The Design Observer Group


Posted 09.12.12


Despina Stratigakos

Why Architects Need Feminism



Van Alen Institute Bookstore, Feminist Practices Panel. [All images courtesy of Van Alen Institute]

Defining a New Wave

On three evenings this past March, architects and scholars gathered at the Van Alen Institute on West 22nd Street in Manhattan to explore an issue both old and new: what feminism contributes to the architectural profession. The roundtable discussions, organized and moderated by Syracuse University architecture professor Lori Brown and focused on the theme of “Feminist Practices,” brought together ten speakers who have long grappled with this question with an audience of dozens of young women (and some young men) just beginning to ponder feminism’s role in their own careers. [1] In the intimate space of the Van Alen bookstore, the debates grew lively and the tone resonated less with academic discourses than with the all-too-real and messy challenges of carving out a career in architecture today.

The roundtables were well timed: these days there is heightened interest in the status of women in architecture. From the flurry of media attention to Architect Barbie to new studies on workplace conditions [2] and growing online forums about architecture’s sexual politics, the profession’s ongoing diversity struggles have lately been more widely recognized and discussed than in previous decades. Yet feminism as a potential force of change has received less attention, at least from the mainstream press. Through the lens of the roundtables, which addressed alternative practices, design research, and pedagogy, I'd like to explore some neglected issues that contribute to gender inequities in architecture and to suggest an expanded definition of feminism in the field.

At the opening roundtable, Kyna Leski, head of architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, described the inescapable awareness of being a watched woman. As theorist Karen Burns has noted, women in architecture may wish to be seen first and foremost as architects (not as women architects), but they cannot control the gendering gaze of society. Acting or dressing “like a man” — the advice women have received for decades as the means to blend into the workplace — only entrenches a masculine norm. Yet difference in itself is not the issue. Indeed, feminism encourages practices that accommodate differences among people and cultures. Difference that grades into discrimination, however, is something else. A recent survey of some 700 female architects published in The Architects’ Journal shows that discrimination remains, if not a universal experience, then surprisingly commonplace. From lower pay and fewer promotions to stereotypes about their design skills, the survey documents how women architects continue to struggle to be accepted as equal players. For example, 47 percent of the female respondents believed they would be paid more if they were male, while 22 percent experienced sexual discrimination at work on a weekly or monthly basis.

A young woman attending the third Van Alen roundtable, on pedagogy, described her hunger for a theoretical basis that would help her understand the “man’s world” that confronted her in architectural practice as well as her strong reliance on female colleagues for support. She also noted that her academic training had done little to prepare her for these realities. Her implicit challenge to the academy — in essence, to give fair warning of the rough conditions that lie ahead — is an uncomfortable one. As educators, we want our students to embrace the professional world as if there were no barriers, while knowing that these persist. Do architecture schools have a responsibility to better prepare their graduates — male and female — for the profession’s gender politics? Do we increase the possibility of failure by glossing over these issues with the rhetoric of progress and equality? Indeed, by acknowledging a less-than-level playing field, architecture schools might help their female graduates to persevere by providing theoretical and practical coping skills that could lessen the dramatic attrition rate of women in the profession. At the same time, male graduates would develop greater understanding of the need for and their role in fostering a better-integrated and equitable workforce.





Top: Van Alen Institute Bookstore, Feminist Practices Panel, left to right, Ronit Eisenbach, Kyna Leski, Lori Brown, Meta Brunzema, Margarita McGrath. Bottom: Lori Brown. 

That these discussions are not happening in most architecture schools is unsurprising. To an astonishing degree, the “subject” in their curricula, as communicated in studios and history/theory courses, remains male and white. During the third roundtable, on feminism and architecture pedagogy, Dagmar Richter, chair of undergraduate architecture at the Pratt Institute, recounted her efforts to fundamentally rethink freshmen studio courses, which, she noted, establish “from day one” an unhealthy and macho work ethic of all-nighters, isolation and superhero egoism. In the reconceived freshman studios she has started at Pratt, there is also a new emphasis on the diversity of human bodies for which architects design, moving us beyond the assumed and seemingly generic six-foot tall, able-bodied male.

