John Lobell addresses how new technology changes our consciousness, which in turn leads to cultural paradigm shifts. He received his degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and is a professor of architecture at Pratt Institute. His interests include creativity, architecture, cultural theory, consciousness, mythology, and movies. He has lectured throughout the world and is the author of numerous articles and several books.
Our world is no longer what we have thought it to be, and a new world is struggling to be born.
Visionary Creatives are driven to bring this new world to all of us.

“American Women Architects.” Artforum, Summer 1977

The 1960s saw the emergence of what is now called second-wave feminism which focused on gender roles, sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, and inequalities between men and women. When my late wife, Mimi Lobell, got out of school, the help wanted sections of newspapers were divided into male and female. You can imagine which section advertised for architects. Mimi became involved in the formation of a women’s movement in architecture, and out of that grew an exhibition of the work of American women architects which was curated by Susana Torre and held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977. I was close to the unfolding of the exhibition and wrote one of the more comprehensive reviews of it and the accompanying book. Women architects in my school today are beginning a series of projects and events. It will be interesting to see how they compare with what was done in the 1970s.

Originally published as “American Women Architects,” a review of “Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective,” an exhibition curated by Susana Torre and held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977, and the accompanying book of the same title, edited by Torre. Published in Artforum, Summer 1977.

In the name of “functionalism” modern architecture has progressively excluded more and more issues from its program. Modern architecture first rebelled against the classical orders, which were seen as symbolic of dead empires and irrelevant to democracy and industrialization. But with the rebellion against a specific symbolic system (the classical orders as canonized in Beaux-Arts convention) came a rejection of symbol and meaning in general. Thus Le Corbusier’s, Mies’s and Gropius’s “white-box” houses of the 1920s and ‘30s were deliberately meant to avoid the pitched roofs and the wood and masonry materials which are associated with the traditional house.1

As modern architecture developed in the hands of the masters and their followers, and particularly when it was transplanted from Europe to the United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the ideological intentions that it did have were lost. What had originally been meant at least in part as an analysis of industrial democracy became instead a series of formal abstractions which removed architecture further and further from issues of society, labor, materials and culture. By the late 1950s a discussion of how wide and deep should be the joint or “reveal” between two panels was considered exciting. This divorce of architecture from any real issues seemed to suit the political climate of the times while the process of abstraction fed on itself. Historians would neglect whatever social and ideological analysis had been present in the beginnings of the movement, so that subsequent generations of architects continually started with an analysis yet more removed from human meaning than had been the previous work.2
Since the mid-1960s efforts to reintroduce social and cultural issues into architecture have slowly begun to be accepted by the mainstream. There is by now a formidable, although not fully accepted, trend toward seeing architecture as more fully integrated with real human experience.

The exhibition “Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective” (and the accompanying book of the same title, edited by Susana Torre, who was the curator of the exhibition) is not meant as a critique of modern architecture, but it becomes one by its thoroughness and by the fact that it goes beyond formal, historical and contextual issues and deals as well with ideology, economics and politics—all that orthodox modernism sought to keep safely under the rug. Thus, for example, while most critics might deal with the placement of the kitchen within the plan of a house in terms of circulation, light and air, and sometimes relationship with other spaces, “Women in Architecture” raises such questions as: why are there kitchens in houses, how did they develop, who works in them and why, how do they relate to larger social forces and what alternatives have been explored historically?

The exhibition consisted of approximately a hundred 30” x 40’’ blueprinted panels mounted on portable drawing tables. The material on the panels includes essentially the same illustrations as dos the accompanying book, together with condensations of the text. The austerity of the exhibition, with its rows of identical panels (relieved only by several banners, one plexiglass model, and several original Beaux-Arts renderings) has drawn some criticism. However, in avoiding the “eyewash” of some flashier shows, this approach permitted an extensive analysis of material which might otherwise be inaccessible to those unable to “read” architectural drawings.

The exhibition investigated women as designers and users of 19th-century domestic space (especially kitchens); women’s involvement in the profession from 1860 to the present; the biographies and careers of numerous individual women documenting their impact on architecture and its impact on them; the sometimes major roles played by women in the issues facing architecture, urbanism, and society in the 1960s; women as architectural critics; a portfolio of current work by women; a slide presentation of the work of several women artists exploring women’s spatial symbolism; and a slide presentation of the work of local women architects meant to change as the show travels.3

The house is the conduit for the introduction of new ideas into architecture, the laboratory where new design approaches are attempted under the patronage of adventurous clients long before governmental agencies and corporate clients will accept such ideas. One thinks specifically of the Miesian glass box which was built as Philip Johnson’s glass house and Mies’s Farnsworth House before it was applied to the modern office tower, but there are many other examples.4 While much architectural criticism has recognized this role for the house, it has tended to neglect another role, that of a model for the social order itself.

The exhibition put a heavy emphasis on the design of domestic space, starting in the 19th century, both to comprehend women’s roles in that design and to comprehend the architectural origins of women’s roles in the contemporary family. While husband and wife might have shared the work of running an 18th-century farm or store, 19th-century factory labor does not imply such a natural partnership. And while a division of the husband-and-wife team into factory worker and housewife (or “home efficiency expert”) was not necessarily inherent in industrialization, that possibility was recognized and fostered by Catherine Beecher, particularly in her books, Domestic Economy (1841) and The American Woman’s Home (1869). Beecher saw women endangered by factory labor, urbanization, prostitution, and other 19th-century ills, and prescribed dedication to domestic arts as a salvation for both women and society.

The home becomes “the laboratory of rational planning” and “the crucible for society’s improvement.” Beecher produced designs for the home as a machine for Christian industrial efficiency. Her American Woman’s Home of 1869 (a project designed and published but not built) has been recognized as the forerunner of the modern dwelling—from Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie houses through today’s single-family dwelling. Beecher developed the open plan and a compact central utility core incorporating bathrooms, kitchen, furnace, plumbing and duct-work for sophisticated draft-free ventilation. The house became the domestic version of the factory, and Beecher’s 19th-century vision, responding to industrial capitalism, became the source of the modern American sex-role stereotyped family as a unit of consumption.5

While historians have treated Beecher’s contribution to the “house as a machine,6” this exhibition for the first time confronted the social issues inherent in her design itself. Wright had a profound understanding of the house as the spiritual joining of earth and sky, and of the open plan as an expression of the flux of space which was also explored by Einstein, Joyce and the Cubists, but his work lacked a social and political analysis comparable to Beecher’s.7

The show failed to take the analysis of the relationship of the home to socio-economic patterns into the present. One wonders what the impact of processed foods, modern conveniences, leveling of sex roles, and the new class of welfare mothers as a state-supported institution for population replenishment have had, or should have, on the underlying architectural forms of the home. But the show did provide the historic background and the methodological approach for others to ask such questions. That was its strength.

Architecture works on the “star” system. Stars are architects who are thought to be making contributions to history, who are published, draw at lectures, are in demand to teach, and sometimes even get commissions. As of now, few if any women have been admitted into the ranks of architectural stars. The history of discrimination against women in architecture parallels that against women in the society in general, moving from outright prohibitions (Harvard did not permit women in its architecture school until World War II depleted the supply of men students)8 to a reluctance to “waste training” on people who would get married and have children, to today’s form of discrimination—which has no visible barriers but uses informal men’s clubs to exclude women from full-time tenured faculty positions, partnerships in large firms, contacts with corporate and government agency clients, involvement in conferences and symposiums, and the published exposure of their work.
Architecture is both a service and an art, although the two functions are often in conflict. As a service it fills the needs of clients, users and the society in general. As an art it becomes a channel for bringing ideas into the culture and making those ideas broadly available. Architecture is particularly powerful on this level of ideas, as it deals with the same abstract esthetic concerns as the other arts (space, time, form, rhythm, harmony and discord, structure, order, light, etc.) but has then to relate such abstract concerns with ones as concrete as nature, labor, materials, and institutions. While women have been limited in their ability to contribute to architecture as a service, it is from architecture as an art that they have been especially excluded, thereby denying them influence on the culture on the level of ideas.

