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Blueprints for Change

Helene Combs Dreiling has thrived in a profession that hasn’t always been welcoming to women. Now she brings a newly refreshed world view to the Virginia Center for Architecture.



The golden light of late afternoon filters through translucent windows of the Branch House, the Harry Potter-esque home of the Virginia Center for Architecture. It's opening night for "Design 2014," a jurors' choice exhibition of the latest in regional architectural, landscape and historic preservation projects.

Helene Combs Dreiling, the center's executive director and a practicing architect, glides across the floor of the handsome, well-lighted galleries. There's no sign of jet lag despite a return from Paris and Brussels the day before. Amid achingly perfect photographs on super-sized panels, she greets beer- and wine-sipping patrons with a handshake here and an air kiss there.

During her almost four years at the helm of the Virginia Center for Architecture, Dreiling's devoted much time to gatherings both large and small in the continuous and not unrelated activities of friend-making and fundraising.

Thriving cities embrace a sense of place. And there's no greater contributor than architecture — from the tiny cobblestones underfoot to the soaring lines and arches of downtown high-rises. Classical shapes and evolving design, the character that surrounds us, details etched into history. The museum is the caretaker of that story: where we live, work, worship and rest.

"This is a huge gift we're giving the community," Dreiling says of the center, which opened in 2005. Its goal is to further the understanding of architecture and design and its influence on our lives. But it's also one of Richmond's best-kept secrets, despite a prominent location at Monument and Davis avenues and that it's open daily — and free.

The 1919 Tudor revival mansion was designed for Richmonders Beulah and John Kerr Branch by the New Yorker and noted architect John Russell Pope. He was here creating Broad Street Station, now the home of the Science Museum of Virginia, and later was celebrated for his designs for the Jefferson Memorial and National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Inside the Branch House, an almost curved, wooden staircase leads you to Dreiling's cozy office. It's eclectically decorated, with touches of her favorite color, aubergine, in chairs and pillows. The windows offer views of the Jefferson Davis monument and a seasonal riot of candy-corn-colored maple trees.

But looking inward, Dreiling faces dual challenges: maintaining a national historic landmark while strengthening a young institution in an already culturally saturated region.


The Branch House, home of the Virginia Center for Architecture at 2501 Monument Ave., was designed in 1919 by prominent architect John Russell Pope. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Branch House, home of the Virginia Center for Architecture at 2501 Monument Ave., was designed in 1919 by prominent architect John Russell Pope.

"We are the nation's largest and most historically significant center for architecture and its only statewide center," she says, citing Virginia's legacy and engagement with design pre-dating Thomas Jefferson, when the classical ideals of proportion and appropriateness for buildings were introduced the new nation. "Virginia has the richest architectural tradition, some would argue, because of the notable buildings we have built over a great length of time."

"But we want to elevate the discussion and cultivate what is already going on architecturally," she says. "Good design affects lives and can be transformative. In many places such as Sweden, Finland, Australia and Shanghai there's an expectation for strong design. Here in the United States we don't have that."

Despite a smorgasbord of exhibitions, lectures and tours, the center's focus isn't just on the state's buildings, but also design beyond the commonwealth. Such internationally renowned architects as Michael Graves, Steven Holl and Jorge Silvestri have made recent appearances.

A perennial draw is the Branch House itself, exquisite architecturally inside and out. It was intelligently restored by the Virginia Foundation for Architecture, the parent of the center, at 27,000 square feet the largest residential structure in Richmond. Considering its size, and its 11 levels, it isn't without challenges as a public facility.

There's also Richmonders' perpetual grappling with parking. When the center moved in, residents of the surrounding upscale blocks of Monument Avenue and the Fan District weren't shy about expressing concerns that the attraction would disrupt neighborhood quietude. They held the center's feet to the fire with strict parking regulations and evening event limitations.

But assuaging neighbors' concerns while embracing them was priority one when Dreiling assumed the directorship in January 2011. And adequate parking has been secured.

The foundation's board chairman, Joseph Wells, an architect in Northern Virginia, recruited Dreiling for the post because of her excellent reputation for effective outreach as a chapter volunteer and employee of the American Institute of Architects, the profession's umbrella organization.

"She's carried us through a difficult time reaching a mutually beneficial relationship with the neighbors," says former foundation officer Will Scribner, founding partner of the SMBW firm and former president of the Virginia Society of the AIA. "We're not seen as interlopers but as a contributor."

A longtime Monument Avenue resident and local physician, Wyatt Beazley, calls Dreiling a savior. "She has reached out to the neighborhood and has heard everyone," he says. "She is a tremendous leader who gets along with people. She has the institution in her heart while still making it a neighborhood place."

