Toby Levy, FAIA, of LDP Architecture

Wagner Creative is excited to present the third of our interview series with Toby Levy of LDP Architecture in San Francisco. Discover what it was like being the only woman in drafting class in the '70s, about driving a taxi a New York City to pay for tuition, and how she became the mayor of South Park.

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To begin, can you tell me what initially made you want to study architecture and become an architect?

My father was a plumber, and the family used to visit construction sites on the weekends. I always enjoyed seeing buildings in their unfinished stages. In high school, I insisted on taking a “drafting” course, basically for non-academic students, meaning the toughest boys at my public high school. I sat at the teacher’s desk since they really didn’t know what to do with a girl.

And how did LDP (Levy Design Partners) come to be?

I started my firm as soon as I got my license in 1979. I made enough money between little jobs, working part-time for other architects, and teaching. When I graduated, most firms did not have women in the “drafting” room. I had several experiences as the first “token woman” and felt that I would learn more about how to build by doing my own development than by sitting at a desk. This led to a spec house in Point Richmond that was developed and designed with another woman Architect, Phoebe Wall.

You started Levy Design Partners in 1979 as a solely woman-owned firm. What type of challenges did you have to overcome being a woman-led firm at that time?

Interestingly, I got my first commissions because I was a woman with a graduate degree. Clients thought women would be better at designing kitchens, baths, and house remodels. Little did they know, at that time, I was not interested in cooking and had no idea of what would appeal to upper-middle-class dreams. The prejudice was apparent in the construction industry at large, on construction sites, permitting agencies, material suppliers, and salesmen. I was lucky to be a part of a group of young architects, who were equally struggling, but with whom I could exchange ideas and have a drink (since no one could afford dinner). We also started and maintained a lecture series, “Western Addition”, to foster the discussion of architecture.

What were your ambitions when you first started your firm — was it always related to housing, and what informed that decision?

No, housing was a vehicle to explore my interest in the formal language of architecture and how it can be melded with clients’ needs in everyday life. I look for the geometric order within and then enjoy the opposition’s tension when the order is disturbed.

On a more practical level, housing as a project type allowed for experimentation. Many times in my career, I was able to scrape together enough funds and invest my time to explore ideas, construction types, or methods. It began with the New House in Point Richmond, to my work/live space 26–28, South Park. Next was the 6-unit mixed-use project at 86–96 South Park, made of all steel and non-toxic materials in the early 1990s and is still my office and home. My latest project used a Quonset hut to create my studio in Sonoma.

Can you tell me about the type of work you focus on at LDP architecture and how it informs housing in the Bay Area?

I am now interested in the broader context of our work. In designing larger mixed multi-unit projects requiring a high degree of efficiency, there are few design opportunities. Unlike other design types, which allow for public “gestures,” multi-unit housing will allow one or two design moves. My focus is on the interface of our projects with their context and trying to highlight their uniqueness. I am not interested in a “look at me” building, but rather a contextual building that invites a second or third look, that is rewarding.

What was your first “ground-breaking” project that put you on the map in the Bay Area?

It was the renovation of 26–28 South Park. It was a burned-out shell in the early ’80s. I had just returned from teaching at Barnard/Columbia Architecture Departments and realized that I had to make it happen if I wanted to do a “design.” A client purchased a burned out building, but the zoning and bones were not appropriate for his business. I offered to take over the site for a portion of the project and a long-term lease for a work/live space. This not only gave me and LDP a home, but I could explore some architectural issues.

One of the reasons that immediately drew me to you and your firm is that I’ve often heard you referred to as “The Mayor of South Park.” I’ve lived in that area for the past 15 years, and I’ve seen it completely change — obviously for the better — since I moved to SF in 1999. Tell me a little bit about how that came to be.

I moved onto the Park in 1984 when there were many abandoned structures and burned out buildings, and others that housed photographers, designers, and other “urban pioneers.” It had many SRO’s that were being remodeled into formerly homeless housing. It also had a lot of drug dealing and prostitution. Our local group always wanted to maintain the diversity of income, identity, and ethnicity, just safer and cleaner for all. We also had an interest in not being the “design police,” so creativity could flourish. In the most recent transformation, the goal was to make the Park better able to accommodate its wide variety of users — including residents, techies, and whoever else would wander in. I was able to bring my skills as a project manager to coalesce our neighborhood to jump-start the design process. As a place with mostly renters and office users, there weren’t the usual constituents that would have lobbied SF Rec and Park or other politics to pay attention to the Park. Pre-Covid, you could see the change in park users throughout the day.

