This article tries to give a general overview of what feminism means in architecture. Starting from the problem highlighted by many studies, in the field of architecture, women are underrepresented even more than in other professions. A social experiment involving the most famous doll in the world, Barbie, is illustrated to show how feminism and architecture can coexist.

Gender Gap in Architecture

The gender gap existing in the working world is a reality of many different professions. This gap can be present in different forms, from an underrepresentation of the female component in the working environment to a salary gap existing between the retribution of male and female employees in the same position. One profession that particularly must face up to these problems is surely one of the architects. Not only the gap is visible in the professional world, but also in the academic one, and it is evident from all its possible points of view. There is an underrepresentation among female architect professors and above all, women are not considered in academic lectures. The university teaching program hardly accounts for examples of women architects, both in a historical and contemporary perspective, if not in specially dedicated lectures. Thus, the gender problem is something intrinsic to the system itself. Since university, the example of female architects we have before our eyes are so rare, that we are inclined to unconsciously identify this profession as solely male-privileged. 

A crossover between Feminism and Architecture - Sheet1
Women’s school of planning and architecture_©Sophia Smith Collection – www.nowwhat-architexx.org

Another evident signal of how the profession of designing buildings and cities is reduced to a men’s prerogative is the commonly used language itself. And this is visible even in English, which, in many cases, does not differentiate between male and female genres in the grammatical rules. We usually hear speaking about female architects, but never about male architects: this is because the word architect itself automatically leads to the image of a man, dealing with other men, such as engineers, builders and so on. In other languages, this refusal to accept a world that identifies a woman working as an architect is even more explicit. For example, in Italian, the most commonly applied grammar rule (with few exceptions) foresees the use of the ending suffix “-o” for masculine adjectives or nouns, and the suffix “-a” for feminine adjectives or nouns. Thus, the correct Italian word for a female architect should be “architetta” (the masculine is “architetto”). Despite a clear and transparent grammatical rule, which is applied for many other words, it is not that uncommon to speak about “architetto donna” (literally, woman architect), or stating that the word “architetta” is ugly, does not sound right, or is even incorrect.

The Experiment of Barbie Architect

In 2002, Mattel was producing the series of Barbies, “Barbie I Can Be…”, and after asking to vote the next profession of the doll on the internet, they announced in the end, the decision to not to produce the winning Barbie – Barbie Architect – because the profession is too complicated for little girls to comprehend. Despina Stratigakos, in 2007, asked students from Michigan architecture faculty to develop their version of Barbie Architect, to study what was the perception of a woman working as an architect and the features that they would have highlighted the most. The results were unexpected. She believed the “architect” characteristics would have overcome the feminine ones, thus resulting in a doll “in a black power suit and Corbusier eyeglasses” (Stratigakos, 2011). Instead, the feminine and Barbie-usual characters became the most evident, ending up with dolls celebrating fashion and femininity together with their profession.

Later on, in 2010, Mattel decided to dedicate a doll to a job category where women were underrepresented. In the end, Barbie Computer Engineer was selected, but at this point, Stratigakos, together with her colleague Kelly Hayes McAlonie, directly asked Mattel not to renounce the architect doll. The company commissioned the two researchers to design the Barbie. What was obtained was a Barbie with a dress, ankle boots with chunky heels, black glasses, a white hard hat and a pink drawing tube. The choice of the outfit derives from two main aspects, first of all, the doll was intended for kids, thus a more realistic and anonymous all-black outfit would have not been appealing for them; secondly, the idea of equipping the Barbie with trousers was not considered. Around a hundred years ago, this garment represented the pretext to ban women from construction sites. By forbidding women to wear skirts -the only possibility for women, not allowed to use trousers- it was forbidden to all women to have access to the sites. The heeled boots were a choice determined by the anatomy of Barbie’s feet, and the pink tube, although criticized for being anachronistic, was the best possible symbolic object to characterize the process of designing.

Barbie Architect_©Mattel – www.archdaily.com

The social experiment also included a workshop led by only women architects that included diverse activities involving 400 girls. As a result, none of the young participants did ever doubt the normality of being an architect as a woman. This is because Barbie has the power to “bring into the sphere of women” whichever action or profession she represents. This clearly shows that the feeling that a profession is “wrong” for women, does not come from a natural tendency or biological limitation or characteristic. It comes from what society teaches us since we are born. What is unconsciously addressed during the university years, by putting aside every form of feminine presence in the world of architecture, becomes evident and concrete in the professional world. The change we need must not be implemented in the working sphere but also during the educational career of each individual, man or woman.  

References:

  1. Burns, K., 2012. Who wants to be a Woman Architect?. [online] archiparlour.org. Available at: https://archiparlour.org/opinion-analysis/who-wants-to-be-a-woman-architect/  [Accessed 1 December 2021].
  2. Cilento, K., 2012. Architect Barbie / A Social Experiment. [online] ArchDaily. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/263765/architect-barbie-a-social-experiment  [Accessed 1 December 2021].
  3. Stratigakos, D., 2011. What I Learned from Architect Barbie. [online] placesjournal.org. Available at: https://doi.org/10.22269/110613  [Accessed 1 December 2021].
  4. Stratigakos, D., 2012. Why Architects Need Feminism. [online] placesjournal.org. Available at: https://doi.org/10.22269/120912  [Accessed 1 December 2021].
  5. Till, J., 2012. Architecture is too important to be left to men alone. [online] archiparlour.org. Available at: https://archiparlour.org/opinion-analysis/architecture-is-too-important-to-be-left-to-men-alone/  [Accessed 1 December 2021].
  6. Waite, R. and Corvin, A., 2012. Shock survey results as the AJ launches campaign to raise women architects’ status. [online] The Architects’ Journal. Available at: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/archive/shock-survey-results-as-the-aj-launches-campaign-to-raise-women-architects-status  [Accessed 1 December 2021].
  7. Zeiger, M., 2019. Building Sisterhood: How Feminists Sought to Make Architecture a Truly Collective Endeavor – Metropolis. [online] Metropolis. Available at: https://metropolismag.com/viewpoints/women-feminism-american-architecture/  [Accessed 1 December 2021].
Author

Francesca Colombo is a Master Architecture student in Italy. She considers architecture as a tool to face social problems and create better cities, accepting and celebrating people’s diversity. She dreams of living and working in a European capital.

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