This Wednesday evening, as part of Dwell and New York magazine's full plate of design programming for City Modern, design critic Alexandra Lange led a discussion on gender and architecture with three leading New York architects at Vitra's Meatpacking District showroom. Continuing a few of the themes explored in her essay on Architect Barbie from the July/August issue of Dwell, Lange spoke with Galia Solomonoff of Solomonoff Architecture Studio, Marion Weiss of Weiss/Manfredi, and Claire Weisz of WXY Studio, three firm principals who also teach architecture at Ivy League programs (Columbia, Penn, and Yale, respectively).
Lange kicked off the panel by explaining the nuances of the topic: "When it matters that you're a woman, when it doesn't, and how you see the future of the profession." Pushing aside nuances for a moment, the group first delved into the Architect Barbie issue. Claire Weisz, a mother of three girls, noted that all of her children played with Barbie but dropped the doll by age six, so perhaps her importance has more to do with role-playing rather than diadactism. That being said, she was "mostly worried that her outfit wasn’t ambitious enough, that it wasn’t intriguing enough and that she didn’t have enough accessories." Marion Weiss, who decided at age eight that she would become an architect, doesn't have any problem with Barbie, at least as a scale figure. (By age 12 she had built over 20 collapsible, modular dollhouses, and had them wired for electricity by age 13.)
The group then segued into a discussion about the changing role of women in architecture and whether, in their 20-plus-year careers, what changes they've noticed in gender ratios for the profession. Though all were quick to point out that the situation is better than it's ever been, especially with a higher proportion of female students and professors in architecture programs, it can be frustrating to know that the percentage of registered female architects isn't budging. Of this, Weisz says, "I don’t really understand. All I know is every time I hear of someone who was a student of mine and manages to get licensed, I immediately want to go run out and get a glass of wine and celebrate."
Since all three own their firms, they point out that they have both flexibility and autonomy, something young architects don't yet have. And for all three, mentors were crucial in developing a sense of confidence and critical thinking necessary for running one's own business. Galia Solomonoff mentions Diana Agrest, whom she met while teaching at Cooper Union: "She was always like, 'It doesn’t matter how big or small it is and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. But it is going to be yours and you’re going to set up the rules. I worked for Koolhaas, I worked for Viñoly, and I worked for Tschumi. Those were very intense environments, and kind of hostile. When I set up my own firm, the last thing I wanted was to instill a sense of fear or a sense that [someone] couldn’t go to a doctor’s appointment."
Towards the end of the panel, Lange wondered whether the architects could provide any project examples where being a woman mattered either for good or ill—an interesting question considering that Weiss/Manfredi alone has worked on a national women's monument, a creative arts center at a women's college, and a student center at Smith College. Weiss answered, "Alexandra’s question is a fair one. But it would be a little bit like asking a fish to describe water. It is who you are, it is what you do. You’re a designer, you’re an architect, you happen to have gender assigned to you early on in life." She continued, "The way we engage with things perhaps has a framework but the design that we care most about is something that will be compelling for all of the people who might engage with it."
And later, when curious audience members asked the way to get past what remains of a gender divide in architecture, the overwhelming panelist response was to make good work, and to keep talking about it. Change seems to be on the way.