thinking about the profession on International Women’s Day

Galla Placidia () & Marianne Cusato (b. 1974)

Galla Placidia (392-450) & Marianne Cusato (b. 1974)

As you know, International Women’s Day was founded in the early twentieth century in places where socially-progressive people sought to acknowledge, celebrate and encourage women’s contributions in all aspects of life, including the professional world.  To commemorate the day, a few contemporary outlets of archi-news have compiled digital tips-o-their-(virtual)-hats (like this one and this one) that, predictably, focus on a small set of twentieth-century femmes moderniste whose work has been deemed worthy of taking a small, delicate place at the edge of a center that remains dominated by men.  And while it’s true we should know more about architects like Eileen Gray and Alison Smithson–not primarily because they were lady-architects but because they were interesting architects–, it’s also important to consider a broad sweep of history as a way to consider the important meaning in women’s absence from the historical record.  And it would not be bad to broaden the way we think about architectural contributions while we’re at it.

This is especially true since the way we typically look for women in the architectural record is, itself, skewed by a particularly modernist ideal of what it means to be an architect.  This image–the solitary genius blazing a new path with the white-hot brilliance of his unprecedented invention–obscures the fact that architecture is a collaborative venture and, for the most part, one that grows from, and is bound to, longstanding traditions.  Although one person may be responsible for key elements of inspiration or development, actually completing a building  requires a lot of established ideas, and a lot of hands.  Before we start counting the ones that are required to cut stone and hoist lumber, consider the ones that reach into deep, deep pockets to fund the project in the first place.  The people who pay for  buildings like to have a say in what they look like: true now as it ever has been.  By appreciating the role of patrons and clients in the development of architecture we not only arrive at a fairer understanding of the architect’s job, but also can start to give credit to the many and diverse people who are foundational to any building activity.

This is one way to acknowledge women’s contributions to architecture, around the globe and through all time, long before the slow progress into actual professional practice that starts in the late nineteenth century.  Before then, and in most places, architectural design was tightly tied to traditions of the building site, and thus much less likely to include a woman who might ascend through the ranks of manual laborers to a position of authority as a designer.  Yet in the record of great patrons it’s an easy thing to find  women who have made extraordinary contributions as patrons to some of the world’s great monuments: the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut, Early Christian empress Galla Placidia, Ottoman haseki sultan Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana), Queen of France Marie Antoinette and American socialite-suffragette Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont all come readily to mind.  Each of them was a woman of extraordinary power and privilege who was intimately tied to building projects over which they extended significant influence.  Surely there are others.  Lots, and lots of others.

Admittedly, exerting this kind of influence is different than directing a design; that kind of control came slower to women, only after architecture emerged from the age-old traditions of manual construction as a profession that privileged the act of drawing as an intellectual and creative discipline.  One would imagine that once practice moved indoors, the welcome mat might have been laid out soon thereafter.  Yet architecture remained a tight fraternity, even as new educational programs were founded that might have taken a more liberal view.  Although MIT admitted women to its academic programs as early as the 1870s, their numbers remained relatively small until it provided dormitories for female students–in 1964.  The role model of MIT’s architecture program, the École des Beaux-Arts, admitted women as early as 1897 but for years the academicians thought it “improper” for women to have access to the workshops in which male students worked, effectively excluding them from the competition system on which the school was based.  And how about those allegedly avant-garde Bauhausler?  Not so avant afterall.  Although Walter Gropius admitted “the beautiful sex” into the Bauhaus, he steered them to the weaving workshop to ensure the architecture studios remained the realm of the “strong sex.”

Well into the twenty-first century, women have made great gains in terms of admittance to, and graduation rates from, architecture program.  The problem that persists is: what happens next?  The numbers of women who drop out of the profession are vastly different from country to country, but rare is a place where we see a 50/50 split.  Studies like this one and this one try to make sense of the data but there’s clearly a lot more to do to figure out the disparity between, say, Sweden and the US and Australia.  Findings from research on women in (and out of) architecture seem to explain a toxic mix of national policies concerning family/maternity/paternity leave and professional culture regarding the nature of the workplace.  Supporting legislation that supports women will support families, the profession, and architecture as a whole.  Redefining the nature of success as an architect makes room for lots of different people of different inclination to participate in and contribute.  These issues go way deeper than graduation rates–and certainly wayyyyyy beyond anything that a poorly conceived toy can do.

Down with dress-up dolls; up with real-life action figures like Marianne Cusato, recipient of the first-ever People’s Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in 2006 for her design of the Katrina Cottage, which represents the kind of contribution to the profession we’d like to see more of: beautifully designed buildings that recognize human dignity.  More of that, please, and more of anything that broadens the field to increase the talent in the pool, especially as that talent can be directed toward reminding the world that architects can be relevant.  Dude-bros, it’s time you found the strength to ask for some help; maybe even time that you gave yourself the freedom to break free of that open-office-plan prison and try out the kind of flex-time arrangements that work so well for women.  Maybe they work well for you, too, and you get more time to show your kids how cool you are.  While this day is on the calendar to shine some rays on “women’s issues,” we’re more than happy to share the spotlight; in fact, we think it might work out better, for all of us, that way.

a pink Katrina Cottage

a pink Katrina Cottage


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