The Glass Tower: Why We Need More Women Architects

The Glass Tower: Why We Need More Women Architects

Women architects have long been part of the landscape. But the idea of the woman architect still hasn’t landed.

In 1968, it was wrong to like Las Vegas. The strip was a trashy sprawl of motels and casinos lit like an underworld theme park, where marquees and neon signs faded off into desert parking lots. Contemporary architectural aesthetics declared it undisciplined, uncouth; it was the opposite of modernism.

But Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi asserted a revolutionary idea: that Las Vegas mattered because it was real. In its garish hedonism punctuated with waste and abandonment, they saw a visual syncopation that expressed the discordant forces at work in the lives of ordinary people. They gave names to the mini-movements that generated the strip’s inventive forms: “Yamasaki Bernini cum Roman Orgiastic” and “Bauhaus Hawaiian.” When Scott Brown and Venturi published their 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas (written with graduate student Steven Izenour), it became a landmark in the field, and their subsequent theoretical writings and built structures, executed through their joint practice, celebrated what was ugly, contradictory and real. In 1991, the Pritzker Prize committee honoured their work by bestowing architecture’s richest international prize – on Robert Venturi alone. Denise Scott Brown was mentioned in the committee’s announcement as his collaborator and wife.

A grim snapshot of the profession today shows how little has changed. According to the recent installment of its annual Women in Architecture survey, Architects’ Journal found that the roadblocks female practitioners encounter are reminiscent not only of those placed before Denise Scott Brown, but of those that hampered Louise Blanchard Bethune, the first woman to join the American Institute of Architects in 1888. AJ’s then architecture editor, Laura Mark, wrote that the survey’s results showed a profession where “a glass ceiling is firmly in place; women are penalized for wanting a family, and take the lion’s share of responsibility for the care of dependents; and sexual discrimination and bullying are rife.” With the death of Zaha Hadid, the canopy of famous names that arcs over the art form worldwide – Sir Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano – is once again a heaven studded exclusively with male stars.

Both the AJ survey and similar research by Equity by Design show that the conventional wisdom on why women are under-represented globally in architecture – that they choose motherhood over their careers – doesn’t fit the facts. While respondents did cite work-life balance as a problem, many said their dissatisfaction had more to do with how they were perceived on the job. Complaints included not being promoted fast enough, not being entrusted with interesting, high-profile work, not being paid enough, and not having enough mentors or role models. For an industry that prides itself on innovation, all of this adds up to a cardinal sin: a failure of the imagination. It’s not enough for women – with or without children – to be able to do the work; managers, clients, and contractors need to believe they can do the work as well as men can. Women architects have long been part of the landscape; it’s the idea of the woman architect that hasn’t landed.

By the early 2000s, female architecture students in Canada were winning more than half of the prizes for excellence during their education – in the 1990s women made up a third to one half of architecture students – but then many of them dropped out of sight, or out of the profession altogether. In Canada, only about 29 per cent of practising architects are female according to the latest census figures – a number that’s even lower in the U.K., at 26 per cent, and in the U.S., at 24 per cent. By contrast, medicine and law – similarly gruelling professions – have made room for women; in Canada, some 41 per cent of doctors are female, and 42 per cent of lawyers. The draining away of women architects invites construction metaphors like the glass ceiling and the leaky pipeline. “When one considers, however, the generation of dreams and work and ambitions that have been lost to us,” writes architectural historian Despina Stratigakos, “it seems that the more appropriate term for this phenomenon is tragedy.”

Why we need more women architects

Markthal Rotterdam, by MVRDV

The discrimination of the 21st century is subtle. Women architects no longer report, say, having to beat a male opponent at racquetball before a teacher would award them the same grade as the men on a joint project, or having a senior partner peer under the drafting table to grade their legs (both anecdotes from the 1970s and ’80s). Nevertheless, a report by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) in 2003 concluded that female graduates entering the field were living in a slightly different world from their male counterparts: “They are typically given the more menial work and very often not included in site visits, client meetings or discussions in the same way or at the same level as their male peers.”

No Canadian organization has conducted follow-up reports since, but after Hadid’s death last year, an informal New York Times survey found that not much had changed: “I’ve seen younger women with architecture degrees pushed into more drafting, more into interiors and landscapes, while the men seem to think they are ‘better’ at designing the building structure and are given more face time with the clients,” one architect wrote, adding that women in large firms may be kept in the background.

Many female architects report their shock at leaving mixed classrooms and finding themselves the only women on job sites; battling the perception of ineptitude can be exhausting. Dimitra Papantonis, an architect at Williamson Williamson and a member of Building Equality in Architecture Toronto (BEAT), told me she once had a site supervisor express surprise that she knew what a two-by-four was. Vanessa Fong, who left a larger firm in Toronto to start her own practice, told me she is often met on job sites with questions about what paint colours she’s considering – contractors assume she is the decorator. She copes by adopting a two-pronged persona: buddying up to the men by joking that she’s planning to make everything hot pink, then turning harsh whenever a contractor makes a mistake. Yen Ha, a founding principal of New York’s Front Studio, wrote in an email that “the conventional image of architect as older, white male (don’t forget the glasses) is so prevalent that both clients and contractors have a hard time interacting with someone who doesn’t fit their expectation … I walk into a room or a meeting, and no one is expecting me to be the architect.” It’s the sort of interaction that can be laughed off when it happens once or twice, but a lifetime of struggling to assert one’s authority can make architecture a particularly draining field.

Women like Fong, who leave large firms to establish independent practices, may just be trading one set of sacrifices for another. While being your own boss means an opportunity to develop a wider variety of skills (as well as more flexibility for both women and men who need time for child care), it can put whole categories of projects out of reach. The BEAT event I attended was hosted by Maria Denegri, who runs her own firm in Toronto, Denegri Bessai Studio, with her husband. She showed slides of mostly home renovation projects in Ontario and Quebec.

