Women in Architecture by Davis Richardson
Women in Architecture
There’s a scene in Season 3 of the West Wing – Aaron Sorkin’s TV drama of a now-totally-unfamiliar normal US White House that began airing in 1999 – where Josh Lyman, the President’s Deputy Communications Director visits the Women’s Leadership Coalition. As he’s waiting in the lobby (and it shouldn’t go unnoticed that people from the White House aren’t typically made to wait), he’s seemingly made uncomfortable by black and white photography of strong, athletic, and, frankly, intimidating looking women hanging on the walls.
“The art around here scares the hell out of me,” he remarks as he’s walking out.
“That’s what it’s supposed to do,” he’s told.
There’s a part of you as a viewer that cracks a smile – the fourth or fifth most powerful man in the United States is scared of powerful women. Actually, he’s simply scared of the thought of powerful women, those depicted through photography, their still figures frozen within their frames and on their canvases, not even the physical embodiment of them. And although the show began almost twenty years ago now, the joke doesn’t feel dated, in part because the underlying assumption – that women, normal women who aren’t to be feared, are not powerful or strong – remains in our collective consciousness today.
Ask any woman anywhere – regardless of field – and she’ll have a story about a time (or twelve) where she’s suggested something that was met with rejection, questioning, or flat indifference, only to have a man follow up with the same exact suggestion which is met with approval and no recognition that she had even mentioned it in the first place. It happens all the time. And as a man who’s never been afraid to speak up, I’m sure I’ve done it to plenty of women in the past; perhaps that’s the worst part. Most of us men don’t even know we’re doing it.
The late, great Zaha Hadid, one of the most powerful people in all of architecture, not to mention one of the most influential women, even talked about this phenomenon with CNN in 2007 during a site visit to the then-under construction MAXXI in Rome.
“I watch other women architects and they’re very good. You go to a meeting with a male and female team, they always address the man. The woman is always cast aside – and it’s a big problem.”
Over ten years later and the tragic passing of Hadid and her words remain true today, particularly in the Kavanaugh era here in the United States. (I conducted the interviews and began writing this article long before Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination and subsequent confirmation to the Supreme Court following credible accusations of sexual assault). Hadid has passed on, and the story of Kavanaugh has come and gone in our news cycles, and it begs the question: are we really making progress?
Amy Cox: Empathy + Assertion
It seemed to me that writing a piece on women in architecture as a white man wouldn’t sit right – men are constantly telling women what to think or say or do, oftentimes without even noticing what they’re doing. I hope and pray that that is not the role I have taken in this article, another man casting his thoughts and opinions – that he likely holds far too close – into the sea of what he believes is best for women. History is full of men who have done that, all the while being too blind by their own egos to realize that perhaps the best solution is to let women just do it themselves.
In a way, that’s what I’m hoping to do here. I’ve interviewed several key women who have been influential to me in my young career professionally and academically, as well as researched the state of women in the world of architecture; my goal is to use my platform as a writer to elevate their own voices, rather than using some soundbites from them to buttress my own thoughts. But as Patreese Martin, who we’ll hear more from later, told me, this is an issue for all of us; inequality isn’t just a woman’s issue, it’s a human issue.
As this relates to “My Journey,” the continued theme of my work here for CritDay, I absolutely would not be who I am as a person or as a designer without the influence of crucial women in my life (which I’d imagine you could also say for yourself). I had the special opportunity – although I may not have called it that when I first began – of being the only male in my undergraduate program’s graduating class. I studied Interior Design at Harding University, and graduated as the lone male in a class of only five; additionally, outside the occasional adjunct professor, all of my design courses were also taught by women. I had always intended to pursue a professional architecture degree, and in a way, when I started interior design school I took it for granted, a box I needed to check before going to graduate school. A collegiate baseball career had brought me to Harding, and the interior design program would suffice as a prerequisite for post-grad. I failed to recognize early on the profound effect this education would make on me.
The program director at Harding, Amy Cox, has been there 18 years and virtually built it from the ground-up, now one of only three CIDA-accredited schools in the state of Arkansas and recently awarded a six-year accreditation cycle, the highest given by the governing body. It’s still a small school, a small program in a small state, but Cox’s impact cannot be overstated. When I started there in 2013, I think I had grand visions of being a starchitect some day, making wavy buildings in the form of Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava. But Cox always nudged and prodded me to ask myself, “why?” Why is that what I wanted? Did I really just want to make crazy buildings for the sake of interesting forms? Because that didn’t really align with my underlying beliefs that architecture exists to serve and make the world better. Wavy buildings have their place and can serve to make the world better, more interesting, and more beautiful; but Cox was challenging me to break down my presuppositions about the field of design, rebuilding my foundation and working up from there. She fostered in me a sense of empathy – not in the sense that women are stereotypically gentler, nicer, kinder people, as an underlying assumption I find myself still holding, but rather in the sense of actually putting yourself in the shoes of another and trying to see the world through their eyes.
Cox had this to say regarding that empathy: “The stereotype would be females would typically be more nurturing, more about the individual, and more empathetic than what men would [be], but I think what’s happened in my lifetime, as the generations progress – men, women, moms, dads, whatever – what’s been programmed into us a few generations ago – I think that’s breaking down.”
It’s interesting; what began in me as trying to see women be recognized more in architecture and design because of a typically increased capacity for empathy was, unknowingly, another stereotype we hold up against women. And though the intentions were good – and empathy is something I think we all need more of these days – being a woman and being empathetic are not synonyms. Martin mentioned this to me when we sat down and talked, as well – I was telling her my backstory and why this was something I wanted to pursue a discussion on because of my renewed bend towards empathy due to influential women – pointing out that even that can be harmful.
Do we go to our female colleagues around us because we thinking they’re going to be agreeable? Or do we go to them because we value their talent and perspective?
“I think it can be taught. I really think empathy can be taught.” Cox emphasized, with the kind of palpable conviction, the “I’m with you, I’m on your side” tone she would always take with us, even when doling out criticism. The point is not that empathy isn’t a good thing for women to possess; the point is we can and should teach men and women to be empathetic, thus freeing women from the role of having to be “the good guy.” She noted, too, that we do live in a more accepting society now than when she grew up; she grew up in the days of second-wave feminism, and it was certainly an empowering time for women that she was aware of and emboldened her in pursuing an independent career. But young people have grown up being taught you can be whatever you want to be! And it seems for many young women, the rubber hadn’t really hit the road until maybe the US Presidential election in 2016 and subsequent Women’s March, or, at least, when they graduated college and actually got their feet wet in the workforce.
Cox sees a lot of incoming students – most of Harding’s Interior Design classes are female, although they typically start with a few young men – who are passive and don’t understand that what level of equal footing they’ve experienced in adolescence hasn’t always been available, and might not even be available as they continue to grow and attempt to move up in life. “I get very frustrated with younger female students who aren’t as assertive as they could be because I feel like they haven’t had to be yet.”
Cox has always looked and sounded young; she jokes now that she’s getting old (she’s not), with her oldest daughter recently getting married and her youngest going off to college. While her youthfulness is an asset many people would be envious of, for women, it’s a double-edged sword. Pressured by society to always look good and to prioritize their appearance, to fight signs of age or having had kids, even though doing so makes it harder for you to be taken seriously; the younger you look, the more people think you don’t have the necessary experience. It’s always been a challenge; at 23, she took over as facilities director for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, a state institution with government employees who were challenging to get to be engaged with their work to begin with, let alone from a young woman who was now telling them what needed to be done. Even today, it’s a challenge to be navigated as more doors in administration and larger decision-making open for her at the university. There were certainly times I can remember, as tight-knit as our program was, and as personally-invested as she was in our development as students, that our relationship to Cox could feel, to us, more colleague-esque than teacher-student. In many ways, that was a great thing. But I also saw, sometimes, ever-so-slight drops in the level of respect or authority granted, and now I can’t help but wonder: if our professor had been a man, would we have said the same things?
This was no fault of Cox’s. She’s been navigating that tricky line for a long time now, to great success, developing “a certain type of person that comes out of our program” as she puts it, most of whom have gone on to be successful professionals. But there’s always the underlying level of authority I can sense within her; not unlike a relied-upon coach to athletes, or White House aides to the President in the Oval Office – there’s a line that, for goodness’ sake, I don’t want to cross.
Women will eventually have to cross that line, according to Cox, but a lot of them, as they’re going through college, simply haven’t had to navigate it yet. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, either; but as young women grow up in a world that’s increasingly equitable, we should be preparing them to know it won’t always feel that way – they’ll encounter people and institutions that aren’t as far along, and that’s no reason to bend or break; it’s all the more reason to assert themselves and affirm their place and value.
The election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States in 2016 – shocking as it was – is the most palpable example of this in broader culture in recent years. Forty years after passing the Civil Rights Act and finally beginning to recognize African-Americans in the US as equals, we elected our first black president in Barack Obama in 2008. He would leave office after two terms in 2017 with an approval rating of around 60% – nothing short of remarkable considering that he inherited the biggest financial crisis in almost 100 years, a war in the Middle East with no clear end goal or exit strategy, and a contingency of people who still harbored racist beliefs. Two-term presidents in the US are rarely able to be followed up by another candidate from their own party, but all signs pointed to Hillary Clinton following our first black president as our first female president, another major milestone in the progress towards equality.
This article isn’t meant to be a political commentary on the election that has been covered and over-covered to this point; we could talk all about the shortcomings of Clinton and the Democratic Party, and, of course, skin color or gender alone are not qualifying for the presidency in and of themselves. But it would’ve been a big deal. Instead, we got a big baby.
It’s a kind of microcosm for the challenge women face; they wait for their turn to step up, only to have the opportunity snatched out from underneath them, whether that’s by a condescending comment or a misogynist with no experience taking the upper-level promotion you’ve been working towards for the last twenty years.
Even since the days of modernism, there have always been prominent women in architecture, urbanism, and design. The field has been and is still in many ways dominated by men; for every female “starchitect” there’s been ten men with the same clout and influence. But women have been a huge part of shaping the ongoing discussion that is architecture and cities. Jane Jacobs was perhaps the most influential urbanist in America; Ray Eames, alongside her husband Charles, designed and produced furniture that is still unsurpassed in beauty and ubiquity today (not to even mention their works of architecture); Eileen Gray’s modernist influence carries on even today. Denise Scott Brown with Robert Venturi authored (literally) the birth of the postmodern movement, which, regardless of what you think of it, laid the groundwork for following movements of deconstructivism to blobitecture to the parametric architecture and beyond being produced today. The names of today: Zaha Hadid (her continuing practice), Jeanne Gang, Billie Tsien, Jenny Wu, Neri Oxman, Tatiana Bilbao, Lisa Iwamoto, Barbara Bestor, Beth Whitaker, and UTSOA’s own Michelle Addington – there are countless brilliant women in contemporary academia and practice for us to look towards.
Jenny Wu: Paving Your Own Way
There is an ongoing dialog with the world of architecture about the relationship and overlap of academia and practice. Many in the academic world see university as the time to develop critical thinking and design process skills for an uncertain future. As a theoretical exercise, it’s preferable that the work remains more conceptual, pushing the boundaries of what architecture is and can be. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people in practice wish that students who came out of school – usually with at least five years of undergraduate studies or even a master’s degree – were better prepared to jump into the day-to-day of an architecture practice: understanding building codes, construction types, and fluency in BIM softwares like Revit.
This is, of course, a spectrum where two polar ends have been described; most people fall somewhere in between. It’s a hard balance, as both serve their place to the broader conversation, but bridging that gap can be tough – ideologically, sure, but it’s reflected in gender statistics, as well. Recent studies have shown an encouraging trend where female enrollment in architecture programs is closing on 50%, hovering somewhere now around 45% and starting to reflect the larger trend in higher education that is predominantly female. But the same trend isn’t being seen in the workforce; this makes sense at the top, since that takes a while to come around, but even in entry-level positions, we’re still seeing about 20% female to 80% male.
I sat down with Jenny Wu, co-founder of Oyler Wu Collaborative, an innovative practice named part of Architectural Record’s Design Vanguard in 2013 based in Los Angeles, CA. Wu has her foot firmly in both worlds of academia and practice; she holds degrees from Columbia and the GSD, and teaches at SCI-Arc in LA, as well as her alma maters, the GSD and Columbia. After spending four years in New York City, Wu moved with her partner, Dwayne Oyler, back to Los Angeles where she grew up, in 2004 and started working on their office a couple years later when she joined him in teaching at SCI-Arc.
I asked Wu if creating an equal and equitable practice was something she and Dwayne consciously decided when they first started out. She points out that the “Collaborative” tag behind both their surnames creating their practice’s title is a mantra: “We definitely have a practice that values the both of us…we’ve been partners for so long there’s never been an ego issue.” She points out that this equal valuation of the both of them is borderline inefficient – they often both go to client meetings and their design process is very hands-on, developing prototypes and full-scale mockups that they typically fabricate themselves.
Beyond the title, Wu points out that they’ve made a conscious decision to design their lives around what they’re passionate about and believe in, in a way that allows them to not have to make the sacrifices they don’t want to make – whether that be not having kids, or having kids and Wu’s career suffering because of it, or not developing a strong family life, or even having to sit in traffic while commuting. “We have an unusual practice even in the way we live our lives. Our whole life is integrated into our practice.
“We don’t see the point of a traditional separation of work and personal life. We love to do it all the time and we love having our family around.” To that end, Oyler Wu’s office occupies the ground floor of a loft in downtown LA; their residence is in the upper floor, so that they’re always close to their kids. Wu’s digitally-designed and -fabricated jewelry line, LACE, has a storefront a couple blocks away from their loft. They never have to commute. “We’re all creative people. Figuring out how to design our life and practice and how we integrate all that together was important to us. It’s both our things – the things we do together are better than what we do individually.”
While it’s clear in the way she talks that Wu is passionate about her work and loves the life she’s living and the varying areas she involved, she points out it’s not easy. “There’s definitely times where it feels like there’s not enough time. I run two companies. I teach full-time. I have two kids. I do a lot of travel[ing] for work, giving lectures, visiting studios.”
“You really learn to be efficient with the way you work….Women should be able to have the career they want, they just have to make it work for them, and this is what works for us.”
Some of the world’s most prominent architecture firms – BIG, UNStudio, Foster + Partners, and so on – are pushing the boundaries of the built environments they’re creating, but a report that Dezeen published last year exposed major shortcomings in the work of equal representation, particularly in leadership, within architecture. Analyzing the largest 100 firms in the world according to the World Architecture 100 list, they found that across all upper/senior and middle management positions, only 18% of positions were filled by women. Only three of the 100 firms were led exclusively by a woman – Tengbom, White Arkitekter (both of Sweden, also the only two with majority-female management), and Henning Larsen (Denmark), while only six more were led by a man and a woman – Gensler, Perkins Eastman, Wilmotte & Associes, UNStudio, Morphogensis, and BIG.
Meanwhile, sixteen of the 100 firms had no female representation at all in senior management. Foster + Partners specifically came under quite a bit of fire following the report, having an all-white-male, ten-member senior executive partnership; only one out of eighteen senior partners were female at the time of the report’s publication (although it should be noted that their website at the time of this writing now shows three female senior partners, a positive step forward even if their senior leadership is still overwhelmingly male).
I don’t think Dezeen’s purpose in publishing the report – nor is my intent in referring to it – is to out prominent firms as being in some way particularly egregious. Maybe it’s naivete, holding onto hope that firms like Foster + Partners whose work we admire are moving in the right direction, but it seems to me this report serves to paint broad strokes about the state of the profession at large, making conclusions from a larger set of data. Outside the standouts Tengbom and White Arkitekter, no one in that report, not even higher-percentile firms like BIG, was performing to a standard of equity I think most of us expect of our industry.
Rather, what the report has shown us is that these problems run as deep as they do wide; if the biggest and brightest firms in the world haven’t gotten it right to this point, whether it’s the representation of leadership or wage inequality – two issues which are, of course, intertwined – then it’s time we got serious and made concerted, conscious efforts to right the ship, taking actionable steps to move the needle closer to even.
Patreese Martin: Leadership in Architecture Practice
Patreese Martin is an Associate Principal – a position secondary only to Principal, the highest position of leadership – at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s Seattle office (full disclosure: I work three desks down from Patreese; she hired me to come work for BCJ, so I have some obvious biases here). She’s been at BCJ for 14 years now and practicing in Seattle for almost 25 years after moving from the cutting-edge, research-based firm Kieran Timberlake in Philadelphia. Following her undergraduate non-professional degree from the University of Washington here in Seattle, she went to the University of Pennsylvania, a highly-esteemed Ivy League program whose Louis Kahn influence was still palpable when she attended in the 80’s.
Martin says she’s always been in pretty good educational and working environments for being a woman, relatively speaking. While she says she hasn’t noticed much explicit sexism or harassment in her own career, there are still occasional, typical slights that most women have just learned to deal with. She’s enjoyed her career, particularly being involved in tangible practice, and even though we have some work to do to make our leadership at BCJ more equitable (12 of 12 of our principals, across all offices, are white men), she notes that the attitude and openness towards women and other perspectives has been something she’s enjoyed even from when she was in school – which was about half-and-half gender split. But it’s certainly not perfect.
“We should always be aware of our unconscious biases and developing a culture where we can let each other know when they’ve said something questionable is key.” Here is where she points out the comment I made about female being synonymous with empathetic; even though it was a seemingly innocuous comment, it reinforces those gender stereotypes we hold in our offices. But my feelings weren’t hurt because of that open culture we have. We know we want to be on the same page regarding these issues; humility and a willingness – especially on the part of men – to say, “my intentions are good but maybe I haven’t solved this yet; help me understand, I’m here to listen” can go a long way.
Martin points out that it’s typical for architects to be more liberal and/or progressive politically, at least on social issues, liking to think that in the same way they’re at the forefront of design and the built environment, so too they’re leaders in equity and human rights. But we know, at least regarding representation, it hasn’t really played out that way. While she also sees this a social issue that should be addressed for moral reasons, it doesn’t run afoul of the fiscal responsibilities of the company; diversity is good business.
“It’s half the population – why are we leaving that much talent on the table?” She also serves as a coordinator of sustainability to our office and has been involved with the AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE), who recently released a report showing that the firms they designate as “consistently high-performing” are more diverse. Diversity and equity obviously benefit innovation, but they help businesses succeed, as well.
On fostering women into leaders in firms, which we lose a lot when women decide to have kids, she says it bothers her when people refer to childbearing and -rearing as a woman’s issue. “It’s not a woman’s problem – having kids, taking care of a family, having to address the inequality is a human problem. The onus is not on women; men need to ‘lean in’ to the issue, too.”
“Speaking up, leading, and especially fostering young women towards leadership is so important.”
Serving in a position of leadership – whether it’s just as a project manager, a design director, or eventually even a principal or partner – is an ambition of mine, as I imagine it is for most people who commit to practice. And, frankly, I’m confident that eventually I’ll be able to serve in those leadership roles; I’ve had a lot of advantages to this point, and not much has stopped me from achieving the realistic goals that I set for myself. But the truth is, that’s not always the case for the women we work beside. We must see that as a wrong, first and foremost; beyond that, however, men like me need to recognize that in order to move the needle, it might mean that I’m not the one that gets the promotion. And we – I – have to be okay with that; the conversation is so much bigger, and far more important. Many of us have had all the opportunities and all the privilege our whole lives, and one personal loss for a greater societal gain is a worthwhile investment.
When speaking with Jenny Wu, who’s based in a city in Los Angeles that’s ripe for experimentation and boundary-pushing, she noted that she’s seeing more women in leadership (although the Dezeen report shows us that we still have work to do), and she’s seeing a lot more women strike out on their own. “Increasingly, Ι’ve seen more and more women starting their own practice and that’s awesome.”
After the findings from Dezeen were overwhelmingly underwhelming, I decided to do some investigation of my own using a similar methodology. Their report represents a large percentage of the field as a whole since they analyzed the 100 largest firms in the world; but progress, we know, typically happens at the ground level. This isn’t an indictment on large firms so much as a realization that large corporations by their nature are less flexible and slower to change. To add to the conversation, I wanted to analyze the smaller, cutting-edge firms who are making a big impact on the industry – the Design Vanguard, awarded to ten firms annually by Architectural Record.
