AA XX 100: WOMEN IN ARCHITECTURE 1975-2015 Review
by Helen Castle, Editor of AD
2 December 2015
Architectural Association, London
Forty years ago, in 1975, the initiative for the Women in Architecture edition of Architectural Design (AD)
Cover of ‘Women in Architecture’, Architectural Design (AD), August 1975. AD’s longstanding Editor Monica Pidgeon was lobbied by ‘young women libbers at the AA’ and her colleague Barbara Goldstein to publish an issue on the subject
came directly from the AA. In her editorial, longstanding editor Monica Pidgeon
Portrait of Monica Pigeon with her camera, c 1955. A formidable female presence in the architectural world, Monica was Editor of Architectural Design (AD) from 1946 to 1975
describes how she agreed to dedicate the August 1975 issue to the subject “egged on by young women libbers at the AA” and her colleague Barbara Goldstein.
So it could not be more fitting that the AA XX 100 group have organised the event that took place on 7th November, making it part of their celebrations to mark the centenary of women at the AA. I want to say a special thank you at this juncture to Yasmin Shariff, who has single-handedly spearheaded the event, organised it, and made it happen.
That phrase of Monica’s ‘women libbers’ sums up a whole other era in a single breath. It is such an immediate throw back! It evokes a time of lively, strident student politics, passionate feminism, and bra burning.
The reference to ‘young women libbers’ also signals Monica’s own removal from a vital, much younger movement. As she pointedly states in her editorial, it had never previously occurred to her to take a stand about women in architecture. In 1975 Monica was 62 and a formidable female presence in the architectural world. A significant proponent of post-war Modernism, she had been editor of AD for 30 years and developed it into an internationally reputed magazine. She had promoted the likes of CIAM, Le Corbusier, Goldfinger, and the Smithsons. As a working mother, Monica had, in her own words, “muddled through”.
The power of women muddling through, however, should not be underestimated. It is the women chipping away with their heads down that affect change, enable success, and create influential role models.
It goes without saying that one of the most renowned architects in the world today is a woman- Zaha Hadid. She set up her own practice in London in 1979, but had to muddle on until she received her first major built commission, the Vitra Fire Station in Weil Am Rhein, Germany, in 1993. In 2016, she will be the first woman in her own right to be awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in recognition of a lifetime’s work. As a Gold Medal winner, Zaha will be joining the ranks of Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the last 6 years, the RIBA has appointed 3 women presidents: Ruth Reed, Angela Brady, and Jane Duncan, the current president.
In the US, women have made significant inroads into architectural education in leadership positions. There are now some 30 women deans of architecture schools. The most prominent Ivy League schools have in the last 3 years all appointed women: Amale Andraos at Columbia University in 2014; Monica Ponce de Leon, who is taking her place at Princeton in January 2016; and Deborah Berke, who is replacing Bob Stern at Yale, in July 2016.
Is all that muddling through enabling a critical mass? Could we possibly be at a watershed moment for women in architecture? Or possibly not?
In 1975, Nadine Beddington reported in AD that women only make up 6% of the total membership of the RIBA. So where would you expect us to be now, 40 years later, with the intake of female students at undergraduate level being approximately 50%? Possibly 35% or 40%? By 2014, the RIBA had reported that a paltry 17.6% of its members are women.
And across fields, when recently interviewed on the BBC about her new film ‘Suffragettes’, Meryl Streep commented that “women’s rights and women’s issues are men’s issues”. When asked why she thought that women film stars are still paid less than their male co-stars, she said it came down to the larger ecosystem – the decision-makers who distribute films to the large multiplexes. They still place traditionally male all-action films at a premium over more ‘feminine’ films with bigger roles for female actors.
So just like female actors in the film industry, women architects are still operating in a wider, male-dominated ecosystem that retains power over the decision-making. The wider construction sector in the UK employs over 2.5 million people, of which only 11% are women (with a mere 1.2% working in manual labour trades).
I have to admit that, like Monica, I have for the last fifteen years as AD’s editor and a working parent, had a ‘muddling through’ attitude. On AD, I have worked with some fantastic women guest-editors, authors, and architects. I have not selected them because they are women but because they are all individuals with important things to say or good work to show. These include veteran guest-editor Lucy Bullivant,
Lucy Bullivant (guest-editor), 4dSocial: Interactive Design Environments, Architectural Design (AD), July/August 2007. The second of Lucy Bullivant’s popular issues of AD on responsive technologies
who spoke at the event and has guest-edited three issues (one on housing and two on interactive technologies).
She is editing a fourth issue for January 2017 on the open source city. Karen Franck, an architectural writer, theoretician, and educator based in New York, also stands out for her longstanding contribution. She guest-edited two issues on food and architecture and food and the city in the early 2000s, anticipating food as the next hot topic. Her third issue on Architecture Timed,
Karen A Franck (guest-editor), Architecture Timed: Designing with Time in Mind, Architectural Design (AD), January/February 2016. This is the third issue of AD that Franck, a professor in the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), has edited
on the impact of time on architecture, is just about to go to press for publication in January.
AD is as much about nurturing talent as spotting it already formed. We have been publishing Neri Oxman since 2006 when she was still at the AA, before she headed for stardom in the US and was lauded for her work as the Director Mediated Matter group at MIT, now featured in a current MoMA show and her own TED Talks. Neri’s latest article on biology and design
Opener for Neri Oxman’s article, ‘Templating Design for Biology and Biology for Design’ in Achim Menges (guest-editor), Material Synthesis, October/November 2015. A regular contributor to AD, Oxman was first published in the journal while she was still at the AA
is in October’s Material Synthesis issue guest-edited by Achim Menges.
But as well as focusing on the work at hand, it is important to take a few steps back and look at the wider picture. This year, I appointed four new members of AD’s editorial board to augment the disparity in the male/female ratio. We now have 7 women board members – Denise Bratton, Kate Goodwin, Jayne Merkel, Kester Rattenbury, Deborah Saunt, Corie Sharple, and Claire Weisz – who are wide-ranging in their experience. They include prominent architects, educators, editors, writers, and a curator.
It is also why the event on 7th November was important to give a proper amount of time to considering women’s role in architecture – to lean in and concentrate on ways in which a new level of momentum can be achieved within the profession. Time has to be taken out from all that muddling through to take stock.
For more information:
AA XX 100: Women in Architecture 1975-2015 Event
AA XX 100
AA XX 100: MoMoWo Conference
AA XX 100 Launch
To Listen: The AA XX 100 Oral History Programme
AA XX 100: Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon: Women in Architecture