What are the new agendas for feminism and architecture? In part 3 of her lecture Susana Torre outlines what we might do next.
Note: This is the last part of a remarkable lecture delivered by Susana Torre in New York, and co-sponsored by The New School University and The Architectural League of New York. It is published here with the generous permission of Ms Torre. Watch the video of the lecture here or read Part 1: Feminist Contributions and Part 2: Tokenism.
Where to Next?
Today, when we talk about “women in architecture” we usually focus not on discourse, but on the unfulfilled agendas of salary parity and equal access to opportunities for retention or promotion, or on the difficulty of reconciling the demands of a very exacting profession with those (no less time-consuming) of child-rearing and the production of domestic life, as most women still bear the greater responsibility for both.
More than three decades after the Women in Architecture exhibition I curated, we are still wondering what happens to the large percentage of women (currently 32%) that seem to disappear between architecture school and obtaining a license –currently only 18% of licensed architects are women. We continue to be concerned about the forces that compel women to leave the profession, which include the long hours; lack of recognition; lack of a clear path for advancement; and low salaries – all things that can (and should) be changed and improved. And all this in spite of the fact that two women have achieved the Pritzker Prize among other international prizes; that a woman principal created a major and likely to be very influential skyscraper; and that there are scores of women that are partners of established architectural firms or principals of their own.
It is not surprising, then, that there has been a recent resurgence of many professional women’s groups such Architexx, suggesting that a new agenda for “Feminism and Architecture” and “Women in Architecture” can be envisioned, operating simultaneously on different fronts.
I offer the following suggestions:
The role of institutions
The AIA (the American Institute for Architects) could and should lead the effort to retain and promote the advancement of women in the profession.
- It could commission a national study to obtain reliable data about a variety of subjects (as has been demanded by my young colleagues).
- It could convene a closed conference with the country’s largest firms to discuss how they can include or improve the number of women in decision-making positions and contribute to help women stay and advance professionally.
- It could run a competition to design childcare modules to be adopted by offices on a for-pay basis or as employee benefits.
- It could outline clear paths for promotion with a timetable based on the data obtained in the national study to be adopted by offices and universities.
- It could establish a special prize for firms that have achieved parity, like I believe Jeanne Gang’s has.
- It could establish an award system that recognises important areas of design and production that have a greater proportion of women – such as detailing and project management – and are as important as architectural design in the creation of excellence.
This is only the beginning of a “yes, we can” list.
Discourse and publication
The creation of discourse is fundamental for changing a discipline. Independent groups could develop an international journal about feminism and architecture. I have in mind the model that allowed Heresies to stay alive and influence the art world for 15 years, based on thematic issues edited by renewable collectives interested in a particular subject, with the help of someone from the founding collective. Or they could sponsor exhibitions on the model of the famous art show “Women choose Women”, which has been very recently revisited.
Education and supporting graduates
Schools of architecture should, of course, hire and promote more women faculty, faster. They should also take heed of the findings of scholars who argue that the respect of peers is a stronger factor of success than having a mentor. These findings suggest that mentoring by established women of younger women may be less important that the creation of opportunities for continued peer contact after graduation. This could take the form of forums or incubator spaces for their young graduates to present design ideas for speculative projects or competitions during the fragile years that follow graduation. Or the creation of online peer contexts shared by different schools, even internationally, where projects are selected for presentation and review.
To the academy and feminist scholars also falls greater responsibilities. These include:
- Undoing the damage created by recent anthologies that include a stunted representation of feminist theory in architecture, a topic abundantly explored in Karen Burns’ essay “A Girl’s Own Adventure”.
- Redefining the criteria for inscribing the work of women into history, challenging the criteria approved by the male critical establishment.
- Inscribing the work of women not merely by making sure the names of a few women name appears in the histories, but by discussing their work in relation to that of men working with similar ideas. I can think of some potentially fruitful comparisons, such as Mies Van der Rohe’s Brick House and Mary Otis Stevens’ house in Lincoln MA, or Peter Eisenman’s 1983 proposal for the Wexner Center in Columbus OH, and my 1980 Ellis Island proposal for a public park that included a historically fragmented landscape.
I must leave these lists in an inconclusive state, but I want to remind us that there is no conclusion – there never is – and that whatever agenda we propose to implement is valid for a few years only. The discourse on Feminism and Architecture will continue to evolve, even as the number of women increases. We now need to formulate the questions for the next stage of its evolution. Thank you.