Helene Dreiling, the Virginia Center for Architecture executive director, chats with a guest Oct. 30 at the opening reception of “Design 2014,” a juried show. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Helene Dreiling, the Virginia Center for Architecture executive director, chats with a guest Oct. 30 at the opening reception of “Design 2014,” a juried show.

With parties rowing in the same direction, Dreiling's immediate plans for the center include changing its name to the Virginia Museum of Architecture and Design. The moniker embraces architecture and landscape architecture plus the fields of graphic, product, industrial and fashion design. "We will become in name what we already look like," she says.

For guidance, as well as professional courtesy, Dreiling consulted Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts about the name change.

"What I thought would be a five-minute chat turned into an hour and 20 minute discussion," she says. "He found the word center confusing. Was it a think tank, something exclusive? Alex said museum translates 'open to the public' and he endorsed the change."

Dreiling predicts that the re-branding will be transforming.

"I sit on my front porch across the street and watch the Branch House and watch people approach it," neighbor Fran Zehmer says. "They look at the Davis memorial and then look at that high brick wall surrounding the center. It comes across as a closed place, for architects only. Changing the name is going to mean more people will go in."

A new permanent exhibition being developed, "Virginia by Design," will explore the state's architectural heritage and be geared to the Standards of Learning, or SOLs, for all grades. Other future programs include one focusing on livable communities, and an exhibit tracing the career of Charles Robinson, a prolific Richmond architect who designed college campuses across the state, including Virginia State University, the University of Mary Washington, James Madison University, Radford University and the College of William and Mary. And in a nod to local excitement over the international cycling races next September, a bicycle design exhibit coinciding with the event will emphasize the center's newfound inclusion of industrial design.

Dreiling may be the right woman at the right time to lead the museum into its next chapter. If anyone has a unique vantage point on the world of architecture and how it can translate to Richmond, it's her.

In the last year she's served as president of the 87,000-member American Institute of Architects. It's a high honor for any architect, but especially significant because only two other women have held the office in the professional organization's 157-year history.

Her one-year term as the ambassador of American architects and architecture, which concludes next month, has taken her far beyond Monument Avenue to destinations both national and international. These visits to the front lines of architecture should put her in good stead as she advocates for good design locally.

"To have someone of this stature in our stable elevates our city and state," architect Scribner says.

Dreiling often travels with her husband, Mark McConnel, an architect who practices in Blacksburg. Her official trips to Asia, Australia and Europe have been eye-opening, she says.

"You hear people badmouth Americans, but our experience bore out the opposite," she says. "And the AIA is really respected abroad and held in high regard."

The 56-year-old mother adds with neither irony nor conceit: "I was received like a rock star."


During her one-year term as president of the AIA, Helene Dreiling has traveled extensively. In September she addressed the Japan Institute of Architects. - HELENE COMBS DREILING
  • Helene Combs Dreiling
  • During her one-year term as president of the AIA, Helene Dreiling has traveled extensively. In September she addressed the Japan Institute of Architects.

As a young girl growing up in small-town Warrenton, at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains, Dreiling didn't envision herself an architect, much less a rock star. But hard-working parents instilled a work ethic in their only child. Her father was an electrician for federal government facilities and her mother was a bookkeeper. "I never knew a time when my mother didn't work," she says.

By the fifth grade, Dreiling showed keen interest and talent in visual arts, but wondered whether she could make it a living. Her father suggested architecture, a profession that high-school guidance counselors never mentioned. She was accepted by Virginia Tech in 1976, which was and remains one of the country's highest-ranked architecture programs.

"Structures class made my head hurt," Dreiling says. Professors were supportive. But what sold her on architecture wasn't necessarily the rigorous academics but the hard labor, doing construction work for five summers during college.

She cites as a mentor C. William Hartman, a Warrenton contractor of residential and modest-sized commercial projects. "He took me under his wing and was determined that I learned how a building went together," she says — "tying steel, pouring concrete, doing electrical work and plumbing. I took to it pretty readily but I had to be tough since some of those guys, especially the subcontractors, tested me all the time."

But she didn't show emotion, she says: "You have to toughen up. That lasts to this day."

Her Eureka moment in recognizing the power of architecture hit her while building a house. "We'd finished the flooring and built the walls which lay flat," she recalls. "Then, when we raised the walls up, with all the windows and doorways cut out, I was like, 'Oh my God, this is what it all means.'"

But in the 21st-century, architects must be equipped with more than structural knowledge. They must be able to design for increasingly cross-disciplinary environmental — and even survival — challenges. It takes teamwork and nurturing relationships.