Interventions of this kind in studio pedagogy have long been recommended by feminist scholars, but a strong and conservative sense of the “foundational” role of such courses has meant that few schools have implemented any real changes. [3] Similarly, later that evening, when I asked how many in the audience had been exposed during their studies to architectural histories involving women and people of color, not a single hand was raised. Yet look at many other university departments today — sociology, history, literature, et al. — and you’ll find an abundance of courses that broaden students’ knowledge beyond the legacy and experience of “dead white men.” Where are these courses in architecture schools? And how has this gulf between architecture and other disciplines been sustained for so long? In recent decades we’ve seen an explosion of scholarship on the relationship of architecture to gender and race. [4] While one could in the past blame a lack of supporting materials for these curricular gaps, that excuse is no longer tenable. More and more, the absence of women and people of color as subjects of architecture seems less an oversight than a tacit exclusion.

Beyond syllabi and textbooks, there are other ways in which schools communicate to students that the “best” architects — the ones you want to learn about and from — are white and male. In her 2001 book, Designing for Diversity, University of Illinois design professor Kathryn Anthony criticized the schools’ low rates of promoting and tenuring women and people of color. [5] A decade later, we see the results in the lack of diversity among senior faculty, who also often teach the most prestigious studios: according to the 2011 National Architectural Accrediting Board report, 79 percent of full professors are men and 85 percent are white. [6] A glance at schools’ public events, moreover, reveals that invited speakers for lectures and symposia remain predominately male. Since architects tend to lecture about their own projects, students, accordingly, hear less about the work of women. Lectures that address the histories of female architects or architects of color are rare and often set apart as special “diversity” lectures, rather than incorporated into general programming. In the face of such disparities, Jeremy Till, head of the London art and design college Central Saint Martins, has pledged to refuse to participate in lecture series with less than 30 percent female representation. His position, he writes, “is more than just a numbers game. It is often said that knowledge is power. These male-dominated platforms are the means for the perpetuation of male models of knowledge, and with them the perpetuation of male systems of power. ... I am increasingly intemperate of male-dominated discourse and the values it represents: the architect as thrusting hero, the endless ‘show and tells’ with the architect at the centre, the clubbiness of the whole scene with women excluded from those all important informal networks.”

A sense of standing outside those clubs and networks was a sentiment repeatedly expressed by the recent female graduates who comprised the majority of the Van Alen audiences. The crucial transition from school to practice is at the heart of the profession’s gender imbalances, for while women graduate from architecture schools at near parity with men, less than 20 percent become licensed practitioners. At the second roundtable, a women in her late thirties who works at a mid-sized firm spoke passionately during the Q-and-A about how hard she had struggled to “make it to the table,” meaning to the project management level, only to look around and discover she was the only woman there. Younger audience members confirmed that they knew that professional survival would depend upon finding mentors and tapping into professional networks, but felt that their solo efforts were largely ineffective. Local organizations, including the Organization of Women Architects in San Francisco and Chicago Women in Architecture, offer mentoring and coaching; but while their efforts are to be applauded, the tremendous — indeed, catastrophic — drop-out rate of women during the pivotal early years demands a broader and more systematic approach to leadership training.

This in turn requires a commitment of resources for new programs, which few firms will institute on their own without some perceived benefit or external pressure. Over the years the American Institute of Architects has responded to demands to address gender imbalances with various initiatives; still, it has yet to use its considerable power and influence to implement fundamental, structural change among its 80,000-strong membership. Beverly Willis, a leader in the struggle for equality since the 1960s and '70s, now heads an organization that raises awareness about the lack of female leadership in the building industry through dialogue with the principals and partners of the nation’s largest architectural, engineering and construction firms. [7] Recently she has begun to direct her persuasive efforts to the corporate and government clients of these firms as well. Echoing Jeremy Till’s position, Willis suggests that the most effective way to change an “insiders” corporate culture may be to convince clients to refuse to do business with firms that cannot model diversity among their own leadership.



