The Design Observer Group

Posted 09.27.12

Alexandra Lange

Let’s Talk About Women in Architecture

Photograph by Bartholomew Cooke (via Dwell)

At the close of Nora Ephron's 2010 book, I Remember Nothing, she included a list titled "What I Won't Miss." Down at the bottom, between "Small print" and "Taking off makeup every night" was this zinger, "Panels on Women in Film." I like the way she capitalized the letters, capturing the organizers' formal sincerity while maintaining her distance from the whole enterprise.

Next week, on October 3, I find myself playing both roles. I am the moderator for a panel titled Women in Design as part of New York and Dwell magazines' weeklong City Modern series. The series includes discussions, lectures, panels and on the weekend of October 6 and 7, house tours. My panel, which should more properly be called Women in Architecture, features Galia Solomonoff, Marion Weiss and Claire Weisz. And the first question I am going to ask them is about Architect Barbie.

Greenwich Village Townhouse (2012), Solomonoff Architecture Studio (Photograph by Alex Guerrero)

Part of me is in total sympathy with Nora Ephron, and my panelists. This is surely not their first time being asked about being a woman in architecture. I doubt any of them think that aspect is the most important part of their careers (I will ask). Is a question about Architect Barbie now a tiresome obligation? The very existence of the panel suggests there is something strange, something other to architecture, about being a women.

On the other hand, I feel that in the decade after my own undergraduate architecture degree, there weren't enough panels on Women in Architecture. The women who were doing it did not want to talk about it. They wanted to do their excellent work, and let that speak about their place in the profession. Which was a worthy, understandable approach. Unfortunately it changed nothing. As far as I can tell, when I graduated from college in 1994 the percentage of female members of the AIA was 15 percent. In 2010, it was 17 percent.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center (2012), Weiss/Manfredi

These statistics make me sad, but it also feels like action is brewing. Over the course of the year I have seen many more productive discussions about women in architecture: on Design Observer, in the recent Places series on women in architecture; on the Australian site Parlour, where a recent essay addresses exactly what it is like to be an architect and mother of small children. It feels as if the moment is right to discuss structural change, work/life balance for everyone, and, as all of these women have their own practices, how they run things differently. But first we need to talk honestly and openly about what is difficult and what has been different about the profession, not for all women, but for these women.

It also isn't necessary to see otherness as only negative. Sometimes it makes creative life easier – it certainly does for me as a critic. As Claire Weisz told Nina Rappaport, in a Constructs article on an upcoming reunion of Women in Architecture at Yale: "Sometimes the greatest work comes from outsiders. The particularily of a woman's experience can also generate strength and create opportunity."

Beach 30th Street Pavilion at Rockaway Park (2012), WXY Architecture + Urban Design

If this topic is of interest to you, please join us at the panel. Tickets are available here. Ironically, at the exact same time, Paul Goldberger is "in conversation" with MacArthur winner Jeanne Gang at the National Academy, a conversation I would have liked to hear. (PG wrote this excellent take on Gang's work for the New Yorker in 2010.)

In the meantime, I am still writing up my list of questions. If you have something you would like to ask these Women in Design, please let me know in the comments.