Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Nearly a month after Denise Scott Brown and her husband and partner Robert Venturi received the 2016 AIA Gold Medal and a few days before the RIBA awarded Zaha Hadid the 2016 Royal Gold Medal, I get on the phone to outspoken curator and architect Eva Franch i Gilabert, director of New York City’s Storefront for Art and Architecture. I explain I’m writing a piece about women in architecture.

One might think the timing is fortuitous, poised as it is between these prestigious acknowledgements of two extremely talented architects – a sign that women are finally getting their overdue recognition. Indeed, it’s a point Hadid made explicit when she noted that she was very proud ‘to be the first woman to receive the honour in her own right’. Yet, the chatter of cultural life complicated the news of the week: Facebook feeds were still full of videos memorialising chameleon David Bowie, billionaire US presidential candidate Donald Trump was firing off misogynist tweets about Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, and headlines slammed the shameful lack of diversity of the Academy Award nominations, which failed to recognise black actors and filmmakers. In short, it all added up to a quotidian cocktail of issues of gender identity, sexual politics and equity.

Franch immediately throws down a challenge: why ‘women in architecture’? Why not title the piece ‘now in architecture’? The question is valid – an oppositional reframing of the very terms we use to both categorise and celebrate. It speaks to one of the seminal difficulties (pun intended) within architecture culture: in honouring the ladies of design, do we risk divorcing them from the overall discipline, thus marginalising their accomplishments, or do ‘women spaces’ – hard-won outgrowths of equal-rights fights of previous decades – offer much-needed forums for discussion and action on the inequalities still faced within the academy and workplace? The former is a fight to be recognised for ideas; the latter is to ensure (demand) fair representation given that, according to the non-profit Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, women constitute a mere 16 per cent of workers in the design and construction industry today.

In her essay, Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture, Scott Brown spelled out the tension between these two positions, often embodied in the choices of single individuals. ‘We two tokens greet each other wryly,’ she wrote of finding herself the only woman on a committee with only one black man. ‘I am frequently invited to lecture at architecture schools, “to be a role model for our girls”. I am happy to do this for their young women but I would rather be asked purely because my work is interesting.’

Franch, recalling a time when she posed the now polemic to a lecture series she was asked to keynote, argued that she would speak only on condition of a change in the programme’s title – its all-female line-up wasn’t a problem. ‘We want to transmit certain ideas to society at large; if we just look through the lens of women, we might not necessarily invite the audiences that we would want to talk to, that is, the ones who aren’t necessarily interested in women in architecture,’ she explains.

To wit, she offers as example Storefront’s 2014 Letters to the Mayor, a show of correspondence from 48 women and two men. It wasn’t billed as a feminist exhibition; instead Franch stressed the agency of architects and critics to act as civic figures and to lobby for change. Contributions represented more than 20 cities from around the world, including my own call for affordable housing in Los Angeles, architect Julia King’s demand for renewed vision around civic design and placemaking in Delhi, and a case for preservation in Kuwait City (a young urban condition already demolishing itself) by architect Zahra Ali Baba.

Until Franch mentioned over the phone that most of the participants were women, I understood the connection between works only as expression of political will through the shared opening line, ‘Dear Mayor …’. Her tactic isn’t an attempt to mask gender but, instead, it foregrounds ‘architect’ over ‘woman’. It’s a timely reframing of subject, especially when mainstream culture is increasingly accepting of gender as a spectrum (transgender, cisgender, pansexual etc), not an absolute.

A piece in the New York Times’ Sunday Styles section (of all places) discussed the range of pronouns used to describe this expanding lexicon that includes ‘they’, ‘ze’, ‘ey’,  ‘hir’, and ‘xe’ in addition to the binary ‘she’ and ‘he’. In architecture the spatial implications of this plurality seem to be playing out in the wrangling of gender-neutral bathroom signage, but not within the discipline.

