Where are the Women Architects?, by Despina Stratigakos

The building design industry continues to construct glass ceilings, finds Flora Samuel

June 2, 2016
Architect Zaha Hadid outside The Riverside Museum, Glasgow
Source: Alamy
Sharp edges: Zaha Hadid faced the gendered architectural stereotypes of genius, charismatic leadership and maverick behaviour head on, says Flora Samuel

“Where are the women architects?” asks Despina Stratigakos, a question that feels particularly timely just a few months after the death of Zaha Hadid, the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Whatever you might think of her buildings or her ethics, Hadid faced the gendered architectural stereotypes of genius, charismatic leadership and maverick behaviour head on, seemingly without baulking at the disproportionate level of personal criticism that came her way. An inspiration to many, her uncomfortable Futurist shoes seem unlikely to be filled any time soon.

While other professions have gradually been feminised, architecture has barely progressed since my mother’s own entry into the field shortly after the Second World War – around 19 per cent of architects are women – and it is not through want of women trying. Stratigakos’ intention, with this concise, highly readable book, is “less to chronicle women’s entry into the profession…than to track an unfinished dialogue that has haunted architecture – in a cycle of acknowledging and then abandoning its gender issues – for a very long time”.

The first chapter, in essence a history of women in architecture, gives an illuminating and detailed account of events in the US. Although Stratigakos makes a brief foray into events in the UK, for example a short account of Elizabeth Whitworth Scott’s remarkable 1928 victory in an international competition to design the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford, she doesn’t reference key scholars in this neglected field such as Lynne Walker. She does, however, make extensive use of surveys on the state of women in the profession by the UK-based Architects’ Journal and then reflects them back on the US scene, which, it seems, is even worse than the UK in terms of inequality.

I know all about the difficulties of writing about a little known field, but clarity – or more of an attempt at it – in stating what has been left in and what has been left out is, I think, a requisite of feminist writing because women are so often left out of accounts, seemingly by accident.

The book then moves on to the current state of gender equity, and then to a fascinating account of the development of Architect Barbie, part of the doll manufacturer Mattel’s Barbie I Can Be series. Stratigakos played a key role in developing her wardrobe, including an oddly phallic pink drawing tube and hard hat.

Next is a look at the impact of architecture prizes and the “boys’ club”. For me the unrepresentative and unrigorous nature of architecture prizes does regular damage to the profession as a whole, not just to women. Stratigakos then moves on to the way in which women have been written out of history on Wikipedia, noting that new entries on female architects have frequently been erased in minutes by zestful volunteer editors who deem them insufficiently noteworthy to warrant a place on the web.

In my view, architecture’s gender problems are connected to the field’s seemingly culturally wired inability to capitalise on its unique interdisciplinary spatial problem-solving skill set (design research), its knee-jerk survival response to the boom and bust cycles of the construction industry, and the exploitative tactics of many clients, including universities. The pay difference between female and male architects in Europe is 33 per cent. It is time for clients themselves to start asking where the women architects are, and help us to change.

Flora Samuel is professor of architecture in the built environment, University of Reading.

Where are the Women Architects?
By Despina Stratigakos
Princeton University Press, 128pp, £14.95
ISBN 9780691170138 and 9781400880294 (e-book)
Published 11 May 2016

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