Are architecture schools S&M dungeons? That might be the impression you get if you read either the now infamous Shitty Architecture Men list or some of the placards students posted at various architecture schools this last semester. It seems the argument about sexism in architecture, which has generated a great deal of discussion in this post-Weinstein era, has expanded from the uncovering of and calling for action on sexual harassment to a demand for an examination of studio culture itself. The implication of many of the comments I have read on those placards and heard in discussions at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, whose final reviews I attended, is that the very idea of a high-pressure, competitive, and deadline-driven architecture school environment is sexist.
Never doubt students with access to plotters. Student groups looking to hold @HarvardGSD @Harvard accountable and provide a substantial response to the Shitty Men In Architecture List. pic.twitter.com/peJlZLShmY— Malia (@missmaliaaaa) April 6, 2018
Though that might seem to some readers like carrying the argument a bit too far, I would not dismiss this idea out of hand. While I am strong believer in the importance of recognizing, fostering, offering a framework for, and rewarding talented individuals—which is what I believe the studio learning system should do—I also recognize that what we might call “the charrette cult” produces situations that can do more harm than good in terms of fulfilling that mission. I also realize that the value system of which the whole studio culture is a part is bound up with attitudes and hierarchies that we have come to associate with socially produced ideas of masculinity.
By this I do not mean that there is anything inherently masculine about a competitive culture that values hard work, but that we have come to associate such a culture with men to the point that it is still, I believe, widely perceived as a masculine trait be driven, competitive, and dedicated to long hours of work—regardless of how many women engage in the same culture. Conversely, there is still a bias in our society that cooperative work that also values a more balanced relationship between various aspects of one’s life is feminine. It might seem weird that this is the case, but there are historic reasons such a division emerged, some of which I tried to trace in my book Building Sex (William Morrow & Co., 1995) and which many others have examined in more scientific ways elsewhere.
The architecture education system that predominates today in this country, especially at the graduate level, is in some ways an extreme example of such a culture. It is still based on the methods and processes developed at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris at the beginning of the 19th century. It focuses on studio design courses that provide the lion’s share of a school’s academic credits and that most participants experience as the core of their education. Those studios are led by teachers, still mostly male, who have attained a status—usually through the running of a successful office, but at times also through being able to articulate a clear theoretical or aesthetic position—that leads schools to put them in that position. Their judgment on work, even if tempered by accreditation criteria and the views of outsider reviewers, is absolute, and so is their power.
Distinguishing one’s self in the eye of these teachers through the production of what they see as a good project is key to one’s future career—or so most students are led to believe by those same teachers—and the way to attain such a positive evaluation is through hard work. Studio teachers demand full presentations and resolved designs on tight schedules. Some of them also expect an adherence to their way of making architecture. Moreover, students compete with each other to see whose presentation can be the most complete, most visually appealing, and most critique-friendly (a particular quality that is hard to define but easy to see if you review enough work).
So far, so good, at least if you are willing to accept that we live in a capitalist system based on competition—or, for that matter, any system based on establishing a place and role for yourself through the acquisition of knowledge, practice, talent, and social positioning. I am, in other words, leaving aside the whole question of whether we should instead choose revolution and create a more cooperative society, as some critics have suggested. I am happy to work towards such a future, which I believe would have to come through social and political change, but first we should make the best of what we have. The question then is: When does the studio-to-work process become perverted both by its own dynamic and by a skewed value system?
In such a competitive situation, an arms race often develops in which students, egged on by professors, try to outdo each other, resulting in unnecessary work that shows they can produce more than their classmates. When that drive leads to an emphasis on show and production over quality, it reflects the poor value system used by the professor. When it turns into an obsession about who can stay up longer and disregard the rest of their life more fully, it becomes both physically and mentally unhealthy.
This is where studios begin to resemble unhealthy work environments, where the pressure to succeed leads employees to have to make bad choices in order to survive, let alone advance. Moreover, it also tends to be a “macho” atmosphere, coming out of a notion of competition rooted in male role-playing, however much women might “lean in.” Charrettes can turn into a blood sport.
This latter aspect becomes exasperated by both conscious and unconscious “male” techniques and traits, from mansplaining (of which I have been guilty at times), to the invalid assumption that men are better able to pull all-nighters than women, to the notion that you should outdo and humiliate your peers. Again, none of these assumptions are true or can be “proven” (or disproven), but they are part of the way we have a culturally formed model of masculinity and feminity that, even after close to half a century of women’s liberation, still seems ingrained in our (self) perceptions—or so it seems to many of the women (and some men) who were part of the Ivy League protests.
That does not mean, however, that we can directly blame the charrette cult on male bias. (Do we associate the abuse of power with masculinity just because there are bad men out there? If so, just because the abuse of power is most often perpetrated by men does not necessarily mean it’s a masculine trait.) I think this cult mentality is built into our culture in many ways, and it will take active work by all participants—especially studio teachers—to prevent its perversion.
That should not mean that we ban charrettes or final public critiques. Nor am I a strong believer in artificial brakes, such as making students hand in their work the evening before a review. Students should be encouraged to keep thinking, drawing, and designing right up to the last minute. What I have tried to do in my own teaching practice is to emphasize the importance of sketches, experiments, and unfinished aspects of designs, not just final renderings and resolved floor plans. I also try to encourage group work and studio collaboration, and I feel you can see a good design studio at work when you witness students helping each other.
Students—again, especially those at a graduate level—know what they are getting into when they enroll in a master’s program in architecture. However, when the charrette cult meets very real sexism and harassment, the stress of the situation is amplified, and it is this confluence that, I believe, has created the very valid grounds for this spring’s protests.
There are still a lot of men—and not a few women—who walk into the studios they are teaching with the attitude that since they run offices where everybody needs to work very hard, the students learning from them should work just as hard as well. Their belief that architecture should be its own reward does make it a sort of cult, one where if you don’t do what they tell you, you fail. But students aren’t yet employees, and we need to be careful of establishing an environment that treats them like they are.
We absolutely need to punish and eliminate sexism and harassment in architecture schools. But an environment where hard work, especially creative hard work, is valued, is not, in my opinion, a hostile work environment. A studio where you are encouraged to dream, envision, and elaborate complex experiments is not a macho cult. Maybe I have an idealistic idea of what graduate education should offer, but it is an idea that I think is worth fighting for in the face of an alternative that would value shared mediocrity over the value of creativity and talent.