“Where Are the Women Architects?”
By Despina Stratigakos
Princeton University Press, $19.95
When the American Institute of Architects released the results of its 2015 Diversity in the Profession of Architecture survey in March, the results told a bleak but familiar story. Nearly 70 percent of the women surveyed believed that they were not represented equally in the profession. Meanwhile, male architects’ perceptions of women’s representation proved to be far more positive, demonstrating a gap between the experience of women architects and the way their experiences are perceived by men.
Thus, Despina Stratigakos’ “Where Are the Women Architects?” comes at an opportune moment, as we are beginning to discuss more openly the challenges that women and people of color face in the industry. Stratigakos is an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, as well as an architectural historian. She was involved in the creation of Architect Barbie. Writing for Princeton University Press, Stratigakos presents a well-researched and concise history of the woman architect.
Beginning with the Victorian era, the book traces the path of the first generation of female architects and the origins of the prejudice they encountered. Meant to be “angels in the home,” tending to hearth and family, this first group of women was relegated to designing the private domestic spaces of homes, mainly kitchens and closets. The group included the first female graduate of Cornell’s architecture program, Margaret Hicks, who, upon her graduation in 1880, was expected to stick to domestic architecture despite her thesis on tenement reform. Male architects, meanwhile, were held to strict standards of masculinity, a stereotype that only intensified upon the publication of “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand and the introduction of its hyper-masculine protagonist, Howard Roark.
Unfortunately, it took decades to see any improvement for women, as Stratigakos artfully illustrates. Even when women were successful, their success was framed in terms of their gender, a theme that recurred some 50 years later when the reaction to Zaha Hadid’s Pritzker Prize win centered on her gender instead of her accomplishments. Indeed, the editor of Architectural Record at the time, Robert Ivy, FAIA, called out his colleagues for their gendered coverage of Hadid, stating, “Can you imagine the leading practitioners in other professions treated to such personal scrutiny on receiving a major award?”
“Where Are the Women Architects?” does a tidy job of illuminating the presence of unseen female architects in history, as well as illustrating just how few female architects there have been until recently. In 1960, there were only 260 women in architectural practice in the United States. Recently, architecture schools have become more gender-balanced, but the number of practicing women architects remains shockingly low, with women representing only 22 percent of AIA membership.
Stratigakos lays out a few compelling reasons why this continues to be the case. First, she explains that the lack of balance begins in school, where there are fewer female professors and not many classes focusing on female architects. Even public lecture series at universities are weighted heavily toward male speakers. Female architects are confronted with the male face of architecture rather than being encouraged to find female role models.
Another factor in the gap is the unbalanced culture that continues to dominate many architectural offices. This all-or-nothing office culture disproportionately penalizes women, even those who choose to conform to these standards. Stratigakos writes, “Yet women can excel day after day, year after year, and still remain invisible in a system that sees only men as leadership material.”
Stratigakos also describes her experience working with Mattel to create Architect Barbie. Once Architect Barbie was produced, everything from her outfit and shoes to the color of her drawing tube (pink) became a hotly contested issue. Ultimately, Stratigakos feels the response was positive, and Architect Barbie currently retails for as much as $440. “Inside architecture’s hallowed halls, Barbie’s ‘girlie’ attributes were a mark not of oppression but of resistance,” she writes.
One of the most troubling aspects of the book’s investigation concerns the strategic editing of Wikipedia articles to exclude women from history. Groups often organize edit-a-thons to highlight women architects who have been excluded from mainstream recognition — only to watch as their work is erased by other Wikipedia editors. Providing the example of a 2012 edit-a-thon, “She Blinded Me With Science,” Stratigakos writes, “Entries were nominated for deletion almost as soon as they were posted.” The work of including women in databases like Wikipedia is particularly important as these resources replace traditional methods of research.
Stratigakos’ work will prove fascinating for those seeking a comprehensive analysis of the ever-evolving place of women in the architectural profession. While the book highlights instances of progress, including the popularity of Architect Barbie and the 2013 Denise Scott Brown petition, the work also makes clear how far away from equality we still are. Scott Brown still has not been recognized by the Pritzker committee, and Zaha Hadid remains the only solo female architect to have been recognized with the honor. Stratigakos closes with a telling anecdote about one of her young female students wanting to take on a research project about the current status of women architects.
“Because she and her peers had not experienced discrimination in architecture school, she surmised that the barriers that had once confronted women architects now lay in the past or, at the very least, that ‘things are not that bad anymore.’ I understood that behind the premise of change lay both hopes and fears about the future before her, and I encouraged her to learn and be prepared. ‘Go ahead,’ I said, ‘and see what you find.’”
“Where Are the Women Architects” serves as an excellent first step for those wanting to “see what they find” and learn about the challenges women architects have faced in the past, as well as the challenges many continue to face. As Stratigakos explains, the work “is also meant as a clarion call. For those of you who, like me, care deeply about architecture and want to see it become a truly inclusive profession, I ask that you be vocal and make trouble.” Her work certainly makes a compelling case for action.
Alyssa Morris is web editor of Texas Architect.
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