Where are the Women Architects?

By DESPINA STRATIGAKOS

 

Where are the Women Architects? review: Despina Stratigakos on a puzzling issue

By Kerstin Thompson

Stratigakos' analysis falls in three parts, the first being: Where to put them? She quotes Kellogg: "I don't think a woman architect ought to be satisfied with small pieces, but launch out into business buildings."

Her ambition contrasts with prevailing views of the time that women should remain within the domestic sphere. As Jean Wehrheim tells The Chicago Tribune in 1966: "We have a natural inclination for designing homes … men prefer big projects, like offices and public buildings, but I know what I am doing when it comes to designing a kitchen." I'm with Ada Louise Huxtable when she laments this "pious claptrap [about] women's greater domestic sensibility" manacles women's talents and prospects.

Stratigakos' agenda is "less to chronicle women's entry into the profession than to track an unfinished dialogue that has haunted architecture – in a cycle of acknowledging and then abandoning its gender issues – for a very long time". This, she says, is to strengthen a third wave of feminism in architecture that follows a first wave of the 19th century and a second in the early '70s. For despite the merit of this dialogue, fundamental shifts in who practises architecture and how are yet to occur.

So where do all the female architects go? Each chapter tackles the persistent phenomena of why, if 60 per cent of university graduates are female (in the US) only 20 per cent of registered of architects are women. Stratigakos explores the potent mix of structural problems underpinning these attrition rates: industry conditions, sexism within the ranks of management, the pay gap between genders, the implied "character" of the profession as masculine, and a lack of female role models and mentors.

Beyond this, the inbuilt sexism of the industry is manifest not in the lazy cliche of the wolf whistle on site but in more passive forms that constrain a woman's place within the production of buildings and the projects and roles supposedly "most fitting" for them.

This leads Stratigakos to her next question: What does the architect look like?

Enter Architect Barbie, a toy created by Mattel in 2011 that presents an image that in all her curvaceous, blonde splendour embodies the binary opposite of Ayn Rand's figure of Howard Roark as the 20th-century architect archetype – male, bullish, resolute, didactic, unwavering in the face of client desires. Unsurprisingly, the doll provoked inter-generational anxiety, particularly among feminists.

Yet "Barbie … has the power to make things seem natural to little girls ... ultimately she is for kids, not adults, and it is the politics of the sandbox that I hope to influence … when little girls claim hard hats and construction sites as just another part of their everyday world".

I'll side with those who see this as an act of empowerment and resistance, not oppression, namely for its capacity to speak to and through the next generation via the everyday world of play.

Stratigakos' book places great emphasis on the issue of recognition, arguing that new communications technologies facilitate the acknowledgement of women's achievements in architecture and rectify their long pattern of omission from the writing of history. If old modes of recognition such as the monograph were predisposed to documenting the contributions of single authors, then Wikipedia and other dynamic forums can advocate for women in new ways.

Examined here too are the pros and cons of initiatives such as women-only awards and their role in compensating for the problematic faith in a meritocracy. Of note is how few have received the most prestigious of trophies in the field. And when, like Zaha Hadid (the only woman to receive the Pritzker in her own right), they have, they are lampooned for details of their personal life and made targets for society's reservations around ambition and self-promotion as an "unattractive female trait".

While some questions go unanswered, Stratigakos' provocations render this a valuable read. In fields beyond architecture too, where the loss of women eliminates a "large and vital art of talent pool" to the detriment of both a discipline but also more broadly the community it serves by not being reflective of its make up. Perhaps in wrestling with these questions we might illuminate a path towards more sustainable forms of practice, for all practitioners – women or men.

And to those who responded to AJ's survey in the negative I would advocate for more optimism and wager that the future skies and great heights of our cities will be occupied by many more Fay Kelloggs.

Kerstin Thompson is principal of Kerstin Thompson Architects.