The Design Observer Group

Posted 06.03.13

Despina Stratigakos

Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia

Image by Tom Morris, March 2012, based on the "We Can Do It!" poster created by J. Howard Miller in 1942 for the U.S. War Production Coordinating Committee, as part of the homefront mobilization campaign during World War II. [Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

History is not a simple meritocracy: it is a narrative of the past written and revised — or not written at all — by people with agendas. This is nothing new; about 3500 years ago, Thutmose III tried to erase the memory of his dead wife, Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s most successful pharaohs and prolific builders, in the most literal of ways: by hacking and scratching off her name and image from her monuments. His motives were less passionate than political; he did it to protect his son, the future Amenhotep II, from rivals to the throne. Amenhotep II, in turn, seized the opportunity during his own reign to expand his legacy by claiming that he was the creator of Hatshepsut’s defaced works. Many centuries later, such acts of erasure would become known as damnatio memoriae, after the ancient Roman judgment passed on a person who was condemned not to be remembered. It was a dishonorable fate, which the Roman Senate reserved for traitors and tyrants. Today, in modern architectural history, it’s simply what we do to women architects.

The reasons we forget women architects are varied and complex. Until recently, historians assumed that there were no female practitioners before the mid-20th century and so they did not bother to look. Nor was it likely that they would stumble upon these designers by chance, given that traditional research methods focus on archives and libraries, institutions that have been slow to collect women’s work. The International Archive of Women in Architecture, housed at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, was created in 1985 by Bulgarian architect Milka Bliznakov out of frustration at the enormous loss of material from the first generations of women architects. Few archives wanted their papers, and as these women passed away, decades of drawings, plans and records ended up in the trash. As a result, anyone seeking to learn about their lives and careers has had to be inventive and eclectic in their use of sources in order to supplement the archival documentation conventionally understood as the historian’s primary materials.

Forgetting women architects has also been imbedded in the very models we use for writing architectural history. The monograph format, which has long dominated the field, lends itself to the celebration of the heroic “genius,” typically a male figure defined by qualities such as boldness, independence, toughness and vigor — all of which have been coded in Western culture as masculine traits. Moreover, the monograph is usually conceived as a sort of genealogy, which places the architect in a lineage of “great men,” laying out both the “masters” from whom he has descended and the impressive followers in his wake. For those seeking to write other kinds of narratives, the monograph has felt like an intellectual straitjacket, especially in contemplating the lives and careers of women who do not fit the prescribed contours. Some of the early histories of women architects used the monographic model to produce a thin substratum of female “greats,” but did not thereby challenge the idea that the best architecture is created by mavericks.  To be sure, in the past two decades, historians interested in broader, socially based histories have moved away from the monograph’s confining format. But it remains powerful and continues to be the bible of the star system. Prominent architects seeking to consolidate their position in history’s pantheon often write or commission their own monographs, projects that are rarely self-critical.

The monograph’s insistence on heroic individualism has also discouraged histories about collaborations, as if acknowledging the work of a team would diminish the pot of glory. This has contributed significantly to the forgetting of women architects because it is common for them to work in partnership (for professional and personal reasons), usually with a male who is often also a spouse. Even when she has been a full and equal partner, a woman’s contribution is rarely recognized as such. The painful cancellation of Denise Scott Brown in the 1991 awarding of the Pritzker Prize solely to her husband and collaborator, Robert Venturi — which has prompted a global petition demanding that the Hyatt Foundation, 22 years later, set the record straight — is an important, but by no means exceptional, example of how female partners are written out of history by a profession suffering from Star Architect Disorder (a.k.a., SAD).

Scott Brown’s case is notable, however, not only because of the controversy it has generated, but also because she has been an outspoken critic of her own erasure, bringing attention to the sexism of architecture’s star system long before the Pritzker Prize jury all but sealed her argument with their verdict. But even when women architects have stood up for their own contributions, most historians and prize juries — following the cultural practice of glorifying individual heroes — have usually ignored them, no matter how compelling the evidence. Using pens rather than chisels, such historians and juries have channeled Thutmose III, removing the names of women architects from their own monuments.

