Friday, May 31, 2013

Why have there been no great women [architects]?

We really are grateful for all the positive responses tin box has received so far. Online, in print, on television and on tours - the feedback has been great. But at the risk of sounding ungrateful, we do have to take issue with one aspect of the coverage: attribution.

For whatever reason, people frequently credit the project to David, and discount Holly's role in the collaboration. Unfortunately, this situation is very common in architecture.

Denise Scott Brown, one of the most influential architects of the last forty years, was passed over for the profession's most prestigious award, the Pritzker Prize, when it was awarded to her partner and husband, Robert Venturi in 1991. A petition has been circulating this spring demanding that the Pritzker committee correct its mistake, and hopefully they'll do so, soon. But Scott Brown's case is only the most prominent of a widespread problem in in our culture, which is the presumption that architecture is practiced by men, with women's participation somehow nominal, marginal, token or negligible.
Time and again, Holly has had her role as the designer of tin box ignored or dismissed. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, this oversight is commonly committed by women, as has been the case with several printed accounts and the tv news story about our house.
This situation was described with great precision by art historian Linda Nochlin in her 1971 essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" Among the insights in Nochlin's article is the observation that the bias, often subconscious, that presumes that all "great artists" have been men carries with it a number of unchallenged assumptions about art that are dangerously misleading. Art, our mythology holds, is reified works made by individual (even solitary) artists endowed with great and mysterious ability (genius) which they often gain at the expense of sanity. This misconception masks the importance of collaboration, for example, and reserves the term "art" for only a narrow range of artistic activity.
Even more so than the other visual arts, architecture is an intensely collaborative discipline. A small structure like tin box requires the coordinated work of dozens of professionals and scores of tradespeople and construction workers. The myth of the heroic, individual genius doesn't just reinforce the misconception that the architect will be male (the gender associated with individualism and genius in Western cultures), it downplays the importance of collectivity and consensus.
It is vital for architects to disabuse society - and ourselves - of these misconceptions. The stakes are bigger than just ensuring that credit is given where it's due. The work we do as designers benefits from the involvement of voices too often suppressed by a flawed understanding of how we shape the built environment.

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