“I would love to get my hands on a big public commission,” she told her audience. “But there are some building types that, as a small practice, you kind of kiss goodbye.” Denegri still wants to leave her mark – to make the world a better place by giving people beautiful spaces. “I keep thinking, what can I do so more people can enjoy my work?”

While women running their own practices sounds promising, the result Denegri notes – the loss of opportunities to execute their artistic visions on a grand scale – has a long history. In 1977, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote, “Professionally speaking, woman architects have yet to get out of the kitchen. They are chained, tied, and condemned to the house.” The consignment of female architects to interior spaces is one of the subtle ways in which the field has failed to progress.

It’s not that these problems have never been studied; it’s that the profession has been slow to take its own advice. The RAIC’s 2003 report, as well as more recent American and British inquiries into the subject, resulted in many progressive recommendations: publishing salary grids and instituting a “name-and-shame” policy for firms shortchanging female employees; establishing mentoring programs for female practitioners within architectural societies; conducting a study of race and gender bias in school curricula; inaugurating awards to recognize women architects.

Why we need more women architects

The Broad, Los Angeles, by DS+R

The mixed feelings around this last recommendation point to another respect in which the global climate of architecture today seems stuck in a bygone era – a legitimate fear that drawing attention to the femaleness of female architects will result in a humiliating gender essentialism. Zaha Hadid’s design for the Al-Wakrah sports stadium in Qatar was widely compared to a vagina; “It’s really embarrassing that they come up with nonsense like this,” she told Time magazine.

Sydney Browne, one of three female principals out of 18 at the Toronto firm Diamond Schmitt, suggested that, while it’s important to be mindful of equality issues, paying attention to gender in the profession is unwarranted or unproductive. “The challenges of architecture are challenges whether you’re male or female,” she says. Hadid herself long resisted the label of “female architect,” but came to recognize the importance of her gender for other women looking for role models. Several years after she won the Pritzker in 2004 – the first woman ever to do so – Hadid said, “I see the incredible amount of need from other women for reassurance that it could be done, so I don’t mind that at all.”

Monica Adair, who won the RAIC’s 2015 Young Architect Award and co-owns her own New Brunswick firm with her husband, Stephen Kopp, says that six years ago, she would have been the last person talking about women in architecture. But recently, she and Kopp were talking with friends from school when they realized how biased their education had been – few of them could name any major female architects besides Hadid. So Adair and Kopp wrote a proposal for a research project: a set of interviews with female architects around the world.

“We’re looking for our missing mentors,” Adair told me. “Odile Decq – I can’t believe I didn’t know about her,” Kopp said, referring to the Parisian practitioner. Adair mentioned London’s Alison Brooks and Mexico’s Rozana Montiel and Tatiana Bilbao. “We want to learn not from the field that’s out there today, the one that’s already being delivered to us – that’s the status quo. If we actively look for mentors who are underrepresented, we’re going to learn something different,” Adair said.

In 2013, the Pritzker Prize committee rejected calls to retroactively include Denise Scott Brown on the 1991 prize. Scott Brown is far from the only woman to have her life’s work attributed to her husband: New York architect Joan Blumenfeld wrote in an email that the 2012 Pritzker, awarded to Chinese architect Wang Shu, should properly have been shared between Wang and his full partner, Lu Wenyu – who also happens to be his wife. Italian architect Doriana Fuksas emailed to say that her name often fails to appear on projects she co-designed with her husband and partner, Massimiliano Fuksas: “There are days when I don’t care, other ones when I’m tired and I think, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Of course, there are encouraging signs in the field as well, as more women are actively shaping architecture’s narrative and assuming roles as arbiters of value: Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects – whose striking vertical campus at Lima’s Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología won the inaugural RIBA International Prize, in 2016 – will be the curators of 2018’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Sharon Johnston, co-artistic director of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, told me that without any conscious effort, she has found that more than half her participating teams are led by women. In Canada, women constitute more than half of the student body at nine of the country’s 12 architectural schools; two schools are closer to two-thirds women. But when those students graduate, the profession needs to serve their interests in the same way it serves the interests of male graduates.

The second-wave feminist demands for equal pay and equal representation can and have been partly addressed through legislation, but you can’t legislate what the current situation most requires – a change of attitude. When third-wave feminist theorists ask what a less male, less white architecture would look like, they point to expanded notions of who a city’s stakeholders are – an idea of society that includes not just women, but marginalized groups of many varieties: people undergoing trauma, mental health crises, domestic abuse, homelessness, and, increasingly, migrancy. When Maya Lin won the blind competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981, her design tapped into feelings – about the Vietnam War, but also about war in general – that had never been embodied in a public monument. Could a white man have thought to build a memorial that, instead of vaulting to the skies to show war’s glory, dug into the earth to convey war’s tragedy? Of course. But until Lin, no one did.

This is perhaps the most important lesson about how an equal representation of women and other marginalized groups could change the way our buildings and cities are made – that we have no way of knowing what we’re missing. Architecture made by women isn’t all curves and baby stations, any more than architecture by men is all towers and phallic symbols. The challenge of creating usable forms for our changing societies and economies requires freethinkers able to imagine a built environment that reflects our values and aspirations: for equality, for environmental stewardship, for a just society. When women drop out of the profession, it isn’t simply their loss; walking away, they take with them a wealth of design ideas that will remain unrealized.

This story was taken from the October 2017 issue of Azure. What do you think? Send your feedback to editorial2 [at] azureonline [dot] com. Buy a copy right here, or subscribe to the magazine here.

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