Saturday, June 1, 2013

Why have there been no great women [architects]?, continued

Our old friend Mark Humphries responds to Friday's post on attribution by noting the great fame and critical success enjoyed by Zaha Hadid, including her 2004 Pritzker Prize. And certainly, Hadid is not alone - we could easily fill post after post with work by critically-acclaimed and financially successful women architects. Yet such a list belies two fundamental problems: women remain systematically under-credited for the work they do in shaping the built environment, regardless of how many success stories we can name, and the very nature of Hadid's fame embodies the marginalization of architecture as a meaningful way of shaping the public realm. In numerous ways, Hadid's success is the problem.

Linda Nochlin explains that naming "great women artists" like Hadid inadvertently validates the flawed assumption underlying the question. "Such attempts," she argues, "[...] are certainly worth the effort, both in adding to our knowledge of women's achievement and of art history generally. But they do nothing to question the assumptions lying behind the question "Why have there been no great women artists?" On the contrary, by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications."

As Nochlin points out, "taking the bait" by trying to answer the question with a list of "great women artists" confirms the erroneous and uncritical assumption that "art" is a reified object made by a solitary "genius." This is already comical in relation to the fine arts, but is perverse when applied to architecture.  The Ayn Randian myth of a Frank Lloyd Wright-like genius imposing his will on nature or the city veils the reality of architecture, which is a messy, collaborative process involving many voices and responding to numerous concerns. It perpetuates the elitist notion that design is imposed by a professional whose status is conferred by institutional and state bodies, which in turn reinforces the perceived powerlessness of stakeholders - like neighbors and users - whose participation in the building process is too often limited to confrontational planning board meetings (which frequently lead to insipidly bad architecture).

Hadid also exemplifies how the obsession with genius can be devastating to the public realm. Our presumption that great architecture comes from genuine geniuses fuels our obsession with the architect's signature. Hadid's contorted forms, like Frank Gehry's crumpled metal skins or Richard Meier's gridded facades of white metal panels, comprise an easily recognizable signature, prized by public and private clients alike. We congratulate ourselves when we recognize them ("oh look, that must be an Eisenman... notice his use of non-Euclidean geometry...") But the problem with signature is that it emphasizes the building as a discrete object, at the expense of its integration into the city. The street should always be more important than an individual building, yet geniuses do not defer to the city around them. They build icons. And our built environment is the poorer for it.

Nochlin also points out how the obsession with genius masks a host of far more important aspects of artistic production, such as social context. Class, she notes, is a major determinant of who enters, and succeeds in, the art world. "As far as the relationship of artistic occupation and social class is concerned, an interesting paradigm for the question "Why have there been no great women artists?" might well be provided by trying to answer the question "Why have there been no great artists from the aristocracy?"" In the case of architecture, the financial requirements for critical success along the lines enjoyed by Hadid - years of unremunerated work and hefty expenditures for education, travel, publicity and staff (themselves often unpaid) - too often limit the profession's upper tiers to independently wealthy practitioners. Yes, Hadid was born with ovaries, but she was also born with financial security, like her fellow Pritzker laureates. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that her portfolio brims with baubles like cultural institutions meant to drape a civilized face over a repressive regime, or aerial culs-de-sac for plutocrats. Is this really the best way to shape our cities?

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