Designing Women

The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art team up to discuss women in modernism.

This week the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art, will present Women in Modernism — Making Places in Architecture, a colloquium that will explore the role women have had and continue to have in shaping the history and defining the legacy of modern architecture. Participants include Sarah Herda, Director, The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago; Toshiko Mori, architect and Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture and Chair of the Department of Architecture, Harvard University; Karen Stein, former Editorial Director, Phaidon Press; and Gwendolyn Wright, architectural historian and Professor of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Columbia University.

Barry Bergdoll, recently installed as the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, will be moderating the evening’s panel presentation. An art historian at Columbia, Bergdoll brings a fresh perspective–one that included architects from countries previously overlooked by the architecture department–to the job, which he started in January of this year.


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Can we start with the obvious white elephant? You’re moderating a panel on “women in modernism,” but you’re male. How did you become involved?
I’ve known Beverly Willis for quite a while, and I’ve known about the activities of the foundation. When I came to the museum, we talked about doing something. This was something they were eager to do – they’d done one, and were thinking about a second – so I said, “Why don’t we host it for you?” It’s their symposium, but it’s nice to give them a venue.

So where are women in modernism?
One of the reasons I think this thing is so interesting is that this sounds like a question from twenty years ago. On the face of it so much has changed that the idea of taking stock, actually having a discussion, and bringing this into the forefront when there are so many women who have emerged in architecture in a visible way, seems…. I don’t think that women were excluded–although I think there were mechanisms that made this an extremely uphill battle in recent times, and that’s not over. But women are so visible now in architecture that I think it is worth asking, just really how does that stack up?

Obviously so many of the women who are visible are visible in couples–that’s a phenomenon with an earlier history but it’s become quite prevalent lately. So I think from a lot of peoples’ point of view it doesn’t seem like the most urgent and timely question but that’s precisely why it’s so necessary.

Who are some women architects you really admire?
The obvious ones—Liz Diller’s just an incredible mind, an artist, and also just politically incredibly adept. She’s in one of those practices that made an incredible transition from designing cooperative art projects to dealing with everything that goes on at Lincoln Center.

Billie Tsien is another that comes to mind. And then there are tons of others. Margaret Helfand was obviously a very fine architect. I think she was a rather interesting case. She was a friend; I think she had to fight a lot harder than a man would in her position. Successful architects are selling themselves constantly; they’re just on all the time. Their wireless devices are always switched on. Women are required to do that even more intensively.

I suppose why Zaha Hadid comes up so much is that Zaha is one of the rare people who is allowed to act as enfant terrible. Which is a figure of the artist, at least, accepted for men. And she has demanded that for herself but it’s not one that I think in most cases people are eager to grant to women as they are to men.

So there are people like Zaha – who everyone knows, and others like Liz Diller, who everyone also knows. But do we need more Zahas and more Liz’s?
I think there are other models. To reduce it to those two would not be entirely accurate. Think of someone like Marilyn Taylor of SOM, she’s in a very corporate structure but she’s a powerful voice there, and very, very respected, and very influential. And, I think, very successful at achieving important goals in their larger scale and urban projects.

I’m very much in the infrastructure of the profession–on juries, at schools, on advisory committees. In that sort of sense, if you’re talking about people whose faces might appear all over the place, she’s less obvious, but I’m certain she’s a completely different model. What’s the space in between?

But then the press is complicit in all this too.
Well I wonder if someone like Zaha, as much as she’s criticized, doesn’t help lift the glass ceiling a lot higher. There are very significant schools that have women deans, or women directors of the Department of Architecture like Toshiko Mori–who’s on the panel–or, until recently, Nasrine Seraji at Cornell.

Do you think we’ll ever be able to have just “people in modernism” panels? Or is sexism just always going to be de rigueur? In other words, is there hope?
I think it goes far beyond architecture. When will we be beyond the period of identity politics? I suppose in the way you initially think about the conference, there’s a little bit of a sense of exhaustion about it, even if in many cases the work is not completely done. And I do think that discussing gender issues or race issues or anything at all independent of the economics issues is a little bit artificial.

There’s another taboo, which I don’t know how much it will be discussed but it’s the question of when architects—men or women—already have enormous personal resources, and when they don’t.

That would be an awesome panel. You should do that.

Women in Modernism — Making Places in Architecture, will be held at the Celeste Bartos Theater at MoMA on October 25, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.

This program is AIA/CES registered for 1.75 Learning Units through Metropolis. Sign in for credit at the information desk in the Cullman lobby at 4 West 54 Street on the evening of the program.

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