Women of Substance - Transforming Image of Women Architects in Society

Architects Dated:  Aug. 11, 2015
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The Woman Architect in a pivotal role

Transforming Image of Women Architects in Society: picking up clues from the reel and toy worlds

The profession of architecture today is transforming with leaps and bounds; women architects have begun participating in the field in increasing numbers as designers, as teachers and researchers, and as decision makers. The younger generation, in particular, is more determined than ever to make a dent on the professional scene. Many women architects have opted to establish successful partnerships with their architect spouses or male/female partners. Increasingly, more of them have joined governmental and municipal organisations. They are now far more visible than ever before in positions of academic & professional leadership; as heads of departments of architecture or principals in firms. More and more women are making their way in print. Recent issues of reputed national journals have published complete volumes on women in architecture.

No longer are national architectural competition juries, lecture series events, inauguration guest lists, interview panels or college inspection visits solely male bastions. More and more women are now being recommended everywhere for their USP: their dedication and commitment to the job!

At the same time, as their social position and financial power rises in different fields, more and more women are now taking over as clients and promoters.

There is now a societal shift in perceiving the role of women as both as designers and as consumers.

The changing trends in our films are reflective of these changing times, as can be viewed by expressions of other professionals; from film world, and from the toy industry. Writers, directors, producers, and actors play a major role in shaping how millions around the world might perceive architects and the architectural profession, if exhibited on screen. Television shows, too, create stereotypes of professions that are repeatedly drummed into the brain with each successive episode. Both make

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impacts that may encourage or dissuade young people from pursuing architecture as a career.

Hollywood has played a large role in shaping popular conceptions of the architect as a man’s domain. According to Hollywood, an architect has been a hero, lover, hopelessly out of touch, financially in trouble, a workaholic, or some combination of these. Taken holistically, Hollywood has created the stereotypic image of an architect: a male with intense eyes and brooding looks.

There are some classic ones, like Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men”; some new ones like Adam Sandler in “Click”; and there’s even an actual architect who made it to “The Simpsons”. (Frank Gehry, who gave a voiceover for one of the episodes starring a caricature of himself)  Then there is ”Paul Newman in “The Towering Inferno”; Keanu Reeves in “The Lake”; Steve Martin in “House Sitter”; Woody Harrelson in “Indecent Proposal”; Michael Keaton in “White Noise”; Gary Cooper in “Fountainhead”; Jude Law a (landscape) architect  in “Breaking and Entering”; Liam Neeson in “Love Actually”; Wesley Snipes in “Jungle Fever”; Luke Wilson in “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”; Ashton Kutcher, a (student) architect in “Butterfly Effect”;  Matt Dillon in “You, Me and Dupree” and “There’s Something About Mary”; Tom

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in “Sleepless in Seattle”; Charles Bronson in “Death Wish”; Tom Selleck in “Three Men and a Baby”; Zach Braff in “The Last Kiss”;  Matthew Broderick in “The Cable Guy”:...the list is endless.

This image is promoted on the small screen as well. One of the most prominent fictional architects represented in media, Ted Mosby (portrayed by Josh Radnor) of the popular TV series How I Met Your Mother, (CBS, 2005-2013) is an exact demographic replica of Hollywood’s image of an architect. So was his brown-haired predecessor, architect Mike Brady (portrayed by Robert Reed) of the TV series The Brady Bunch (ABC, 1969-1974), which influenced a generation of fans to pursue architecture as a career.

The lack of gender diversity among architects portrayed in Indian Cinema was equally disturbing. From the stereotypical young male architect of the 50s who returns to India after having had a Western education, portrayed by Dev Anand in “Tere Ghar Ke Samne”, to the vivacious, fun loving architect depicted by Shashi Kapoor in “Kabhie Kabhie “in the 70s, to Nasseruddin Shah in “Masoom”, as the intellectual, thinking architect in the 80s..., and, many more, the Indian screen architect was almost always male.

The preponderance of male architects onscreen reflects real life.

 According to the American Institute of Architects, in 2011 women made up 15% of all licensed architects, and 30% of associate members (not yet licensed), and... in 90% of the films, the architect is portrayed as a male.

Closer home, out of the total architects registered with the COA, 27 per cent were females. Women form 6.6 per cent of the members in the (governing) Council and 6.25 per cent of the members of All India Board of Architecture and Town Planning Education of All India Council of Technical Education.

(Source: The Handbook of Professional Documents (2002), Council of Architecture, New Delhi, p xxi)

In my personal opinion, however, we have come a long way from there.

In the recent decade, the dismal scenario of gender bias has begun to change. According to film producers...for the first time in history, women are designing the world we live in. Despite the fact that women have been into architecture since the late 19th century, the rise of women as leaders in various industries, not just architecture, is contributing to the unprecedented autonomy and creative fulfilment available to an increasing number of women architects. A new generation of women is creating some of today’s most iconic architectural designs. They are the rising stars in what has been an all-male galaxy and they are literally and figuratively changing the landscape.

Four major motion pictures in recent times include women as architects: Father of the Bride (1991), One Fine Day (1996), Firewall (2006) and Inception (2010).

Of these four, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in One Fine Day is a particularly laughable depiction of a strung-out mother desperately trying to conform to an image of professionalism while still fulfilling her parental duties. In the film, the character Melanie Parker is an architect and single mother trying to juggle motherhood, her career, and a social life. In a make-or-break meeting with an important client, Parker presents her model and simply says, “Voila.” When her client asks to see cars in the model before he agrees to the design, Parker whips out her son’s toy cars from her purse. No matter that the cars are completely out of scale with the model, the client is sold. In this scene and others, the portrayal of the woman architect in One Fine Day is dignified and graceful, but is still superficial in its presentation. Fourteen years down the line, Inception would feature a stronger, and more determined female architect.

