Women of the New Wave
One day, researcher Despina Stratigakos sat down with a group of women from a global architectural firm. “These women had attended excellent schools, and their work ethic was extreme, eating lunch and dinner at their desks,” recalls Stratigakos.”
“But they weren’t moving up.” With predictable regularity, there would emerge a young man the women came to call the “Anointed One.” Mentored, groomed, taken along to client meetings, the “Anointed One” would rise rapidly through the ranks, while the women remained invisible.
Considering all the revelations about sexism and racism in Hollywood, why has it been so difficult to expand the talent pool in architecture, one that would be more inclusive of women, blacks, and folks from the working class? How to explain why women make up only 28 percent of architectural staff in AIA member-owned firms, and a mere 17% of principals and partners, though women now comprise 42 percent of graduating classes—a stubborn fact that makes architecture an outlier compared to other fields such as law and medicine.
Is there something unshakably inequitable, exclusive, and elitist about big money, big ego, big cultural impact industries such as film and architecture—industries that would prefer atrophy over finding new blood?
To find out how to change this situation, ensuring everyone in architecture gets more of a stake, one needs to look back as well as forward, to examine the good, bad, and the ugly.
For ugly, look no further than Stratigakos’s book Hitler at Home (Yale, 2015) about the Fuhrer’s architect, Gerdy Troost, who died only twelve years before the book’s publication, long-lived and unrepentant. As late as 1939, Troost’s work made the cover of the New York Times magazine, who praised the low-key but expensively furnished digs Troost designed as one befitting a refined Bavarian bachelor.
Fast-forwarding to 2011 on the campus of the University of Michigan where Stratigakos was teaching, she recalls how divided the campus was over affirmative action and Proposition 2. She thought a little humor would help. Whereupon, Stratigakos gathered students and faculty together to design the first prototypes of an Architect Barbie, later collaborating with Mattel on a mass-market version of the doll, now a collector’s item.
Stratigakos noticed it wasn’t always easy for feminists of different generations to collaborate. What should Architect Barbie wear on a building site, for example? No skirts, men will look up them, said the older ones, insisting the doll wear Miesian black glasses. Yes, skirts, replied the younger ones, makeup and heels as well! They resented the second-wave, 60’s generation feminists who marched in the streets for coming on like they “owned feminism.” If skirts represented a retreat for them, third wave feminists viewed skirts as provocation and challenge.
While this generational divide might have weakened a much-needed support system among women, it’s not the whole story. “A great example of generations coming together,” says Stratigakos, was in 2013 when two young women in Harvard GSD’s Women in Design Club used their social media tools to circulate a petition demanding that architect Denise Scott Brown be retroactively honored as a joint recipient of the 1991 Pritzker Prize, along with her husband, Robert Venturi.”
Stratigakos’s latest book, Where are the Women Architects? (Princeton 2016), kept the issue of exclusion and sexism on the front burner, even though the Brown petition with 12,000 signatures, ultimately failed. “Talk about an architecture that’s more than a boy’s club comes and goes,” admits Stratigakos, “and that can be frustrating.”
However now, given the cascade of sexual misconduct revelations in the news, she finds a commensurate urgency to get things right. High-profile advocates for change include architects Lori Brown of the Architexx group (“We ask not how, but Y”), Beverly Willis of the Beverly Willis Foundation, Rosa Sheng and Lilian Asperin -Clyman of Equity by Design and critic Justine Clark of ArchiParlour. These advocates, among others, have the wherewithal to do the in-depth research into women and architecture Stratigakos sees as way overdue.
“One big difference I’ve noticed these days, among my students at the State University New York at Buffalo, is that Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead is no longer the Bible,” Stratigakos says. “Neither sex seems much interested in the super-macho architect image, making a difference, social justice is more their goal. But unless women design students get a heads-up about how the ‘Anointed One’ will most likely be promoted over them out in the real world, they’re likely to blame themselves for their lack of advancement and ultimately drop out.”