Dreiling credits an unlikely source of preparation — serving as president of her college sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha. For a competition to design the first coordinated Greek campus housing, she was selected for the team to shepherd the process. Hers was the only sorority involved. "For me it was great to see things from the client's perspective," she says. There are now 17 fraternities and sororities in the complex.

In retrospect, Dreiling says her college leadership experiences and a gift for administration reinforces her belief that women can excel in the field. After all, 50 percent of all architects are women. "It proves that to be successful women don't have to think, act and be like a man," she says. "It's important to think from a woman's perspective."

Dreiling meets with members of the Korea Institute of Registered Architects in September. - HELENE COMBS DREILING
  • Helene Combs Dreiling
  • Dreiling meets with members of the Korea Institute of Registered Architects in September.

She cites three specific areas where women have special strengths: understanding the needs of clients, nurturing co-workers and creating relationships with allied professionals, and giving to the community. "Don't let your femininity get bottled up," she tells her female audiences, "It's a valuable attribution."

Dreiling married immediately after her graduation in 1981, moving with her then-husband, architect John Dreiling, to Williamsburg. There, he took a job with Carlton Abbott, whom she calls the best architect in the state. And she joined a small firm headed by Bob Magoon.

There, she became involved in one the state's four local AIA chapters. Teamwork was emphasized. There was no computer-assisted design, so there was shared pride that 28 sheets of drawings could be rendered by different firm members without being able to tell who'd drawn what. "There was no higgily piggily," she says. "Magoon also stressed how to provide the highest level of service to clients."

Three years later, Dreiling joined the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in the facilities, architecture and engineering department. Time and money apparently was no object and the work was of the highest quality. She also observed the management skills of her boss, Willard Gwilliam. "From him I learned about supervisory roles," she says: "Hire the best professionals, use a light hand, equip them well and let them do their jobs. When I succeeded, he gave me all the credit. When I messed up, he took the blame."

But the Dreilings missed their native mountains. In 1986 they moved to Roanoke, where she was employed by Smithey & Boynton, a 100-person firm of architects, engineers and interior designers. "I learned a lot about the relationship between disciplines and I got good experience in marketing and writing," she says.

They had their first child in 1989, and Dreiling stayed home with him while starting her own firm, the Dreiling Partnership. "I did residential, remodeling and work that other architects didn't want to deal with," she says, "But none of these things are insignificant. They really touch lives and enhance ways of living."

The couple had two more children, and things ramped up. She became involved in the Blue Ridge chapter of the Virginia society of the AIA and was elected president in 1994. A term on the national board followed, and then the national vice presidency.

In 2000 she took a full-time position with the association in Washington, so the Dreilings moved to Warrenton. Her daily round-trip of 100 miles was offset by more affordable housing, extended family nearby and a mountain view. She was home by 6 to fix dinner each night.

But the couple was traveling at different speeds and in different directions, and they divorced in 2001. "I failed miserably at marriage," Dreiling says.

After seven years of commuting, she arranged to work from home. And in June 2007 she married McConnel. Their combined family includes two teenagers and five children in their early 20s.

Her ascension to American Institute of Architests president in 2013 marked only the third time a Virginia architect had held the position — following William "Chick" Marshall and R. Randall Vosbeck. She's the third woman and first Virginia Tech graduate in the post.

Dreiling seems to have helped the organization make strides.

"The institution of architecture has been set up in quite specific steps, only after you go through these certain steps are you given additional responsibilities," says Mary Cox, university architect and director of planning and design at Virginia Commonwealth University, who graduated from Virginia Tech with Dreiling. "But when you get out of school you're young and at your best and many of these things are hard to face."

Dreiling worked to remove some of those obstacles, she says, such as allowing greater flexibility in the timing of both exams for credentialing and gaining practical experience.

"When we were starting out, the profession of architecture wasn't the most hospitable place to be, but Helene showed leadership capabilities early," Cox says. "When she's with you she's really there. There's a generosity of spirit about her and a warm and personal manner — something you rarely find in a person as busy as she is. She is a hard worker."

"She has been an advocate for good architecture," Scribner says of Dreiling. "She has strong convictions and goes to the mat for what she believes in. She assumes the hard tasks, rallies people around her and gets things done. That's a rare quality these days."

She's also brought people together, he says: "In member-service organizations there can be push pull between the local, state and national organizations. She has managed to draw the regional and state organizations, pushing in one direction. She's a leader who draws people to her, rather than keeps them at arm's length."


Dreiling says the McGlothlin Wing of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, by architect Rick Mather, is a favorite Richmond building and destination. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Dreiling says the McGlothlin Wing of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, by architect Rick Mather, is a favorite Richmond building and destination.

Dreiling looks back on her term with a new appreciation for how other countries embrace design as part of their culture, especially with Europeans and Asians. "They expect great design in everything in every discipline," she says — architecture, industrial design, interior design, landscape design or graphic design."

