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Meet Geraldine Witthuhn

Today we’d like to introduce you to Geraldine Witthuhn.

Geraldine, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I took a roundabout way of getting involved in architecture. I wasn’t one of those kids who knew they wanted to be an architect ever since they snapped their first lego into place. What I did know is that I loved the environment and I was accosted by the fact that there were people, powerful people, out there that wanted to harm it for their own personal interest. This outrage drove me to study politics, intern for a number of politicians, and work as an activist who knocked on many doors in many states and vigorously campaigned to pass environmental policies.

As enriching as this work was, I felt unfulfilled creatively. One night, while strolling through Austin, Texas, I came across several blocks of net-zero energy homes. This neighborhood triggered a realization that there was this impeccable approach to protecting our environment while also working in an artistic and challenging medium: sustainable architecture.

After listening to a few podcasts on the value of quitting, I left my job and decided to apply to grad school. At this point in my life, I had created next to zero artwork to put into a portfolio, but I had this inckling that I was creative. What I needed to do now was prove to myself that I was a creative who could actually create. I set to work exploring everything I could think of. I practiced my sketching, taught myself 3D modeling software, styled models for fashion shows, made stop motion videos, built light fixtures, took portraits of strangers on trains, learned how to use power tools and built a chicken coop….each new discovery fueling my curiosity and revealing to me that I could actually make things.

I heard a graduation speaker once say that people in my generation likely won’t just have multiple jobs, but multiple careers. Even if changing trajectories is more commonplace these days, it often feels like a risky move. I made my career shift on a hunch that I could make something else work, and a deep-seated to desire to find a form of self-expression that could also contribute to my community. This ceaseless curiosity and passion for sustainable design amplified in grad school and eventually led me to California, where I now work as an architectural designer.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I think like most people in creative fields, I have dealt with a healthy amount of self-doubt; questioning if my work is good or complete garbage…constantly worrying that I won’t come up with a worthwhile idea. But one of the trickiest challenges that I have had to face is learning to work with and prove myself, to people who might not take me seriously. The architecture and building industry is a historically male-dominated arena where egos run high. Being fresh to the profession, I have definitely had moments where someone overlooked me, doubted my credibility, or mistook me as the student intern.

I used to feel so terrible when one of these instances happened. If someone was rude to me, I would get more upset with myself than with that person and feel meek for not saying the perfect thing to demand their respect. What I always reminded myself after any experience that made me feel belittled, was that I should never let these people make me afraid to share my ideas and, instead, use these moments as motivation to work harder, know my shit, and build my confidence as a designer.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
My architectural explorations have been focused on creating spaces that reveal some insight about the state of our society and environment, while also fostering social interaction. I’ve really been inspired by the research-intensive and community-oriented work of people like Jeanne Gang and Alejandro Aravena. I myself have enjoyed focusing on revitalizing spaces and encouraging public engagement. Converting vacant lots into gardens and orchards, constructing parklets, designing restaurants that also restore local habitat, are a few of the projects I’ve worked on that aim to take wasted space and convert it into a community asset.

What are your plans for the future? What are you looking forward to or planning for – any big changes?
My aim for the future is to do more pro bono work for those who would love to have access to design services but might not have the means to pay for them. Thoughtful architecture has the potential to produce vibrant neighborhoods, a cleaner environment, reduced crime, and public engagement. These benefits should not be allocated only to the wealthiest of our society. Looking to the future, I would like to connect with others in my area to help increase access to good design for all of the people in my community, regardless of how much they can pay.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
All images are by Geraldine Witthuhn

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