The Design Observer Group

Posted 06.13.11

Despina Stratigakos

What I Learned from Architect Barbie

Architect Barbie on display at the AIA convention in New Orleans, May 2011. [Photo courtesy of Mattel, Inc.]

In February Architect Barbie made her industry debut at the Toy Industry Association's Toy Fair in New York City; in May she made her professional entrance at the American Institute of Architects convention in New Orleans. But Architect Barbie's real beginnings were political. In 2006, while I was a research fellow at the University of Michigan, the passage of Proposal 2, a ballot initiative, ended affirmative action in that state. Debates before and after the law's passage tore into friendships and collegial relationships, and the atmosphere on campus was tense as the school's colleges, including architecture, struggled to determine what the new law would mean for diversity among students and faculty, and ultimately why that diversity mattered.       

This question was especially pressing in architecture, which has struggled more than most professions to foster diversity. Today, more than a century after the Buffalo, New York-based architect Louise Bethune became the first woman admitted into the American Institute of Architects, the organization's membership remains 83 percent male. And yet architecture schools have seen steady increases in female enrollment over the past two decades, reaching 40 percent nationwide. Having earned an architectural degree, why do so many then leave the profession? There are few studies to help us understand the phenomenon of vanishing women architects. The common assumption — that women "naturally" opt out to have children — doesn't hold up to scrutiny: professionals in equally demanding fields, such as medicine and law, start families while continuing to work. And although other professions might offer the incentive of better pay, money alone does not explain a woman's ability or desire to persevere. One of the most poignant findings of a 2003 study by the Royal Institute of British Architects on the loss of women in architectural practice is that women make this choice reluctantly: they love architecture and don’t want to go.        

As a feminist scholar, I am interested in analyzing the ideological fences that architecture has built around the profession — the barriers that determine outsiders and insiders. One starting point is the idealized image of the architect that has been nurtured within the profession and reinforced in popular culture. Here we find a pervasive insistence on the incompatibility of the architectural and the feminine — seen not only in early 20th-century writings on modern architecture by Otto Bartning, Karl Scheffler and others, but also in recent Hollywood films, such as One Fine Day (1996), in which Michelle Pfeiffer, playing an architect compelled to bring her young child to work, trips over her own handbag and crushes the design model she’s carrying, including its phallic high-rise. This scene points also to another deeply embedded conflict in the image of the architect: the irreconcilability of production and reproduction. They require different and opposing abilities, we're told, and being a good architect necessarily means being a bad parent, as Adam Sandler's character discovered in Click (2006).

Architect Barbie on display at the AIA convention in New Orleans, May 2011. [Photo courtesy of Mattel, Inc.]

Hoping to encourage discussion about these beliefs and attitudes, but wary of preaching to the converted, I looked for an unusual angle to address issues of diversity in my fellowship exhibition at Michigan, held in 2007. I had long admired feminist artists, such as the Guerrilla Girls, who use humor to political ends. Given the tensions and resentments stirring on campus in the wake of Prop 2, it seemed more important than ever to harness the disarming power of humor. It was at that point that I remembered Architect Barbie. In 2002, Mattel had staged a public vote to allow people to determine the next career in its new professional series, "Barbie I Can Be…" The choices — architect, librarian and police woman — unleashed an epic online battle, which architects won. But then came Mattel's crushing announcement that the company would not produce the doll — in its view an architect's work was beyond the comprehension of little girls.

Eager to see Architect Barbie materialize, I asked Michigan architecture students and faculty to develop their own prototypes. I was particularly interested in how a younger generation, just learning to become architects and absorbing the professional culture, would imagine her. The results, exhibited in the architecture school, were an eye-opener. I had expected Barbie to show up in a black power suit and Corbusier eyeglasses. In other words, architecture would come first, Barbie second. Instead, some students reversed the order. Their dolls explored architecture on Barbie's own terms, from an über-feminine angle that celebrated fashion, hairstyles and makeup. In these dolls, I was confronted by the "femmenism" or "girl power" of a younger generation, which seeks empowerment by playing up femininity in contexts that prohibit it. Inside architecture's hallowed halls, Barbie's "girlie" attributes were not a mark of oppression, but of resistance. These dolls looked you right in the eye and asked, "Why can't architects wear pink?"

