Architecture Has A Woman Problem

Architectural history is written by men about men–a new website is challenging this bias.

Think of the famous architects who are household names–the ones who get Simpsons cameos and blockbuster exhibitions at major museums. Notice anything? They’re probably all white men. While the architecture industry is mostly male, women have made remarkable contributions while facing structural hurdles that have held them back, one of which is how architectural history is recorded and passed down. (For example, Denise Scott Brown has not received a Pritzker Prize, but her husband, Robert Venturi, did, even though they worked side by side.) Pioneering Women of American Architecture, a new website, is taking a big step toward reversing the omissions that plague our history books.


Developed by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), a foundation named for architect and women’s rights activist Beverly Willis, and directed by Columbia professors Mary McLeod and Victoria Rosner, Pioneering Women of Architecture will feature 50 figures who have made “important contributions to American architecture,” the site states. The BWAF convened a jury to figure out which women should be included (first focusing on those born before 1940, a date selected since the site wanted to start with a new canon of 20th women century architects). They recognized that built work wasn’t the only measure of impact, so they included architects as well as interior designers, theorists, and critics.

Georgia Louise Harris Brown (third from right) at work in the office of Frank Kornacker, structural engineer. [Photo: Edwards, circa late 1940s/Courtesy of the Brown family]
“George Orwell said that ‘history is written by the winners,'” Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, executive director of the BWAF, tells Co.Design in an email. “So, as with so much of how we come to know what we know, it comes to us through a white male filter, with an agreed-upon hagiography of modernism. Filling out the historical record with a diversity of perspectives enriches our understanding of the development of women’s careers, and the many threads that weave the tapestry of design.”

The site includes rich biographies of the featured women, photographs of them and their work, lists of their awards and major commissions, and a bibliography to guide curious readers to more information. Figures like Ray Eames, Ada Louise Huxtable, and Florence Knoll Basset, are included on the list. The BWAF hopes that this site leads to a #MeToo moment of reckoning in the architecture industry about the lack of diversity and inclusion in its ranks and the systemic inequities that reinforce this condition.

Ray Eames and Charles Eames, living room in the Eames House, Pacific Palisades, Calif. Photograph by Julius Shulman, 1958. [Photo: © J. Paul Getty Trust/Julius Shulman Photography Archive Research Library at the Getty Research Institute/Eames Office]
“Architecture is like a lot of other fields that are traditionally dominated by men,” Kracauer tells Co.Design. “The culture values the ‘creative genius’ who is generally considered to be some sort of heroic male. There is a great deal of gender bias around the issue of creativity–of course we know that it is hogwash; men and women are equally creative, and there are plenty of studies that show that. However the culture itself continues to hold that backward prejudice.”

Among some of the standout stories included on the site? That of Natalie Griffin de Blois, an architect who said in her oral history that was fired from her first job after resisting sexual advances from a senior partner at the firm. She then went on to work at Skidmore Owings & Merrill and designed skyscrapers in New York and Chicago. “She toiled for 30 years at SOM, and never received the credit she deserved,” Kracauer tells Co.Design. According to de Blois’s oral history, SOM only credited partners at the time and did not give credit to individual people who worked on jobs, a practice she said she was not concerned about. When asked for comment, SOM spokeswoman Elizabeth Kubany said, “Architecture is a complex process and we at SOM have always endeavored to express this complexity by giving credit to as many people on our teams–both SOM staff and outside consultants–as possible. That said, the desire to identify the lead architect was as strong, if not stronger, in the mid 20th century as it is today, and as a result many important roles were minimized. Within the firm, we’ve been talking about Natalie de Blois for decades, and I am personally thrilled that her narrative is emerging and her story is being told.”

The site also includes Alice Constant Austin, a self-taught progressive designer who proposed ideas that would free women from domestic work. She imagined a community where none of the houses had kitchens, but were all connected by tunnels to a central hub where paid workers prepared meals. “[She] was a renegade, socialist feminist who saw the future for women outside the kitchen,” Kracauer tells Co.Design. “Her grand domestic revolution would liberate women from the bondage of houswifery.”


Mary Jane Colter, Interior, Hopi House, Grand Canyon, 1905. [Photo: National Park Service]
Then there’s Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, an architect who practiced in the southwest and experimented with ways that Native American vernacular design could inform modern structures. Her Lookout Studio–a tourist rest stop above the Grand Canyon–is made from local stone and appears to grow from the rocky Arizona terrain. “Colter’s work is so expressive, so material, she created our ideas of great natural work in extraordinary landscapes,” Kracauer tells Co.Design.

The site launched in mid-December, with 24 of the 50 women included. The full roster will be added to the site in the first quarter of 2018. Eventually the BWAF wants to add the next generation of women to the site, those born between 1940 and 1960. It hopes that the site becomes a resource for new scholarship about the featured practitioners, a reference for women who are interested in creative careers, and a destination that schools can direct their students to.

“We are at such a watershed moment for women,” Kracauer says. “It’s instructive to have a ‘before’ moment to contextualize what will come next for us as architects, and women in the workplace.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.