Not since the world shortage of black turtlenecks some years back has the architecture community been in such a collective kerfuffle as the one occasioned by the unveiling of Mattel’s latest addition to its gloriously inspirational “I Can Be . . . “ series for its most popular toy. Adding to the illustrious list of “Kitty Care Veterinarian Barbie,” “Ballroom Dancer Barbie,” “Dolphin Trainer Barbie” and “Lifeguard Barbie,” behold: Architect Barbie.
Since the announcement of this new occupation for Barbie (the toy with the longest resume ever), images of spunky Architect Barbie have lit up one architecture website after another–including plenty of dorky blogs plunked out by dopes bent over Macs at coffee shops, but even some serious sites hosted by professional institutions–attesting to the interest the profession takes in this “honor,” even though the recognition brought by Mattel’s new product hasn’t been easily embraced by architects.
For one thing, architects don’t do spunk. Architects are serious professionals who have grown used to laboring in obscurity, undervalued and under-appreciated by the public whose taste they abhor but whose approval they crave. The Barbie figure suggests that, hey! “people” do know that architects exist. But, much as they might like to toy with the notion of stepping proudly into Mattel’s pink spotlight and basking in its rosy glow, architects are ultimately shy nocturnal creatures who observe this phenomenon, blinking, from the comfort of dark caves (or cubicles) from which they, surrounded by other architects, normally view the world at a safe distance.
Besides, architects’ natural reaction is not celebration, but critique. And thus archiblogs have focused not on enjoying this, um, achievement, but rather on wondering just how good a representation Architect Barbie is of the profession–specifically, the women in the profession. Now, it’s our turn.
While habitually in sync with current fashion, Architect Barbie is woefully out of step with contemporary interests in practice. Indeed, she appears to flaunt her opposition to sustainable design (this is pondered by one clever website), which is perhaps the signature issue in practice today. Barbie has always been pink, but could she also have been green? To a certain extent, her lifestyle choices have been sustainable: Barbie’s cars (and planes, dune buggies, etc.) have always been highly fuel-efficient (depending for the most part on little people rather than fossil fuels as their energy source), but the materials spent in the construction of her Dream House are another story altogether. Did Architect Barbie take a class in grad school that would equip her to calculate the carbon footprint of an all-plastic dwelling? We can’t tell; but perhaps her LEED certification is concealed in one of her trendy ankle boots.
Then there is the matter of practice itself as represented in Architect Barbie’s accoutrements. While Architect Barbie’s roommate from college, Computer Engineer Barbie, appears to be fully up to date with a Bluetooth earpiece and laptop, Architect Barbie carries what must be a decades-old tube for hauling drawings around. Maybe this is evidence of architect Barbie’s retro-coolness and her desire to be, like, so totally ’80s. Instead of strawberries or bubblegum, maybe Architect Barbie’s lip gloss is perfumed by blueprint ammonia. T-square and abacus sold separately.
Then there is the issue of how Architect Barbie presents herself physically; this is a category of special interest to architects whose daily toilette is just step one in every day’s journey as a designer. Of course this doll is a ridiculous, cartoony version of a woman (as all Barbies are ridiculous, cartoony versions of women) dressed up like a cartoon architect. You don’t need to be an architect to notice how elongated her proportions are, and how un-Vitruvian she is, and that makes her very un-architectish.
But her clothes and accessories are the real giveaway that Barbie is no architect. That’s just way too much color and, egads, decoration in one place for an architect. Only the black parts of her costume are just about right: the trendy footwear: check; the heavy framed glasses: check (and appropriately positioned up on her head, at the ready, revealing her late-in-life onset of farsightedness). The jacket would be OK if the tiny sleeves were at least brought down to three-quarter length, to protect her from the slings and arrows of the office. But the hard hat is way too pristine (this should be yellow, scratched up and dug out of the back seat of some junior partner’s Honda on the way to a job site). The silly skyline decoration on the dress could only be worn ironically by a real architect, and that über-happy Barbie face has borne not a smidge of irony about it over the past half-century that Barbie has been around. We’ll accept the pony tail, although a proper Architect Barbie is (1) probably brunette and (2) has a bob more along the lines of the sadly (un-)named “Basics Model 02,” who actually would be a convincing Girl Architect if she swiped Architect Barbie’s boots and the jacket worn by News Anchor Barbie (although she’d want the latter in 60% cool grey).
In fact, Basics Model 02 Barbie is not a bad match for one of the few famous women architects out there today. (How few? Barbie could count them and not run out of well-manicured fingertips doing so.) Jeanne Gang is a pretty cool looking woman and more of an impressive physical model than some of the dames who’ve come before her and who might provide actual models of what women in architecture look like. For a super-retro (downright historical) look, Mattel could have looked to Julia Morgan who sometimes sported a kind of proto-Annie Hall get-up. More recently there is Denise Scott Brown who, unfortunately, is too elder a stateswoman of the profession to be a model for a 5′-9″ woman with an 18″ waist. (Although we like how she looks in some of the photos from 1972’s Learning from Las Vegas like she is towering over the city, looking more capable and effortlessly hip than Architect Barbie whom, we must admit, is trying too hard to be c-u-t-e.) (Just like spunk, architects don’t do cute.)
