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Julia Roberts

Tell us about where you work, what you do, and what you’re working on right now.
I have been a design team member at Studio Gang’s Chicago office since September 2019. My first day on the job coincided with the start of my first project at Studio Gang: a renovation of an old tobacco warehouse for the College of Design at the University of Kentucky. This project was special to me as a recent graduate of design school myself, and I identified strongly with the College’s mission of bringing all six academic programs under one (adaptively reused) roof.

Currently, I’m balancing my time between two projects, one of which is an urban-scale pro bono project in Chicago’s West Side. The West Side project is a continuation of Studio Gang’s past urban-scale work in other U.S. cities that has a mission to increase neighborhood health and safety via improvements to the built environment. It’s work like this that drew me to Studio Gang, and the balance between this larger-scale work with a social mission and smaller-scale details and spatial organization is what I’ve always found so rewarding about my chosen profession.

What do you love most about what you do?
When people learn that I’m an architect, often the next question is, “What kind of buildings do you design?” The best thing about being an architect is that you don’t have to specialize in quite the way that most people think you do. One day, I could be figuring out the plan for a lab building, and the next I might be detailing a feature stair or trying to understand how small improvements to a neighborhood could have a big impact on community safety. Every project comes with brand new challenges and opportunities, and as architects we are always learning—and then feeding all our accumulated knowledge back into each subsequent project.

How do you think architecture and design can or should influence the world?
I see architecture—and design more generally—as an agent for social good. I’m really interested in the social conditions either produced or perpetuated by architecture, and in discovering new ways to use the medium of architecture to build positive relationships among people, as well as between people and the environment. As architects, we have a responsibility to be optimistic about the future of humanity and the globe, and to continue innovating beyond traditional models of building. We must bring voices typically left out of design processes into the fold and strive for a more equitable and responsible built environment.

Must-have desk snack?
Strawberry Pop-Tarts and/or Welch’s Fruit Snacks.

What do you do when you’re not on the clock?
Spend time with friends and family, play with my dog, and, when there’s not an international pandemic, explore new neighborhoods, cities, or parts of the world.

Favorite Sam Fox School/WashU memory.
The best thing I did with my free time at WashU was to get involved in the Alberti Program. Although waking up early and getting to Givens on a Saturday morning was occasionally a struggle, it was worth it every single time. The students were so creative and inspiring, and I’m pretty sure I learned even more from them than they learned from me.

What advice would you give to our students?
As a young designer in an office, or even in a studio environment, it can often be intimidating to share your ideas with others—especially with those who are your superior in some way. Working to overcome that fear requires conscious effort, but it is so worthwhile. Our profession is a collaborative one, and the best offices value the intellectual contributions of people at every level. Communicating your thoughts and ideas effectively also requires practice, and effective communication is such an important skill for a designer. So, my advice is to speak up!

Tell us something we should know about you that we forgot to ask.
The best class I took at WashU was Community Building, Building Community with Bob Hansman. I learned so much about St. Louis, but also more generally about the way the built environment both reflects and affects the people, policy, and economics of a place. Our class visit to the America’s Center in downtown St. Louis was even the genesis of my graduate thesis, which used another civic building to examine and rethink the relationship between the urban experience of a building and the architectural qualities of both the building’s façade and its interior.

Alumni work

Perspective rendering inside a communal space with rich wood floors and a high, white ceiling with white beams + details and pod lights. Two open staircases are prominent in the center, showing the view to the floor below.

Exterior drawing of an outdoor gathering space that includes several tables, plus a couple of shade structures—one gray, right-angled awning that says "cafe" and another beamed canopy structure that's brown. All are set outside a red-brick building.

Framework plan for a large, government-like building, with the site shown underneath. Mostly black and white, with some hues of a cornflower blue indicating certain site elements plus lines of the heat map.

Black-and white elevation drawing of a large, government-like building, with a couple of rounded turrets in front.

Tall, rectangular white model of a portion of a building facade, with multiple vertical, rectangular openings.