Newsletter | Sep/Oct 2012

Renewed Interest in the Status of Women Architects

by Inge Horton
Recently I became aware of several independently authored discussions of the status of women in architecture in the online magazine Places. The first article was written by Gabrielle Esperdy, Associate Professor of Architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, titled The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America. With superwoman floating over a city, Gabrielle takes the 40th anniversary of MS. Magazine as the starting point to reflect on the status of women in architecture and finds that we made some progress but not enough. “So let me conclude with a modest proposal that borrows strategically from the history of ‘70s organizing and activism. Let’s mentor a new generation of architects who are as proud to be women as they are proud to be designers. And let’s start by taking back the “architectress,” by infusing that cringe-inducing, condescending, mid-century term of opprobrium with some born-this-way, kick-ass, grrrl-power, retro cool. Imagine Architectress t-shirts and Architectress tattoos, Architectress blogs and Architectress fansites, Architectress flash mobs and Architectress meetups. Imagine Architectress going viral. Imagine Architectress superheroine action figures on the shelf next to Architect Barbie.”

The second article by Despina Stratigakos, Associate Professor at State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of A Women’s Berlin: Building the Modern City, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008, reports on a series of roundtable discussions on Feminist Practices at the Van Alen Institute in Manhattan which took place this spring. The occasion was the publication of the book, Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture, edited by Lori Brown, a professor at Syracuse University, who also organized the discussions. Despina’s article is titled "Why Architects Need Feminism." She states: “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.”

The San Francisco Bay Area is represented with a third article by Sandra Vivanco, Associate Professor in Architecture at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She (with her students) was among the exhibitors at a recent exhibition Space through Gender at the Mission Cultural Center. Her short article Latin America: A New Generation of Women Architects introduces us to the emerging contributions of women in or from Latin America and also allows the readers to view some of the work exhibited in the attached photo gallery.

OWA has not been standing on the sidelines and members might be aware of the publication of two books focusing on local women architects. While my book Early Women Architects of the San Francisco Bay Area – The Lives and Work of Fifty Professionals, 1890-1951, (2010) offers a historic perspective and establishes the professional lineage of contemporary women in architecture, Wendy Bertrand’s fascinating new memoir Enamored with Place: as Woman + as Architect, San Francisco: EyeonPlace press, 2012, recounts her successes and struggles as a government-employed architect and as a single mother. As the title indicates, Wendy is focused on creating places – some for her own needs as the head of a small family and others for the public. In her practice she became increasingly aware of the discrimination of women in the male-dominated profession and society. As I was browsing through her beautifully designed and well written book, I was drawn to the Epilogue – If I Knew Then What I Know Now, in my opinion the most important part of her book for us as design professionals. In it, Wendy argues for and envisions a new model for practicing architecture. She proposes creating a democratic and inclusive model in which masculinity is not replaced by femininity but integrated in a framework she calls placitecture. The star architect will be replaced by teamwork based on “social justice, planet peacefulness, respect for nature, diversity in history, ethical distribution of resources, and land stewardship.” Wendy’s Epilogue is a significant contribution to the discussion of the status of contemporary women architects. Another series of events adding to this discussion is the OWA Book Circle initiated a year ago by Wendy Bertrand. Eight women and men have been reading and discussing books about women and architecture, sharing their insights in the OWA Book Circle, and distributing the books to public libraries, libraries of high schools and colleges to spread the information. I will not elaborate on the fascinating books here as you can read the reviews on the website quoted above.

At an upcoming AIASF event The Missing 32%, participants will talk about women’s architectural practice. In the U.S., women represent about 50% of students enrolled in architecture programs, but only 18% of licensed architects are women. (However, many women practice architecture or related design fields without being licensed or having joined the AIA.) The event on October 13, 2012 at Timken Hall of California College of Arts invites women architects to join leading professionals from around the country to discuss the role of women in architecture in the 21st century. The invited speakers are Ann Hand, CEO, Project Frog; Beverly Willis, FAIA, Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation; and Laura Crescimano, Assoc. AIA, SITELAB urban studio. Stay tuned as OWA might report on this event or even participate on a broader level in the discussion on approaches to practicing architecture based on Wendy’s Epilogue and the Missing 32% results.

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