‘I Prefer to Do Something I Haven’t Done Before’
Liz Dixon wanted to be an artist, not an architect. Frank Lloyd Wright would argue she’s both. ‘The mother art is architecture,’ once said the master of it.
In high school, Liz’s parents put it a little differently. They didn’t see any way Liz could make money as an artist. Architecture was the more sensible option.
‘My dad got his degree in civil engineering, so I think maybe genetically it come through that way,’ Liz says. ‘I took an introduction to architecture class my freshman year of college, and a lot of that class was abstract thinking and art-based, so that’s what convinced me.’
In 2008, Liz began working at Georgetown architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle. Today, she’s part of the design team working on the Georgetown Gateways program—a project that seeks to enhance the five primary entrances to Georgetown through a combination of design and public space elements, including entrance markers and signage, lighting, furniture, and wayfinding elements.
‘Gateways is not a standard architectural exercise that you’d normally ask of someone, so I like it because of that reason. It’s almost like at the scale of the sculpture, but at the same time you have to know the technical details to make it function. It’s nice to be able to help with that creatively, because there’s also a civic piece, and it’s nice to be able to work in that social realm.’
The gateways are very different from one another; the K Street entrance an entirely distinct physical space from the entrance to Georgetown at the top of Wisconsin Avenue.
‘At three of the entry points—K Street, the Key Bridge, and M and Pennsylvania—there are physical edges where there’s a bridge. You have that to your advantage because there’s a clear point of where this stops and starts. At the top of the hill at Wisconsin Avenue, the gateway could be here—but it could be here, or here. It’s like if you’re having a yard sale or open house, where do you position this sign to make sure it’s directing the right direction, but also in view of everyone, but also fitting within the context?’
Liz says the most successful architects are able to take a step back and understand whether what they’re doing on a smaller scale is applicable to the whole. The whole, in this case, being Georgetown. It’s a complex challenge, but that’s what keeps her engaged.
‘I get bored easily. I prefer to have to do something for the first time; to do something that I haven’t done before. I’d rather sit in my hole and do something myself and figure it out. As you move forward in your career, you have to manage people, and that’s the hard part. You can’t just sit down for three months and design a wonderful staircase. You don’t have that freedom anymore.’
Where increased responsibilities have added to her workload, rapidly evolving technology has lessened it. When Liz did her first internships during college, everything was by hand. Fresh out of college, she utilized computer drafting, but it just reproduced the same hand drawings on the computer—nowhere near where it is today.
‘Now it’s much more common to model things. You can actually get your drawings out of the model, and test things in three dimensions without having it all in your head. It makes the drawing part easier because you don’t have to repeat information, or check the accuracy of information that needs to be repeated. That frees you up to concentrate on the more interesting side, which is figuring out solutions for areas which you may not be thinking about on the whole.’
One thing Liz has been thinking about lately is why Georgetown feels so different from the rest of the city, in the best of ways. If you asked her in college what her favorite era of architecture was, she’d have said modernism. After working here for nearly a decade, her answer has changed.
‘I used to be against copying older buildings because I felt like it was disingenuous, but now I have a different feeling. I respect a lot of places I wouldn’t have before just for what they are, even if they aren’t all that pretty. I’ve never had a favorite architect or building. I have more appreciation for the general fabric of a place.
‘Georgetown, depending on what block you’re on, it has a very literal representation of what people have been doing to it. That’s what I like about it. You go on one street and you have these giant houses full of residents, and you go on another street and you have tiny houses full of students all crammed in. It’s very expressive of that. It’s not like other areas of the city where you can’t really tell the difference.’
In a neighborhood that’s stood the test of time, Liz has learned to play the long game. Most of her projects are years in the making, the end result often dozens of iterations away from the original. If architecture is art, it’s the art of patience. Patience, and problem solving.
‘The starting point is figuring out a solution to a problem that affects a lot of people. That’s the reason I keep doing what I’m doing.’