Admittedly, women have sometimes contributed to their own disappearance. Male architects do not hesitate to take an active role in preserving their legacies by writing memoirs and ensuring the safe-keeping of their models, drawings and correspondence. Women — taught that self-promotion is an unattractive female trait — have made less effort to tell their stories. Among older generations, some women in partnerships have chosen to stand in the shadows in order to shine the spotlight on their husbands. Fifteen years ago, I spent a day trying to interview a woman architect about her career, which had spanned 30 years, from 1948 to 1978. For the first six years, as a young graduate, she had worked together with her much older husband; after he died, in 1954, she built a solo career. But every time I asked about her projects, she would change the subject to her husband’s achievements. After listening politely all morning, I finally told her that I wanted to hear about her contributions as well; she responded that I could only understand her through him (he had been her teacher before becoming her husband), and spent the afternoon telling me even more about her husband and her plans to write a book about him. We never did get around to talking about her work. It was an early lesson in frustration to a graduate student naively determined to rescue women architects from obscurity.

And yet, despite such hurdles, the last 20 years have seen a remarkable florescence of books and articles on women architects. These writings have both contributed to and profited from the shift away from the monographic model as well as from increasing dialogue with other disciplines, such as anthropology and philosophy, which have introduced new narrative methods and sources. But while histories of women are now increasingly available, they have yet to become readily visible. They rarely appear in course syllabi; indeed, it is still common in architecture schools for students to complete an entire degree without ever having heard the names of women who practiced before 1970. You can’t walk into a large commercial bookstore, where the design shelves are filled with glossy monographs on international stars, and expect to walk out with a book on a woman architect. Their work is rarely exhibited in major museums: the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., has never devoted a show to a woman architect. In other words, there is a disconnect between the production of histories and their broader dissemination. The books and articles alone have not been enough to build a collective memory that recognizes women architects.

But there is something that we can all do to turn written words into public awareness. Namely, we can intervene to ensure the presence of women architects in online histories — which is increasingly important to do as the web becomes a primary site for making and preserving the cultural record. Their current scarcity in the virtual sphere threatens to reinforce the assumption among younger generations that women have not contributed significantly to the profession until very recently. The dearth of entries in the collectively produced, free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, one of the most visited websites in the world, is particularly worrisome. But it’s not just women architects who are missing. While women comprise half of Wikipedia’s readers, they are dramatically underrepresented among the ranks of the site's editors: only 9 percent in 2012, down from 13 percent in 2010. Not surprisingly, the gender gap among editors is reflected in a gender gap in content; male editors write about subjects with which they are familiar and which interest them. Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, has said that she wants to raise the number of women editors to 25 percent by 2015, but admits that the website’s culture resists female participation. Women editors who submit new entries on women’s history routinely find that male editors question their sources and the significance of the topic and are quick to nominate such entries for deletion. In a March 2012 edit-a-thon, “She Blinded Me with Science,” held at the Smithsonian to add notable female scientists, entries were nominated for deletion almost as soon as they were posted.

A few weeks ago, I witnessed this kind of editorial hassling in action when someone tried to post about the architect Thekla Schild on the German Wikipedia site. I had discovered Schild in the course of my dissertation research and had written about her efforts, in the years before the First World War, to integrate the architecture program of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Schild’s story is noteworthy not just because of her success in opening up the program to women (she was only the second woman in Germany to earn an architecture degree), but also because she wrote a memoir of the experience. Such first-hand accounts of academic integration are unusual in any field; in architecture, they are extremely rare. Schild's manuscript, which was never published, provides insights into what architectural education was like a century ago and how society viewed the status of architects.

