Architecture as a Feminine Noun

Do you know who Louise Bethune is? Probably only a select few will know who she was, the first licensed female architect who started up an independent architectural practice in Buffalo back in the late 19th century and became the first female member of the American Architect’s Association. Bethune stood on the threshold of the dawning of a new age when the door was but slightly ajar to female architects in the 20th century, whose beginnings were anything but easy. A little over a hundred years later, precisely at the beginning of this year, Mattel launched a new series of Career Girl™ Barbie® Dolls with the slogan Barbie® I Can Be…™ (as opposed to the idle Barbie® Dolls who do nothing save ride ponies) – among them an architect Barbie® Doll with all the accompanying accessories to boot: a case for blueprints, a hard hat and scale models, although admittedly all in pink. It’s stated in the company’s press release they hope the doll will educate and encourage girls in thinking about architecture as their future profession. Still, even this Barbie® Doll isn’t criticism-free; the heels are way too high to be worn on construction sites and the overdose of pink is held against her as pink is a color one will be hard-pressed to find on a female architect who as a rule tend to lean towards minimalism. However, there you have it folks, along with the fact that this stereotype of female architects swayed attention away from concrete topics, their positions within the profession and the idea of taking over the male role in an attempt towards equality.

* Mattel, „I can be…“

Let’s take a further step back into the official history of architecture and development which recognized solely male developers. Men have allegedly been attributed with the exceptional powers of abstract thought processes, monumentality and an inclination towards the technical. However, the existence of the, naturally, unofficial history of female developers is a less known factor – from the Amazons through Semiramide and Hatshepsut to the new age of Sejima and Zaha, as Senka Sekulić-Gvozdanović points out in her book. Sena Sekulić-Gvozdanović is the first female professor at the Faculty of Architecture as well as its first Dean and first ever to have held the status of Professor Emeritus. Sekulić provides a series of facts and figures, thus emphasizing the founding of the International Union of Women in Architect in 1963, in the throes of the international modernist movement. “This joining of women, to what purpose?” wonders Sekulić, isn’t that just separating the profession all over again, while a good architect (the male gender always being a universal signifier!) is free from gender signification? Hence she gets the answer for a member: “Both men and women are human beings, and they’re not the same. (…) The problem lies within the fact that the woman’s side is quite far removed from the imagination of those who ask. (…) Hardly anyone thinks about the fact that, numerically speaking, there are not many of us, that we’ve entered the profession very late in history and we do not have our own role models.”

Today it’s virtually impossible to talk about architecture as a male profession, as in today’s domain of team work, work is equally distributed, at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Annually, Architectural Studies enroll more female than male students, while it doesn’t take much to note that more awards go to male architects (having the Pritzker Award in mind, that only went to two females since 1979), or the fact that more men are in leading positions in the field of science. Thus, we requested some ten female Croatian architects to share their point of view with us, whereas only a few of them decided to speak out.

How do you explain the years-long absence of women from the architecture profession along with the fact that today’s scientific community consists of a mere third of women at the Zagreb Faculty of Architecture, despite the fact that during the course of studies the number of enrolled male and female students is equal?

“I’ve been present on the architectural scene for over ten years, and within that same time frame the local architecture practice has intensified significantly. The terms and conditions of creating and participating in development have shifted accordingly. With regard to previous systems and the dominance of big architectural machinery, today both an authoring approach and working within smaller offices have been brought up to a highly professionalized level. Since then, the women’s kickoff has in general become a lot more convincing within that same framework. Today’s strong and recognized female architects who have proven themselves in practice participate in design education at the Universities of Zagreb and Split, respectively. On the other hand, this interesting phenomenon includes newer generations of students, at least from where I’m standing at and my working experience at the Faculty of Architecture. Namely, a considerable dominance of female over male students can be felt. I can’t put my finger on that which affects this disproportion of interest, but my assumption is that prejudices and stereotypes have finally been shed among the younger generations.” (Ivana Ergić, M. Arch., Bijela/White)

* „Tronožac Micho“; Iva Jerković

“I think this question should be put to the Faculty of Architecture and see whether the underlying reason is that women aren’t interested in such a profession or that their male counterparts are just quicker to make the cut.” (Morana Vlahović, M. Arch.)