‘How beautiful and complicated are the infinite varieties and nuances of gender!’ exclaims Susan Surface, activist and programme director of Design in Public, an outreach initiative of the AIA Seattle, focused on bridging the gaps between architects, citizens, and civic and business leadership. ‘Gender distinction, cultivation and determination are deeply and fiercely important to so many people – perhaps nearly everyone. I enjoy this  and don’t want it to go away.’

For a while I’ve held the belief that identifying oneself as an architect is a kind of drag, a mannered persona donned for effect. How else to describe the clichéd sartorial signifiers: extreme eyewear, black daywear and designer footwear? As the education of an architect is so historically weighted to a canon of male practitioners, theorists and educators, a woman entering the field often operates as a kind of architectural androgyne – we are trained to see world of design through black-framed, male-coloured glasses. Gender differentiation, then, comes with a thorny rhetorical question: ‘What’s the difference?’ If the goal is to recognise talent, experimentation and innovation, there seems no reason to create a binary in the field.

Architect Toshiko Mori considers such divisions obsolete in our hyper-global condition. ‘I do not think in our profession it is simply a matter of if you are a man or a woman, but the question is: can you overcome your own gender and sexuality to think like “others”?’ she replies. As a practitioner, professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design and former chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Design Innovation, her work takes her to places where so much is so unlike her home base in New York City. Last year her firm completed a community centre and artist residency in Sinthian, in rural Senegal. The design brings together a formal language and local materials and construction techniques, such as the complex curvatures of the steeply sloped thatched roof that is designed to direct rainwater run-off into catch basins. The Josef  and Anni Albers Foundation supported the project with the intention of bridging the gap between what the organisation calls the ‘West’ and the ‘developing world’.

‘To be a good architect or a designer, I strongly believe we have to possess multiple perspectives and sensibilities, and be able to identify with diverse points of view and behaviour and cultural patterns,’ Mori explains. ‘We have to be extremely observant and responsive, and responsibly promote empathy for other human beings.’

One might argue that empathy is a more female architectural trait, linked to nurturing and, thus, the domestic realm. Yet as designers and scholars sift through architectural history’s proverbial dustbin, evidence of alternative histories emerges – narratives that resonate closer to contemporary culture than we might have otherwise anticipated. To wit, when I asked Tamar Shafrir, co-founder with Joseph Grima of the research studio Space Caviar, whether women’s designs were profoundly different from men’s she replied, ‘I doubt it’ and pointed me to a revised account of Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen.

Built in 1926 as part of Ernst May’s socialist housing project New Frankfurt, it is one of the few designs by women that pepper the Modernist canon; according to Schütte-Lihotzky, May routinely stressed that her kitchen based on Taylorist principles of efficiency was ‘designed by a woman for women’. This position reinforced gendered spaces and stereotypes, but also one she rejected. ‘That was good propaganda,’ she wrote in her 2004 book Why I Became an Architect (passages were translated into English by Juliet Kinchin in 2011). ‘But the truth of the matter was that I had never run a household before designing the Frankfurt Kitchen. I had never cooked and had no idea about cooking. On the other hand, looking back on my life, I would say that I have been systematic in every aspect of my professional life, and that it came naturally to me to approach every project systematically.’

That Shafrir would be interested in reevaluating a known history of domestic space is no surprise. In recent years Space Caviar has produced a number of works that interrogate the assumptions and clichés, economics and technologies that define the contemporary idea of home. She co-edited the book SQM: The Quantified Home – a collection of texts that essentially dematerialises house into financial data, social networks and share economy algorithms – for the 2014 Biennale Interieur.

Space Caviar further demolished any sentimentality around the domestic sphere with RAM House created for Salone del Mobile 2015. Essentially a Faraday cage with a few potted cacti to cheer the place up, the speculative project is designed to block the ubiquitous signals of ‘smart’ devices. Where curtains and blinds once served as an elaborate threshold to modify views into and out of the home, the RAM House’s blocking technologies allow an occupant to modulate their own wi-fi, mobile and radio signals through the manipulation of screens and shields.