So I noticed when, early in the morning of March 30, an editor with the user name “CMdibev” posted a brief entry on Thekla Schild. This editor, new to Wikipedia, had earlier in the same month posted numerous times on historical female figures, including on other women architects. Yet just 13 minutes after the initial post on Schild appeared, a male editor, “Der Krommodore,” who has been posting on the site since 2008, had marked the article for immediate deletion (without the seven-day grace period for discussion usually afforded new entries). Admittedly, the entry on Schild seemed hastily written and was incomplete, and some of the criticisms were valid. But two things caught my eye (and raised my blood pressure): first, Der Krommodore asserted that Schild was not sufficiently accomplished to be listed on Wikipedia; and, second, he expressed doubt that Schild had ever existed. During the past 15 years of writing about women architects, I have certainly encountered dismissive attitudes toward the topic, but no one had ever denied the actual existence of my subjects. Der Krommodore, who identified himself as a Bavarian interested in linguistics as well as a monarchist and cigar-smoking, cognac-swilling insomniac, had Googled Schild and, finding nothing, assumed she was fictional. Eventually another editor told Der Krommodore to back off and give CMdibev time to complete the entry, but the latter seemed to give up. Over the next few weeks, however, other editors, in the kind of collaborative work that Wikipedia encourages, completed a detailed entry, thus saving Schild and baptizing her into the virtual world.

Still, the ease with which Der Krommodore could dismiss Schild was stunning — and this is exactly why ensuring the virtual presence of past women architects matters so much. As Mia Ridge, a young scholar and proponent of digital histories, argues, search engines are now shaping our conception of the world. A historian might spend decades undertaking research in archives and writing up discoveries in scholarly journals, but if the work does not have a presence online — and, specifically, a presence that is not behind a paywall — it is all but invisible outside academia. As Ridge states, “If it’s not Googleable, it doesn’t exist.” And because Wikipedia articles usually show up first in Google search rankings, intervening on the site is especially important in establishing online visibility.

Just how much information and history is missing from Wikipedia becomes clear in comparison to the free, user-generated digital archive of 20th-century American female architects created by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation. The Dynamic National Archive, or DNA, includes 1,100 practitioners from all 50 states, and is still growing. Wikipedia, by comparison, includes 112 American female architects from 25 states — but even these numbers are misleading, because 40 of those 112 entries — one-third — have no content at all (one links to the entry of a man with a similar name). The DNA, too, has many entries that still need to be completed. Like Wikipedia, BWAF relies on the public to build the database, but also reaches out to experts to edit or to add entries. BWAF is currently working on an NEA-sponsored initiative, “Women of 20th-Century American Architecture,” involving 50 scholars (I am one of them) who are researching and posting entries on 50 women architects chosen by a jury; this work will become part of its online collection. Although the BWAF archive does not rank as highly in Google searches as Wikipedia, some of the Wikipedia entries on American women architects cite it in their sources; adding more such links would increase the traffic between the sites.

The phenomenal attention that the Denise Scott Brown petition has garnered testifies not only to the power of the Internet and the support for her cause, but also to a widespread dissatisfaction with the ongoing invisibility of women's accomplishments. The arrival of summer and summer reading is a good time to unforget a woman architect. Consider reading a book or an article on a woman architect and contributing what you have learned to the DNA (it is user-friendly and there are no censorious Krommodores patrolling the premises) or to Wikipedia (tips on how to edit are here, under “How can you participate?”). Help organize an edit-a-thon. And if you are an educator, make Wikipedia-editing a class assignment for next semester.

Contributing to Wikipedia and other online databases represents a real opportunity to provide students and younger readers, and the larger public, with a more accurate perception of women’s participation in architecture. There is also something very satisfying about writing a forgotten figure — a professional ancestor, maybe even a pioneer — into history. And as the long and rich history of women in architecture becomes more broadly known, it will become that much harder to ignore them, whether in the classroom, the museum, or on prize juries. As Sue Gardner of Wikimedia put it, “Wikipedia will only contain ‘the sum of all human knowledge’ if its editors are as diverse as the population itself: you can help make that happen. And I can’t think of anything more important to do, than that.”