Early life and education
Noel Phyllis Birkby was born in Nutley, New Jersey to Harold S. and Alice Green Birkby. As a child she began making drawings of cities and towns, proceeding to build miniature towns in her mother’s garden. With an early interest in architecture, she expressed interest in pursuing it by age 16. However, her career counselors told her that it was a study for men, and that women did not become architects. In 1950 she entered the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina to study fine art. In college she was described as a rabble rouser and it was during this time when she began to identify as bisexual. Her senior year she was expelled for an incident stemming from beer drinking, however, Birkby believed she was expelled due to publicly expressing her love for a classmate: “I wasn’t hiding my love for another woman, didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.” Struggles with her sexuality would cause her a “numbing misery” and she would return to New Jersey briefly before moving to New York City.
In New York, she worked as a technical illustrator and hanging out in the bar scene. In 1955 she went to Mexico with the American Friends Service Committee to work on development projects with the Otomi people. Within one year she had returned to New York. In 1958, she met a woman architect who encouraged her to pursue the profession. For five years Birkby took night classes in architecture at Cooper Union and worked for architects Henry L. Horowitz and Seth Hiller. In 1963 she received her certificate in architecture. Working primarily as asecretary, she left New York to attend graduate school at Yale University. At Yale, Birkby was one of six women in a student body of about 200. This gender gap forced Birkby to “rise above the female role” to prove her capability to succeed within her program and show herself as being as “good or better than the men.” In 1966 she completed her Masters of Architecture.
Career in Architecture
After graduating from Yale, Birkby went on to work as a designer for Davis Brody and Associates, from 1966 until 1972. During this time, she helped to design and oversee construction of Waterside Houses, a residential neighborhood on the Hudson River, and the Long Island University Library Learning Center. By 1972 she would have her own private practice, occasionally partnering with other firms. Her worked varied, often focusing on low-income housing and community residences for those with medical needs, as well as the occasional private residence or artist studio. In 1973, Birkby went to Bien Hoa, Vietnam with staff from the firm Dober, Paddock & Upton to plan the reconstruction of the Thu Duc Polytechnic University. In the late 1970s, she worked in California with Gary Scherquist and Roland Tso. Returning to New York in the early 1980s, she then worked with the Gruzen Partnership and Lloyd Goldfarb.
In the early 1970s she taught architectural design classes at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture and City College of New York. While working in California in the late 1970s she taught architectural and environmental design courses at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, California State Polytechnic and the University of Southern California. Upon returning to New York in the 1980s she taught building construction, fundamentals and architectural design at the New York Institute of Technology. Birkby described her teaching as “environmental activism”, bringing together theories and ideas behind environmentalism with architectural, as per a course she took with Serge Chermayeff while at Yale. She utilized techniques such as “buglisting” in her teaching, a way of making lists about annoying aspects of environments, conceptual blockbusting, and fantasy projection. She used these techniques to examine the “social implications of building form” and to encourage her students to focus specifically on those using the spaces they designed.
- Birkby, Phyllis. Amazon Expedition: Lesbian Feminist Anthology. Sebastopol: Times Change Press (1978). ISBN 0-87810-526-3.