Making Space: On the Need for Intersectional Feminism in Architecture Schools



Blue-eyed architect
I defy you
beware architect, for if the Rebel dies it will not be without making everyone aware that you are the constructor of a pestilential world
architect beware
who crowned you? During what night did you exchange compass for dagger?
architect deaf to things, as distinct as a tree but as closed as armor, each of your steps is a conquest and a spoliation and a misconception and an assassination.” (Aimé Césaire, And the Dogs Were Silent, trans. Clayton Eshlemann & Annette Smith, The University Press of Virginia, 1958.)


1/// The architecture school is not yet inclusive. Let us begin with a story — an unfinished one — that began during my time in architecture school. This story aims to serve as an illustration to frame the ways in which women, people of color, and trans people have been — and continue to be — erased or excluded, silenced or ignored within the architecture school, especially within brief, periodic, flurried contestations between feminism and patriarchy.

My experiences, while my own, are not unique; first, as a mixed-race graduate student looking to have an open, public conversation in the hopes of reducing a notable lack of diversity in an architecture school; and, second, as an alumna requesting the public release of a report and recommendations by a faculty ad hoc committee on diversity and equity. My experiences illustrate how the educational and political interests of women, people of color, and trans people are ignored or obscured by institutional strategies that systematically ignore, suppress, erase and exclude intersectional issues. This is not to say these erasures and exclusions are purposeful. They are often the product of personal politics or political strategies for gain that fail to challenge either gender or racial hierarchies, and often entrench them further.

Yi Fei Chen
Yi Fei Chen responds to her personal struggles between mental authority, cultural difference and inner conflict in the design school by designing the Tear Gun to collect and fire her frozen tears. / Design by Yi Fei Chen, Design Academy Eindhoven (2016)

To consider this story is to question the stories being written — and those not being written — every day, every semester, every year — in every institution of architectural education. To consider the long, deeply entrenched legacy of discrimination, erasure, and exclusion enacted by our institutions is to question the legitimacy of our institutions. And although it might be difficult to provide a clear, coherent framework as a way to move forward, it is not impossible.

2/// Students believe, like the institutions who appoint them, that the instructors who occupy upper year studio teaching positions serve as role models to the graduate student body. In December 2015, as both a graduate student in a master of landscape architecture program and as the president of the Graduate Architecture Landscape and Design Student Union (GALDSU), I began a conversation on social media after noting two consecutive terms where the representation of women as instructors or thesis advisers in upper year architecture studios was almost non-existent (2 out of 30 possible roles). Overwhelmingly, current and previous graduate architecture students began to share their own similar observations and experiences.

Shortly thereafter, I was contacted privately by the Dean and a few male members of the administration, who were concerned I had, through the quotation of numbers of faculty appointments, made a misleading representation of the facts and that I had publicly documented “a one-term aberration” as the norm. And they continued that, while not entirely unfounded, my concern would be addressed in the coming academic year.  As a public response, the administration shared statistics as a cause for celebration; the architecture faculty had improved its female full-time appointed tenure or tenure stream faculty appointments by 31% from 2004 to 2013 across all of its programs, which include architecture, landscape architecture, visual studies, and urban design, movement on trend with the university as a whole at 28%.

There is an important point to extricate from the insistent combination of statistics of the architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, and visual studies programs into a single numerical gain: the architecture faculty at the University of Toronto is a single division faculty. As a single division faculty, programs may have their own administrative chair, but do not legally hold the discretion of their own budget. This is not a semantic difference but a structural condition that has led to the intensification and centralization of executive power with the head of the architecture faculty, the office of the Dean.

3/// This is a moment where statistics present two simultaneous truths; first, that the celebrated gains are indeed reflective of movement on trend with the university as a whole at 28%, and second, although these gains reflect a history of progressive hiring and retention of faculty in the landscape architecture and visual studies programs, they mask the disparity which continues to exist in the architecture program. As of the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year, the academic calendar listed only 2 women out of 24 possible architecture thesis research, preparation, and advisor roles.

