Observing the patriarchal structures of architecture history and education, Chloe Spiby Loh tells us how she organized a series of events (exhibition, debates, lectures, etc.) in her school in order to address gender in a discipline that often satisfies itself with an innocuous demographic balance in lieu of feminism.
As the wave of women’s marches in the United States took hold of global news coverage in January 2017, I was travelling back to Dublin from London to continue my studies in architecture after the Christmas break. The collective energy of all these women was transmitted to me from across the Atlantic, fuelling me to take up their call for change and start something new of my own; so over the next year and a half I devised a student-led project that came to be called Gender: An Architectural Agenda.
In the wake of so many global and local campaigns for women’s rights in other areas of cultural production, inequality in the architectural profession must be better addressed by the institutions that both educate and regulate the industry. When I ran this project in Dublin, between January 2017 and June 2018 there was only one female partner between the top five largest offices in Ireland. During this same time, according to the U.K.’s annual Architects’ Journal “Women in Architecture” survey, 20% of the female architects stated there were no women at all in their senior management staff, whilst only 1% said that there was an equal split.
While studying, I felt distinctly lacking in my ability to critically engage with issues surrounding power relations. Despite attending two schools of architecture in two different countries, neither curriculum covered the relationship between architecture and feminism in any sort of meaningful way. I could wax lyrical on how a building’s façade, material palette, programme or size suits its location and situation, but I didn’t feel I’d be able to engage in an equivalently educated way with any conversation about the intersections between architecture and feminism, class or race.
The first aim of the project therefore, was to equip myself and the rest of the student body with basic knowledge about the role and place of women in architecture, past and present. However, it was equally as important to me that the project also enabled us, as students, to develop our own voices in calling and acting on the changes to the profession that we deemed necessary. In this way, we would both form our own educated and critical stance on the issue of unequal distributions of power in architecture and hopefully find our own agency in developing methods of resistance.
Gender: An Architectural Agenda took the form of a public programme, which started in September 2017 and ended in June 2018. Many of the things we learned together shook the groundings on which most of my architectural education rested. I’ve always thought that I had a broad grasp of architectural history, however in organizing the lunchtime lecture series, which were mostly based around hidden or obscured female figureheads, I realized history could in fact be re-emphasized as his-story. So many of the personalities that reappear across the curriculum of architecture schools are white males, and as far as my experience has shown, most examples of precedents that students are made aware of, and encouraged to study, are by men. This both limits the visibility of women as role models but also as architects of the highest quality or relevance. By the end of these lectures, we had learned about women who not only held the role of architect, but who had also been involved elsewhere in the process of procuring or funding important buildings. This highlighted the limited and discriminating narrative of the history of architecture, which traditionally elevates the architect and client relationship, whilst obscuring other more generative or supportive roles.
However, for me the more insidious notion I took away from the lectures was that these “great” men, portrayed to us as geniuses of architecture, often had questionable and even sometimes misogynistic, abusive or racist tendencies, which had been left out of the traditional narrative. This imbalanced narrative is pervasively and silently spread through consecutive generations of architecture students, who become unknowingly complicit in this invisible single-sided view of history. Thus, the critical takeaway from the lectures we organized wasn’t about filling the gaps in the history of architecture, but about discovering that there could be new and alternative perspectives to this story.
Following on from the lecture series, we started to plan the main public outcome of the project: an exhibition of student works that responded to a number of books and journals on gender and feminism in architecture published since 2016. When I undertook this curatorial approach to the exhibition, only one of the books was available in our library; because of this project, they are now all available. Most of these publications were edited volumes whose many voices, from both academics and practitioners, suited our collective and distributive structure as a group of students across different year groups. I invited students to select individual essays that particularly resonated with them in some way, and then to produce a piece of work in response to ideas and arguments from this text.
As a second stream of self-initiated learning, these readings expanded on the lectures by giving us the tools to critically read and interpret architecture through the lens of feminist theory. These academic texts made certain invisible social or institutional devices visible to us; opening our eyes to the structuring capabilities of things like the binary nature of language, the symbolic influence of children’s toys, and even the layout of an average house as the result of centuries of social rituals that confined women to the home. The books made us realize the myriad of ways that feminism intersects with architecture beyond the topics repeatedly foregrounded by the architectural press, such as the gender pay gap, maternity leave discrimination, or the “glass ceiling.” The resultant student exhibition responded to this breadth of issues and included a piece that examined the metaphor of magic and witchery by fusing concrete and textiles, an abstract painting arguing against the binary categorization of bodies and places, but also more positive pieces that related to personal experiences about collaborative practice.
Thus, though we started this project by looking specifically at the issues surrounding the state of women and feminism in architecture, in reading these texts we came to realize the interplay between feminism and discourses about other social rights. There is a complex play of interconnected socio-political spheres such as history, religion, class and labor that lies behind some of the more specific issues of women’s participation and visibility in the architectural profession that we initially sought to understand.
Gender: An Architectural Agenda came to a close with an exhibition run at the Royal Institute of Irish Architects in central Dublin. The whole process was strongly empowering and showed both students and staff the active potential of the student body to critique the institutions to which they participate. I can only hope that the confidence we gained through working collectively to broaden our awareness of the discriminatory structures inherent in architecture can become the first step towards actively resisting them. ■
Chloe Spiby Loh is a member of the team at The Architecture Foundation think tank in London. In 2016, she founded Gender: An Architectural Agenda as a student at the University College Dublin.