The Design Vanguard represents the next wave, the up-and-coming; it seemed to me that these type of firms, often as small as ten people or less, would be a better representation of where architecture is headed. I went through and analyzed every firm named to the list from the past five years of publication, based on Architectural Record’s firm biographies and the firms’ own websites. This can prove even trickier than with large firms due to the nature of their websites and that smaller firms tend to have less clear organizational structures than their larger counterparts. As with the Dezeen report, every firm has differing terminology or different definitions for the same terminologies. What I defined as “firm leadership” was founders, owners, and/or principals/senior principals; associate principals or associates were left out, as it’s hard to know in small firms what kind of leadership role this entails. For the large majority of these firms (45 out of 49, or about 90%), that only includes one or two people at the very top. Rever & Drage have three, Civic Architects and Studio Ma have four, and Studio Link-Arc has seven.
The results were surprising – these progressive firms aren’t doing much better than the largest firms in the world, even with seemingly greater flexibility. Of the 86 founders and principals from the latest 49 Design Vanguard firms, only 20 are female; 23.26% of the total leadership, even though, as we know already, virtually half the population is female. Even more disappointing, only one of the firms – Merge Architects in Boston – in the last five years is headed by 100% female leadership. No other firm has a majority of female leadership either; as mentioned earlier, most firms are only one- or two-deep at the highest ranks, so this stands to reason. About 1/3 of all the firms analyzed, however, are 50% or greater in female leadership (the “greater” being solely represented by Merge), which is a notable improvement over larger firms. However, 61% of the firms have no female representation in leadership.
One positive from the data gathered is the representation of minority groups among leadership, both male and female; of course, Architectural Record considers firms from all over the world with the Design Vanguard, and “minority” from my point of view basically refers to anyone non-white (American and Europeans). For example, Chinese-based firms would be tallied as “minority,” even though in their respective country they wouldn’t technically be a minority population group. Architectural Record is based in the US, however, and architectural history has long been dominated by white men, so I don’t see this as an issue. Of the 86 leadership members analyzed, 45 of them – 52% – are minority, men or women. Of the 20 women in leadership, 15 are minorities, which is great, relatively speaking, even if the overall percentage of women isn’t as high as we would expect to see at this point.
Lastly, I put together a composite score for every firm that values the percentage of women in leadership on a sliding scale that increases incrementally if the firm is half women in leadership and increases again if the firm is all-female in leadership. Also considered into the index is the percentage of minority women in firm leadership. The score is purely additive; no points are discounted for any other factors. Scores range from 50-100; the only firm with a perfect 100 is Merge, due in large part to being led exclusively by Elizabeth Whitaker. Twenty-seven firms received the lowest score of 50; the average score was 60.4. Again, this is far from a perfect index, but is a good way of looking, firm-by-firm, at who is leading the way. The data with each firm’s index is provided below.
One thing to consider with these Vanguard firms is that even though these are “young” firms, young as a moniker in architecture is relative: under 50 is considered young, and, likewise, many of these firms were actually founded ten to fifteen years ago and the sociopolitical climate has changed drastically in that time. Also not calculated was the overall office demographics; not all of these firms list the rest of their staff beyond the leadership (if it even exists), but many do. While the representation of those members wasn’t quantified, it did seem to me that among younger employees in particular, women and people of color were being more involved. That analysis would take more time and may or may not be beneficial; having more women involved at the ground level is, of course, a great thing, but it seems particularly from the conversations I’ve had here that real progress will be made when women are having a more prominent voice in decision-making.
Malaysia Marshall: Race + Gender
Malaysia Marshall works currently as design coordinator at a sustainability non-profit, focusing on promoting biophilic design principles at an urban scale in Seattle. It’s funny that she and I both reside and work in the city now, as we knew each other back in Atlanta, now over 2500 miles away on the complete opposite side of the country. Marshall studied interior and sustainable design at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), where she thoroughly enjoyed her time and was challenged to think critically and creatively. But it wasn’t without its drawbacks; while SCAD is a highly regarded design school, it has a reputation as a kind of upper-class collection of hipster creatives (think that parody magazine cover, “American Gentrifier”). SCAD is, of course, a private school and does not accept the Georgia HOPE Scholarship upon which many students in the state are able to afford college; tuition runs around $35,000 a year.
