March was Women’s History Month: 31 days honoring women’s contributions, historic and contemporary, to society. As could be expected, the month was observed in part with a spate of dialogues, panel discussions, and symposia assessing gender equality and female achievement in both political and professional terms — including, as well it should, the professional practice of architecture. The numbers write a troubling narrative. Only 13 percent of practicing architects are female, and only three percent are principals of their own firms. The statistics look more optimistic today, with women making up 50 percent of the student body in design schools, but the divide between the academy and professional practice is nonetheless a matter of concern. Architecture remains a male-dominated profession, with the highest professional accolades typically awarded to men. The overarching question of the day was, what changes can be enacted to remedy this situation?
The Brooklyn Museum invited four women at the helm of successful practices and leaders of the design community to the Sackler Center for Feminist Art for a conversation entitled “Women Shaping Our World.” The discussion did not aim to answer the question directly. Rather, by providing an open-ended platform for exemplars of that 13 (and, hopefully, growing) percent, the conversation focused on how these women practice and inhabit architecture. For Susan Rodriguez, partner at Ennead Architects; Anne Fougeron, founding principal of Fougeron Architecture; Karen Stein, architecture critic and curator; and Toni Griffin, urban planner and director of CUNY’s Max J. Bond Center for Design and the Just City, professional success in their fields requires the same efforts as anything else does: vision, hard work, and the drive for excellence.
During her introduction, Fougeron quoted a banner she had once seen hanging off a Parisian museum that read, “And what if women were also the future of the law?” She then posited, “And what if women were also the future of architecture?” This conjuncture was at the crux of the ensuing conversation, suggesting that if women continue to empower themselves, and if architecture continues to expand itself, both will become stronger. Inverting the title of a 2007 Nicolai Ourossoff New York Times column, Fougueron laid down a mantra of her practice: more women need to build houses, not keep them.
In a field whose vocabulary carries certain gendered connotations, one of the tasks at hand is to redefine how women see their relationship to the “home” (can home-making become home-designing?), and for whom the house is designed. So when moderator John Cary opened the conversation by asking, “Do you feel at home in this field?” the question solicited strong responses.
Toni Griffin, the first to answer, stated that what’s important to her is to be good — and that’s it. She wanted to practice architecture, she said, so she made it her home. Susan Rodriguez agreed, adding, though, that at times it feels lonely. Creating partnerships with like-minded female designers, Rodriguez said, has helped create community. Sitting on the boards of non-profit organizations such as the Architectural League of New York and the Van Alen Institute has provided a network of people equally passionate about architectural excellence. This raises the question, though, of the fiercely female-led non-profit realm. These places are vital parts of the urban community; they foster and make visible innovative and socially progressive projects in the design world. But why do women involved in the field of architecture so often play the roles of presenters or critics — as writers, academics, or institution leaders — but less frequently practice architecture themselves?
Former Phaidon editorial director (among a host of professional accomplishments in writing and publishing) Karen Stein noted that women are the majority in publishing. “The effects of gender are evasive but also invasive,” she said, while also pointing out that organizations like the AIA are disconcertingly mute on the discipline’s gender gap, celebrating Architect Barbie while staying silent about the statistics and lack of resources for Barbie’s non-plastic counterparts.
Thankfully, cultural interest in architecture is taking a turn away from the exalted Starchitect towards a holistic look at urbanism and the social and environmental possibilities of design. Toni Griffin pointed to a need for architecture to become all-inclusive, expanding its definition to incorporate urban planners, landscape architects, and other related fields. In addition, universities must envision new interdisciplinary connections between their programs. These efforts and imperatives, Griffin said, are part of a larger dialogue about the “just city,” a topic that set the stage for the afternoon’s conversation. As the discussion veered to architecture that is socially aware and the need for democratic design that “brings dignity to daily life,” as Fougeron put it, one was struck by the value of having four intelligent ladies publicly talking about their practices: these women were offering ways to shape the world.
Griffin gave an anecdote from her days as the Director of Planning & Community Development for Newark. Showing renderings from an SOM proposal for a plaza memorializing the Newark Riots, she drew our attention to a pregnant African-American woman in a rendering of the existing urban blight, and then to the same figure, this time with her baby, in an image of the plaza that was to replace the derelict streetscape. What we need to question, she said, are the urban conditions in which these demographics find themselves. Women and children still inhabit crime-ridden, low-income neighborhoods. Progress could mean new housing typologies for working mothers, making the workplace easily accessible from the home, and creating safe blocks for children to play on. Furthermore, as we recognize the “traditional” nuclear family is only one of many models, federal programs must evolve to accommodate multi-use spaces and multigenerational dwellings in public housing, expanding options for the working mother.
A Q&A with the audience closed with a question about whether there is a “women’s way” of addressing the disparity between male and female architects. Susan Rodriguez responded by reminding the audience while designing work is very personal, ultimately, architecture is a job — not a home one is invited into. Success demands the confidence to speak up and capitalize on opportunities. She did acknowledge, though, that as a woman it often takes being given the chance. The panelists all agreed that part of advocating for other women architects involves providing those chances, using their success to offer young architects opportunities in their firms, and serving as teachers and mentors.
Like the process of building a home, the practice of architecture is the product of the many pieces locking harmoniously into place. Those pieces include planners of cities, curators of design, leaders of universities, and the architects who design institutions like the Brooklyn Museum as well as the residences that house us. Of course, women are integral to this harmony. And it’s time we raise our heads to acknowledge the excellent work women are doing in architecture and related fields, and then put them back down to figure out — without getting too caught up on the barriers — what partnerships and systems will enable more women to engage in all aspects of designing the built environment.