Saturday, 8 March 2014

Inconvenient women

The issue of the participation and fate of women in architecture just doesn't seem to want to calm down.  That it is a reflection of the greater societal problem is hardly an explanation, nor a consolation.  In my opinion, it is actually a special case, and all the more a disgrace.

I say this because in Architecture, unlike in most other endeavours, there is the the added and all-important consideration of attribution, of authorship of projects that were in any case always collaborative.  Where a female judge, if she fought her way to that eminence, will always have her name tied to her judgements used as precedent, an important female architect can have her contributions erased from history in favour of her husband or male partners, by the persistent misogyny of the profession.  And it is willingly aided and abetted by the populist media.

All this was just now brought to mind by the controversy around the BBC using a group photograph from which Patty Hopkins was literally airbrushed, to make a more cosy image of Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw, Terry Farrell and her husband, Michael Hopkins, and thereby to appropriate exclusively for these 'boys' the credit for initiating the most influential movements in post-WW2 British Architecture.

It is better to read the coverage by the Architects Journal, including comments by a number of contemporary women architects, than for me to attempt a summary.  I comment rather from my position as someone who has taught literally thousands of architecture students, and not irrelevantly, as the father of cherished daughters. 

I started studying at University of Sydney in 1966, with eight women out of the sixty seven commencing architecture students.  I started teaching there five years later in 1971, just a year or two before the proportion of women in the intake first exceeded 50%.  With the exception of a couple of years at the then newly founded architecture program in Canberra, every year for the last forty four of my academic life, I have taught more women than I have men.  I can testify that (reflecting the general trends in secondary and tertiary education) the girls outperformed the guys most of that time.  I sent entries to formal student competitions, and turned many studios into live projects that were less formally, but still externally judged.  Over the years, the women were over-represented in the premiated projects.  Experiencing all this, it's been doubly hurtful for me to watch the demoralisation and the loss to the profession of most of these talented individuals, as their numbers thinned quickly after graduation. But this is all old news.

Where my personal experience comes to bear on the events that triggered this post, is that I started teaching at the height of the feminist push.  Its towering figures like Germaine Greer and Anne Sommers were barely older than I, and had not long left Sydney.  Other women of fearsome intelligence, who happened not to have turned their PhDs into foundational feminist manifestos, argued and partied and for a brief time tolerated my presence in their midst. As a consequence, I can say with my hand on my heart that I took the principles of equality very seriously, and always pedantically referred to the iconic architectural couples and partnerships by both names.  Denise and Robert, Peter and Alison or Maxwell and Jane may as well have been siamese twins joined at the hips.  Admittedly, we knew less of Wendy or Patsy, but had we known, we would have been just as careful.

We did this because we recognised that if we did not, or female students would have to fight their battles all over again.  Along the way, it even appeared to become fashionable to accuse the big boys of ruthless appropriated authorship, most scurrilously that Wendy rather than Norman Foster was responsible for the seminal ideas of the Willis Faber and Dumas Building in Ipswich, or the Sainsbury Centre.......

So I don't quite know where things went wrong again.  Perhaps it would have been possible for Robert Venturi to refuse the Pritzker unless the award committee also inscribed Denise Scott Brown.  Those kinds of awards don't happen by opening an envelope on the night (He would have been a brave man gambling quarter of a million dollars).  But the real point is that the award committee didn't think of it themselves.

And so here we are today, where we not only erase from history the contributions of women architects, we are actually willing to erase them physically?!?


Benjamin said...

Patty Hopkins expungement from the inaugural image of the programme, which was aired just before international women’s day is at best, a grievous injustice to the contributions of women to architecture. That being said, I am not indignant for Hopkins’ sake; a RIBA Royal Gold Medal recipient, her achievements and contributions cannot be tainted by gratuitous photoshopping. Rather, BBC’s omission serves as an affront to young female architects and architecture students who see a populous programming imposing a glass celling on their potential for acclaim.

Whilst reading through Architecture Journal’s assessment of the situation I was struck by Lucy Mori’s comment that the final portion of the series was dedicated to teamwork and collaboration in designing the Gherkin, yet BBC didn’t showcase a single female architect in almost 10 minutes of footage. Perhaps this was a deliberate gesture, paying homage to the phallic form that initially shocked London.

I highlight this because as you have pointed out in another post ‘Figuring out Zaha’, the majority of architects putting their name to skyscrapers and monuments are white (an issue for another time..) males who are in their sixties or older - Zaha being the exception. As Isabel Allen commented in the The Brits who Built the Modern World “It’s a shame they’re all men. I guess it’s generational.” In this sense, I find it considerably more offensive that female contributors are omitted from the recognition that their tranche of work was paramount to a projects success.

The majority of architects will never be elevated to the echelon of starchitect, many have no desire to be. Without those architects Foster, Zaha, Hopkins and the likes could not have built as prolifically or daringly as they have. It is my fear that BBC’s decision not to illustrate the role that women play in the collaboration of substantial projects will deter women from entering or continuing in the profession.