And that is not to say statistics tell the whole story — data rarely do. The concern about misuse and misrepresentation of statistics is not unfounded; by students seeking information by which to understand the terms of their education; by faculty members seeking information by which to understand the terms of their employment; by alumni and donors seeking information by which to understand the processes of hiring, retention, promotion, course assignment, and so forth, of the institution they are supporting; and by an administration concerned about its growing reputation as a predominantly white, predominantly male institution out of touch with its own diverse student population and its own cosmopolitan home in the city of Toronto.

This disparity was not only noticed by students; concerned faculty members independently formed an ad hoc committee so as to understand pressing concerns in regards to the lack of diversity and equity and to outline a series of measurable goals toward an inclusive faculty. In April 2016, the ad hoc committee formally presented both their findings and recommendations to the Faculty Council. At the time of the writing of this article — eight months later — neither the findings nor recommendations have been reported to the student body as a whole, despite repeated requests by the student union, alumni, and the ad hoc committee itself. The suppression of the ad hoc committee’s comprehensive report and the information contained therein renders nearly impossible any broad, informed mobilization by current or future students, alumni, faculty members, or the design community. Forever deferring the ability to enact action through bureaucratic delays and measures appears to be the preferred response to the problem.

4/// What might a productive approach be? Before we may begin to answer this, let us use this story to understand what a productive approach is not. Many choices made by those who hope to bring about change or those who hope to be allies often reproduce inequalities as a result of the very strategies designed to respond to the problems. That is to say, strategies of empowerment may ultimately dismiss the needs of women, people of color, and trans people. This may be illustrated in four ways.

First, both opponents of change and supporters who insist on meritocracy argue that gender or ethnicity does not matter and that talent and work alone should determine who is recruited and hired. This insistence, however, fails to acknowledge the first effect of architecture’s professional climate: the privileging of the white, straight male which continues to result in rates of attrition for all others.

Second, in an architecture faculty with multiple programs, progressive gains made by other programs (landscape architecture, visual studies) are often strategically highlighted while the failings of architecture are hidden through a quantification game, in which selectively shared data may present a picture that all is well in all programs. The statistics are used to paint the illusion of progress and in so doing, delegitimize concerns. It is in this way that the work of feminists and feminist supporters in other programs is marshalled to, in fact, further silence women, people of color and trans people, as well as those who might be making the noise to which the institution is responding.

Third, the ‘lean-in’ approach — now predominantly touted as a path to success for women in North America — reproduces existing socio-economic hierarchies, whereby the women who are most able to ‘lean-in’ are already the most privileged. This approach dismisses the way in which privileges and limitations of gender, race, and class accumulate differently on different bodies.

Fourth, no matter how it is expressed, discontent with the status quo in architecture often results in the institution engaging in tokenistic, objectifying measures of inclusion — such as the single woman or person of color on an entire panel, on a jury review, as a member of a cohort of thesis advisors — so as to avoid public shaming. This is as disempowering as a complete exclusion, if not more so.

5///Equality is not a credential. Equality is a task. It is what we have to do, because we are not there yet.” (Sara Ahmed, “Equality Credentials,” 2016)

The point of architectural education is to make space. The architecture school itself is, as an educational institution, a constructed, contemporary locus of social and political power. If we agree on this, then it follows that, as in the world, power is enforced through what is promised as possible but never granted.

What does it mean to say something is possible? Let us also agree to say something is possible when there is no absolute impediment to the potentiality of an event. In our case, this possible event is inclusion. It is possible. Logic does not prohibit the inclusion of women or people of color or trans people. It is the construction of the male-world in architecture school that insists upon maintaining its own intolerable present which refuses to include women or people of color or trans people, and by extension, the possibilities that their perspectives might engender. In so doing, the architecture school only serves to, in the long game, prohibit its own growth, the male-world foreclosing upon its own possibilities through a gradual atrophy, a vestigial flicker of what might have been.