 It is interesting to note that while Michelle Pfeiffer herself plays an architect in “One Fine Day ", she made her screen debut some two decades before that  in "Falling in Love Again," starring Elliott Gould in the male lead as a frustrated architect who hides his drawings inside his bookkeeping ledger!

Michelle Pfeiffer in aOne Fine Day" & Ellen Page in aInception"Michelle Pfeiffer in “One Fine Day                                                                                     "Ellen Page in “Inception"

By contrast, Inception portrays a more substantial lead female character, architect Ariadne (portrayed by Ellen Page), who Miles (played by Michael Caine) proclaims is the best student he has ever had. Ariadne’s role as a designer, in the ultimate metaphysical crime, is paramount to the success of the mission. Before Ariadne’s character is introduced we are given a glimpse into what a less talented architect’s design can do to hinder the sensitive equilibrium of a dream’s environmental authenticity. Nash (portrayed by Lukas Haas) creates an environment where the type and texture of carpet does not match the dreamer’s reality. This minute detail, a mistake that Ariadne was too skilled to have made, ruins the entire mission and emphasizes the ability and superiority of Ariadne. In contrast to One Fine Day, Inception maximizes the woman architect’s abilities, showing an exceedingly powerful woman creating intricate environments.

Documentaries featuring women architects are also not far behind. The Beverley Willis Foundation’s “A Girl is a Fellow Here” (2009) highlights the women working in Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio.

In October 2014, on the opening night of the 6th Annual Architecture and Design Film Festival in Manhattan, Festival Director Kyle Bergman announced that the festival’s special focus this year was on Women in Architecture. The three new films shown at this Film Festival, “Gray Matters”(2014), “Making Space: 5 Women Changing the Face of Architecture” (2014) and “Zaha Hadid: Who Dares Wins” (2013), all featuring women architects, were a welcome addition which did away with gender bias.

For example, the title of Gray Matters says it all: Eileen Gray matters. This film opens to a Parisian auction house where the leather Dragon Chair which Gray designed for Yves Saint Laurent raked in a record-breaking 21.9 million Euros. She is an accomplished painter, industrial and interior designer, and gallerist as well as an architect. As a “mother of modernism” she worked in a variety of media and a range of scales. The work, which is of special interest of the film, the house E1027 on the Côte d’ Azure, was a true Gesamtkunstwerk for which she designed the entirety of the building and its furnishings.

The new age Indian Heroine too busted the myth. As if out of the blue, Konkona Sen Sharma in “Athithi Tum Kab Jaaoge” is the woman architect juggling home and work, or, very recently, Deepika Padukone is “Piku”, the architect partner who runs her own design firm, and lives life on her own terms.

Society has certainly come of age or so cinema would want us to believe. It has changed its mind set towards the image of an architect. It is now ready to embrace the concept of a women architect, and that too in full measure. No longer is she portrayed as the pretty muse of a male architect, but has a social acceptance of her own. We can allow ourselves the luxury of perceiving this as a sign of changing times for the woman architect.

 Interestingly enough, Mattel Toys celebrated the 125th anniversary of Women in Architecture in the year 2010, (The first woman was admitted to the Western Association of Architects, a precursor to the AIA, in 1885), by not only launching an “Architect Barbie”, but also spotlighting Architecture as the “Career of the Year” for Barbie! Architect Barbie comes complete with a tiny building, drawing tube, drawings and a hard hat for safety!

Architect BarbieArchitect Barbiea

In the AIA Press Release, Professor Despina Stratigakos (a noted architectural historian who has written extensively on the history of women in architecture), hoped that Architect Barbie encourages young girls to imagine a better world, where they can design and build architecture. Even the AIA President at the time, Clark Manus, FAIA, is quoted as saying “It’s great that Mattel is recognizing the importance and emergence of women in our field.”

As Michelle Chidoni, Mattel spokesperson, states “For more than 50 years, Barbie has served as a reflection of fashion, culture, and aspiration to girls of all ages.  Role playing with Barbie leads to real-life opportunities.”

I cannot, in whole conscience, recommend architecture as a profession for girls. I know some women who have done well at it, but the obstacles are so great that it takes an exceptional girl to make a go of it.   If she insisted on becoming an architect, I would try to dissuade her.  If then, she was still determined; I would give her my blessing –she could be that exceptional one.”

– Pietro Belluschi, FAIA from the 1955 New York Life Insurance Company Brochure, “Should You Be an Architect?”

Haven’t we come a long way in half a century?

We need to read these signs as the rumblings before a storm. Change is eminent and poised to happen. It may be the tip of the iceberg, but sure it is visible.

The woman Architect in a pivotal roleThe woman Architect in a pivotal role

The journey may have been long and arduous, but, it needs recognition in the past, celebration in the present and hope in the future.

Our predecessors have worked very hard, shaking off conservative beliefs and rigid perceptions. We need to fructify their mammoth efforts. The torch is now in our hands, and we need to endeavour to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to the future generations.

This paper is part of the WIA publication brought out at the Women in Architecture Conference organized jointly by the IIA Northern Chapter, SPA and SPA Alumni on June 06, 2015.

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