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Designing Women

May 2012
May 2012

Architecture isn’t always an equal opportunity profession.

By Cathleen McGuigan, Editor in Chief

Later this month, the Pritzker Architecture Prize will be awarded to the Chinese architect Wang Shu at a ceremony in Beijing. It’s an exciting choice—though it’s worth noting that the prize did not include Lu Wenyu, his wife and architectural partner in the firm they founded together, Amateur Architecture Studio, in Hangzhou.

Cathleen McGuigan, Editor in Chief
Photo © Michel Arnaud
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I’ve been thinking about women architects. A few months ago, Anne Tyng died at age 91. As you probably know, Tyng worked closely with Louis Kahn, on the Trenton Bath House (1959) in New Jersey, among other projects. She was also a mistress of Kahn’s and the mother of one of his two out of wedlock children. The other child, Nathaniel Kahn, told the story of Kahn’s complicated personal life in his moving 2003 film, My Architect. Though Tyng’s history has been overshadowed by her connection to Kahn, it was extraordinary for her time. The daughter of American missionaries to China, where she was born, Tyng was one of the first women students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius, and the only woman to receive a license to practice in Pennsylvania the year she became an architect (1949); one of the men on the licensing board famously refused to administer her test.

Five years later, Norma Merrick Sklarek, FAIA, was the first African American woman in the country to become an architect. Sklarek, who died in February at 85, directed major projects for Gruen Associates and Welton Beckett Associates in California over the course of a long career.

Such groundbreakers surely helped open doors for succeeding generations, but architecture is still a tough profession for women. When we attend the AIA convention in Washington, D.C., later this month, we’ll see, among the architects, overwhelmingly white male faces.

Not that we don’t like and respect you, gentlemen! But here is a key fact: In 2010, women made up 49 percent of students in architecture schools but only 18 percent of the membership in the AIA.

March was Women’s History Month, in case you missed it, and here at Architectural Record, our parent company, McGraw-Hill, marked it by inviting the veteran activist Gloria Steinem to speak. At 78, Steinem is an inspiring figure, but despite the positive social changes that have occurred in the decades since she became a feminist force, she reminded us how deeply ingrained our ideas of gender and power remain. The same month, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. partnered with the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation—which brings to light the achievements of women architects—to host a panel. Along with the architects Sheila Cahnman of HOK and Claire Weisz of WXY Architecture + Urban Design, the developer MaryAnne Gilmartin of Forest City Ratner, and the moderator Mara Liasson of NPR and Fox News, I participated in a discussion of women in architecture today. We touched on familiar points: how difficult it is for women to juggle family life with the grueling demands of large firms, and the aptitudes of women for planning, problem solving, and working in teams.

We talked, too, about how practice is shifting—thanks to new technologies and increasing collaboration across disciplines—in ways that benefit women (and men) who want to pursue work outside conventional offices, in such areas as urbanism, planning, and public interest design.

Still, despite the collaborative nature of most design projects, the media continue to reflect our culture’s desire to focus on the story of a single creator. Even in architecture, we seem to need heroes.

When the Pritzker jury made this year’s selection, they must have seriously debated choosing only Wang Shu. (The last time the Pritzker prize went to a husband, Robert Venturi in 1991, and ignored his wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown, it created quite a flap.) Wang Shu is being honored for his contributions to teaching and theory, as well as built work, according to a Pritzker official. And how the couple works together isn’t clear. On the firm’s website, its design philosophy is expressed in the first person singular—was something lost in translation?—and Wang Shu has reported that the design for their acclaimed Ningbo History Museum came to him on a sleepless night when he sprang from bed and began to sketch it.

Such “Eureka!” moments are common in architectural lore—the cocktail napkin sketch that contains the entire DNA of a design, no matter how complex its execution.

We all know and admire many women architects who run their own firms, or are partners or principals, and who take the lead in design. But we also know that the contributions of many women (and men) to architecture too often remain anonymous.

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