You’ve been an integral part of some of San Francisco’s essential zoning laws in SOMA. How did you get involved with, and what made you passionate about that work?

It became apparent that many people were speaking for South Park, SOMA, and South Beach that did not live here nor appreciate its complex and often subtle nature of our neighborhood. Hence, I did not want to leave SOMA’s planning to the Planners, Redevelopment, or the Developers. I have been part of several CAC’s (Citizen’s Advisory Committees) and Design Review Committees for UC. I was pleased when Jim Meko, a community activist, invited me to co-chair the Western Soma Citizen Planning Task Force. This committee was about preserving the multi-cultural, mixed-income nature of SOMA that was evident in its alleys.

I know something about you that many might not know that I love. During LDP’s 40th anniversary party, I learned that you once drove a taxi in New York City while you were at Columbia. How did that happen, and did you love or hate it?

I was a college student in NYC, when I suddenly found out that my father would not pay for my tuition. A roommate was driving a cab, so I decided to do the same. The big difference was growing up in NYC; I had only learned to drive a year or two before. I drove the late shift from 4–11 pm (without dinner) once or twice a week. It was exciting and scary. I stopped after I was mugged, returning to Barnard, on my walk to the subway from the depot in Hell’s Kitchen. I then got a job answering customer billing complaints for a department store that was equally instructive about people.

You continue to teach at UC Berkeley, Columbia University, and California College of the Arts. How does teaching continue to shape your daily practice?

Teaching was a way for me to gather my thoughts and explore them. I enjoyed teaching all courses, from the lecture course, design studio to seminars. In their own way, each honed my perception of the design issues and gave me skills at evaluating problems and design solutions. Stepping away even for a couple of hours often provided me with new insights into the design issues.

If you had to advise today’s architecture students on residential architecture, what would be your first piece of advice?

Always try to imagine yourself in the space and place you are designing then make sure it is a place you would want to be. To this day, my custom residential clients are often the ones that still talk about their design many years later.

Looking to the future:

How has the vision of LDP architecture evolved over the years? What is different, and what has remained the same?

In general, the Architect and Contractor are both more removed from the construction itself. Currently, our job is to produce “Construction/Contract Documents” rather than Construction Drawings. Similar to the way Contractors are not Builders but administrators of the documents; paper contractor. I miss when you could walk the site with someone who wore a tool belt, and you could discuss simple solutions. Today everything is translated into RFI, PCO’s, etc.

Multi-unit housing design has become so much more complicated over the years. It is no longer about solving the shelter issue but instead meant to address a myriad of safety and other social problems. Urban Architecture is looked at as a way to create safe streets, energy education, teach skills, and create social equity. As laudable as these goals are, we end up compensating by building smaller spaces and using less expensive materials.

There are still unique opportunities in every project to celebrate the sense of place and create “delight” in every project. One not only has to incorporate that in the initial design but also fight to keep them while looking to create others when the process presents itself.

How do you see housing in the bay area changing in the next 10–20 years?

I see the resurgence of the Suburbs. The densification of the local suburban downtowns will create the synergy and energy of the local village. It also allows for walkability while still having a lower scale — unfortunately, private open space with ground to grow something maybe available to fewer people.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges for women architects working today?

First, women need to realize that Architects are part of the larger construction business. Construction would like to think of itself as an industry or a skill, but it is first and foremost a business. Women need to get comfortable with talking about money and dealing with conflicts.

About you:

Best advice you’ve ever received?

Figure out what questions to ask and then find those answers.

What projects are you particularly excited to be working on right now?

I like working on suburban multi-unit housing and the challenge of creating places to promote healthy living, no matter the neighborhood, size of the unit, or project. They are different from dense urban housing because of the expectation of privacy. I like working with clients with dynamic ideas and the resolve to follow them through. They are always finding those new questions to ask.

Where do you look for inspiration?

Travel and seeing other cultures; Experiencing these places and identifying their specialness, and understanding how it’s created.

What and where would your dream project be?

I am so blessed to be using my dream project, my studio at our apple farm, and having this retreat, solitude, nature, and a room of my own.

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Toby’s personal studio in Sonoma
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Aerial view of the Quonset hut studio In Sonoma
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26 South Park, front entrance and lobby
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86–96 South Park, San Francisco
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86–96 South Park, San Francisco

Learn more about LDP Architecture, their practice, and current projects at https://www.ldparchitecture.com/

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