The Personal, Professional and Natalie de Blois: GSAPP Professors in Conversation on Women in Architecture

The Personal, Professional and Natalie de Blois: GSAPP Professors in Conversation on Women in Architecture

By Dora Felekou

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The ArchiteXX Brown Bag Lecture Series at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), brought together professors Mary McLeod and Hilary Sample, two American architects and academics firmly established in the field, under the title “Generations.” The room reverberated with multiple story lines, all focused on the advancement of women’s roles within both the discipline and profession of architecture since the mid-20th century. Not surprisingly, gender remains an open-ended subject for discussion.

GSAPP Professor Mary McLeod

GSAPP Professor Mary McLeod

Mary McLeod entered the Princeton School of Architecture in the early 1970s. At first the only woman in her class,  two other female students transferred in later on. By the time of her graduation, almost half of the new students were women, echoing a fast cultural shift at the time, a period heavily influenced politically and socially by the Civil Rights Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. Upon graduation, she was employed at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, but was assigned to arranging interiors and stair detailing, despite her background in architecture. Interior work was mostly entrusted to female architects in firms at the time, owing to the branding of interior design as a feminine pursuit that hearkens back to the work of Christine Frederick and Catherine Beecher in the late 19th century. The ‘60s were also the period when the shift from smaller-scale to anonymous, corporate architecture took hold. Corporate offices were run mostly by men while female architects, like McLeod, were relegated to the sidelines.

Later in her career, McLeod was offered a tenure-track position at Columbia, a school much more open to employing female architects than other educational institutions were at the time. A brief interlude of teaching at Harvard highlighted different philosophies between the two schools for McLeod; one indication was that the faculty in Cambridge was short on female architects. She later returned to Columbia, an architecture school that has more often than not been a leader in the hiring of women faculty.

Hilary Sample presents research on the career of Natalie de Blois.

Hilary Sample presents research on the career of Natalie de Blois.

As McLeod was riding the emerging second wave of feminism, Hilary Sample was an undergraduate student in the Bachelor of Architecture program at Syracuse University under the leadership of Dean Werner Seligman. The curriculum at Syracuse was rigorously postmodern, heavily influenced by Le Corbusier and Colin Rowe, and Sample studied Rem Koolhaas independently. Although at that point the role of women in architecture had been strengthened compared to the late ‘60s, as they joined the field in greater numbers, Sample’s thesis was a controversial project tackling the subject of women, housing, and work envisioning a new model for New York City. Her thesis built upon the work of Mary McLeod, Gwendolyn Wright and Richard Plunz, among others, who helped formulate her ideas and personality. Interested in models of housing and working, Sample researched projects like the Barbizon Hotel, always getting the sense that her work was being tolerated by her professors, but with skepticism, and was received differently than the work of her male colleagues.

Sample is currently researching the life and work of Columbia alumna Natalie de Blois who graduated in 1944 to become the first female designer at the New York office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM). In her talk, Sample presented original research on de Blois’s career, which reflects the complexities of practice in the early years of American Modernism.  Blois completed significant built works such as the Lever House, Union Carbide and Pepsi-Co corporate headquarters under the direction of Gordon Bunshaft, even though she was publicly acknowledged at the time as a senior designer. Sample’s goal in her research is to present not only the complexities of the emergence of large-scale office like SOM, but to present another narrative of a talented American woman architect as a counter-point to the recently hotly debated legacy of Denise Scott Brown whose Pritzker snub rekindled the debate about gender in architecture. Sample offers up a thoughtful alternative and asks that our new generation probe deeper into the nature of architectural practice and ask new questions about what it means today to study in professional programs where more than 50% of students are women, and what implications this holds for both women and men in practice. Sample’s research will be presented in full as part of the catalogue of the American Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale.

Following McLeod and Sample’s presentations, the discussion traced two feminist “waves”, or periods of heightened feminist awareness in architecture, which paved the way for a possible third wave happening now. The first wave in the early 20th century aimed at bringing women into the workforce, slowly changing the preconceptions of male and female architecture students and practitioners (prominent thinkers in this wave included Leslie Weisman, Denise Scott Brown). The second wave focused more on challenging gender definitions and analyzing the rhetoric concerning the role of women in architecture (articulated by Beatriz Colomina, Deborah Fausch, Catherine Ingraham, Jennifer Bloomer). The two waves overlapped in the 1994 Any Conference Mop-Up organized by Cynthia Davidson and the 1995 conference The Sex of Architecture, held at the University of Pennsylvania which also resulted in the publication of an eponymous book in 1996. The discussion called for a third generational “wave”, but if the third generation is being formed right now, what is its role and what are its goals?

While much of the conversation related to the history of feminism and personal experience of the speakers, important advice was given on how female architects should firmly engage in financial conversations. Mary McLeod pointed out that she was raised to believe that conversations regarding salary are impolite for women. Columbia faculty member Galia Solomonoff pointed out that many of her female employees never ask for a raise unless she brings up the topic. Talking about remuneration should not be a taboo for female architects, but a right.

Recommended reading by Mary McLeod

Recommended reading by Mary McLeod

Another important side story revolved around numerous books that Mary McLeod brought with her to the lecture; books about feminism and the importance of the female presence in architecture (which rarely show up in architecture syllabi). A few of these titles are:

The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan

Sexual Politics, Kate Millett

Heresies magazine (all issues can be downloaded at http://heresiesfilmproject.org/archive/)

The Grand Domestic Revolution, Dolores Hayden

Women in American Architecture; A historic and contemporary perspective, Ed. Suzanna Torre

Sexuality and Space, Ed. Beatriz Colomina

Architecture: in Fashion, Deborah Fausch

Dora Felekou is an architect based in New York. She is receiving a Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University (2014) under the Mentzelopoulos Foundation and Gerondelis Foundation Scholarships. She is a Teaching Assistant at Barnard and Columbia Undergraduate College and a registered architect in Greece, contributing to projects featured in the Biennale for young Greek architects and in architectural magazines such as Frame and Casaviva.
 

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