Newsletter | Mar/Apr 2012

Book Circle Report: Architecture: A Woman’s Profession Edited by Tanja Kulluck

by Tammy Lin

This book and the previous three books read by the circle are listed and linked to circle discussions on the web site under Resources/Books and are available for short loans to members. Call Wendy Bertrand at 415-648-2713 for arrangements.

Fresh off the press, this book was recently published by Jovis (Press) in Germany and available translated into English as of December 2011. The publisher found OWA on the Internet and made contact with the organization. The Book Circle appreciates the opportunity to read and discuss this book in such a timely manner. The subject of the book is architecture and architecture as a woman’s profession. Sixteen eminent women architects and city planner discuss twenty-two architectural and urban planning topics; they come from eight different countries. Perspectives presented are not distinctly feminine or masculine. However, “as Monica Ponce de Leon points out, there is an evident difference in the debate on gender in relation to the profession and on gender in relation to design.” Some of the poignant and interesting topics include viewpoints in architecture, authorship and genius, difference and diversity, leadership, education and academia, success and career and conditions, in other words, women in architecture, discourse, and much more. The intent of the book is to inspire and to stimulate thought and conversation.

The book is organized by topics. Each topic is presented to a number of the women architects without the limits of a rigid structure. Each architect is left to interpret the topic freely and respond with little direction. Interspersed between topics are portraits of the authors and gorgeous photos of completed work. Wether or not to respond to the twenty two topics seemed random; they were given the opportunity to discuss multiple topics with the exception of Jennifer Wolch, Dean at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, who wrote an essay titled, “Women, Architecture, and Design Activism.” Nasrine Seraji was the only one to speak on the topic of transgression (crossing over into prohibited territory). She recommended seeing the film The Associate to understand the concept. A partial list of women architects participating in this collection of Architecture: A Woman's Profession include Barbara Bestor, Caroline Bos, Alison Brooks, Elke Delugan-Meissl, Jeanne Gang, Lisa Iwamot, Fuensanta Nieto, and Yui Tezuka.

The Book Circle sat down, after a good soup, on the night of January 23, 2012 and enjoyed a lively discussion of these topics ourselves and evaluated the structure, effectiveness, and quality of the book. As a generator of thought and debate, members of the book circle were asked to select two topics of our choice that are dear to our hearts or most relevant to our experiences as practicing women architects and planners. There was commonality in topics selected by several members of the book circle. Thoughts on leadership, on respect, and on communication overlapped. On leadership, members expressed a similar desire for schools and professional organizations to teach or share experiences of successful leadership. How and when to take charge, express opinions, give recognition due, empower others, and practice at varying levels of leadership could be folded into an architectural education. The three paragraphs under this topic addressed the authority of a position in a university, probably because these architects all work in academia. On respect, members consistently focused on respect for the architectural profession rather than personal respect as woman architects. The lack of respect for architecture stems from the general lack of awareness of what architects do. Not only the general public, but also even the client to whom architects are providing services might have a misconception about the skills included with the services. Perhaps, lack of communication contributes to this lack of respect. One member believes a lack of emphasis on communication can be traced back to our education. In the book, a similar sentiment is expressed; “a scheme that is produced within two weeks is based on fifteen years of experience, but the fee is based on the two weeks” (of the actual competition), said Alison Brooks. Finally, on communication, members emphasized the importance of clear and persistent communication. Some suggested that the ability and the need to communicate is not gender specific while others pointed out that men seem to get the floor more easily, speak louder, and get listened to more consistently than many women.

How we experience the profession varies even within our own intimate group. Differences of opinions were expressed in gender discrimination in the profession and in design. Aligned with sentiments expressed by architects in the book, there is a majority consensus, within the book circle, on the difficulty of recognizing systematic discrimination problems in the profession. However, not all members agree gender specific issues are applicable today. In some cases, gender discrimination is not experienced until later in a woman’s career, when responsibilities grow; this experience is commonly expressed in the book circle and woman architects contributing to the discussion. Furthermore, we see many of the women authors are involved in academia; it is a place of influence and a place of discovery. Jennifer Wolch ended her essay suggesting that new women graduates may need to go outside of the traditional path to find meaningful architectural work. On authorship, the architectural historian among us did more extensive research into this topic: specifically, who in a partnership between a woman and a man receives credit for their work, in the past as well as in the present. There are known cases when a woman was denied credit for her work on projects. An example is Fred Langhorst rarely credited his wife Lois, who later reinvented her career as an architect in leading Bay Area firms and a professor after their marriage failed. In the book, opinions range from taking ownership of a project as in having a strong emotional investment in the work to that sole authorship is outdated in architecture. Architecture is a collaborative effort and the further a project precedes the more the sole author steps into the background and the team effort becomes predominant. However, none of the writers here mentioned how participants in a design project and execution were acknowledged. Only one woman mentioned that the legal liability rests with the architect of record and therefore that person needs to be mentioned.

The above summary is a sprinkling of topics presented in the book. As an overall recommendation, members of the book circle believe this book is a worthwhile read. We didn’t walk away feeling the book had explored each topic thoroughly. While the format of the book creates a lively discussion of selected topics and a vibrant book layout, it is quite difficult to get a good impression of individual women and their work. Most of the members would have preferred a slightly different format with more biographical information in combination with the portrait and relevant project architectural photography and drawings. However, it is an enjoyable read and meets the intent of the book to inspire and stimulate thought and conversation. We are left with the feeling of having participated in an informal coffee house conversation with distinguished minds of our field on a multitude of subjects poignant to our times. That is an enriching experience in itself.

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