Women in Architecture Need a New Set of Role Models—Beyond the Star System

From the first day of architecture school, every student is a Starchitect-in-Training.

What do you want to do with this degree?

Well, probably I’ll start my own practice. Maybe not right away but eventually that’s what I want to do.

Studio assignments reinforce the naive logic driving this hypothetical exchange, with each student being sole proprietor, partner, lead architect, project designer, project manager, and sometimes even client. The dream? To be the boss. That’s how I’ll make what I want, exercise my creative genius (which clearly I have), because I just designed this Visitors’ Center for a Famous Building (could be Villa Rotunda, Villa Savoye, Villa Stein, definitely a Villa), and it looks great. It has views of the building and of the landscape.

When group work happens, it’s met with reticence and frustration.

I have to compromise my genius by working with OTHER PEOPLE?!

By the time the final year approaches its end, and your student debt its final form, the idea that you could ever be sole proprietor starts to take on a shade of doubt.

Well, maybe I’ll work at this firm for a while, get some experience. It won’t be so bad. And if I got a few promotions maybe I’d be happy there; maybe I won’t want to start my own firm anymore.

But the kernel of it remains. The training remains. The idea that the way to make your mark in this field is to be a boss has taken root somewhere in your mind. You’ve never been taught to work in a group. You don’t know how to communicate your ideas unless it’s to someone who is going to judge it, either to give it a grade or as part of the public performance that is the studio review. A sense of guardedness permeates every word that comes out in reference to a project, preemptive defensiveness about everything, as though of course you’re 100% happy with every move and decision you’ve made thus far, and of course yeah, I guess I can see what you’re saying about the roofline being too low, but have you thought of it this way? OK, let’s try your way but I’m not sure it would work.

Working at a firm is purgatory. It’s just what happens to be happening right now, as you’re on your way to becoming a starchitect.

It’s no wonder, then, that the prevailing theory of change held by architects is that it comes from the top. Just as architects learn that they will leave their indelible mark on the world as sole actors, so will any change in the profession come from the people at the very top of it.

It’s this sense that change comes from the top that informs even many of the protests within the profession. Last year, at the Venice Biennale, a group of women architects got together to protest the lack of women in architecture—and the general presence of discrimination based on gender, race, sexuality, in the architecture profession—outside of one of the

Biennale venues. They came together in solidarity with women across the profession and asked them to do better. I couldn’t make the protest—neither could many women who work in architecture who couldn’t make the Biennale at all—but I heard Jeanne Gang was there. I heard some other famous people were there, like Odile Decq and Farshid Moussavi. Are they starchitects? Jeanne Gang is certainly one.

More recently, and in the same vein, a group of women architects in the UK have come together to organize “days of action” to protest the dearth of women being awarded the RIBA Gold Medal.

These movements are good; they call attention to the pervasive inequality within our profession, which is, after all, a reflection of the pervasive inequality in our world.

What happens to most women in architecture if, say, more women become starchitects? Or curate the Venice Biennale? Or win the RIBA medal? They get new role models, and more role models who look like them, who they can see themselves becoming. Young women studying architecture feel like it’s a valid path for them, like they will have other women to commiserate with along their careers. These gains are nothing to sneeze at, but they are far from concrete. And, they still place the power and onus on change on those at the top.

This is where, to my mind, these movements fall short. Not because they are incorrectly rooted, or because they are wrong about the state of the profession for women, but because the focus of their demands is still the very top of the profession —the starchitects, or the impediments to the possibility of becoming one.

We need a new theory of change for architecture, if we’re going to win the profession every architect deserves.

We need to understand that even if we’re well-paid professionals, we are workers. And that our power in our profession comes not from appeals to our higher institutions, or our ego-driven aspirations, but from our ability to organize in our workplaces to demand the changes we want to see.

What if, for example, we rallied around an industry-wide demand for 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, which would make it infinitely easier for women to advance in their profession?

Or paid overtime, which would drastically increase the ability of women, especially those who have families, to support themselves through their job?

Or for wage transparency in the profession, so that it was easier for women and non-binary people to receive equitable pay?

Or around a $15-dollar minimum wage—and an end to unpaid internships—which would make getting started in the profession much easier for many young architects, including women?

The list could go on, but these are a few things that we could start to rally around now, concretely.

Perhaps, ironically and unexpectedly, it is more difficult to organize to make these material demands than to act out large overtures at powerful bodies within the architecture world. We need to do both, though.

The demands I list above are not very glamorous, but they would make life materially easier for women in architecture, opening up more room for them to achieve their full creative potential. They’re also directly achievable and less ephemeral than the broad, abstract categories of “representation” and “recognition.”

And, if we fight for these concrete demands, and we win, then maybe we’ll start to do away with the cult of the starchitect, which is surely a cultural problem within our profession and which partially stems from architects’ lack of experience with collective action. If we fight together for something, and win, we might see where our potential lies—not as sole actors enacting our will from the top down, but as individuals who share a vision for our profession and can see that vision to fruition together.

We don’t have to wait until the peak of our career to make change. We can start now.

Featured image via Brand Architecture Institute.


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