In an era post-Suffragette, post-Women's Lib, and post-Riot Grrrl—or, in architecture terms, post-Julia Morgan, post-Eileen Gray, and post-Zaha Hadid—it is easy to get lulled into thinking there is finally gender equality in the architecture profession. After all, women, who make up 51 percent of the population, represent a generous 43 percent of architecture students, according to data from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. Yet the AIA reports that women members constitute a paltry 11 percent. Clearly, there is a disconnect between what we perceive as the status quo and the numbers.
On Oct. 28, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation teamed with the Museum of Modern Artin New York (MoMA) to present "Women in Modernism: Making Places in Architecture." The colloquium's goal was to illuminate where women fit within what Barry Bergdoll, MoMA's Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, calls "the larger culture of architecture," both in history and now.
In this terrain, both Bergdoll and the main speaker, Columbia professor Gwendolyn Wright, stated that women's architectural influence comes not just in their roles as practitioners, but also as patrons, publicists, curators, and journalists. Citing, among others, critic Ada Louise Huxtable and MoMA curator Elizabeth Mock (best known for the exhibition "Built in USA: 1932-1944," the title later cribbed by Philip Johnson), Bergdoll and Wright offered a new, more inclusive way to define "architect."
Panelist and Graham Foundation director Sarah Herda presented a similarly reconsidered history of her organization. She uncovered archival photographs from the 1950s showing prominent designers' wives (identified as Mrs. Saarinen and Mrs. Wurster) participating alongside the men at Graham Foundation workshops. As Wright put it, "It isn't that hard [to find women in architecture]. If you go back to the historical record, they are there."
Other panelists included Karen Stein, former editorial director of Phaidon Press, and Toshiko Mori, Harvard chair of the Department of Architecture. As the first woman to hold that position, Mori optimistically outlined the contributions of Graduate School of Design's faculty, students, and alumnae. She painted a picture of a profession rich in accomplishments by women—a welcome image, but one that may have a prematurely rosy glow: The audience consisted mostly of women, suggesting that the discussion of women's current role in architecture is not yet a broad, cross-gender one.