Marshall faces double the challenge as many women in architecture and design today as an African-American woman; while women of all stripes continue to face the injustice of sexism, white women are still afforded a level of privilege because of their skin color that women like Marshall don’t receive. She’s had to walk five miles to school uphill both ways her whole life. I asked her if this kind of dual identity was even something she thought about, since she had been navigating it her whole life.
“It’s definitely something I’m always aware of. Racism is a bigger issue because my skin color is probably the first thing people see or notice about me, even over me being a woman.”
I found this interesting. Some of my past work has been on dealing with racial injustice through the built environment – fighting gentrification and creating affordable housing and diverse neighborhoods – so the intersection of these two topics is fascinating, in perhaps the worst sense. Both racism and sexism, in very different ways, have negatively shaped our society into what it is today. And although it’s easy to see why racism is still the more personal and pressing issue to Marshall, she’s not blind to sexism, either.
“It is an uphill battle. You’re always dealing with microaggressions. And mansplaining is real; it’s a big thing.”
We are having this discussion over coffee at Kaladi Brothers in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, one of the original and pioneering spaces that was openly and proudly accepting and safe for LGBT people. Looking around at where we were, I appeared to be one of the only straight white males in the bustling shop; I wouldn’t say I was uncomfortable with that, but it was a notable change. It’s not something that happens very often, or at the least, it’s not something I have to be aware of, ever. But for women, and especially people of color like Marshall, my understanding is it’s something they’re always aware of. A man in a room full of women might crack what he thinks is a harmless joke; a woman in a room full of men is going to have a hard time getting a word in.
Talking about sustainability, sexism, and racism in an LGBT neighborhood got me thinking how all issues of injustice, to an extent, are intertwined. Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But Marshall pointed out what’s known as “environmental racism,” or the way in which communities of color often bear the heaviest burden of climate change and environmental issues.
“Representation [in architecture and urban design, especially] matters! We have a history of racist policies like redlining and the construction of freeways cutting through black neighborhoods, and gentrification today, which have all shaped our cities… Environmental racism, which stemmed out of those racist policies, affect minority and communities of color more,” as these communities often don’t have the agency or political capital to make change happen. “People who are worried about making rent or finding their next meal may not be too concerned with going to a town hall meeting.” If they even know when the town hall meetings are happening or what is being discussed that can affect them; like where hazardous waste is being dumped.
These issues – racism, and to some extent, sexism – seem to me to be an umbrella that other social issues we’re dealing with today fall under. Visiting with Marshall, we talked about a plethora of issues in addition to what I’ve already mentioned, including healthcare, education, community development and identity, even the phenomenon of Donald Trump; all these issues, in one way or another, can fall under the scope of racism and/or sexism; everyone has a visible skin color and gender.* Access to healthcare, education, affordable housing often have come about due to socioeconomic factors, gerrymandering, or overt discrimination that have locked out minority communities. In the workplace, men have long been seen as leaders and women relegated to work of service and/or care. We have the opportunity in the world of architecture to make a difference on these fronts by acknowledging the prejudices that still exist and tackling them head on; architects and designers are creative people equipped with skills for “design thinking” that can apply far beyond the scope of our buildings. We can design new ways to make our practices more diverse, inclusive, and innovative without losing some of our best talent.
*One place where I recognize this conversation may be falling short is in regarding transgender and non-binary people. I apologize if the brush painted here is too wide, and I think that’s another conversation we need to start having, as well.
We have a lot of work left to do to progress. But the women in our lives – women like Cox, Wu, Martin, and Marshall – deserve for us to put in that work. Architecture, in a very physical and real sense, leads the way in shaping our cities and environments, and likewise, our societies at large. Let’s broaden our scope a bit, beyond the next project, the next client, or the next studio at university; let’s lead the way on issues of even greater import and make a better world out of the one we have to live in. Isn’t that what we’re doing at the end of the day, anyway?
Davis Richardson is a contributor at CritDay.com and the Bartlett Cocke Scholar and an M.Arch candidate at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. He is currently on residency in Seattle, WA with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.