To understand this situation, we must realize that few artists spring forth fully mature into the public arena. The earliest houses of Wright and Le Corbusier are not included in the books they published of their own work, as these early houses were derivative of then current styles and did not represent their mature ideas. The point is that male architects and artists were able to grow, whereas women often have not been able to. In architecture this artistic, professional and personal growth requires commissions, with the opportunity to try out ideas; recognition, with buildings being published, discussed and criticized for feedback; professorships, with the opportunity to research; lecturing and writing, to clarify ideas; and attending conferences, to encounter new people and ideas. Women, for the most part, have been denied these opportunities. The important point is not that great women architects have been prevented from building, but rather that promising women architects have rarely been encouraged to develop.

The size of the architectural profession (there are about one-tenth as many architects as doctors in this country) and the number of women in it (about 1 percent of registered architects were women in a 1958 study, although the number must be increasing as the percentage of women now studying architecture is about 10 percent [A quick look online in 2020 shows 43 percent of architecture students are women and 20 percent of registered architects are women.]) are such that it becomes relatively easy to see the situation of women in the profession in depth, particularly through the efforts of this show and the archive of women’s work it has developed. While the show presented much fine work by women, it also presented an opportunity to see some of the ways in which they have not grown as artists.

At the age of 22 Sophia Hayden won the competition to design the Woman’s Building for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. Hers was a delicate and sensitive Beaux-Arts design. Hayden produced the design drawing for the approximately 160,000-square-foot building in less than two months, with two draftspeople and a fee of $1,450. The building won various awards. Daniel Burnham, one of the country’s leading architects, offered Sophia Hayden his sponsorship if she would open offices in Chicago. She suffered a nervous breakdown before the Exposition opened, later married an artist, never pursued a career in architecture, and when she died in 1953, her obituary made no mention of her early career.

Marion Mahony Griffin studied architecture at MIT and in 1895 started working for Frank Lloyd Wright. She was responsible for the fine renderings in the Wasmuth portfolio of Wright’s work, among the most beautiful and influential of modern architectural drawings. (The designs of De Stijl and the Bauhaus derive from the great Wasmuth portfolio.) Mahony refused Wright’s offer that she take over his practice when he left for Europe, working instead as a designer with the man who did take over. Then the work done by her was attributed to him. She spent the later part of her career collaborating with her husband and supporting his career and his architectural development.

Julia Morgan suffered neither the misfortune of Hayden nor the indecision of Mahony. She simply wished to remain anonymous. She had her own office in California from 1904 to the 1940s and designed nearly a thousand buildings, most notably, but not most typically, Hearst’s San Simeon. During her career she refused to give interviews or have her work published and in 1952, five years before her death, she destroyed all her office records and drawings.

In 1944, Natalie De Blois joined Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the archetypal corporate architectural firm responsible for pioneering the modern glass curtain-wall office building. De Blois was a senior designer on such projects as the Pepsi-Cola Building (originally the Olivetti Building) and the Union Carbide Building, generally regarded as two of the finest examples of the glass-curtain style. After 30 years of work on SOM’s most distinctive buildings De Blois had not been made a partner (of which there are now 26). In 1974 she left the firm and is now Senior Project Designer with a firm in Texas.

The late 1960s presented an atmosphere more receptive to contributions by women, and the show documented the work of four architects who responded to the particular needs of that period: Chloethiel Woodard Smith’s work with humanely scaled intimate redevelopment, Mary Otis Steven’s ideal urban studies, Anne Tyng’s geometric studies, and Denise Scott Brown’s work on the American vernacular of the “strip.” However, Denise Scott Brown, for one, is not satisfied with the recognition accorded to women even now, and gives a lecture on “Sexism and the Star System.”

