Blanche Lemco van Ginkel has been awarded the 2020 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Gold Medal. Now is a great time to reread Tanya Southcott’s essay on the invisibility of women’s work, which refers to van Ginkel as she explores how we can bring the achievements of women architects into the light.
My memory of the moment when I knew that my decision to become an architect was the right one still elicits a visceral response. I am sitting at the back of a darkened classroom full of restless, first year would-be-architects anxious to learn about our next studio assignment. The project brief is to design a staircase; not just any staircase, but a new unit for an apartment in the Unité d’Habitation (1946–1952), ‘the first manifestation of an environment suited to modern life’, according to the project’s architect Le Corbusier in 1952.1 Not only are students asked to intervene in a landmark building by a modern master, but they are challenged to work ‘in the manner’ of another architect, to explore another’s architectural voice. In a curious twist to what might seem a traditional exercise, the brief asks male students to choose their inspiration from a list of women architects, and female students to choose from an albeit much longer list of men. Sitting on hard wooden lecture chairs in late fall with our minds in sunny Marseilles, we are on a visual tour as our introduction to this canonic brutalist masterpiece. The slide shifts, and suddenly we stand on the rooftop, in the shadow of an enormous undulating ventilator shaft.
In this moment, my heart grew with the kind of pride available perhaps only to an architecture student at McGill, and a woman at that. Not weeks before, I encountered this same image as research for an entry on the Canadian architect Blanche Lemco van Ginkel for an online encyclopaedia on North American women architects.[2. This entry is co-authored with my supervisor Annmarie Adams.] In the world of Canadian architecture, van Ginkel is a national treasure. As an architect, planner, educator and author, she resonates as a leading figure in modern architecture since graduating from McGill’s school in 1945. Van Ginkel was one of the first women admitted to the program in the early 1940s, and this was the first of many firsts for her as a woman and an architect, including the honour of first woman elected officer (1972) and then fellow (1973) of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC).
After graduating in 1948, van Ginkel moved to Paris to grow her professional experience in the Atelier Le Corbusier. Out of this moment in her esteemed career came the rooftop design for the Unité in Marseilles, including the iconic forms of its ventilator shafts, two whimsical free-form sculptures of cast concrete that narrowly escaped their fate as a single, monotonous column. What an opportunity van Ginkel’s experience was, I thought, working in the manner of her mentor Le Corbusier, a pointed example of what can happen if we suspend our own notions of personal expression, and explore the potential for empathy in architectural practice.
But the slide shifts again, whisking us into a two-storey Unité flat without mention of van Ginkel or her work.
Le Corbusier’s oeuvre has proven fertile ground for feminist architectural scholars working to uncover the lengths this modern master has gone to erase, appropriate, defame, even brutalise the work of women, perhaps most significantly in E-1027, Eileen Gray’s modernist gem. But here we were continuing rather than questioning his tradition. As my heart fell heavily in my chest, I wondered, ‘How can we do better?’
I am not a typical architecture student, but not by virtue of my gender, ethnicity, race or class, rather because I have been here before. After graduating from Waterloo University in 2005, for a brief four years I was among a small proportion of interns who completed the lengthy, onerous track to architectural registration in British Columbia who are women. Suspending my licence in 2013 to return to school, I reflect now as a full-time student and ‘retired’ architect (with the possibility to reinstate).
From the back of the classroom on that fall morning in 2014, now as a tutor rather than a student, I began collecting moments, alternate versions of architectural histories passed down to me like talismans, moments such as Denise Scott Brown’s challenge to the Pritzker Prize committee for crediting Robert Venturi exclusively for their work. I learned that Farnsworth describes not only Mies’ minimalist glass box that I visited as a second-year student, but also Edith his client who sued him for fraudulently representing himself as ‘a skilled, proficient and experienced architect’, and I wondered why I had assumed for so long that Charles and Ray Eames were brothers rather than husband and wife.2 For me, these moments of dissonance complicate questions of authorship and professionalism, the hallmarks of our discipline, and inspire a much broader conversation about how architectural legacies are made and sustained.
Last spring, Dame Zaha Hadid’s untimely passing prompted our profession to revisit the question of diversity in architectural practice, and recent articles in journals and newspapers confirm that although Canadian women architects continue to work against institutional and professional barriers, we prefer to be recognised for our strengths and successes rather than our challenges. As this competition evidences, however, ideas about what an architect is and does are well-conditioned before we cross the threshold into practice. The classroom and studio, too, are spaces where gender identities are constructed and naturalised, and hopefully with encouragement and openness also contested and renegotiated.
The moment when I knew that my decision to become an architect was the right one was not, as you might expect, a moment when everything came together. In many ways, it was the moment when everything fell apart, and the fragments like the story of van Ginkel’s glorious ventilators threatened to slip through the cracks of architectural history, to disappear untold. Thankfully, this is also the moment that I sensed my own potential to collect some of these fractured, falling pieces and to rebuild them in a different form.
Tanya Southcott’s essay was one of the three winners of the 2017 Moriyama RAIC International Prize Scholarship, awarded by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) and the RAIC Foundation. The RAIC received 180 eligible entries in both English and French from students throughout Canada. Tanya won a $5,000 scholarship for writing an illustrated 1,000-word essay on the following topic: Please describe the moment – the circumstances, the nature of the event – when you decided to become an architect, or when you knew that your decision to become an architect was the right one.
Tanya Southcott is a PhD student in the School of Architecture at McGill University. She holds a post-professional Master of Architecture from McGill University, a certificate in Heritage Conservation Planning from the University of Victoria, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies and Master of Architecture from the University of Waterloo. She is an associate of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and has worked in both architectural and heritage consulting offices across Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as on archaeological excavations in Turkey.
This essay was first published in September 2017.
- http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr. This excerpt is from an address by Le Corbusier to the Minister of Reconstruction and Town Planning, 14 October 1952.
- Alice Friedman, “People who live in glass houses”, in American Architectural History, ed. Keith Eggener (London: Routledge, 2004), 326.