Women are already exiting the architecture profession at an alarming rate; a RIBA funded study (Mirza and Nacey 2002) has indicated that whilst 38% of architecture students are female, women only represent 13% of registered architects. The imbalance doesn’t only exist in professional practice, architectural academia in NSW is dominated by men. The University of New South Wales’ Built Environment faculty employs 68 teaching staff, 47 of which are men and there are three times as many men in leadership positions than women.

Women need a guarantee that their work will be given the same opportunity for acclaim and success as their male counterparts, this cannot be a top down approach. It needs to be a collective approach from all levels of the profession, regardless of the size, budget or the name on the project.

Mirza and Nacey (2002) Architects’ Employment and Earnings 2002 RIBA Journal July 2002

Sasha Kowcz Rosinke said...

How disgraceful that in the 21st century, a woman is erased from existence in the architectural movement by being photos shopped out, leaving the image of her husband and 4 other well-known worldly architects. Is the problem the BBC’s misunderstanding of her influence in projects, or is it something deeper, is it our society telling women that there are some professional fields they simply don’t belong in.
Women only represent 20.6% of registered architects, while comprising almost 50% of architecture graduates in Australia, where are these women going with their five year degrees? Why aren’t they fulfilling society’s expectations and becoming professional architects who manage and lead the forward pushing architectural movements?
Architecture has long been seen as the degree of all-nighters, the degree of crazy studio mentors who make you start a 3 month project from scratch the week before submission, we have heard it all before, but the prospect of working hard to create design is something which excites and entices young people into the profession, man or woman. The architecture degree demands a year of professional architecture firm experience before beginning the masters degree, and often these aspiring architects continue work on part time positions while completing their masters, could it be here that women change future plans. They work long hours to complete their study, while assisting in real world projects, all with the hopes to settle down and have children one day, children demand time, but their profession demands late nights early mornings, and all the time in between. Could this be turning them off?
I have witnessed a few women with architecture degrees turn their efforts to teaching instead in secondary design technology, or guiding architecture undergraduate studio courses. The timetable of a teacher is much more favourable to mother hood than a professional architect who has deadlines. To become a well-paid architect, let alone female architect, takes time and networking, time that women would much rather settle into a low stress job, where maternity leave is possible.
The project nature of architecture demands that team members be present and available at all times of the project, women with children simply cannot promise such an available timetable. As young female students architecture is exciting, but as we mature our life long goals become more evident and clear, so we change our minds and turn our degrees into something with a mother friendly work life balance.

Anonymous said...

This post about the exclusion of women in architecture raises many questions about the reasons for their absence and the reasons women are underrepresented in the industry. As previously mentioned in the comments, in Australia architecture graduates are split equally between the genders, but by the time students become registered architects only 20% are female (ArchDaily). But perhaps the focus doesn’t need to be on how many women become registered architects in the industry. I found the second comment interesting, especially the sentence “why aren’t they fulfilling society’s expectations and becoming professional architects who manage and lead the forward pushing architectural movements?” Exactly. It is society’s expectations, that to be considered a legitimate architect, women must become professionals to progress and lead architectural movements. But is this the case? Do we have to define architecture as getting a license and designing in an architecture firm? Maybe women aren’t leaving architecture after they graduate but are branching of to enter different design related fields. And not because of the issues associated with the presence of women in the profession, but because they want to.

Another interesting point made in the first comment is that apart from Zaha Hadid, the “majority of architects putting their name to skyscrapers and monuments are white (an issue for another time)”. Is this an issue for another time? Or is this the issue itself. The definition of architecture has come very far, the continuing globalisation of architecture indicates a need for design thinking that solves a vast range of problems. If the field is to succeed it has to involve practitioners who reflect the needs of people across a large spectrum. Deborah Berke, the first winner of the Berkeley-Rupp Prize, awarded for helping the advancement of women in architecture says, “All aspects of our diverse society and culture are underrepresented in architecture. It's shortsighted and does a disservice to make the issue solely about women.” (Berke, ArchRecord)

I think that while the exclusion of women in architecture is a dire problem that certainly needs to be addressed, it fails to address the issue of all those underrepresented in architecture. Denise Scott Brown is quoted as calling the Pritzker "a sad old white man's award" (Scott Brown, ArchRecord) and this is suggestive of the larger issue at hand in this profession. The Pritzker Prize is one of the most prestigious architectural awards and has only been awarded to two women since its inception. In 2004 Zaha Hadid was the first woman to win, followed in 2010 by Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA. Unfortunately the jury relapsed back to a reflection of the Denise Scott Brown exclusion, when in 2012 Wang Shu won without mention of his wife and partner, Lu Wenyu. This happened even though the Pritzker had been expanded to be able to include partnerships of two. If the Pritzker is as Scott Brown says, then the nature of the award needs to change or its authority needs to be questioned. If this award fails to fairly represent the amazing breadth and incredible members of the architectural profession, then maybe it is necessary to boycott the award and focus on the actual work, not the prestige. And not just the work of the minority starchitects but of a diverse range of people, men and women who make a difference and help to progress from a stiff view of architecture, not enable and encourage it.


Deborah Berke, ArchRecord

Denise Scott Brown, ArchRecord