Skip to main content

We need women designing buildings

By Marika Shioiri-Clark and John Cary, Special to CNN
May 4, 2013 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Denise Scott Brown in Las Vegas around 1966. She co-wrote the seminal book
Denise Scott Brown in Las Vegas around 1966. She co-wrote the seminal book "Learning from Las Vegas."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi are partners, yet only he was honored
  • Writers: Movement afoot to recognize Scott Brown in the male dominated profession
  • They say female architects' marginalization is a loss to our public landscape
  • Architecture is missing the creative input of women and minorities, they say

Editor's note: Marika Shioiri-Clark is the principal of SOSHL Studio, an international design consultancy, based in Cleveland. John Cary is the founder of PublicInterestDesign.org, a website focused on design and social change based in Brooklyn, New York.

(CNN) -- An online campaign has started to right a 22-year-old wrong committed against legendary architect Denise Scott Brown. She and Robert Venturi, her partner and husband, have designed iconic buildings together for 40 years -- yet she was excluded when Venturi was awarded the highest honor in architecture in 1991, the Pritzker Prize.

The cause has created an unusual outcry across the architecture profession. Started by two young women active in the Women In Design club at Harvard University, the Change.org campaign has generated more than 11,000 signatures, nine of whom are Pritzker winners. It's a worthy cause, and reflects the dismissive attitude toward women in architecture even today.

Architect Zaha Hadid, one of only two women who have won the Pritzer Prize, stands in front of the Riverside Museum she designed for Glasgow, Scotland.
Architect Zaha Hadid, one of only two women who have won the Pritzer Prize, stands in front of the Riverside Museum she designed for Glasgow, Scotland.

Endowed by the Pritzker Family, the $100,000 prize has twice been awarded to pairs of architects, both times at the request of the individual to whom the award was originally intended to go. With only one exception, however, female partners have consistently been overlooked. Just last year, Chinese architect Wang Shu was honored without his partner and wife, Lu Wenyu. Only two women have won the Pritzker Prize in its 34 year history.

Since 1991, Venturi has repeatedly insisted that Scott Brown was an equal collaborator and should share the honor with him. It's not a hard case to make: Scott Brown co-wrote the highly influential book "Learning from Las Vegas" in 1972, and has been widely known and appreciated in the field.

Scott Brown described Venturi as being "as brave as you could possibly expect him to be" in his support. Still, they decided "we could not afford to pass up the Pritzker Prize for the sake of our fledgling firm." She is calling for a ceremony to recognize her contributions to the firm's work, which includes the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London and the Vanna Venturi house.

Marika Shioiri-Clark
Marika Shioiri-Clark
John Cary
John Cary

Zaha Hadid, one of the two female Pritzker honorees, has admonished her profession, saying she doubted anything has changed for women in architecture over the last 30 years.

"I have quite a few senior architects in the office and they are extremely reliable and very talented, but, when I taught, all of my best students were women," she told The Observer. "Then they drift off."

What Hadid characterizes as "drifting off" is, in truth, a mass exodus. Although just about as many women as men study in American architecture schools, only about 16% of the licensed architects in the United States are women. The number is slightly higher in the United Kingdom, where around 20% of qualified architects are women.

Like other professions with notoriously "leaky pipelines," many women drop out of architecture during the onerous final stages. After five to seven years of education, aspiring architects must complete an internship and a costly, multipart licensing exam, which takes an average of 8.5 years to complete. Only then, after years of low pay, does the profession confer the title of architect.

This career phase directly corresponds with women's childbearing years, forcing many to choose between becoming a mother or an architect. To be sure, a precious few do both, but they often have a partner who stays home or they can pay someone else to provide domestic labor and child care while they put in long hours at the office.

But it's not just the licensing process and the culture of workaholism that push women out. It's also sexism in the workplace and the profession at large.

In a January 2013 study by The Architects' Journal, nearly two-thirds of British female architects said they have suffered gender discrimination or male bullying at work. Nearly half the women reported they received lower pay than their male counterparts, and 60% said they have encountered building industry clients who failed or refused to recognize their authority. No comparable study has been completed in the United States.

As has so often been said, you can't be what you can't see. It's not easy for women who aspire to be architects to find female role models.

Women are just a small minority of firm leaders. A survey conducted by the American Institute of Architects found that in 2012, women made up only 17% of firm principals and partners. Just two women have served as presidents of the AIA in its 155-year history, although a third will do so in 2014. The AIA's recent promotion of Mattel's "Architect Barbie" doll as a recruitment tool to interest young girls overlooks the cultural and institutional sexism in the profession.

When asked about the AIA, Scott Brown reported that each time Venturi has been put forward for the organization's highest honor, the Gold Medal, the couple responded as a team. "The AIA has always returned the submission, unopened," she said, because the organization knew Venturi and Scott Brown were applying together.

In the end, Denise Scott Brown receiving equal recognition for a 22-year-old slight is not the point. The bigger issue is that the gender disparity in architecture, both symbolically and substantially, is not just a problem for women; it's a problem for all of us.

How might our shared built environment -- our homes, hospitals, schools, workplaces and public spaces -- be shaped differently if women were behind half the proverbial blueprints? How would it be different with the contributions of architects from racial minority groups, who make up only 2% of the profession?

It is not a question of whether, but to what extent, buildings are less beautiful, less functional, less equitable because women are not creating them. Winston Churchill famously noted, "We shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us."

As is so often the case in other areas, our public landscape and the architecture profession are shaped by only a small fraction of our potential collective genius, and limited by the creative absence of so many.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1952 GMT (0352 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT