Where are the women in architecture? New exhibit tries to answer that


Where are women in architecture?

That’s the essential question that “Shape the Conversation” asks. The three-part exhibit, which is housed in a pop-up gallery on West Second Street and at the University of Texas School of Architecture, has its roots in a national survey of architects that came out of San Francisco and a follow-up exhibit in Houston.

In 2011, a committee at the San Francisco chapter of American Institute of Architects conducted a survey of architects and found that the people coming out of architecture schools were equally male and female, but only 18 percent of the licensed architects were female. The project to figure out why that was called “The Missing 32 Percent.”

The Houston chapter of AIA helped to answer the above question by celebrating the work of women in its 2013 exhibit, “Women in Architecture: 1850 to the Future.” Architects from around Texas saw the exhibit as part of the statewide convention that year. “We were all talking about it,” says Austinite Wendy Dunnam Tita, the committee chair of Women in Architecture and its “Shape the Conversation” and a principal at Page architecture firm. “It rippled through the convention. ‘Have you been to the exhibit yet?’”

She knew she wanted to get the exhibit in Austin.

She set about figuring out how to do that, finding a place to fit the 80-foot-long exhibit as well as discovering how women were playing a role in architecture in Austin.

Once the committee gave up trying to find an 80-foot-long wall, like it had been displayed in Houston, the members realized they could find a pop-up shop and wrap it around the walls of the space. The exhibit is three-dimensional squares with photos and text on them that pop out of the wall. A fuchsia band of paint ties the squares together as it winds around corners. Large white numbers tell you what decade you’re in. The exhibit, which was updated to 2015, is meant to begin at the year 2015 and go backward to 1850. Each decade features meaningful quotes about working as a woman in architecture as well as highlighting firsts, recognizing defining projects and notable female architects.

Ray Eames is there with her “Eames Molded Plywood Chair,” which became iconic of the midcentury modern style, as is Maya Lin, a then-student at Yale University who won a national design competition in 1981 for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Natalie De Blois is recognized for designing the headquarters of PepsiCo Headquarters and the Union Carbide Building, both in New York City, in 1960. Her biographer, Nathaniel Owings, writes, “Her mind and hands worked marvels in design and only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of SOM (her firm), owed much more to her than was attributed by either SOM or the client.”

Louise Blanchard Bethune is noted for being the first female member of AIA in 1898. Alice J. Hands and Mary B. Gannon are recognized for starting the first female-owned architecture firm in the United States in 1894. You see old newspaper stories with headlines like “Girl Architects Organize a Firm. First of its Kind. It’s Expected to Show That Women Need Only Opportunity.”

Notable female architects give their advice, like this gem from Charlotte Perriand: “There is one thing I never did, and that was flirt. That is, I didn’t ‘dabble.’ I created and produced, and my job was important. There was mutual respect, mutual recognition.”

The exhibit also takes note of male architects who promoted women and helped them break through the all-male network of apprenticeships.

It highlights a letter from Frank Lloyd Wright: “To Anyone, Anywhere: Miss Isabel Roberts was my assistant in the practice of Architecture for several years and I can recommend her without reservation to anyone requiring the services of an Architect.”

Of course, it points to sexism. Perriand was originally rejected by noted Swiss architect Le Corbusier, being told, “We don’t embroider cushions here.”

Zaha Hadid, who was the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, has this quote in the exhibit: “Would they call me a diva if I were a guy?”

The Women in Architecture exhibit showcases the variety and breadth of women’s contributions in creating the building blocks of today’s architecture.

AIA Austin did its own survey of its architects to figure out how women have and are playing a role in our architecture. It asked respondents to identify projects that were designed by women. The results are visualized in the “Shaping Austin” part of the exhibit. On a geometric, three-dimensional map of Austin, hexagon-shaped papers jut out. Each one serves as a pin on the map with the name of the project, the address and the year completed. The result is a very full map.

“Shaping Austin” also includes a list of the 315 licensed female architects in Austin, a graph of the number of women licensed by year and a graph of the number of years in practice of Austin’s female architects.

It also graphs the projects they worked on by type of project and the square footage, as well as the role they played on those projects. From that you can see that women tended to work on residential rather than commercial projects and were project architects, project designers or project managers and less likely to be the principal designer or lead architect.

Dunnam Tita says the goal was to “pull off the cloak of invisibility” of women in architecture in Austin.

The exhibit features an event series to facilitate conversation about the survey’s findings and about the history. Luncheon roundtable events at different firms include topics like “What’s It Been Like and Where Are We Going?” and “Bragging Rights: Promoting Ourselves and Each Other.” They will also deal with the very real pull of raising a family versus having a profession with topics like “Women in Architecture: Work/Life Balance,” “Comparing Notes on Growing as a Professional While Raising a Family” and “Life and Career After Graduation: 1, 5, and 10 Years Out.”

The conversation won’t end there. The money raised by exhibit sponsorships and donations is going to a new leadership development program designed to bring more diversity to the architecture scene here. The program will begin in 2018.



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