In Houston, you could be forgiven for thinking that the status of women architects is just fine. The architecture deans at Rice, University of Houston, and Prairie View are women. In addition, many of the prominent architects practicing in the city are women, as highlighted in this recent series. Though celebrating Houston’s exemplary women architects is important, which I will come back to, the national data reveal that the number of women architects drops off at each stage of seniority and power — and, notable exceptions aside, the local situation doesn’t appear to be all that different. Take a look at the photos of principals at the major firms.
The general problem of male-dominated boardrooms is often described with building metaphors like “leaky pipeline” and the “glass ceiling.” In her new book, Where Are the Women Architects? (2016, Princeton University Press/Places Journal), Despina Stratigakos writes that “the more appropriate term for this phenomenon is tragedy.” Her wry rejection of building metaphors points to what I think is most interesting about this book: sexism manifests differently in architecture than other fields.
The symbols and formal language that designers work with are charged with ideas of masculinity and femininity. Yes, women lawyers and doctors face challenges about what to wear at trials and clinics, but style and color and form, in clothing and in buildings, are the very stuff of designers’ work, training, and intellectual commitments. Appearances are not distractions, they are the point.
Stratigakos does not analyze inequalities from afar. She documents interventions and, in some cases, she is among the main instigators. Though Stratigakos is an academic architectural historian, her own agency is a wonderful departure from the typical academic’s distance from their subject.
For example, while a fellow at the University of Michigan in 2007, she asked students to design an Architect Barbie. (This was before Mattel had made one.) The results surprised Stratigakos. She had imagined “a black power suit and Corbusier eyeglasses” but the students created “uber-feminine” dolls” that celebrated fashion, hairstyles, and makeup.” She writes, “Inside architecture’s hallowed halls, Barbie’s ‘girlie’ attributes were a mark not of oppression but of resistance.”
Eventually, Stratigakos and Kelly Hayes McAlonie approached Mattel directly and, to their surprise, the company bit. When Architect Barbie came out in 2011 carrying a pink drawing tube, the still nascent design blogosphere lit up with celebration and criticism. In fact, you can read an earlier version of the Barbie chapter in Places.
So why bother with the print Where Are the Women Architects? if you can read large portions of it online? With the physical book, you get a long-range view not just of women’s status in architecture but the status of the discourse around equality — “the status of the question itself.”
Chapter 2 surveys the first century of debate. Stratigakos notes, “In 1902, Thomas Raggles Davison, editor of the British Architect, published an article titled ‘May Women Practise Architecture?,’ in which he concluded that they may not.” Karl Scheffler argued in 1908 that women pursuing architecture contradicted nature and produced “irritable hermaphroditic creatures” prone to prostitution or lesbianism. In contrast to this disturbing, bizarre, and now laughable sexism, the stories of early women architects like Fay Kellogg, who insisted on being interviewed while standing on a swinging beam nine floors up on a skyscraper she was constructing, are thrilling.
Stratigakos also tracks the story of Denise Scott Brown’s exclusion from the Pritzker Prize awarded in 1991 to her partner Robert Venturi. In 2013, two students, Arielle Assouline-Lichten and Caroline James, launched a petition calling for the Pritzker to recognize Scott Brown. I knew that the petition was denied. And I knew that the awarding of the AIA Gold Medal to both Venturi and Scott Brown represented a victory. What I did not know was how the outcry triggered by the petition continues — and just how important that action was to setting off an ongoing discussion of inequity. That’s the perspective that the book as a whole offers.
The recent death of Zaha Hadid has brought even more attention in the New York Times to the question of missing women architects, recalling previous waves of attention to gender inequality in architecture. There were the early-twentieth-century debates spurred by the first wave of women architects. In the 1960s and 70s, the question came to life again. But progress has been tragically slow, and far slower than in law and medicine. In a phone interview with me, Stratigakos asked, “How do we keep asking the same question for 100 years and not get further along? How do we break out of this cycle, this horrible groundhog day of professional exclusion?”
Her ultimate optimism seems to arise from her own participation in a movement. “I’m encouraged in the last few years. I don’t want yet another cycle. We need to get beyond asking this question and get to some concrete actions.”
What would those concrete actions be? Stratigakos cautions against attributing all the steep drop off of women in architecture to the demands of childrearing and the culture of long hours at architecture firms. The results of several surveys point to a far more complex picture. The gender pay gap, lack of access to mentorship, and confining women to drafting, production, and interiors are each to blame. She also points to a perceived lack of role models, and it is this last point that she has helped to redress through Wikipedia Edit-a-thons, which she describes in a chapter called “Unforgetting Women Architects.” She recalls how entries made during a New York Edit-a-thon were immediately marked for deletion. Archivists at the UC Berkeley Environmental Design Archives found that the same sources used for Wikipedia entries about men without contention were questioned when used in entries about women.
On March 18, I participated in the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon at the Menil Collection. I interpreted the theme broadly and contributed a new entry on Sally Walsh, a designer who is remembered for her own interiors and impact on the design culture of Houston. The entry was marked for deletion immediately, which was defeated with the help of the other Edit-a-thon participants. Moreover, I had a hard time fitting Walsh’s life into the standard format of a Wikipedia biography: Early Life, Education, Career, Notable Works, Publications. Many of her biggest contributions were through mentorships and collaborations.
At the start of the Edit-a-thon, Diana Strassmann, Founding Editor of Feminist Economics and chair of the Wiki Education Foundation board, noted that Wikipedia’s vision of “a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge” is both laudable and problematic because knowledge is something you construct and create. It is not a summation. Knowledge is not an agreed-upon list of facts. Judgements about knowledge constructions, including about what is notable and what counts as a fact, are made by people, so it matters who is participating in making the decisions. We not only have to create entries about notable women but rethink how we write biographies and how we judge someone to be notable.
At one level, more women practicing architecture equals more women practicing architecture regardless of what they are designing or how they work or who they work for. But the two things — inclusion of women and a feminist rethinking of architecture — are linked not because of some inherent, biological essence to women but because of the complexity that each individual brings with them into the field. When we unforget histories of women architects, when we create a doll, when we award prizes, we are confronted again and again with a narrow definition of what architecture is. Enlarging that conception makes room for more architects, and it makes for a healthier discipline and better architecture.
And doing so means making room for pink drawing tubes.