Ok, but how are even the most “woke” general partners going to pay for the righting of old inequities, like the 20 percent pay gap women architects endure? For some advocates, it will be Architect Barbie herself who will be making the rain, more than covering her own fair wages. She has, in fact, the potential to change the way architecture is practiced—who does it and who it’s for.
Jana Cephas of Boston and Ann Arbor can see a post-Fountainhead paradigm change in who practices architecture and why. A community activist as well as a data humanist researching city life, Cephas holds a Ph.D. in Architecture and Urban Planning from Harvard and teaches at the University of Michigan.
In Cephas’s view, the traditional paradigm for making rain, the art of marketing architectural services, has evolved dramatically. It’s gone from one of simply waiting for someone to come along with a design problem to be solved to something far less passive. “Architects need to reach out more to underserved communities, understanding their problems and coming up with design solutions for those problems,” she says.
Rather than passively waiting for that rare someone to come along with a design problem, a Prince Charming looking for the right fit, Architect Barbie will have a different business model. It will be more activist, not only towards her own prospects and equity in the firm but about the prospects and equity of others in society.
Equity—everyone involved in the design process having a stake as opposed to achieving some abstract numerical equality—will be the goal. Women and other minorities in architecture will be reaching to those who, like themselves, also go unnoticed, to the many underserved communities in the world, engage with them and learn what their problems are. Then, using her expertise, Architect Barbie will show how some of those problems can be solved through design.
“What used to set us apart was the essential deliverable, drawings,” Cephas says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but much has changed. Only about 1 percent of projects are about the making of aesthetic objects, or branding, making it into magazines. While aesthetics matters, aesthetics shouldn’t be all that matters. We’re now seeing architecture with a strong social purpose, engaging in a participatory design process, connecting with communities’ inherent expertise well as their needs. While no one expects architects to become economists and sociologists, we certainly need to include other disciplines.”
Disciplines which logically include matters of public policy and infrastructure.
For example, a record number of women will be running for Congress (374), and the Senate (42) in 2018, following the many millions strong Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2018. For a design firm specializing in the public sector, this has got to mean something. Who is going to be reaching out to the thousands of women and minority officials in the U.S.?
But diversifying to connect better with clients and communities shouldn’t be a numbers game, cautions Cephas. “It’s not about injecting women and people of color into the firm’s mix. It means a change in how one thinks about the practice, the whole notion of going outside predictable channels.”
Equity, community, and a dignified, temporary respite for New Orleans’ homeless were the driving ideas behind the award-winning St. Joseph Rebuild Center in New Orleans, post-Katrina. A collaboration between studio WTA and Cephas at the Detroit Collaborative Design Center the project certainly qualifies as “outside predictable channels.”
With its translucent, polycarbonate screen masking six trailers, pergolas, water-themed murals, pavement cutouts, security lighting doubling as soft back-lighting, the aesthetics are indeed eye-catching. “But there’s was also equity to consider—equity in the sense that the community has a stake and a say in the project,” says Cephas. “I saw too many firms that were sincere about wanting to help, but they don’t realize they are being predatory. They’re not asking themselves what is the benefit all around? Pro-bono projects, especially, have got to be more than a ticket into a magazine.”
By going outside those predictable channels in the spirit of equity, advocates for change see great things for architecture. Not only will architects be reaching out to engage and collaborate with new sets of clients and communities, but also that same equitable spirit will affect the architectural practice itself, transforming an old system that causes so many women architects today to give up in frustration.
One can only wonder who, in the end, the ‘Anointed One’ will look like given a more equitable architectural culture: Architect Barbie, Architect Barbie fourth-wave feminist version, a Hip-Hop, or LGBTQ Architect Barbie? In this new paradigm, whoever she is will more likely see the profession as an opportunity to have an impact, and to therefore stay the course. Rather than dropping out, she will have an honest stake in her firm’s success whether Anointed or About-To-Be.