Architect Barbie prototypes, created by Taubman College architecture students Enesh Easlick (doll on the left) and Mashawnta Armstrong (doll on the right) for a 2007 University of Michigan exhibition. [Photo by Paige Hammerschmidt and Caryn Schadegg, courtesy of Despina Stratigakos]

My assumptions would be challenged again, a few years later, when Architect Barbie finally entered the realm of trademarked toys. In February 2010, Mattel invited the public to vote on Barbie's 125th career, only the second such election to be held since 2002. Having once shunned "complex" careers in the "Barbie I Can Be…" line, Mattel was now focusing on professions in which women were underrepresented. (Even a corporation can evolve.) This time, Architect Barbie's rivals included Surgeon Barbie and Computer Engineer Barbie; the latter emerged victorious. At which point — still reluctant to concede defeat — I joined forces with architect Kelly Hayes McAlonie, a colleague at SUNY Buffalo, in a last-ditch effort to save Architect Barbie, and approached Mattel directly to advocate for the doll. To our delighted surprise, Kelly and I were asked to advise on her design.

Over the next six months, as Mattel explored the world of architecture, Kelly and I were inducted into the mysteries of toy manufacturing. One of our first lessons was that creating Barbie in the image of a professional was not about miniaturizing the adult world, but rather about translating it into a child's terms. Yes, we know architects like to wear black (we like it ourselves). But to a five-year-old girl, a doll dressed in black says "villain" or "mortician," not "architect." In working with Mattel's designers on Architect Barbie's outfit, we focused on simple volumes, clean lines and basic colors. Since Barbie's molded feet made flats impossible, we gave her black ankle boots with a chunky heel. With architecture undergoing rapid changes, not least in its technologies, accessorizing Barbie involved difficult choices. We sent a list of 25 possible accessories to Mattel's designers, who selected three with iconic power and instant recognizability: a pink drawing tube, white hard hat and black glasses.

Top: Barbie's Dream House, 1979 model, on display at the AIA convention. The AIA is holding a competition to design a sustainable Dream House for Architect Barbie. Bottom: Girls participating in one of the Architect Barbie workshops at the AIA convention. [Images courtesy of Mattel, Inc.]

Negotiating the transition from office to construction site also posed a sartorial challenge. What outfit would work for both? After considering slacks, we ultimately agreed with Mattel that Architect Barbie would wear a dress. A century ago, men campaigned to ban women from construction sites because their dresses (standing in for female bodies) were seen as nuisances. Since women then were also forbidden to wear pants, this dress code effectively excluded them from the building trades. Our decision to combine a hard hat with a dress — symbols of building and femininity — channels the spirit of girl power, flaunting that which has been prohibited.

Ultimately, though, Architect Barbie's power is not in her clothes, but in what she represents. And this, Architect Barbie's last and most enduring lesson, became fully clear to me only at the official launch of the doll, at the AIA convention in New Orleans. Working with Mattel and the AIA, Kelly and I developed workshops for 400 girls, recruited from local schools and girls' clubs. The workshops, led by women architects, had three components: an introduction to what architects do, a discussion of the work of past and present women architects, and an exercise to redesign Barbie’s Dream House. The exercise focused on teaching the girls basic skills for drawing floor plans and encouraging them to explore their ideal domestic environment. Throughout, I was amazed at how intensely the girls wanted to learn how to shape and control their own spaces. One of my favorite floor plans, created by a seven-year-old, included a room for monsters; by acknowledging their presence and giving them their own space, the rest of the house would remain monster-free — a design solution to an eternal childhood problem that would have put Freud out of business. At the end, each girl left with a gift bag that included drawing tools and her own Architect Barbie.

At no point during the workshops did I hear any girl question her spatial skills or the appropriateness of architecture for women. And that, precisely, is where Barbie’s power lies. The fact is that Barbie appeals to little girls like no other toy. They are proprietary about her — they know the doll is just for them. And whatever Barbie does, she brings it into the sphere of women. She has the power to make things seem natural to little girls. Admittedly, Architect Barbie can't do all the work. Deeply held attitudes about women must shift before architecture becomes a profession that truly embraces diversity. Open discussions about how to encourage and keep women in practice need to happen in architecture schools, around the water cooler, in boardrooms. If Architect Barbie gets us talking, then more power to her. But ultimately she is for kids, not adults, and it is the politics of the sandbox that I hope to influence. I look forward to the day when little girls claim hard hats and construction sites as just another part of their everyday world.