Has Pritzker Controversy Brought About Architecture’s Lean In Moment?

The recent controversy over Denise Scott Brown and the Pritzker Prize served as both a litmus test on the status of women in the field, and a wake-up call for an entire profession struggling for relevancy and respect.

From left: Ray Eames; Denise Scott Brown; Jeanne Gang

Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images; Courtesy Sally Ryan Photography; Courtesy Frank Hanswijk

“Women are the ghosts of modern architecture, everywhere present, crucial, but strangely invisible,” writes historian Beatriz Colomina in “With, Or Without You,” an essay in the Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 catalog, Modern Women. “Architecture is deeply collaborative, more like moviemaking than visual art, for example. But unlike movies, this is hardly ever acknowledged.” Colomina goes on to chronicle the history of modernism’s missing women, acknowledged, if at all, as working “with” Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, or Charles Eames. To put yourself in the shoes of Lilly Reich, Charlotte Perriand, and Aino Aalto, simply watch the cringe-worthy video of the Eameses on the Home show in 1956, Ray introduced as the “very capable woman behind him” who enters after Charles has bantered with host Arlene Francis.

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This spring, these ghosts came back to haunt us: Arielle Assouline-Lichten, a student at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, read excerpts from an interview with Denise Scott Brown in which she mentioned her own absence from partner Robert Venturi’s 1991 Pritzker Prize. “They owe me not a Pritzker Prize but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony,” Scott Brown said. “Let’s salute the notion of joint creativity.” Assouline-Lichten had just relaunched the Women in Design student group at the GSD with Caroline James; she emailed James, they drafted a petition, and three hours later the call for recognition of Scott Brown by the Pritzker Committee was live at Change.org. By late May the petition had more than 12,500 signatures, including nine Pritzker recipients: Robert Venturi (“Denise Scott Brown is my inspiring and equal partner”); Rem Koolhaas (“an embarrassing injustice”); and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Colomina wrote simply, “We are all Denise.”

More strictly, all but 26 of us are Denise: living, working in architecture, not Pritzker prizewinners. The students’ petition was born of the desire to support Scott Brown. But more important, and more mortifying, has been the mainstream press attention to architecture’s longtime, thoroughly depressing gender gap. The usefulness of prizes is debatable, but the Pritzker has always been one way architects make the news: 2012 winner Wang Shu made the TIME 100 list this year. Only a Pritzker or MacArthur seems to guarantee an architect a profile in the New York Times. The petition turned that publicity value on its head. By supporting a marginalized heroine, the students were leaning in: making trouble, asking for a raise on their aspirations, taking collective action. Who wants to leave architecture school thinking the best they might achieve is a mention in a Pritzker citation, round about the fifth paragraph? James had been reading Sheryl Sandberg and saw this as a moment of decision: “Part of my agenda is making the profession I’m entering a better place for me.”

There are really two parts to the question of Denise Scott Brown. The first is the literal place of women in architecture. As Scott Brown told Architect magazine earlier this year: “I was told things like, ‘Would the ladies please move out of the picture so we can have the architects?’ I would say, ‘I am an architect.’ And they’d say, ‘Would you move out of the picture, please?’”

Our ghosts today are less likely to be working female architectural partners; most couples who currently practice together go to great lengths to make sure both stay in the picture. Instead, they are women who leave the profession during their first decade out of school, or who, by dint of being shunted into interiors, or management, never make partner at all. Either absence is a diminishment. Unspoken hierarchies prove remarkably durable.

The second is the question of partnership, or more broadly, collaboration, and the way historians, critics, prize givers, and designers acknowledge the technological, complicated reality of making architecture today. When Scott Brown asked for inclusion, the second half of her statement was equally important: “Let’s salute the notion of joint creativity.” The Pritzker has done this, when the committee rewrote its own rules in 2001 and awarded the prize jointly to Herzog & de Meuron. Which raises two questions: 1. Can you imagine it any other way? And 2. What about their other partners, including Christine Binswanger? Once you’ve decided creativity can be divided, does it make sense to stop at two? Not mentioning Scott Brown until the fifth paragraph is dismissive enough, but there are others who contributed to Venturi’s prize who could be included too: coauthor Steve Izenour, early partner John Rauch; and, beyond the office, engineers, landscape architects, curtain wall consultants, and fabricators. Even loners such as Peter Zumthor and Glenn Murcutt don’t do it alone. Exposing the retrograde gender politics actually exposes much more about a profession that has changed significantly at every level except the top. If architecture wants to be more to the world than those 26 winners, it’s not only the women that need to start getting credit (and getting paid).

As I began reporting about the Pritzker-for-Scott-Brown petition, Lean In came up repeatedly. Whatever valid critiques there are of Sandberg’s corporate focus, the book created a front-page discussion of women’s unachieved equality in the workplace—with architecture lagging well behind business, medicine, and the law. “It is a moment, outside of architecture as well,” says WORKac principal Amale Andraos. “The DSB petition, Zaha’s recent railing about sexism in British architecture. There aren’t many women architects at that level who have taken a stance. They’re probably still threatened.”

