Erin Sharp-Newton, M. Arch, Assoc. AIA, in Today’s AIA New Jersey Women In Architecture Spotlight

March 2, 2022

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Erin Sharp-Newton, M. Arch, Assoc. AIA, in Today’s AIA New Jersey Women In Architecture Spotlight

Healthcare Design Director, Posen Architects, UDMH Fellow

Growing up in my world, the only architects around were on TV, and they were all male. Art, design, reading, writing, drawing, imagining all came naturally to me, as did building and technology. In High School, I was the only female in mechanical and technical classes. Then I went to study and work in a design firm in Europe. There it appeared to be equally balanced between male and female architects and designers. The field seemed to have more of a gender-neutral perspective.

Coming back to the US, it felt different.

The number of men outweighed those of women, and it was frustrating at times having to answer for my gender in the field. These days, the subject of “woman-ness” is usually interesting or annoying, depending on the perspective.

For example, interestingly, I was lucky to have grown up in an era where a few women had started to pave roads for other women to follow as professionals. My thesis advisors, department chairs at UCLA and at Drexel, some bosses, colleagues, mentors, and even clients, were truly amazing, passionate, and bold women who set an example for me throughout my career. Keeping my eyes on them, they inspired
me to achieve my personal best, lift-up others, and stay the course, regardless of the naysayers and spirit-crushers.

Annoyingly, many women had to adapt to the field of architecture by trying to contort themselves to “fit”, rather than experience a sense of “belonging”. Whether showing up on a construction site to be seen as a “decorator picking colors” or just not sent to sites at all (because male colleagues were considered more appropriate), these examples were personally frustrating. For years I made the best of it, by receding my female-ness as much as possible, though in reality, I sometimes have a big voice and it wasn’t always positively received.

The idea of “belonging” versus “fitting in” is probably one of the reasons why I became involved in so many advocacy areas; I like to see people emancipated from misjudgments, stigmas, etc. This also played a role in pushing me to healthcare and furthered my commitment to mental and behavioral health environment designs. There were so many obvious gaps, not only in terms of accessibility but also in terms of
design quality.

From a young age, I was exposed to a wide array of healthcare projects and realized that well-designed spaces can be extremely uplifting. Planned organization of space, creating the best adjacencies and efficiencies, constructing environments that integrate elements cohesively can all help in the healing process, as well as support the best delivery of services. To experience the design of environments as instruments for the best possible outcomes greatly inspires me.

An amazing aspect of architecture is that it includes so many facets of the human condition. It is one of the most diverse and simultaneously integrated fields of practice. Architecture balances needs that appear to be very different. I think of it as the Paradox of Architecture: we need consistency, safety, and security but also diversity, openness and creativity. The idea that we are dealing with site, context, macro-to-micro, inside/out, structure and space, form and line, flow and order, allows for a complex professional canvas that is infinite in its possibilities. Then, to top it all off, we can tie this back into human-ness, to improve the lived experience in the built environment.

In the same vein, because the profession is important to me, I have become increasingly involved in the AIA, with the Women in Architecture (WIA) and Equity in Architecture Committees. I am a Trustee for the AIA Central New Jersey Section and am excited about our initiatives on “Legacy and Uplift” that are being integrated into programs, webinars, and general discussions. Today there is a strong emphasis on diversity, equity, inclusion, ethics, and integrity, which I really love seeing evolve. It’s great when we can work together to bridge gaps in the profession, in the work we do, and in the environments, we live in.

To top it off I get to do it all from our beautiful Garden State, and in a firm that is currently 68% women.

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