The attempt to deny serious consideration to women architects is evident as recently as Ada Louise Huxtable’s review of this very exhibition in the New York Times for March 13, 1977. Huxtable refers to the position of women in the profession as “pathetic, provocative, and distressing,” primarily because of the confinement of women to the design of houses (although the show includes many larger buildings). Huxtable states that the design of houses is “essentially a dumb and minimally rewarding way to spend one’s maximum designing life . . .” But, again, houses are the entry point of new ideas into architecture, and have served to establish the careers of Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies, and several generations of more recent architects. The issue at stake here is not houses, but history. Male-dominated “history as key monuments” is now under heavy attack, as seen in the April 8, 1977, election of Eugene Genovese, a Marxist, as president of the Organization of American Historians. Genovese talked of women, blacks, and new approaches to history. During the same meeting of historians which saw Genovese’s election, Gerda Lerner, author of The Female Experience: An American Documentary and noted for her work on women and blacks in history, remarked on “the patriarchal theory which governs all of traditional historiography,” according to which:

“Women are in no way special: one need apply no special criteria to dealing with them. They are to be noticed only when they appear in the roles assigned to them in a male-dominated, male-defined society, as members of families and, very occasionally and exceptionally, when they appear in roles generally reserved for men.” (New York Times, April 8, 1977)

The trend away from this view of women in history is also a trend toward history as the experience of ordinary people, and it is within this trend that the section of the “Women in American Architecture” exhibition on domesticity must be seen. But Huxtable is still looking for key monuments, which are to be found in the self-conscious work of those who design for a place in history, rather than in the anonymous work of women who designed in the service of the everyday life referred to condescendingly by Huxtable as “gemütlichkeit and the family.””

There were organizations of women in architecture as early as 1915, but the effectiveness of the older women’s organizations did not survive the Depression. More recently, women in architecture were slow to respond to the contemporary women’s movement, probably because women in professions at first felt that they did not suffer the problem of women in general. However, starting in 1972, a series of women’s organizations and conferences began, the most visible outcome of which to date is the exhibition under review.

This new feminism in architecture was concerned both with the impact of architecture on laywomen (kitchens, bedroom suburbs, practical problems like baby carriages going through revolving doors) and the position of women in the profession. After such easily agreed-on issues as equal pay for equal work came discussions of women’s identities as designers. A serious split developed between those who felt that women could and should design as well, and the same, as men and those who felt that women had something radically different and more humane to offer.

The exhibition could essentially have taken three different directions. The first would have been to show that women can design as well, and the same, as men. If such were demonstrated, then the case for women architects would be reduced to the argument that women have the right to express themselves as professionals, and would exclude the possibility that women as women have something different to offer society. (An admittedly unfair and cynical statement of this position would argue that women have the same right to express their egos and screw up the environment as do men.)

The second position, an extreme opposite of the first, is that women design like men only because they operate within a male-dominated system. Given the opportunity, women would offer a humane, feminine alternative to the world we now live in. The problem with this position, which was held by a vocal faction of the original planners of the show, is that there is little work to back it up, and the result would have been no show.

The third position, chosen by Torre, was to thoroughly document women’s architectural history as it stands, and then to include a section on contemporary women artists. The historical examples included in the exhibition demonstrated the ability of women to handle the big projects typically associated with men. But they also presented the suggestion of an alternative direction, a slight coloration or emphasis which is not universal in the women’s work, but which is perhaps more prevalent there than in men’s. This includes a tendency to work anonymously and to avoid the star system; an interest in the home, housing and the public welfare; concrete livability as opposed to abstract forms; responsiveness to client and situation; and the establishment of flexible working conditions in architects’ offices (permitting more time to be spent with one’s family).

