Architect sketches skylines in her mind

Now the field draws on teamwork and computer design

Some folks talk with their hands. Architect Karlene Gullone sketches entire cityscapes with her hands. As she talks, her fingers sweep gracefully across the sky then her hands straighten and she creates spaces in the air, interior spaces. Her hands mark the walls.

Karlene Gullone

When she first studied architecture in Denmark, Gullone loved to draw with soft pencils—long, luxurious and sweeping sketches born of her vivid architectural imagination. That was 15 years ago. Since then the architecture world has transformed. Pencils have vanished. Computer design programs, if supplied with dimensions of a building, can provide instant glimpses from every side, 360-degree fly-around perspectives, and even imaginary walk-throughs with proposed interior spaces. "I liked the drawing," Gullone says, wistfully. "I have not been able to get the same thing out of the computer."

When most people think of an architect, they envision a solitary creative person who sits and draws buildings or other projects. That, too, has changed for most commercial work. "Some of the biggest challenges are working in really large teams," Gullone says.

On a shopping center design for a site in Nevada, she worked on a team of 20. Teamwork, negotiation, group dynamics—these skills eclipse pure architectural talent in today's business world. Ten percent of the architecture firms control about 70 percent of all architecture business, Gullone says. In that team of 20, five were women. "It's still male-dominated," she says. "Only 10 percent of the people at the top are women."

Gullone, who worked for a big firm until she was laid off in 2009, took the opportunity to launch her own company: Gullone Urban Architecture, located in Berkeley. Certified in green design, she encourages clients to save energy and use sustainable materials when they can afford the roughly 10 percent additional cost.

Obtaining the education and internship needed to break into the architecture field requires at least eight years. "I am very satisfied with the profession," Gullone says. "But it's a lot harder than I originally understood." With her own firm, she does far more than design buildings. She has to manage billing, marketing for new business, preparing requests for proposal for government jobs, and running her office. She spends nearly a quarter of her time looking for new projects. During the recession, unemployment among architects rose to nearly 25 percent, Gullone says.

To keep herself working, she specialized in designing restorations of old Victorian homes in San Francisco, especially historic preservation.

When she was in high school, Gullone had her first hankering toward architecture. "I liked geometry," she recalls. While some math lovers incline toward structural engineering, "mine was straight architecture," she says. She brings her hands together, then sends them like straight edges in opposite directions left and right. For a moment, you can almost see a roof line form under her finger tips.

—James Dunn
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