Is gen­der in­equal­ity ar­chi­tec­ture’s great­est fail­ure?

Azure - - CONTENTS - Text by Linda Bes­ner Il­lus­tra­tions by Madi­son van Rijn

Fe­male ar­chi­tects are still strug­gling to be paid and rep­re­sented like their male coun­ter­parts. Is gen­der in­equal­ity ar­chi­tec­ture’s great­est fail­ure? By Linda Bes­ner

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 min­i­move­ments 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.”

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.

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. Visit for more com­men­tary and dis­cus­sion by some of the world’s lead­ing fe­male ar­chi­tects.

Mark­thal Rot­ter­dam, by MVRDV

Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect Denise Scott Brown out­side Las Vegas, 1966. Il­lus­trated build­ings from left: Vage­los Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter, New York, by DS+R; New Mu­seum, New York by SANAA; Hey­dar Aliyev Cen­tre, Azer­bai­jan, by ZHA.

The Broad, Los An­ge­les, by DS+R

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