Van Alen Institute Bookstore, audience at the Feminist Practices Roundtable.

The feminist challenges addressed at the Van Alen events are not limited to women. Today an increasing number of men insist that many traditional aspects of architectural practice — the long hours, expectation of round-the-clock availability, lack of work/life balance, and glorification of the lone creator over collaborative work — are alienating to male as well as female professionals. Andrew Maynard, an Australian architect, recently argued that reforming work cultures to allow, for example, greater flexibility of hours and fair compensation is key to the viability of the profession, whatever your gender. Conditions that prevent women from flourishing in practice, Maynard points out, are unlikely to be positive for anyone. Yale University architecture professor Peggy Deamer, speaking at the third roundtable, recalled seeing a poster in Yale’s law school advertising the top ten family-friendly law firms in the U.S.; she then noted that this kind of recruitment material would never be found in an architecture school. Deamer admitted that her surprise at seeing such a poster in another professional school reinforced how little we expect architectural firms to be measured according to standards of fairness in the workplace or to employ similar recruitment tools.

The growing desire among both men and women for a more sustainable and inclusive architectural culture opens the door to a redefinition of what feminism can mean for the profession. The Van Alen audiences, which were about 85 percent female and largely in their mid-20s to early 30s, made it clear that the "F word" appealed little to their generation. At the same time, all agreed that the current model of practice was “broken” and that “something” needs to be done — although what that “something” might be remained vague. That these young women and men had come looking for solutions under the rubric of feminism (despite the negative associations) suggests that an expanded understanding of the concept — feminism as a matrix of politically conscious social, spatial and environmental strategies that build on the achievements of previous generations while also reaching out to a broader community of the oppressed, regardless of gender — could provide a direction for collective action.

In Barking Town Square (East London), for example, Liza Fior and Katherine Clarke of muf created art installations that rearticulated builder-client relationships and allowed diverse groups of residents, including working-class and immigrant populations, to voice their desires and visions for their shared spaces. Meta Brunzema’s La Marqueta Mile in East Harlem, New York, redefines design to encompass all facets of a project, from materials to branding to tax implications, fostering a holistic approach to practice that far transcends the object. Speaking at the first roundtable, Brunzema noted that embracing complexity had allowed her to respond to the concerns of local residents, who cared more about how the project might generate jobs than what it might look like. While differing in their methods, these architects identify their practices as feminist in the desire to destabilize hierarchies in order to create more inclusive and experimental approaches. [8] As Studio Sumo principal Yolande Daniels acknowledged at the second roundtable, the profession as a whole can now envision an expanded field of intervention precisely because of the earlier struggles of women architects and architects of color who, empowered by feminist thought and practices, insisted that building is a political and social act.

Whether “old” or “new,” feminism remains an inherently positive approach: it insists not only on the necessity but also on the possibility of change. Feminism weds theory to practice and encourages us to rethink the relationship between architecture schools and the larger professional world. By linking individuals to systems, feminism allows us to perceive structural limitations and to envision dissolving barriers. And feminism's attention to practice — and not just to practitioners — fosters new ways of understanding and experimenting with process.

For those of us who have long fought for greater diversity in architecture, the slow pace of change is less alarming than the emergence of cynical voices, both male and female, that dismiss the viability of architecture as a profession. At the final Van Alen roundtable, Dagmar Richter relayed the opinion, expressed by some in the field, that the declining status of the discipline is reflected in the growing presence of women in architecture schools —in other words, women are making headway because men are bailing. This stance suggests the impossibility of both a strong and integrated profession. Embracing a broader definition of feminism undermines this zero-sum, winner/loser dynamic by making clear how architecture in toto gains from addressing “women’s” concerns, which — as it turns out — belong to everyone.