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How architecture can rebuild itself post #MeToo

In order for the architectural field to progress, it needs to embrace an era of democratic practice

Franziska Barczyk

In late October, I read a story titled: “Does Architecture Have A Harvey Weinstein Hiding Within Its Ranks?” My first reaction was, well, of course—it’s an industry dominated by men. There are surely many Harvey Weinsteins hiding within architecture’s ranks, Weinsteins who feel no need to hide, harassing women openly and unabashedly. Richard Meier became the first of architecture-world Weinsteins to be identified in the #MeToo movement after five women spoke to the New York Times. There will likely be more.

As #MeToo’s magnifying glass turns to vaunted starchitects like Meier and canonical icons like Paolo Soleri, and fed-up women circulate their own spreadsheet of “Shitty Architecture Men,” a larger appraisal is taking place. It’s challenging the field’s entire foundation, which is showing signs of distress that can no longer be ignored: The authoritarian auteur is obsolete. In order for the architectural field to progress, it needs to embrace an era of democratic practice.

Architecture’s misogyny problem is well known and well documented. The statistics say it all: While close to half of all architecture students are women—a number that has remained fairly consistent since the late ’90sonly 17 percent of architecture firm principals and partners are women. Considering this track record, I’m skeptical about how much the industry will change—but I’m forcing myself to be optimistic.

I’ve spent my career writing about architecture and architects. As a journalist, I acknowledge that I have in some ways contributed to the creative-genius mythmaking by writing stories that helped privilege the perspectives of individual personalities—a general condition in design media that is probably more insidious than we thought. Simultaneously, I’ve held onto the stubborn belief that better design can contribute to a better quality of life for the people who encounter it.

But unless the composition of architecture professionals changes, its potential will remain unfulfilled—and gender parity isn’t the only thing that needs to improve. I want to see a creative alchemy that results in more inclusive spaces, more equitable design, more environmental sensitivity, and more culturally expressive space. In order to achieve design that truly serves society, we need more diverse designers racially, ethnically, and economically. We need the built environment to reflect the just and equitable future of society that we want to see. And I don’t think that’s asking for too much.

A 2014 special report in Scientific American on how diversity powers science and innovation pointed out that decades of research have shown that socially diverse groups are more innovative than homogenous groups. It’s not only because each individual brings different perspectives, it’s also because individuals expect that consensus will be harder to reach with alternative viewpoints, which forces them to think harder.

Diversity also runs deeper than demographics—like age, race, ethnicity, and sex; it’s also about cognition, or how individuals understand and process information. In a 2017 Harvard Business Review article, two researchers argued that cognitive diversity—which is irrespective of demographic diversity—is the secret to innovative thinking. Through studies on how executive groups approached problems, the researchers found that cognitively diverse teams were able to solve complex challenges faster. Additionally, the researchers found that people gravitate toward others who think and express themselves in similar ways, a bias that leads to less cognitive diversity.

At this moment in time, the built environment is confronting an unprecedented pace of change. Technology is poised to remake our urban fabric, there’s a growing housing crisis, climate-change disasters are threatening cities. The problems may seem insurmountable, but if we have the right arsenal of architects, designers, and urbanists, they won’t be. If the industry doesn’t welcome more diverse practitioners and more diverse thinking, we’ll be trying to solve 21st-century problems with 20th-century tools.

In place of the old boys’ club, hero worship, and hewing to the establishment, architecture needs more women, more people of color, more people who are non-binary, more people who are LGBTQI, and more people who have disabilities. So how to accomplish this, given that “success” in the field of architecture doesn’t usually coalesce until middle age and there’s diminishing representation in the industry’s upper echelons? The work that can be done to correct architecture’s systemic inequities has already begun—and there are more measures the architecture industry can take at every level.

Insist on a diverse pipeline in education—and nurture it

Architecture school curriculums could incorporate more direct discussions and coursework about race, gender, ableism, and class. Just like sustainability has become the lingua franca in design, so too should diversity and inclusion. Schools must make it a point to flex diverse representation in guest lecturers and live programming: A panel of white men has no place on our stages in 2018.