Andraos and partner Dan Wood view the question of equality from two perspectives. As a male-female partnership, they struggle with competitions that want one name on the entry blank, and clients who ask, “Who does what?” As business owners, they make a point of hiring a diverse office and pay according to experience based on an Excel chart. “But every so often we check back, and find that key women are being paid much less. Now we offer raises for women.”

Andraos and Wood like their Excel chart for its neutrality, finding the pure numbers revealing and inarguable. Data is ideal for both the age of the infographic and for sharing on social media. Numbers take the discussion away from the individual case—does Scott Brown deserve a Pritzker?—and toward the wider problem. VIDA, a grassroots organization for women in the literary arts, counted the number of female book reviewers and books by women reviewed in publications. In the New Yorker, there were 445 male bylines in 2012 and 160 female bylines. (This is the magazine that described Zaha Hadid talking with her mouth full.) New Republic writer Lydia DePillis created a Tumblr, 100 Percent Men, devoted to the all-boys clubs in business, finance, and the arts. The current Pritzker Prize jury made the list, as did the 100-plus recipients of the AIA Gold Medal. Yale Law Women, an important student organization at Yale Law School that publishes an annual list of family-friendly firms, says its goal is “to make information—about the law school, clerkships, and the legal job market—more transparent and easier to access.” What would a family-friendly architecture firm look like? We need to know that before we can even make a list.

Lori Brown and Nina Freedman, cofounders of the new New York City–based women in architecture collective SHarE, have done more architecture-specific counting. This spring, of 73 architecture school lecture series surveyed, and 510 lectures scheduled, 26 percent were given by women. Thirty-four percent of schools had zero women on their primary lecture schedules. The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation looked at the leadership of architecture schools: There are now 22 female deans—but that’s fewer than 15 percent of the 154 accredited programs in America. Academia is often touted as a haven for women architects (more family-friendly, more equal), but it’s all relative. Forty percent of architecture school graduates are women, but only 15 percent of registered architects are, according to the AIA.

Brown and Freedman, who just launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo, want to focus their attention on these years of attrition, and to create a larger national organization for advocacy, mentorship, and training. “Everyone feels very disparate,” says Freedman, the director of projects at Shigeru Ban Architects. Beverly Willis has been going firm to firm to discuss changing culture with those in charge, and also stresses the need for models: “Sponsors, male or female, can make a difference in whether a woman stays or leaves. Entering a firm is like walking into a labyrinth. With a guide this is no problem; without one it can be both confusing and misleading.”

Brown and Freedman use the language of union drives and collective bargaining: Women in architecture need to organize not just to teach themselves to ask for raises, or create women’s networks (as the turn-of-the-last-century Lyceum Club did in European cities), but to push for structural change. Architect Sarah Wigglesworth, who organized the exhibition and symposium, and cowrote the book Desiring Practices in 1995, also underlines the need for thinking about the big picture. “Women must step up and say when they meet sexist behavior or conditions. Nobody is going to do this for them. If they succeed in making change, the effect will benefit everyone, not just women. I think women must learn to be less compliant, less willing to be agreeable in order to bring about change. After all, we’re not working in architecture to make friends. We want to fulfill ourselves, and make the conditions wherein we can do this.”

Women can challenge themselves to speak up, as Assouline-Lichten and James have done. But the kind of change that will benefit more than individuals, and more than women, will require more than media and social media. Who are the cultural leaders in the architectural profession? I was struck by how hard it was for me to think of any. As Andraos said, it was shocking when Zaha Hadid, often seen as exceptional, acknowledged the sexism that she and other women face. Architecture can be a profession of tunnel vision, focused on the next deadline, the next client, the next job. That’s what architecture school teaches, and it fosters a belief that one’s individual path will be different. Winka Dubbeldam, recently appointed chair at PennDesign, told me, “Women do get major awards, but having said that, the profession is dominated by men and it will take a long time before that actually changes. A sense of humor gets you a lot further than bitter battles. I march through it as my profession and ignore the rest.” I know where she is coming from: Halfway through moderating a Dwell panel on women in design last spring I was struck by the thought that I would much rather be discussing the work of Galia Solomonoff, Marion Weiss, and Claire Weisz than their gender. And yet, the room was full, and many younger women have since told me they were just happy to see three successful women on those high stools. Role models should offer more than individual achievement: They (we) need to offer concrete help, and to talk about how success happens. Acknowledging sacrifice and confrontations along the way are part of painting an accurate picture. As Wigglesworth said, “we are not working in architecture to make friends.”

Why do architects need to create stars? Because, I think, architecture deals with unmeasurables. Although architecture is both science and art, architects stand or fall in their own estimation and in that of their peers by whether they are “good designers,” and the criteria for this are ill-defined and undefinable. Faced with unmeasurables, people steer their way by magic.

That’s Denise Scott Brown’s description of what happened to Robert Venturi, published in 1989 as “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture.” The essay, based on a speech she gave in 1973, identified the thinking that goes into the making of the Pritzker Prize. In the first paragraph of Toyo Ito’s 2013 Pritzker citation we get “innovation,” “talent,” and “discovery”—unmeasurables all. Yet except in rare cases, individual seeking isn’t the way architecture is made anymore. Think about the most influential projects in contemporary architecture today, and many of them involve collaboration among architects and landscape architects, as well as rafts of consultants, engineers, and other specialists. As I said just before Ito’s win, the real game changer would be giving a Pritzker to a landscape architect.

When SANAA won the Pritzker in 2010, the first person Kazuyo Sejima thanked was the firm’s engineer, Mutsuro Sasaki, who also worked on Ito’s key Sendai Mediatheque.
In crediting a consultant as a collaborator, she was taking SANAA’s success out of the realm of magic. (If the prize were conceived differently, Sasaki could have two Pritzkers.) Ito, when he accepted his award in May, asked that all of his current and former staff members stand and be applauded. Jeanne Gang included an elaborate wheel of project credits in her firm’s 2011 book, Reveal, and echoes Colomina’s comparison of architecture to the film industry. Gang says, “Films list the major roles by the important creators, producers, and actors in the opening credits, and then in closing credits, everyone’s names and specific roles are listed.” This would allow prizes to be more specific about what is being awarded and could open discussion about what makes a project successful. It’s rare that we get a window into the nuts and bolts of running a practice; to change architectural culture is going to require getting into the details. The AIA gives both the Gold Medal (100 percent men) and an annual firm prize: Why Thom Mayne and not Morphosis? Can Tod Williams and Billie Tsien only win as a firm because they can’t as indivisible partners? The AIA should learn a lesson from its past here. The first winner of the firm award was SOM, for which it was obviously invented: when the leaders of your profession are partners, you make new prizes. Emphasizing joint creativity and the changing shape of work in architecture expands the constituency for those seeking a different way to practice. It’s not just women who would benefit from the recognition of the efforts of people throughout the office hierarchy in ways beyond awards: fair pay, reasonable work hours and overtime, family leave, annual performance reviews. The more we talk about the state of women in architecture, the more the state of architecture itself begins to sound rotten. For it to be sustainable as a profession, more than its treatment of women has to change. Women need to learn to ask for raises, but so do architects of their clients. “Though there is pay inequity between men and women in architecture,” Freedman says, “the much bigger real issue is people aren’t getting paid enough to begin with. The value of the architect, and how architects value themselves, what they are willing to accept, how fees are established—the respect isn’t there.” Raising wages at all levels of the profession would increase diversity and add flexibility: unless architects lean in to clients, the profession as a whole is in danger of being marginalized.

To put it another way: Social design begins at home. “It’s a problem if we’re trying to reflect society but we’re not a reflection of society,” Assouline-Lichten says. “Architecture deals with longevity and scale that makes it capable of changing the world—it’s imperative that the field recognize the inherent benefits of a greater definition of what architecture is and who makes it.”

How to begin? When I asked Julia Murphy, the current head of the SOM Women’s Initiative, what was to be done, she made a grand pincer-like movement with her arms. From the bottom, the flabbergasted twentysomethings just getting out of architecture school who find it hard to believe that Denise Scott Brown does not already have the Pritzker Prize. From the top: American architecture needs a survey, supported by professional organizations, but attached to an architecture school or schools, that will ask searching questions about salaries, sexism, sponsorship, time off, and time out to people participating in architecture at all levels. The AIA is scheduled to survey its members in 2014, but an AIA survey is not enough. If many women leave the profession before they are licensed, they never get to be AIA members. A model for such a research project can be found in the Australian Research Council–funded study, “Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership,” which has surveyed 1,237 women and 918 men. Though the full results have not yet been analyzed, a few patterns have emerged. “We found that women left at three moments: within five years of graduation, within ten years of graduation, within fifteen years of graduation,” says University of Melbourne professor Karen Burns. “My hypothesis was that these corresponded to stages in women’s lives as well as careers.” But it wasn’t only women leaving at any of those points: “Men and women leave because of low pay, long hours, and dissatisfaction with the narrow image of the profession.”

We need to create a new set of best practices. That will be a design project in itself, based on data, shared examples, and interpretation. Once written, we need to find leaders who will adopt them, firm by firm, sector by sector. That pincer movement needs to make partners (small p) of those coming into architecture and those with enough seniority to make change happen. As Colomina writes, “Correcting the record is not just a question of adding a few names or even thousands to the history of architecture. It is not just a matter of human justice or historical accuracy but a way to more fully understand architecture and the complex ways it is produced.”

Yes, Denise Scott Brown deserves her Pritzker inclusion ceremony, as she deserved the Pritzker in 1991. (Be happy next year’s Pritzker jury will once again include a single woman.) But the challenge for the future is to ensure there are no more DSBs asked (not so politely) to step out of the picture of the architects. Spotlight on Scott Brown, once again: “In a way my Pritzker Prize is the passion of all those people who responded to the petition and what they said. I am much less heart sore than I was. You didn’t have any of the sad old white males, who were so very, very big in so many areas of life.” If we are smart, and maybe a little disagreeable, more women in architecture can have the influence, experience, and creative life Scott Brown is still having. That’s the prize worth giving and receiving.

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