Had Mattel availed itself of a real-life precedent (which they wouldn’t, since that’s beside the point), Zaha Hadid would have provided the model of a force to be reckoned with. Ms. Hadid is a generously-scaled woman with a strong personal presence and significant position in the field achieved though her production of aggressive design. While she’s not the model of perky Barbie beauty, she does offer Mattel the bonus of an architect who designs not only buildings but shoes, too!
If Mattel was serious about inspiring girls to consider architecture (or any other profession) as a possible career path, choosing the Iraq-born Hadid as a model might have actually been the inspirational motivation that would make it look like the professions are open to lots of girls–not just skinny white girls with blond hair, blue eyes and perfect teeth.
Even had Architect Barbie been designed to look more realistic, there’s no evidence that girls engaging in play that creates narratives stocked with architects as protagonists inspires them to consider a career in architecture. Ultimately, girls who become architects are probably inspired the same way as boys who become architects, by engaging actively in the play of design. Forget Barbie; bring on the Legos. It is through hands-on play that children learn the fun and magic of designing and building and dream of doing both at a big scale. It is that excitement that encourages people to undergo the demands of college programs, internships, licensure exams and ultimately to dedicate themselves to a tough profession–one that is particularly tough on women. And this makes Architect Barbie seem not just kind of frivolous, but a real problem, if she distracts us from the realities of women in practice.
Since the year 2000 (or roundabouts), the percentage of female graduates from architecture programs has risen to a point around 45% (US Dept. of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2007 stats). Yet the percentage of women who practice in architecture is much lower: 24%. Other demanding professions do a bit better: other data suggests that law and medicine have leveled the field only slightly more evenly than architecture. Women account for 48% of medical students but only 26% of physicians, 49% of law students but only 29% of attorneys; the numbers of women in architecture programs dwindles to 13% of licensed architects. The AIA’s own post on Architect Barbie states that 17% of AIA membership is female.
It is shocking and disappointing to see every person quoted in the AIA post (we’ll link it a second time here) citing how awesome Architect Barbie will be to inspire dreams, to light the fire of wee imaginations, to give flight to Pegasuses, blah blah blah. AIA President Clark Manus, FAIA, says “Architect Barbie presents a wonderful opportunity to reach out to young girls at an important, early stage in their lives and let them imagine for themselves all of the great career aspects that go with being an architect.” Oh, superriffic! Except for the fact that, if these folks would pay attention, they’d see that plenty of girls already see the opportunity and take it. They go to college, they get degrees. And then, by droves, they fall away from practice. Wake up, AIA: you don’t need to inspire 8-year olds. You need to figure out what the profession is doing wrong to repulse women from practice.
If Barbie has really achieved the status of professional architect, bully for her–that’s a rarefied station indeed. But, given the greater context of women in architecture, and women professionals in the workforce generally speaking, Architect Barbie is missing a few accessories, including (1.) a paycheck (about 20% smaller than Ken’s) and either (2.) a wallet with empty photo slots for pictures of the children she does not have because her job is too time-consuming to let her find a suitable partner (unless she found her soul mate in college, which happens a lot among architects who do not mix well with the general population) or (3.) a wallet crammed with phone numbers of nannies, babysitters and back-up emergency people to pitch in to help with the kids. (Architect Barbies distributed abroad should, instead, carry a copy of their enlightened country’s family-friendly childcare legislation; click here to see how the US stacks up in parental leave policy world-wide.)
If Mattel really believes that narrative-play is to work, Architect Barbie needs a support team unless she’s going to live alone in that big pink Dream Town House (not to mention the Glam Vacation House). Mattel needs to produce an “I Can Be . . . ” series for Ken, maybe to inspire girls (and boys) to dream that in the future men can support women by, in part, helping to take care of their own kids. Let’s start with “Stay-At-Home Dad Ken,” “Trailing Spouse Ken” and “Secondary-Earner Ken,” all of whom would actually support Barbie in her dedication to one of the most demanding professions. (Just make a few changes to “Sweet Talking Ken Doll” to the left, so that when his string is pulled he says “let me get up with the baby tonight, baby”–that’s all the sweet talk a girl needs.) Additionally, Mattel could market, as a boxed set, a cadre of AIA office-holders encouraging firms to adopt family-friendly business policies to inspire future presidents of the AIA. Then, little girls who dream pursuing architecture to engage in the fun of building (rather than to pursue a life of dressing up like a cartoon architect) could actualize their dreams. The architecture profession does not need dress-up dolls; it needs action figures.