The 2021 Chicago Women in Architecture Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award honors Nancy A. Abshire, AIA Emeritus, RIBA. Abshire’s overwhelming selection by the joint Chicago Women in Architecture Foundation (CWAF) and Chicago Women in Architecture (CWA) committee recognizes the importance of the historic and contemporary arc of women-led professional initiatives within the ﬁeld of architecture.
After joining SOM in 1968, Abshire responded to a call to action sent by Gertrude Lempp Kerbis to the few women in the Chicago architecture community, and became a founding member of CWA in 1974 together with Kerbis, Carol Ross Barney, Gunduz Dagdelen, Natalie de Blois, Laura Fisher, Jane M. Jacobsen, and Cynthia Weese to advocate for women in the profession. Their ﬁrst action was a public exhibition of member’s work to showcase and celebrate the contributions of women architects.
Described by colleagues as an architectural pioneer, Abshire dedicated her career to activating the human potential within architecture through roles at SOM’s offices in Chicago and London, where Abshire helped establish the UK office. Throughout her years at SOM, she served as design architect, senior architect, exhibit design coordinator, and construction coordinator, ultimately becoming an Associate and a seasoned project manager, harnessing the power of clear communication and workﬂow to liaise between the client and the team. Rooted by her commitment to learning, Abshire is credited with developing effective project management that advanced the ﬁrm’s approach towards large scale, global projects, and imbued international dynamics that encouraged multicultural diversity and collaboration across projects.
Across ﬁve decades, Abshire worked on diverse projects, such as high-end retail, newspaper printing plants, power generation stations, prefabricated hotel room modules, and bank buildings. Her conﬁdent leadership contributed to the success and completion of Moody Performance Hall, Dallas, Texas (2004–12); Burj Khalifa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (2004–10), the world’s tallest building; the expansion of the Korea World Trade Center, Seoul, South Korea (1996–97); Broadgate Development, London, England (1987–92); Quaker Tower, Chicago, Illinois (1984–86); Red Sea Palace Hotel, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (1978–82); Chicago Tribune Company, Chicago, Illinois (1976–78); First Wisconsin Plaza, Madison, Wisconsin (1973–76); W D & H O Wills, Bristol, England (1968–72); among others. Her skillset was also employed for exhibitions featuring SOM’s work throughout Europe and at the Skyscraper Museum in New York City.
Abshire’s impactful project leadership was strengthened by her commitment to continuing education and training for emerging professionals. Abshire’s initiatives at SOM include Language Training at SOM London, in response to the introduction of the European Union passport (1990); the Intern Development Program (IDP), designed to structure preparation for architect registration requirements (1994); Environmental Issues in Design (1999), a program that informed SOM’s sustainability practice; Continuing Education (2000) seminars on wide-ranging topics to meet requirements for membership with the American Institute of Architects (AIA); and others, many of which continue to this day and serve as models for similar programs at other ﬁrms. This aptitude and formidable rigor for educational leadership was recognized in 2009 when the Board of the SOM Foundation nominated Nancy as Executive Director, a position she held from 2010 until her retirement in 2019.
Abshire’s commitment to the human-centric elements of the built environment is echoed in her long-standing volunteer work. As a founding member of the Auxiliary Board of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, she helped preserve the historic Glessner House. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has had Abshire’s support on the Junior Governing Board and the Women’s Board, and she serves on the National Alumni Board of Northwestern University. She has served in multiple leadership roles, including the Board of Trustees, at Fourth Presbyterian Church.
Her impact on the careers of architects and the architectural landscape over more than half a century is inimitable. To date, her work has been acknowledged by the SOM London Office Award, the Society of Architectural Historians, and her service and leadership excellence was recognized by the Northwestern Alumni Association. CWAF is pleased to present Abshire with the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award in partnership of CWA—the organization she helped forge in 1974. The need for CWA’s coalition of women to advocate for equity in the industry remains critical, and the organization continues the founding members’ work in fostering a more equitable and diverse future.
Originally hailing from Dayton, Ohio, Abshire received a Bachelor of Arts in Interior Design with departmental honors and a minor in French from Northwestern University and a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a registered architect in Illinois and the United Kingdom, after studying at the Architectural Association, as well as with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.
A virtual award ceremony celebrating Abshire as the 2021 CWAF Lifetime Achievement Award winner will take place on Sunday, May 23, 2021, 10:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. Information regarding the event, including ticketing and sponsorship, is available on CWA’s website: cwarch.org.