The other half of this third position chosen for the exhibition involves quite distinct alternatives in “women’s spatial symbolism,” or the kinds of spaces designed by women, but presents them through the work of women artists of other sorts rather than women architects. The suggestion is that while women architects may not yet have developed a strong enough identity to explore real alternatives, other women artists have. This part of the exhibition (presented in the museum as a slide show narrated by Deena Metzger, and in the book in an article by Lucy Lippard) includes the work of women who participated in Cal Arts’ 1973 “Womanhouse” project, and others who have explored various themes in concept and autobiographical pieces. The primary difference between this work and the concept art that men have developed is that it seems to use the art more for personal exploration than as abstraction, and there is a greater willingness to put the work forward in an unfinished state, so as to elicit greater audience participation.

Do women actually design differently from men? If so, is this for biological reasons or reasons of socialization? (Torre quotes studies showing differences in the upbringing of boys and girls with regard to manipulation of the environment, but there are also studies seeking to determine if women have different right-brain/left-brain functioning which would affect spatialization.) If there are differences between men and women, do those differences fall along the lines suggested by Jungians and Buddhists: masculine/feminine, active/receptive, logos/eros, rational/intuitive, light/dark, pyramid/labyrinth? Or do these differences fall along lines suggested by some radical feminists: feminine/masculine, oneness/duality, wholeness/fragmentation?

Students of anthropology have argued that differences between men and women are structured into consciousness and culture as a result of child rearing.9 Whereas girls can easily be socialized from the role of being a child to being a mother, boys suffer a more severe discontinuity in being broken away from the mother and initiated into the society of men. The elaborate puberty rites of many cultures, present for boys and usually absent for girls, support this observation. Men’s societies must then degrade women (to enforce the break) and, with them, nature, at the same time valuing culture and creativity (ritual ceremonies) as superior to nature and as a substitute for the natural creativity of childbirth. Studies such as those of Lévi-Strauss show the degree to which modern culture keeps “primitive” rituals in updated forms. Is the “star system,” with men’s interest in it, and women’s seeming lack of interest in it, merely a modern manifestation of a primitive boys club? Is it inherent in men’s culture to devalue nature and do women have fundamentally different attitudes toward nature from which culture could benefit? Will the degree to which modern society is removing women from being dominated by childbirth and child-rearing fundamentally change the above model? To answer these questions directly would obviously be politically risky. The show raised them, directly and indirectly, but sought to let a broad presentation of actual work speak for itself rather than to give answers.

In the introduction to her book From The Center, (1976) Lucy Lippard writes, “… While I wish I could claim that this book establishes a new feminist criticism, all I can say is that it extends the basic knowledge of art by women, that it provides the raw material for such a development.” This quotation serves well to describe the exhibition “Women in American Architecture.” It is only recently, perhaps since 1972, that some women architects have, as a group, become aware of the possibility that they may have something different to offer. Whether this is because they are biologically or socially women is not yet answerable. Perhaps it is simply because they are outside of the current architectural mainstreams and thereby are more able to see what is missing in connecting architecture more directly to human experience. The present exhibition only hinted at what women’s architecture might become, but in its historic thoroughness it provided the basis for support systems which should enable women to grow personally, creatively and professionally—not only because they deserve opportunities equally with men, but also because, on the evidence so far, they may have something unique to offer which is needed by the culture.

In introducing the section on women artists the book states:

“Many women artists have recently begun to consider art as the esthetic embodiment of a new creative consciousness based on autobiography and myth, perception of social roles, experience of time and emotional or intellectual connections with others.”

In other words, everything architecture should be and is struggling again to become. For should not the house, or any building, be the autobiography of its residents, the myth of their culture, the expression of their social roles, their experience of time expressed in form, and, in its plan as the society of rooms, the expression of the connections among people? If women are able to reintroduce these issues into architecture they will have succeeded in taking it a long way from the abstraction and ultimate sterility of orthodox modern architecture.

“Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective,” organized by the Architectural League of New York, was on view at the Brooklyn Museum from February 23rd through April 15th 1977. It is scheduled to travel to the Hayden Gallery, MIT, May 6–June 18; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Aug. 11–Sept. 30; Houston Public Library. Oct. 20–Dec. 4; and ArchiCenter of the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation, Jan. 10–Feb. 28, 1978.