"There's an individual understanding that someone created this to make my life better. It's been exciting being in places where that dedication is appreciated and recognized," she says, citing a large, unidentified photograph in the Zurich,Switzerland, airport of Le Corbusier, the esteemed architect who designed the terminal. "In America they wouldn't even recognize the name, much less the face."

Her wanderings in Shanghai also bore out the importance of aesthetics in everyday living. "They are highly practical in how they do things, how the streets and markets are set up," she says. "The pearls and jewelry are in one area and then, in another area, there are musical instruments — hundreds of pianos and guitars, store after store after store. Think how practical that is. "It's not like in the United States where we have a drugstore on every corner. In Shanghai display is for contemplation as much as for commerce."

The same sense of design is felt in Tokyo. "They appreciate — no, revere — good design," she says. "But their space is so limited that every piece, every object, has to be part of the community. It must contribute to the quality of life of the place."

She says China's design challenge is tremendous growth, a place where 75 percent of the population will live in cities by 2050. "Whereas here in the U.S. we build a building to hold 850 people," she says, "they're building cities to accommodate 85 million people."

Dreiling says she's become keenly aware that her profession offers opportunities and challenges beyond purely the art of building.

"I'm convinced that there's an absolute correlation between good design and health," she says. "In Tokyo there's a huge commitment to healthy lifestyles and healthy living — a commitment to walking and biking. We concentrate on the sick. They are about keeping people well."

Also looming is the need for resilience. "That has to do with natural things as well as man-made environments," she says. "It has to do with creating a city or a system that bounces back easily or isn't as expensive to repair after a disaster. This involves designers, municipal officials and citizens working together. Preparedness is really big. Korea sets aside funds especially for potential disasters."

Her larger view is helping closer to home. Among the projects that Dreiling has shepherded is the establishment of resiliency studios, basically collaborative think tanks, at five locations nationwide. "Recent huge storms as Katrina and Sandy have brought to light for the need for regional and even municipal approaches that realign government," she says.

Such programs will be based near architecture schools and will bring together architects, planners and engineers who've experienced disaster responses. Coordinated with Architecture for Humanity, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, programming will include conferences of municipal governments and heightened training for architects and engineers through the curricula in the five participating schools. Funding is provided by the climate initiative of the Rockefeller Charitable Foundation.

Another association initiative is sustainability in all its aspects, with a goal that new and existing buildings will be carbon neutral by 2030. "The most sustainable thing to do is adapt an existing building rather than tear it down and put it in a landfill," Dreiling says.

Another challenge, she says: "Water is going to be increasingly an issue for populations and a major challenge for architects worldwide. It's in a realm where few architects have expertise. Fresh water is diminishing as a resource and nobody seems to be dealing with it."

And in the day-to-day practice of architecture, Dreiling predicts that firms will get increasingly large and offer a range of services. "Smaller firms will be even more boutique in nature, more entrepreneurial, and design things in addition to buildings," she says. "They might be called on to design a shop or a store. They might provide graphic design and things that shape the experience from the time someone steps in the door to the sales transaction."

Firms are getting into the whole package of design, she says, with the traditional lines of the discipline beginning to blur. It will be global.

"In terms of the economy it's much better," she says. "There will be 17 percent growth in architectural work over the next decade, that's extraordinary. There's pent-up demand. More and more people have a heightened demand for design."


Dreiling says that her recent travels have renewed her appreciation of how powerful architecture and design can engage and enthrall people.

"In Richmond my favorite building is the VMFA addition," she says. "It is beautifully designed and is wonderful for just walking around or sitting on the deck. And the Fan District is exactly what so many communities are striving so hard to create — that mix of residential, restaurants, schools and religious and small-business places. And it has existed here for decades."

But her favorite building in the world is the Sydney Opera House. "If you consider how many people have actually attended a symphony, opera or theatrical performance since it opened in the 1970s, the numbers are relatively small," she says. "But as I stood outside the opera house recently for about an hour and watched some 100 people photographing the building, I saw people enjoying it for its own sake."

This is what keeps Dreiling passionate about architecture and the people who make it. "Architects can envision realities that don't yet exist," she says. "Where most people think in two dimensions, we think in three dimensions. And architects have an innate ability that others don't have, or if others have it, it's enhanced in them: We can see the future."

And that brings her back to the Virginia Museum of Architecture and Design on Monument Avenue. Planning where it will go next, how it can grow and who it will reach. And for that, it comes back to teamwork.

Because architecture isn't about buildings, it's about relationships — "synthesizing other people's dreams into physical reality," she says. "That's pretty cool." S

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