Newsletter | Jan/Feb 2016

Film Review: Lutah

by Naomi Horowitz
Have you heard of Lutah Maria Riggs? I had not until Wendy Bertrand offered to share a documentary about her with the OWA+DP. How did an architect whose work had such range and sensitivity, who pushed forward the evolution of the Mission Revival style and then the emergence of a distinctively Californian modernism, not become a household name, when we have all heard of Maybeck and Eichler?

Wendy cannily began our gathering on Saturday by asking us to think about how and when we became aware of the existence of women architects. The answer seemed to vary by generation, but also based on individual circumstances. There were members who became aware of women architects through female professors, through practicing architects that provided them with a role model, and through activism in founding organizations such as the OWA+DP, as well as one who learned of women architects through a book: From Tipi to Skyscraper (Doris Cole, I press incorporated, Boston, MA, 1973).

Many founding and long-time members were present, including two who had met Riggs themselves. Anne Sullivan remembered her as an older woman wearing a red wool winter coat on a hot summer day. Mui Ho sought Riggs out because she was interested in her live-work spaces, which were a novel unit type at the time.

The film itself gave an overview of Lutah Maria Riggs’ life, career and body of work. Santa Barbara, California, would not be the place it is today without the work she did during her lifetime (1896-1984). The beauty of her drawings and the resulting buildings both testify to her great talent, and she was well-known locally. The Lobero Theater, her best-known building, is a landmark and active theater today.

Various members in attendance expressed wishes for more consideration of certain aspects of Riggs’ work. Of course, a one-hour documentary cannot be exhaustive. However, I noticed that some description was given of the firm of George Washington Smith, where Riggs worked for many years, while none was given for Riggs’ own practice, once she branched out on her own. Did she have employees, or was she a one-woman shop? Similarly, other members would have like to see more context for Riggs’ career. Did she have any contact with Julia Morgan, for example?

I appreciated the variety of people interviewed, including historians and clients, who gave a range of perspectives both on the work itself, and on Riggs as a woman and an architect. In general, a preoccupation with women’s appearance is not helpful, but hers seems to have been eccentric enough to warrant the attention. Because Riggs seems to have been a rather private person, the film had more difficulty accessing her inner life. This may have compounded our culture’s tendency to privilege the male gaze, even in a film which should have focused on Rigg’s own gaze. One person interviewed first referred to Riggs as the “muse” of her employer (when she was clearly a creative force herself) and later called her “mysterious.” However, this was just one off note in an otherwise warm and thoughtful professional biography. Few films of this sort exist, and they are needed to build the foundation of the history of women architects.

As a take-away, here are a few questions for further thought, prompted by the movie and our gathering:
- How has the generation you belong to shaped your experience as a woman architect/designer?
- In the tension between personal life and career, Riggs explicitly chose career. What decisions have you made as you have tried to resolve this tension?
- Do we ourselves have any unconscious sexism that causes us to assess other women and their work differently than we assess men?
- Why is the history of women architects less well known? To what extent is this due to a lack of attention from history, and to what extent is it due to constraints that their time and circumstances placed on the scope of their work?

More information about Riggs, including a book and booklet, is available from the Lutah Maria Riggs Society, at

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