1. The term “modern architecture” is being used here in a narrow sense. As applied broadly to the 20th century, this would include such diverse trends as the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and the American skyscrapers of the 1920s and 1930s as well as the European “International-Style” architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. However, in this context the term is being used to refer specifically to the “International Style” and its impact on the United States, beginning in the later 1930s and completely dominating American architecture through the late 1950s and early 1960s. This influence came to a large extent through Mies van der Rohe, who headed the architecture school at I. I. T. in Chicago, and Walter Gropius, who headed the school at Harvard, as well as through other refugees from the Bauhaus. The principles of this architecture eventually became frozen into an orthodoxy.

The issue of the narrowing program in modern architecture is most clearly identified by Robert Venturi in his discussion of inclusion and exclusion in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1967). This was further developed by Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steve Izenour in their book Learning from Las Vegas (1972) and in the exhibition produced by the firm Venturi and Rauch, “Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City,” in 1976 at the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C. I might also note that the firm of Venturi and Rauch is sensitive to credits which often fail to mention collaborators. Proper crediting is widely abused throughout the architectural profession, often to the detriment of women designers. This exhibition was exceptional in making every effort at proper crediting.

2. This can be seen in contrasting Sigfried Giedion’s influential Space Time and Architecture (1st edition, 1941), which makes little mention of the ideology of the architects referred to, with Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), which directly relates ideology and design.

3. This book includes contributions by Susan Fondeler Berkon, Sara Holmes, Boutelle, Doris Cole, Sheila Levrant de Bretterville, Dolores Hayden, Carolyn R. Johnson, Naomi Leff, Lucy R. Lippard, Jane C. McGroarty, Judith Paine, Suzanne Stephens, Mary Otis Stevens, Susana Torre, and Gwendolyn Wright, with an introduction by Marita O’Hare. It is published by the Whitney Library of Design.

4. Although the show does not deal with this issue, it is of interest to point out that the private house and architects’ interest in it have both come under attack recently, as elitist and irrelevant to the broader needs of society. However, the upper-middle-class clients for such houses tend to be more willing to sponsor new ideas than are those officially charged with broader social responsibility, such as corporate clients and government agencies. Most recently this can be seen in solar energy research, which is almost exclusively taking place in individual houses, but which, as a result of these houses, will later become available to the society at large. Recent examples of the importance of the house can be seen in the book Five Architects (1972) which was the focus of international architectural discussion for three years after its publication. Every one of the ten projects in the book is a house. More recently, Vincent Scully’s The Shingle Style Today (1974), the first attempt to establish the historical origins of “post modern” architecture, contains 134 illustrations, 120 of them of houses.

5. Dolores Hayden’s chapter on Beecher points out her role in formulating our current model of consumption. Hayden writes: “Indeed, Beecher was an advocate of household consumption from the time of her treatise (on Domestic Economy, 1841), where she argued that if Americans relinquished superfluous goods, then half the community would be unemployed …” Women in American Architecture, p. 46.

6. Particularly S. Giedion, in Mechanization Takes Command, (1948), and R. Banham in Architecture of the Well Tempered Environment (1969).

7. In a time of social change it is particularly important to understand historical origins correctly, in this case realizing that contemporary sex roles and sexual morality originate not really in colonial Puritanism, but rather in 19th-century industrial capitalism, which rewrote Christian mythology to support its economic program. Beecher’s structure of domesticity was carefully built, and only the most recent generation of feminist critics has succeeded in fully breaking it down. Women in American Architecture, p. 17.

8. Although Cooper Union was open to women from its founding in 1859 and MIT graduated two women in 1890. Women in American Architecture, p. 55.

9. See the works of Joseph Campbell. Also see Women Culture and Society, edited by Michelle Zimbalist, Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, especially Sherry B. Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?”

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