Lezing van Afaina de Jong, uitgesproken tijdens Thursday Night Live! Dwars door het archief: Feminismen in de architectuur. Afaina de Jong is architect en docent aan de TU Delft. Ze spreekt over de invloed van geslacht op ontwerp en de heersende sekse-ongelijkheid binnen de architectuur. Wat moeten we doen om sekse-ongelijkheid binnen de architectuur definitief tot het verleden te laten behoren?
A couple of years ago I was asked to give a lecture about female architecture. Being an architect and a female I thought the subject was quite odd, but at the same time intriguing. My first question was: is there actually such thing as an aesthetic that is the same as your gender? Is in fact your sexual, ethnic or local identity the same as your aesthetic identity? And if so is this a conscious decision or a subconscious seed in your mind.
For me personally what drew me to architecture was the city. I wanted to explore and comprehend this entity. I wanted to know how we as humans use it and how it affects our lives in return. I have been practicing as an architect for over 10 years. My interest lies beyond the building. The focus of my practice is in space and design strategy and the main goal is to improves people everyday life through the spatial practice. This to me is more important to me than just the aesthetics. Architecture to me is not only about the build environment, it is about lifting spirits, about social concerns, and more importantly about representing the people.
Let’s explore a super condensed history of women in architecture and start with Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632–1705) a member of the English aristocracy, important architectural patron and also posited to be the first known female architect. During the 17th century it was impossible for a woman to pursue a profession and Wilbraham used male architects to execute her vision and supervise construction. She is believed to have designed over a dozen houses for her family and is put forward as the designer of 18 London churches that are officially attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, one of the most highly acclaimed English architects in history. And who she most likely tutored. From here there have been many great women from Eileen gray to Aino Aalto, Ray Eames, Denise Scott Brown, Kazuyo Seijma and of course the great Zaha Hadid who passed away last year.
Male-female partnerships in architecture partnerships became more common, because of increased enrollment by women into schools of architecture the 1960s. But the male-female partnerships also lead to misattribution of the work to the male partner, as became very blatant in the case of Denise Scott Brown. She and her husband Robert Venturi wrote the all-time architecture classic Learning from Las Vegas. However, she is seldom credited for her work with their company Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates. This culminated in the Pritzker prize being awarded to only her husband as the sole recipient in 1991. Which was baffling especially to Denise Scott Brown who stated: "We both design every inch of a building together." Maybe ’91 was just “too soon” for a female to make her mark in architecture. Or it was as the result of a biased attitude towards women in the profession? Unfortunately, in 2013 the Pritzker Prize jury rejected a petition for architect Denise Scott Brown to retroactively receive recognition for the award.
But in 2004, the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid became the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Prize. And in 2010, another woman became a Pritzker Prize winner, Kazuyo Sejima from Japan, in partnership with Ryue Nishizawa. When asked about how she perceives this award as a woman, Sejima said that simply gender should not influence its direct meaning to her or anyone else and that she hopes this will influence more women to pursue careers in architecture and design. Of course this is a wish we all have but is this actual reality?
In 2013 architect Zaha Hadid hit back at critics who compared the design of her Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar to a vagina, describing the comments as "embarrassing" and "ridiculous". Hadid said: “It’s really embarrassing that they come up with nonsense like this. What are they saying? Everything with a hole in it is a vagina? That’s ridiculous.” She suggested that the comments would not have been made had the architect been male. And she probably had a point there, I mean honestly when do male architects ever get called out for making dicks when another phallic skyscraper is erected?
Let’s be real: Architecture is a profession dominated by white men. But architecture nowadays is an act of teamwork. And these teams are most effective, in my point of view, if they are neither predominantly female nor predominately male.
The macho work ethic of all-nighters and the superhero egoism is a tough act to follow for both men and women. And although men and women start off in most architecture schools with a perfect balance of 50/50, around 40% of graduates are now women, but only 10 - 20% remain active in the field of architecture. In 2010, a survey conducted by the Architects' Council of Europe in 33 countries, found that there were 524,000 architects of whom 31% were women. However, the proportions differed widely from country to country. The countries with the highest proportion of female architects were Greece (57%), Croatia (56%), Bulgaria (50%), Slovenia (50%) and Sweden (49%). While those with the lowest were Slovakia (15%), Austria (16%), the Netherlands (19%), Germany (21%) and Belgium (24%). Over 200,000 of Europe's architects are in Italy or Germany where the proportions of women are 30% and 21% respectively.
The numbers of the Bureau Architectenregister confirm these numbers. In addition, they also show that in the Netherlands the percentage of women is almost 50% in the category interior architecture, against the 21% in the architecture category. This might explain why I when I say: “I’m an architect”, I often get the reply: “What kind of architect, you do interiors?”.
One clue of why women seem to disappear, could be that the lack of work life balance in many levels of architectural practice women is a factor. And then again many of the leading ladies in architecture actually make perfect role models for not making this balancing act between work and family life. Which then again is also their own prerogative. But could it be that women in architecture suffer from a form of overcompensation?
Without a doubt women architects are just like people with differing attitudes towards gender equality in the profession. Our former top female professor at the faculty of architecture in Delft, had no interest in addressing these issues. While the head of the architecture department at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris, Odile Decq, started her own institute Confluence for creative strategies in architecture with a more balanced and remarkable female set of professors. During my study at the faculty of architecture at TU Delft I have never had a female professor and now as I teach there myself, I am still today the only woman of color teaching at the faculty.
Knowing this it might be interesting to explore the notion of feminism in architecture. If we look at a definition of feminism, as encouraging practices that actually accommodate differences amongst people, then a bit of feminism wouldn’t hurt the gender politics in architecture! It seems that the glorification of the sole creator over the reality of collaborative work, dominates the perception of most architects. And therefor many buildings nowadays are designed out of a highly specific singular viewpoint, instead of out of the perspective of how an array of different people will experience and use the space.
But what if? What if architecture could free itself from this alienation of the actual reality of its multi-gender teamwork? If we can get more diversity in spatial design and less singular viewpoints, we will be able to make better buildings and better cities. Because in the urban spaces of our contemporary cities many identities intersect. And getting rid of the design dogma’s dominated by the viewpoint of (old) white men would handsomely enrich the practice. Then we can start applying ideas of intersectional feminism to architecture, because we can’t have feminist ideals within architecture without dealing with gender, racism or poverty. And this brings us back to the social agenda of architecture, in which it becomes clear that an architecture of impact in this century has to be intersectional. Without intersectional design, there can be no meaningful architecture.