“How do we make architecture our own?” We are thrilled to publish Camilla Block’s opening talk from Women in Architecture: The Future of Practice, at the University of Sydney.

Camilla Block. Photo  Jacquie Manning.

Camilla Block. Photo Jacquie Manning.

Fiction is like a spiders web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible… But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid air by incorporeal creatures, but the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.

So, I thought I would talk about three things in my introduction tonight.

The first is literature. If you haven’t read A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, you must. It was written at a time when a commonly held view was this: “A women’s composing is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all.”— Dr Johnson

Woolf talks about how essential it is for a female writer to simply have a room, where she can shut the door, and 500 pounds a year — in those days an independent income.

What I found amazing about Woolf is that she is talking about women at a beginning. As novelists beginning to write, they are moving into a form where the greats are men. The form has been made over time by men. The thinking, approach and inspired works are by men. Woolf is asking, given this, how do we make literature our own? How to we not corrupt our work with strident reaction or become too hastily absorbed into the existing condition. How do we get comfortable with our own voice?

And! At the time of writing, in 1928, women had been writing for many years already. Think George Eliot, the Brontes, Jane Austen. The process had well and truly begun.

Architecture, like literature, is a shared and learned language. We stand on the shoulders of others.

Think about us in architecture today. With the exception of Lina Bo Bardi, all my great architectural loves are pretty much men. Our delivery system is pretty much also male. Think construction, engineering, project management. We are so new at this. We have so few role models. Who do we look ahead to? Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not talking about ‘female architecture’ – ugh. I am just talking about a more balanced choir of voices. The equivalent of both Austen and Dickens, David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood. George Orwell and Nancy Mitford…. We are at a beginning ourselves. So much is possible. To make a new, androgynous bedrock. So I guess my question to us all is: how do we make architecture our own?

The second issue is about likeability. There is a lot of research in this area. Lean In by Cheryl Sandburg has evidence that just made me despair. There is also a study that shows women’s competence is considered inversely proportional to their warmth. And number of children inversely proportional to competence.

So, we are kind of screwed in a way.

I suspect – to generalise or personalise this – we are generally complex without being particularly robust. Work can be a bruising experience. Our armour is too easily damaged. Our belief in ourselves folds too readily. And to top it off Virginia says herself women are hard on other women. So, given all of that, my next point is a plea … let’s not inflict unnecessary damage on each other.

And, lastly, a thought about the future.

Men are promoted on potential. Women on ability. So hang in there. If Hilary does get to be president, she is probably actually qualified to do the job.

Photo Jacquie Manning.

Rachel Neeson, Camilla Block, Stephanie Smith, Imogen Howe, Justine Clark. Photo Jacquie Manning.

Camilla Block spoke as part of a panel discussion ‘Women in Architecture: The Future of Practice’, hosted by the Alumni Association at the University of Sydney. Watch the full event here.