tenure as President of the AIA in 2014, what needed to be changed?

I focused on cultural transformation. In many areas we don’t enjoy the stature we would like because people consider us a luxury. Architects have incredible things to offer their communities, not just their clients, [but] a lot of architects are pretty introverted. To get them to involved can make a difference, whether its civic engagement, city council, some kind of elected position, or just being involved in the community.

AIA encourages architects to directly engage in civil service?

Yes, we engage architects and give them the tools and the support to get out of the office and involve themselves. As architects, we can envision futures which don’t yet exist and it makes an extraordinary difference. So my emphasis during my presidency was to transform the profession so that more people value design and realize that it affects their daily lives.

It is a one year term. What issues could you address within that time?

Fortunately I was part of a string of leaders who were really committed to continuity. Architects, for all the vision we possess, haven’t designed our own future, so one of the other things I spend a lot of time on in my presidency was to strengthen our relationships with architects in other parts of the world. [We provided] more support to chapters we have off shore including chartering a new chapter in Shanghai. The one in the Middle East is the fastest growing chapter anywhere.

What is the role of AIA abroad?

Many of the professional societies of architecture around the world look to the AIA as a model to emulate. We have a very active role in the International Union of Architects. We don’t try to throw our weight around, but [we] provide leadership. There are many programs, continuing education or the young architects program, where I could point to any number of countries that have essentially copied those because they thought they were such strong programs. There are fantastic professional societies of architecture all over the world, and many of them have their own strengths, but we do provide a lot of inspiration.

Tell us about the recently formed Branch Museum of Architecture and Design.

In this last year or so, we have made significant transitions in moving from being the Virginia Center for Architecture to the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. Our audience is the public, not architects and not designers. The AIA continues to be one of our greatest supporters, but we are an independent organization.

What changes will accompany this transition?

We have ambitions plans. Part of that [is] a study area about design and the design process, because what makes designers different is the process that they go through. We want to dedicate one space to various hands-on activities that would help children. We also are moving towards a permanent exhibition that spotlights the rich architectural heritage of Virginia, which I think is the most amazing of the states, having influenced architecture all across the US. We have a new curator [Craig Reynolds, now museum director] who has a PhD in art history with a specialization in Virginia architecture. The academic rigor that he brings really elevates the educational content that we are able to offer.

Will there also be temporary exhibitions?

Yes, we expect to use more of the first floor for gallery space including changing exhibitions. We will have things that are very topic specific and can rotate on a different schedule which will create a rich variety. We want to develop a curriculum which centers on the Standards of Learning (SOLs) so that we can be a regular destination for those students that come to Richmond to visit the Science Museum or the Historical Society.

What will be the focus of temporary exhibitions?

I think it will be very wide [including] projects from all over the world. We will always have something throughout the year that spotlights some feature of design in Virginia. We also want to spend more time on issues that some might consider tangential to design, but I think are highly important. They are areas where design can make a huge difference for the problems of the modern world: resilience, design in health, well being, and, of course, sustainability.

When can we expect to see these changes take place?

I think you will start to see some exhibitions very soon. The cost of mounting the permanent exhibit is enormous so, unless a benefactor comes along who wants to become the main supporter of that, we will be spending a lot of time collecting funds. Our goal had been to open that in 2018. In the meantime I think everyone will see a lot of evidence of this new direction and also more outreach to other parts of the state. We’ve started creating exhibitions that can be broken apart and taken to other parts of Virginia.

How is the Branch positioned within Richmond’s museum community?

We feel that there is a special place for us. There are a number of centers of architecture, but there really aren’t many design museums in the United States. There’s the Cooper Hewitt in New York, the design museum in Atlanta. In the middle part of the atlantic … our effort is to put a stake in the ground, and to be an umbrella organization for architecture and design in Virginia. And again, because architecture has played such a large role in our state, even back to precolonial times, it is a story that needs to be told.

Thank you for sharing your vision for the Branch. To conclude, I’d like to ask you about Richmond. What are your thoughts on the city and where it seems to be going?

I find Richmond to a be really vibrant place. There is so much going on. There is an alive creative community, and we feel that design is a big aspect of that creative set of pursuits. So we are really thrilled with what our place might be.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the city?

We, as a place, still think of ourselves as not being able to cross barriers or borders: the river, the interstate, the East End and the West End. I would hope that, overtime, the inhabitants of the city can commingle. I know some people who live in the West End who would never go downtown. That’s just crazy to me. Speaking architecturally, I would be thrilled with more of a comfort level with the juxtaposition of new and old, where the new structures pay homage to the traditional but don’t feel like they have to mimic it. Whether it’s form, massing, or materials, the elements of the architecture can be there buts its not trying to do what has been done. There is a place for all these structures. I was just in DC recently and there was a really comfortable mix, and it works. People are excited about that and it is energizing. I think getting out of that mold of being so traditional might be a good thing.

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More information on the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design can be found here:

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