Yet even as we scrap notions of gendered design as antique as chintz drapes, there still exists the pressing need to lobby for equity within the design/construction professions and the academy. In the United States,  these extra-professional pressures apply not only to architecture but also across professions, creative and otherwise. In November, Maureen Dowd interviewed dozens of film and TV directors, screenwriters, producers, cinematographers and executives working within Hollywood’s pervasive sexism. Her piece, ‘The Women  of Hollywood Speak Out’, documented their struggle,  but also identified voices that are demanding to be heard in a male-dominated industry.

Architectural analogies on this theme have become evergreens – discussions about the need for parity often take place in award season. And most people I know are fatigued by the continual task of taking to social media  to point out how few women are represented on lecture series posters and symposia. The effort itself has gone from radicalisation to farce: the Tumblr website entitled ‘Congrats, you have an all-male panel!’ skewers non-parity events with a swarthy photo of David Hasselhoff – a commentary on how outmoded, yet still systemic, under-representation is within the field. (A recent statistical analysis found that under-representation is constructed and that by-the-numbers, non-bias representation would lead to stronger overall representation and more tilts towards over-representation.)

But structures that must be addressed go much deeper than honours and panels. It’s impossible to talk about women and not tackle companion issues such as race, class, labour and sexual preference. And still some topics speak directly to gender in the practice: shrinking the wage gap, parental leave, mentorship and childcare. The extent to which these keep cycling through design culture can be seen in Women in Architecture’s 2016 survey created by Eva Alvarez. It is decidedly a digital recreation of the survey published in the August 1975 issue of Architectural Design. The earlier survey, edited by Monica Pidgeon, compiled answers from 100 architects asking two questions: ‘Is there any contribution to architecture which women can make and men can’t (and vice versa)?’ and ‘What is the advantage or disadvantage to working in the profession?’. The more recent survey is available in six languages and includes such touchy questions as ‘What advantages do women in the profession have that men don’t?’ and the converse: ‘What advantages do men in the profession have that women don’t?’

I put a version of this question to SO-IL’s Jing Liu, enquiring about the structures and institutions that benefit from drawing gender distinctions. She, like  others with whom I spoke, mentioned requirements for minimum percentages of minority- or woman-owned businesses for public tender projects. ‘It is important  that these measures are in place to correct the path  that we have been on for too long,’ she explains. ‘It’s also important to understand them as structural adjustments, different from making an argument that one is better  than the other.’

Founded in 2008 with her partner Florian Idenburg, Liu’s firm is at the age when it is transitioning from emerging to emerged. The office, which cut its teeth on competitions and installations bridging architecture and art, is now seeing the complexities of full-scale job sites, such as the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art under construction in Davis, California, scheduled to open this year. Distinguished by a 4,600m2 roof canopy that unifies indoor and outdoor spaces, when complete the art museum will push SO-IL out of the conceptual territories to which it has, thus far, become accustomed.

For many female architects, however, the change from early- to mid-career corresponds with the tension between professional life and family life – a point where difference starts to really matter. The Architectural Review 2016 Women in Architecture survey reports that 83 per cent of female respondents felt ‘having children puts women at a disadvantage in architecture’. In contrast, when I spoke with Dang Qun, principal partner at Beijing’s MAD Architects, about the differences between male and female practitioners from a Chinese perspective, she noted that all women work and replied, ‘It’s not an issue’.

I push Qun a little, jokingly bringing up the idea that some might say that MAD’s organic forms and affinities for integrated landscape could be seen as feminine or earthy – a cringeworthy argument that has also been applied to Hadid’s work at times. She easily rebuffs it: MAD’s relationship with nature is part of a long history of Chinese architecture. Again, it’s not an issue.

So, this is where we are now in architecture: hoping (demanding) that gender in all its glorious plurality is  not an issue, but still in the trenches, fighting for equal representation. And despite these pulls, there is still the work – the ideas, designs and buildings that transcend any single notion of identity.