When the March, 2017 issue of The Architectural Review hit newsstands, in conjunction with International Women’s Day, women’s rights marches, and waves of pink “pussy hats”, it reopened and spurred an essential, if uncomfortable, dialogue that is vital to the future of our industry: the role, status and prospect of women in architecture. Issue number 1439, March 2017, explores the status that female architects occupy in the field during a time of global upheaval and a reconsideration of socio-political and economic values. It is also a reflection upon a century or more of sometimes nuanced, oftentimes blatant discrimination, obliteration, and systemic repression of women from the public record of architecture. So what’s it all about?
Perhaps as a reaction to the divisive rhetoric currently pervasive in international politics, the “issue” of women’s rights is again at the forefront of social discourse. As contemporary Los Angeles architects and Salt Lake City architects, and as a firm with a leading female architect as a co-founder and principal, this debate is poignant. In “The Invisible Woman”, their article for the aforementioned issue of AR, Eva Alvarez and Carlos Gomez outline the ongoing struggles women architects face in their quest for legitimacy and recognition in the industry. Citing well-known examples of erasure – such as the Pritzker jury’s controversial failure to honor practice co-founder Denise Scott Brown as well as Robert Venturi for the Pritzker Prize in 1991 – Alvarez and Gomez underscore the pesky problems of sexism and lack of academic validity that frustratingly persist and are rampant in architecture today, as they were decades ago. As David Adjaye has noted, “We’re in the 21st century…This is such an old story, we should be way past this. I find it exhausting that women are still fighting for gender parity”. But fighting they are. In a survey conducted by AR, there’s still a long way to go toward equity in the profession. From hours worked and differences in salary to the experience of direct discrimination and sexual harassment, it is clear that architecture and the building industry continue to do a disservice to women working in the field, and to those who are contemplating associated careers. For instance, the survey reported that male partners in firms earn substantially more than female partners, and found that 32% of women polled compared to just 3% of men have experienced sexual discrimination in the workplace and industry in the past year.
The erasure of women and authorship in architecture: Zaha Hadid, from the Architectural Review, Issue number 1439, March 2017. Courtesy the Architectural Review
When the Pritzker committee overlooked her in 1991, an impassioned campaign began to retroactively revise the award so that Scott Brown would be duly credited. The committee did not alter its decree. Architect Scott Brown has said that the real prize was the grassroots petition to recognize her as an equal to her husband in their work together. Her 1989 essay “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture” remains a key text about the inequity in the industry, and addresses the patriarchal slights she and other architects have had to endure – the blatant misattributions of shared designs, the (mis)assumptions about a woman’s role on an architectural project, the unwelcome entrance to the boy’s club. A 2016 New York Times article titled “I Am Not the Decorator: Female Architects Speak Out” chronicles the quotidian battle for equality in the profession. As the late, great architect Zaha Hadid stated, “It’s still a man’s world”. “Write about my work”, Scott Brown has pleaded, to those who would ask her husband about his lauded designs, but would merely implore her to discuss her “woman’s problem” in relation to the feminist movement.
Maybe we should follow Scott Brown’s pleas, and move on from this discussion, which to some may seem to perpetuate and ratify the “them” versus “us” dichotomy. But “we” have to start somewhere. AR has been instrumental in the first steps toward legitimizing women in architecture (as if women were not legitimate to begin with – but you get the point). The annual Architects Journal and Architectural Review Women in Architecture awards were just announced, and this year, Scott Brown was handed the Jane Drew Prize for raising the profile of women in architecture, as well as for her portfolio and research. Engaging in this dialogue and bringing awareness to the injustices that are continuously perpetrated are essential actions if we want to move on to a place of neutrality and equality. Of course, there are pioneers: Scott Brown, Drew, Hadid, Annabelle Selldorf, Amanda Levete – our own Anne Mooney. There are those who came before, who were outstanding in their own right but perhaps unable to fully emerge from the association with their spouses (Ray Eames) or with the “feminine realm” of designing furniture and interiors (Eileen Gray, Florence Knoll). Let’s champion each of these trailblazers, let’s talk about their work and herald them as individuals. Let’s encourage young women to enter this profession and elevate architecture to a place where the playing field is even, the accolades are gender-blind and discourse no longer need bother worrying about the “problem” of being a woman in architecture.
3. “I Am Not the Decorator: Female Architects Speak Out”, by Robin Pogrebin, The New York Times, April 12th, 2016 (online and in print, April 13th, Page C1)