Alexandra Lange | Essays

Let’s Talk About Women in Architecture

Photograph by Bartholomew Cooke (via Dwell)

At the close of Nora Ephron's 2010 book, I Remember Nothing, she included a list titled "What I Won't Miss." Down at the bottom, between "Small print" and "Taking off makeup every night" was this zinger, "Panels on Women in Film." I like the way she capitalized the letters, capturing the organizers' formal sincerity while maintaining her distance from the whole enterprise.

Next week, on October 3, I find myself playing both roles. I am the moderator for a panel titled Women in Design as part of New York and Dwell magazines' weeklong City Modern series. The series includes discussions, lectures, panels and on the weekend of October 6 and 7, house tours. My panel, which should more properly be called Women in Architecture, features Galia Solomonoff, Marion Weiss and Claire Weisz. And the first question I am going to ask them is about Architect Barbie.

Greenwich Village Townhouse (2012), Solomonoff Architecture Studio (Photograph by Alex Guerrero)

Part of me is in total sympathy with Nora Ephron, and my panelists. This is surely not their first time being asked about being a woman in architecture. I doubt any of them think that aspect is the most important part of their careers (I will ask). Is a question about Architect Barbie now a tiresome obligation? The very existence of the panel suggests there is something strange, something other to architecture, about being a women.

On the other hand, I feel that in the decade after my own undergraduate architecture degree, there weren't enough panels on Women in Architecture. The women who were doing it did not want to talk about it. They wanted to do their excellent work, and let that speak about their place in the profession. Which was a worthy, understandable approach. Unfortunately it changed nothing. As far as I can tell, when I graduated from college in 1994 the percentage of female members of the AIA was 15 percent. In 2010, it was 17 percent.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center (2012), Weiss/Manfredi

These statistics make me sad, but it also feels like action is brewing. Over the course of the year I have seen many more productive discussions about women in architecture: on Design Observer, in the recent Places series on women in architecture; on the Australian site Parlour, where a recent essay addresses exactly what it is like to be an architect and mother of small children. It feels as if the moment is right to discuss structural change, work/life balance for everyone, and, as all of these women have their own practices, how they run things differently. But first we need to talk honestly and openly about what is difficult and what has been different about the profession, not for all women, but for these women.

It also isn't necessary to see otherness as only negative. Sometimes it makes creative life easier – it certainly does for me as a critic. As Claire Weisz told Nina Rappaport, in a Constructs article on an upcoming reunion of Women in Architecture at Yale: "Sometimes the greatest work comes from outsiders. The particularily of a woman's experience can also generate strength and create opportunity."

Beach 30th Street Pavilion at Rockaway Park (2012), WXY Architecture + Urban Design

If this topic is of interest to you, please join us at the panel. Tickets are available here. Ironically, at the exact same time, Paul Goldberger is "in conversation" with MacArthur winner Jeanne Gang at the National Academy, a conversation I would have liked to hear. (PG wrote this excellent take on Gang's work for the New Yorker in 2010.)

In the meantime, I am still writing up my list of questions. If you have something you would like to ask these Women in Design, please let me know in the comments.

Posted in: Architecture, Business, History, Media, Social Good

Comments [10]

How is Steve Harvey not on the panel???? Travesty.
Ed Nai

Question for panel: a lot of the discussion in women in [insert male dominated industry here, though in this case is architecture] is that the key is being a role model so that young women can see someone they relate to in the industry. As practitioners, what are we supposed to do? Talk at high schools? Mentor (even if we haven't been in the industry that long)? It's frustrating not knowing what little things can be done.
Vicky Teinaki

Pink T-Squares? Architecture Barbies? I think that's all you need to know about why Nora Ephron didn't like these kind of forums. Why? They ghettoize the contributions of women like it were the Special Olympics.

Dismissing the positive effects of female role models because of disappointing statistics (AIA certification doesn't represent all people in and around the profession, just its leadership) doesn't match what I see on the ground level, and doesn't reflect the progress that's been made. If not for the recession (the real villain here), progress would be much greater.

My questions are: do you think the current design media is damaging women in architecture with this kind of shallow coverage (i.e. Pink T-Squares)? Does it brand architecture by giving it a gender (see examples above)? Does it give extra points to women architects who are more attractive (a symptom of celebrity architecture coverage)?

Basically, what can women do to keep the focus on their work and not let the media "use" them as a marketing gimmick?
R. Mackintosh

Perhaps for your presentation you could note current stats of women in allied design professions. Women landscape architects represent 46% of ASLA membership.
Liesel Fenner

Considering the working hours, declining or no wages (how many interns have you "hired" today?), the lack of any substantial promotion opportunities for most employees, and the often psychotic working conditions of most architecture firms, its a wonder that rational persons of either gender can be persuaded to the calling, and perhaps a reflection of better sense that one of those genders is not at present.
Mr. Downer

The stats reflect different conditions. Industry-wide, women are approaching much greater representation and this is also seen within enrollment demographics at design schools. If you look at the leadership of the industry, like firm owners or principals, the numbers of women are drastically lower. What is that about?
Still...If it were a panel of men, I wouldn't dream of asking them personal questions about children and work/life balance. These accomplished Architects on the panel should not be asked to justify, explain, or qualify their work in these terms either.

I’m looking for inspiration on making my own logo. This post helped me to do that. Grungy Circular Logo is my favorite so far.
Sila Mahmud

'Pink T-Squares? Architecture Barbies? I think that's all you need to know about why Nora Ephron didn't like these kind of forums. Why? They ghettoize the contributions of women like it were the Special Olympics.'

Peter Safe: Having just had the amazing experience of being in London for the Paralympics Games, which were a major triumph, with huge and enthusiastic crowds and a great spirit, I am surprised that it's possible in persisting in seeing them as a kind of second-rate version of the Olympics. (That is your implication above.) Paralympic athletes were not 'ghettoized' at all! And it doesn't seem at all credible to assume that female architects are either by participating in events that can support and encourage others women in the field. Leadership and visibility is important, and this is what these women are seeking to provide. They wouldn't agree to sit on these panels otherwise...
design matters

ghettoize (from the oxford dictionary): "put in or restrict to an isolated or segregated place, group, or situation." Check.
The Paralympics are a indeed a triumph of the human spirit, but we have to admit that they cannot compete on the same field as 'traditional' Olympians (that great South African sprinter was pretty good though....). I think it's offensive that the women who sat on this panel should be subjected to questions more concerned with child-development than serious architecture and design. Building community and leadership is essential, but the barbie and pink-t-squares leads me to believe this is a pseudo-discussion that plays on stereotypes. Like let's ask a Mexican Architect what they think of Taco Bell--hahaha, discuss! I guess we live in the age of Sasha Baron-Cohen and Carlos Mencia, but I'm sure these are not the questions that female architects got into the profession to answer.
A better first question: "what inspired you to become an architect or designer?" The subjective answers to that question would much better give us a viewpoint from a female architect. Maybe not as sexy, but hey, this isn't the Mind of Mencia here, as much as the non-designer intellegentsia would like it to be.
R. Mackintosh

I believe women are strong, determined, intelligent. but abit too voicetrius. They should cut down on attempting to be too 'macho' and wanting to express they know it all! And concentrate on their abilities to produce good design with a feminen look. I would encourage more of them to enter the Architectural field. They will provide our field with a feminen look so much needed. Go for it!....Aristud.
aristudioart & design

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