Gender is just one aspect of a diverse profession. Gill Matthewson opens up the discussion of the immense value of different perspectives in architecture.
There was a moment in the Creating Equity session at How Soon is Now, the recent Australian Institute of Architects national conference, when I started to worry that gender was about to take over the conversation. Why should I feel this way? As someone who has been researching this issue for a long time, and is a member of the Parlour collective, shouldn’t I be clapping enthusiastically? Happily, these days gender equity is often front of mind when we consider the composition of the profession – of practices, panels and juries; but we must also advocate for diversity in other terms, including ethnicity and socio-economic background.
Five years ago many architects would have maintained that gender was not a problem in architecture. Thanks to the research by the ARC-funded Equity and Diversity project that produced Parlour, and to Parlour itself, we now know differently. The statistics we have produced show relentlessly diminishing numbers of women across time and at senior levels in the profession. In the face of those numbers, the illusion of gender neutrality crumbled. But if the stats for women were hard to get (and they were and still are), numbers that might show the range for ethnicity, socio-economic background and other diversity in the profession are near to impossible.
Diversity is critical for architecture. I believe one of the roles of architects is to question the assumptions that we don’t know are assumptions in what we do and how we live. The Nightingale housing project is a great example of such questioning. As a profession, we’re not bad at that kind of questioning (although we could do it much more than we do), but there is nothing like the questioning of those born and raised in worlds that are subtly and sometimes very different to the norm of middle-class urban/suburban Anglo-Australians.
A recent Parlour Instagram guest, Sonia Sarangi (in one of her many great posts) argued for ethnic diversity, saying that: ‘If anything, their [immigrant’s] ability to sometimes see things differently is what enriches Australian culture. Harry Seidler’s iconic Rose House is proof that a new, immigrant architect can challenge existing archetypes and invigorate the local milieu.’ We need a diversity of people with the different perspectives that come from different backgrounds – class, ethnicity, gender and all – to ask the questions: why is that like that and can it be done better?
Gender is now in our consciousness, but we also need to think of the deeper backgrounds of our people. If someone doesn’t seem to quite fit in to the office or studio, ask yourself if socio-economic background or ethnicity plays a part, and think again. Of course, a single person is not representative of all those from that background, but they will have a different perspective that could help produce great architecture and better and more equitable ways of living and being.
Dr Gill Matthewson is a researcher, architect and educator, based at Monash University. Her PhD ‘Dimensions of Gender: women’s careers in the Australian architecture profession’ was awarded by the University of Queensland in 2015.