Aaron Betsky: Can We Overcome Design’s Gender Problem?

When Betsky wrote Building Sex over 20 years ago, he thought architecture and interior design’s gender issues would be more or less resolved by now. He was wrong.

Knoll Showroom in Chicago, Illinois, 1953. Designed by Florence Knoll, who revolutionized corporate interiors.

Courtesy Knoll 

Aaron Betsky, dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, has been contemplating the gendered nature of architecture and interior design for decades now. Unfortunately, according to Betsky, the professional divide has not improved in any way significant way in that time. On the occasion of the NYSID’s symposium, Interior Design: The Essential Profession, where Betsky will give the keynote lecture, we decided to catch up with the educator and critic and discuss architecture and interior design’s persistent gender problems—as well as the disciplines’ possible futures.

Vanessa Quirk: For anyone who hasn’t read Building Sex, would you mind summing up the book’s thesis?

Aaron Betsky: The book came as a result of my teaching in both architecture and interior design. The thesis really is that the man-made world, as we call it, has in fact been made by men. And women had to make their own place within that world.  So we have a situation in which, until very recently, and even today, most buildings are made by men.

But beyond that, the qualities that we associate with good architecture are the same qualities that we associate with masculinity. I’m not saying that they are masculine, or buildings are masculine, but qualities—of rationality, strength, trying to be as big and tall as possible—those are all things that we associate with masculinity. Whereas the qualities we prize in interiors—that they are sensible and sensitive to needs, that they might even be sensual—are qualities that we associate with femininity. In fact, the realm of interior design has been one that has been dominated by women.

So I looked at how we have arrived at that peculiar situation through history and then asked how we might be able to get out of that. I wrote this book more than 20 years ago and thought that, given the amount of women entering architecture schools, at the very least, this would be more or less a historical document. But I’ve been surprised in the last few decades that even though there is parity in most architecture schools, certainly in entering classes, by they time you get to graduation and then once you get into the profession, and into the, shall we say, higher reaches of the profession, the quantity of women seems to disappear rather quickly.

VQ: So to clarify, you would say this association of architecture with the masculine and interiors with the feminine has contributed to the fact that interior architecture is often not considered architecture at all? Is often dismissed as decoration?

AB: Absolutely, it’s an ironic situation because we tend to think of interiors as being much more comfortable. People respect what interior designers do much more. But there is very little, still, history and theory of interior design because critical theory and critical appraisal have been almost wholly reserved for architecture. Again, I thought twenty years ago that that was changing because of the influence of critical theory and post-modern thinking. But I continue to be surprised how much that is still the case.  

VQ: So if you were to update the book today, is there anything you think has changed?

AB: Well, we certainly have had a number of women architects who have made a mark for themselves. Most notably Dame Hadid, but you can point in this country to some one like Jeanne Gang, obviously. Although it’s still remarkable that the women architects in this country who are successful are often quite successful as part of a husband and wife team, like Diller and Scofidio and Williams Tsien. And on the other side, in the world of interior design, I really haven’t seen much either. It is still a discipline that is largely seen as something either for women or gay men, I’m sorry it’s a cliché, but that is the case. And not much else seems to have changed.

Antwerp Port House, Zaha Hadid Architects

Courtesy Hufton + Crow

VQ: Would you say to change this perception we need more women in architecture and more men in interior design? Is that all it boils down to?

AB: Well, I think it’s more complicated than that. I think it’s a change in the association of values as well. But it certainly would be a good start, to have more women in architecture and more men in interior design. That would be a very very good start.

Having many years ago been rather skeptical about the whole notion of role models and gender representation, I, in my teaching career, have come to realize how incredibly important it is, especially for students, to have good role models, to be able to see themselves within discipline and the profession. I think it’s very important to at least have those women in the discipline as soon as possible.

VQ: Will this be the subject of your keynote lecture at the NYSID symposium tomorrow?

AB: Yes, I’ll be talking about that. I’ll offer a historical survey of how this has come about and will then propose that—beyond the gender representation that I’ve been talking about—the blurring of the lines and disciplines, the developments of new hybrids between architectures, interiors, and various forms of art, especially installation and performance art, will offer alternative definitions of the discipline and possibly even career paths.

VQ: So is this where you see the future of interior design profession going? To a more hybrid state?

AB: I think it is. Because I think the bread and butter—not only in architecture but in interior design as well—has become more and more standardized and computerized. A lot of the rote things that interior designers or architects do are now done by computer programs or specialists. The notion that you instead need to find people who are creative, able to pursue the profession and the discipline in a creative way, means that one has to be open to different definitions of the way the disciplines work.

VQ: Do you think there will be a change in the perception of the interior design discipline?

AB: I think there needs to be, just as there needs to be a change in the definition of architecture. Again, I think it goes both ways. But I think that the days that interior designers can depend on their knowledge of either space planning or material choice have long gone. You need to have creativity at a much deeper level, pertaining to how one looks towards spatiality and towards decoration in a much more profound manner.

VQ: There seems to be a shift—in both interior design and architecture—towards really considering the use experience, on a practical level. For example, using sensors to get data and feedback. Do you think that will have a role to play in changing both disciplines?

AB: I’m very skeptical of that, I find those to be sort of pseudo-sciences. I’m much more interested in a movement in which people indeed use data, but use data to provide affordances, which is to say, the possibilities of different ways in which spaces can be received and used, that have an open relationship to the audiences that might come in there.

VQ: You mean in the programming sense?

Well, programming is a very outdated word already. We need to really think about how we can use data to not predict how people will behave but to provide different opportunities and different possibilities for people to use spaces.

Aaron Betsky

Courtesy Andrew Pielage

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