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Where Are the Women Architects? New Book Looks at Profession’s Gender Gap

“This is a human loss, a loss of talent and dreams and desires.”

Recalling Fay Kellogg in New York City, a female builder in Berlin shows off her daring to the press. She is pictured making repairs to the roof of Berlin's City Hall in 1910
Recalling Fay Kellogg in New York City, a female builder in Berlin shows off her daring to the press. She is pictured making repairs to the roof of Berlin's City Hall in 1910
Illustrierte Frauenzeitung 38, from 1910

As a prelude to her new collection of articles and essays about the gender gap in architecture, author and University of Buffalo Professor Despina Stratigakos gets personal, dedicating her book to her grandmothers: "one sold her dowry to study and become a teacher; the other, forbidden any education as a girl, sat on the school steps and wept." It’s a powerful opening, and a reminder, which echoes throughout the book, about the price paid when unfair barriers stand in the way of professional progress.

Where Are the Women Architects? (Princeton University Press) explores the reasons why female designers have struggled to gain a foothold in the profession, despite recent efforts and campaigns, and why the attrition of women in the profession continues. This collection of essays and articles, from a look at Mattel’s architecture Barbie, an intervention in popular culture, to an exploration of the campaign to pressure the Pritzker committee to give equal recognition to Denise Scott Brown (partner and wife of Pritzker laureate Robert Venturi) explores numerous facets of architecture’s gender imbalance. But, most importantly, Stratigakos’s work showcases the price both practitioners and the profession pay due to this discrepancy.

"This is a human loss, a loss of talent and dreams and desires," says Stratigakos, who spoke with Curbed about these issues and her new book. "This cycle of lost dreams has been going on for over a hundred years in architecture. These are real people, not statistics, who felt they had to leave something they love, and whose work we won’t ever see. When you multiply this loss over a period of 100 years, it’s a tragedy."

Fay Kellog
A newspaper article from 1916 about Fay Kellogg, a New York architect. She once told a reporter, "I don't think a woman architect ought to be satisfied with small pieces, but launch out into business building. That's where the money and name are made." During the interview, she was standing on the 9th floor of a skyscraper she had designed that was under construction. Via Library of Congress.

Early in the book you talk about cliched ideas of masculinity and femininity, and how it shapes the architectural discourse. Is the Howard Roark ideal, in a way, robbing everybody, since it’s proscribing types of, and approaches to, design?

"Exactly. It’s not just who’s getting boxed out, it’s who’s getting boxed in. This construction of the ideal, uber-heterosexual masculinity boxes out women, but men are also have to deal with, are you the right kind of masculinity for this profession? You bring up Howard Roark from The Fountainhead. In that novel, there’s another male architect who’s commercially successful but he’s not heroic, not the right kind of masculinity. There’s this anxiety that’s created for men as well. Do we really want to be developing a profession where you’re concerned about your work being too decorative or feminine? What does that mean? This kind of gendered architecture practice limits everyone. That’s why there’s now a lot more men speaking out, saying this isn’t the kind of profession they want, either, the uber-macho approach, where you need to overcome obstacles and shun collaboration.There’s a whole younger generation who doesn’t want that anymore. Although these issues have hit women particularly hard, it’s important to understand that it affects everyone."

When you look at architecture school, you have a much more diverse, balanced population. Is it a matter of fundamentally changing work-life balance and how women are being mentored in this profession to maintain that balance in the professional world?

"It’s a complex question, what needs to be done, and I think it needs to start in architecture school. That’s where you form your ideas about what professional practice will be like, and what’s worthwhile and what’s not. One of the things that really concerns me about architecture school is that if you look at the lecture circuit, there are many schools where women weren’t invited to the podium, and advanced as people you’d listen to, and are worth looking up to. Look at the course syllabus; you can go through whole semesters without studying female architects, and many students graduate without knowledge of any women who practiced before 1970. Most students would have no idea they existed. At the University of Buffalo, like many schools, we’re encouraging collaborative practices, and moving away from all-nighters. But a lot of the ideas of creativity and best practices start in architecture school. You need to expose them to alternative ideas. You can't accept it as the norm in architecture school."

"I also think we need to have conversations about the diversity problems with gender, as well as class and race. If we’re not talking about it, you’re not preparing people with the tools and the armor they need to succeed. Women will find architecture schools to be an egalitarian places, but then they go into practice and see male colleagues shoot ahead, getting raises and promotions, and they begin to feel their work isn’t that good. I struggle with this issue. I don’t want to be the one who disillusions a 20-year-old and lets them know that in addition to all the challenges architects face, they’re going to have a whole additional layer of issues to face. I want them to go out confident and charged up, but if we don’t say something, they may hit these hurdles and think, ‘It must be me.’ Architecture schools aren’t talking about this. What’s in their best interest? I don’t want to deflate their enthusiasm."

Katharina Pfeiffer
Katharina Pfeiffer, Germany's first femal journeyman bricklayer. Die Frau im Osten 6, from 1912.

You briefly mention a lot of pioneering female architects from the early 20th century in the book. How hard was it to find information about them, and are these architects on anybody’s radar?

"This was a real problem. The architectural history has been very slow to look at women in practice from that era. A lot of architectural historians weren’t looking. Archives have failed to collect their papers, which means that once you have historians interested in these women in the ‘70s and ‘80s, looking, they have less source material to look at. It requires being creative and innovative when doing historical research, because there are gaps in the record. In the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve seen a growth in the literature about the history of these women practitioners. There needs to be more of it; someone like Fay Kellogg seems very interesting, but there’s nothing more than a paragraph here or there about her work. I’m hoping people don their detective gear and start looking. One of the things that concerns me is that, we have enough information now; why it’s not getting into course syllabi? You could say, 30 years ago, that you can’t include them, because there wasn’t enough material. Now, why isn’t it being taken off the library shelves? As a historian, I’m beginning to understand it’s not just about writing the history, it’s about dissemination. Can you think about major museums with exhibitions focused on major women architects?"

We’ve been writing a lot about Zaha Hadid lately. How do you react to the fact that she had an incredible career, yet was often described as the first female starchitect, a title she didn’t like?

"Her death has hit a lot of woman very hard and very personally because she was this really important role model. She was arguably the best-known architect in the world, period, with 13 major commissions underway. She was incredibly successful. She wasn’t just important for her work, but because she broke so many glass ceilings—even that word doesn’t fully capture what it took to break through, those kind of barriers are more like 10 feet of concrete. It mattered that she broke those barriers and was outspoken. There are social norms that say women shouldn’t be outspoken in a certain way, or they'll get classified as a diva, which she was. Over the last few years, she had started to become outspoken about the discrimination she was facing, and was being very blunt about it. It’s an enormous loss, because she had a platform that nobody else had, and she was being heard when she spoke out about discrimination. She herself said she’d come around to understanding she had this other role as a role model for women. Pretending it didn’t happen doesn’t help anybody."

· Meet Mary Colter, the Architect Who Conjured the Romance of the American West [Curbed]

· How Women Are Climbing Architecture's Career Ladder [Curbed]