Culturally, we’re still working through how we can separate (and whether we should, to begin with) foundational work from their problematic creators. While this is true in all creative mediums—here’s to you, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby—it raises an even more specific debate within the space of a classroom. Instead of defaulting solely to the existing canon, educators could promote a more investigative and research-driven approach to history rather than one that asserts dogma.

Two architecture students from a university in Texas I spoke with suggested that schools can more thoroughly vet firms where they place students for internships. If complaints about sexual harassment or exploitive work practices at these firms arise, ceasing future student referrals could both protect young architects and signal to the offending offices that the educational pipeline will not enable such behavior.

A 2017 AIA report on equity, diversity, and inclusion emphasized the importance of education in building a more diverse profession: building pipeline that starts well before architecture school, finding ways to make it easier to transfer into accredited programs, making licensure more accessible, and encouraging underrepresented groups to pursue more advanced degrees and leadership training.

Set a more equitable standard in the workplace

It’s not only starchitects and figureheads who abuse power. In the last year, hundreds of men have been publicly accused of sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct. While many of them have been high-profile public figures—the Weinsteins, the Lauers, the Meiers, the Spaceys—there are countless more men who will never get stories written about them and who will continue to perpetrate sexist, racist, and discriminatory behavior and abuse their subordinates. Architecture firm leadership should not make excuses for misconduct at any level, and they should also understand that culpability doesn’t solely lie on the perpetrator if other people at the firm have enabled this behavior.

Every architecture firm—regardless of size—can use the #MeToo movement to reevaluate its practices and reinforce sexual harassment policies. They can double down on sensitivity training, teach employees how to be good eyewitnesses and protect whistleblowers, and guarantee no retaliation to those who speak up. They can also educate their offices around harassing behavior that falls in the gray areas. Not every offense will be as egregious as an open bathrobe, but that doesn’t mean bullying, unwelcome advances, hostile comments, and inappropriate jokes don’t exist on the same spectrum.

Recently, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation—an organization dedicated to advancing women in architecture, engineering, construction, design, planning, and preservation—issued sexual misconduct recommendations for the profession. In an April BWAF roundtable discussion, employment attorney Robert Ottinger suggested that all architecture firms can do two things to better protect their employees from harassment: eliminate nondisclosure agreements that prevent victims from speaking out about harassment and misconduct and eliminate arbitration agreements, which prevent employees from suing their employers.

A recent British survey found that less than half of women architects in their 30s and 40s would encourage young women to become architects. How sad is it that women practitioners can’t see future versions of themselves in their career, years down the line? That won’t change, unless workplace conditions adapt drastically. In Co.Design, architectural historian and activist Eva Hagberg Fisher makes a few more suggestions for improving professional practice: unionizing, increased workplace training about legal rights, and paying higher wages so architects have the financial freedom to speak up when they see harassment, or leave if they experience it.

More could be done on the racial equity front, too. A survey published in the British trade publication Architect’s Journal about racism in architecture found that only 9.2 percent of white survey respondents said racism was a “widespread issue” in the field compared to 30 percent of black, African, and Caribbean respondents. Meanwhile a similar percentage of white (56.5 percent) and minority respondents (57.2 percent) acknowledged “some racism” in architecture.

Respondents relayed anecdotal references to racism, which ranged from hearing racial slurs to being characterized as “aggressive” while similar behavior in white colleagues would be considered “passionate.” One survey respondent said: “Many perpetrators of institutional racism may not even realize they are being oppressive and therein lies part of the problem.” Firms should invest in diversity and inclusion training, educate employees about all forms of racial bias, and establish mentoring programs.

Architecture is competing with every other creative industry for smart, talented people who want to be paid fairly, have a good work-life balance, and feel respected. While not all architecture firms can offer tech company perks, they can do a lot more to make people feel valued, appreciated, and encouraged to stay in the profession.

Rethink merit awards

The onus of correcting inequity also falls on awards programs, and their juries, who have the power to grant individuals entree into the canon. Such awards have the gravitas to define what—and who—makes architecture great. These organizations must reassess their practices to avoid perpetuating the same problematic biases and oversights of the past. Until just last month, the Pritzker Prize—architecture’s highest honor—did not even mention gender in its anti-discrimination statement.

In contrast, the New York chapter of the AIA recently rescinded honors for Richard Meier and Peter Marino due to harassment allegations. But what of those honors in the first place? Did Richard Meier really need another trophy to mark his decades-long career?

Which brings us to the celebrity conundrum. As Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange pointed out in a recent editorial, the architect profile that perpetuates the lone-genius myth has outlived its time. We’re naturally drawn to charismatic personalities, and for thousands of years, humans have told stories about individuals. But what we need as a culture right now is not hagiography disguised as magazine profile. What we need right now is criticism that checks the powerful and stories that contextualize architecture—deciphering it so the average person understands the cultural and political implications of these projects.

Hold public works accountable

Urban design shapes our very culture by making space for certain activities to take place. It also affects how people think and behave. Men and women use cities differently; however, men dominate the conversation about urban design today. Both bring biases—conscious or not—with them, which can lead to cities that overlook the needs of a huge proportion of its population.

As Curbed urbanism editor Alissa Walker argues, letting one gender—men—control every aspect of conversation and planning around cities has led to the wealth disparity and displacement of women. So it is imperative that cities examine their procurement practices to encourage more public work from women-owned and minority-owned firms. By adding more voices to civic architecture, equity can be designed into our places and spaces.

One of the classic examples of this philosophy in action takes place in Vienna. In 1999, planners asked residents how and why they used public transportation. The majority of men mentioned using transit to get to and from work, while women respondents said they used it frequently, and throughout the day: going to work, grocery shopping, bringing their children to and from school, and taking their kids to the doctor. Plus, they depended on more transportation networks: streetcars, buses, sidewalks, the subway.

The city of Vienna responded by improving public transit services, widening sidewalks, adding ramps to accommodate strollers and wheelchairs, improving street lights, and more. This was part of the city’s larger gender mainstreaming plan, an initiative to improve gender equity through policy changes. The person who led the urban planning efforts was a woman named Eva Kail.

Public projects—unlike a lot of privately commissioned architecture—are the buildings that tend to make the news, as a point of civic pride. Promoting gender parity and inclusion in society starts with paying architecture and construction firms that already embody these ideals. Women are ascending to higher positions in architecture, as Justin Davidson points out in New York magazine, and we’re starting to see how their perspectives would remake cities.

In New York, the Department of Design and Construction—an agency that manages all civic builds—has a program that develops relationships with such businesses. (From the design side of the equation, two New York-based examples include the living infrastructure of landscape architect and MacArthur Fellow Kate Orff and the community-driven urbanism of Claire Weisz’s firm WXY.) I’m eager to see what cities that have strong civic architecture and design programs can do on this front, like Los Angeles, which recently appointed former critic Christopher Hawthorne as its first chief design officer.

Sexism, racism, and all other forms of discrimination are like weeds that forever find ways to flourish. They invade gardens, consume resources, and squelch space. They prevent the worthy plants from thriving. We live in a culture that has long privileged white men—a problem that extends beyond the realm of architecture. It’s embedded in politics, our economic systems, and our social fabric. Architects have the honor of and responsibility for shaping our world. Shouldn’t we all want a healthy profession where as much energy as possible is spent creating great things?

Each and every person in architecture should ask themselves: Have I built up the women I’ve worked with, or have I restricted their ability to thrive? Have I encouraged diverse modes of thought, or have I squashed them? Am I tending a healthy garden, or am I a weed? It’s on every individual to hold themselves and their peers accountable—and on every company to create the labor conditions to make that possible. The future of architecture depends on it.

Anyone with information about alleged misconduct in the architecture, design, and development industries can contact Curbed’s editor-in-chief, Kelsey Keith, at kelsey@curbed.com. We are accustomed to discussing sensitive information and stories over the phone, so feel free to send an email asking for a phone call. You can also send tips using the app Signal, which encrypts text messages and voice calls. Tip Curbed via Signal here: 267-714-4132.