“The fact that running a design office (as does ambitious work in any line of business) demands a certain amount of sacrifice in view of one’s social life, family and the loss of the security that comes with renouncing a steady job with regular income. It’s safe to say that society hasn’t exactly stimulated women to get ahead to leading positions as history has always positioned women as holders of the proverbial ‘three corners in the house’. It seems to me that the situation today is nevertheless different and that the emphasis is put on the individual herself, whether she decides to dedicate her time primarily to work or something else.” (Kata Marunica, M. Arch., nfo)

“That’s the case in virtually any profession and I don’t consider it unusual. A woman is considered a “multitasking” person, she cares for her family, herself, has a career and it’s impossible she be narrowed down to exceptional success in any one field in particular. Specialization pervades life and it ultimately boils down to a priority issue.” (Iva Jerković, M. Arch.)

Paromlin Baths; (Kata Marunica, Nenad Ravnić)

Is it possible to have a critical feminist position within architectural practice and what would it imply?

“Even though I’m an advocate of democracy in general, thus support emancipation, from the position of the architecture profession I assume the standpoint that the advancement of anybody’s social status should first and foremost be an issue of competency and ability. Critical theoretical discourse on this particular subject matter seems rather insubstantial from an architectural perspective as opposed to various other disciplines such as visual arts or sociology.” (Vedrana Ergić, M. Arch., jedanjedan arhitektura/oneone architecture)

“I wouldn’t know as I haven’t viewed architecture from the stated perspective.” (Kata Marunica, M. Arch., nfo)

“A critical position shouldn’t be defined by gender.” (Iva Jerković, M. Arch.)

* POS Housing – Krapinske Toplice; Iva Letilović, Morana Vlahović

Do you hold that society values women’s work in architecture the same as men’s?

“I hold that within professional circles gender criteria as evaluation of one’s work are non-existent. Cases in point are established, realized and award-winning female authors who’ve worked either individually, within coed teams or in exclusively women’s research and studies. I believe that there isn’t a division between male and female architecture, particularly that gender is not a criterion for valorizing anybody’s work.

The practical side of the whole situation at hand unfortunately differs. Classical stereotypes are still prevalent. Within the context of our designing conditions, a woman is rarely discriminated against, while she’s a priori treated differently than a man on a construction site. In my experience, that which has proved most effective in tearing down prejudices are knowledge and expertise in all stages and at all levels, from working with the investor, elaboration with associates of other professions, to monitoring realization with contractors. A reasoned dialogue with all involved within this complex business is surely the key moment when the issue of gender, appearance or age stops being relevant. Thus, following the initial period of mistrust with which we’re still up against in practice, it’s been shown that the most important thing is proving you know how to do your job.” (Vedrana Ergić, M. Arch., jedanjedan arhitektura/oneone architecture)

“I don’t know what it’s like being a man in architecture, so I’m not concerning myself with it. In short, I think it’s all much ado about nothing – women and men differ from a biological perspective, thus dedicating herself to motherhood inevitably reflects on a woman’s career path (and I think it’s reflected in all professions, not just architecture).” (Morana Vlahović, M. Arch.)

“It depends on the definition of ‘the female gender’ in architecture and ‘the male gender’ in architecture. I can’t remember last time any given high-quality ‘women’s house’ was neglected or wasn’t valorized accordingly due to the fact that its author was a woman.” (Kata Marunica, M. Arch., nfo)

* Capsula studio- POS Cres; Ivana Ergić, Vesna Milutin, Vanja Ilić

“The final product yes, while the path to that product probably not. Ultimately, such success tastes sweeter, and I consider it a compliment whenever a ‘woman’s touch’ is visible in a project… Anyhow, a woman shouldn’t mimic male principles and their energy. That only leads to losing ourselves. We are who we are and women’s energy is our way of staying true to ourselves, a way to impose ourselves as authorities and find our place in a ‘man’s world’. It’s a given that knowledge and expertise are a prerequisite.” (Iva Jerković, M. Arch.)

For further research into the history of women’s architecture we recommend the following book “Žena u arhitekturi” (“The Woman in Architecture”) by Sena Sekulić-Gvozdanović as well as “Reconstructing Her Practice” – a book of essays by female architects edited by Francesca Hughes.