Fixing the Record: Women Who Changed Architecture
Fixing the Record: Women Who Changed Architecture
This article originally appeared on Common Edge.
There is a famous quote – it is usually attributed to Winston Churchill – which says: “History is written by the victors”. This cynical and largely erroneous belief could only be true if history were frozen, regulated, static. It never does, and that’s precisely why we have historians. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the first draft of history is written by the victors. But early drafts, as any writer will tell you, are notoriously unreliable. So it is with the history of architecture. Women have played an important role in the field since the beginning of the profession, but that is not how history has recorded it. A new book, The women who changed architecture (Princeton Architectural Press), a collection of over 100 mini-biographies of important women architects spanning more than a century, hopes to take a step towards correcting this oversight. Recently, I spoke to Jan Cigliano Hartman, the volume’s editor, about the making of the book, important and overlooked characters, and why this isn’t a definitive list.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
JCH: Jan Cigliano Hartman
International Women’s Day 2022: on rebalancing forces and adjusting discourses
MCP: Let’s start with the origin story of the book. How did it happen?
JCH: In 2018, I was an editor at Princeton Architectural Press, and my job was either to create projects or to bring them. One day I started to google general architecture topics: “Architects under 40”; “Architects over 80”; “The most awarded architects.” I immediately realized that 95% or more of the names that came up were male. It was not news. I studied the history of architecture in the 1970s, and even then I was aware of the imbalance in printed knowledge about creative women and men. My growing discovery that women in architecture were underrepresented in publications and also online led me to develop this collective biography of women who changed architecture. I started with 50, then we (PAP) increased it to 100, then I thought: I don’t put an arbitrary cap on that. The book is now a collected biography of 122.
MCP: How did you make your choices? How did this process work?
JCH: We wanted women who were influential in architecture and had strong design work. Those were the two main criteria. There are a few exceptions to this, such as Susana Torre, who created the Women in Architecture exhibition and book for the Architectural League in 1977.
I did most of the selection. I am a historian by training and I have done a lot of research. We knew we wanted it worldwide, not just North America. Through a lot of research and a number of suggestions from colleagues, we’ve put together a list. The truth is, I know there are architects not in the book who will hopefully be included in a second edition, if that happens.
MCP: I was going through the book and, if you’re inclined to optimism, it’s to some extent a story of progress. Despite the fact that women still struggle to be represented in the field, this has improved and there are leaders and prominent women architects in much greater numbers. And there are seminal figures from the past who have been rediscovered and in some cases posthumously applauded. But there are also the important characters who have been buried by history. How did you discover these women?
JCH: The one I think of most is Ethel Bailey Furman, an African-American architect who designed over 200 buildings in Richmond, Virginia. She is recognized as both the first female architect in Virginia and the first black female architect in the United States. She is largely unknown and certainly underrepresented in local, regional, state and national archives. Most of its apartment buildings are gone, victims of urban renewal that demolished hundreds of black neighborhoods across the country.
MCP: When did she practice?
JCH: At the beginning of the 20th Century.
PCM: So more or less the same timeline as Julia Morgan? Or a little later?
JCH: Furman is about 20 years younger than Morgan. Ethel was born in 1893 and died in 1976. Her father was a bricklayer. This is how she got into architecture. She went to the Negro Contractors Conference at Hampton Institute in 1928, and she was the only woman in the whole group. I found it at the International Women in Architecture archives at Virginia Tech.
MCP: Had you heard of her before, or was it a eureka moment where you said, “Who is that?”
JCH: I had never heard of her! When I was a young historian, I worked at the Historic American Building Survey, and I had never heard of her. This is largely because most of her buildings are gone and she probably hasn’t been documented as thoroughly as the white male architects.
MCP: Was it published in a traditional sense?
JCH: I believe it was, but probably in the local papers.
MCP: Black Diaries.
MCP: Interesting. Who are some other women we may not know?
JCH: You may know Anne Tyng, the single girlfriend of Louis Kahn, but you may not know that she was a design partner with Kahn. She designed the interior of the Yale University Art Gallery and Design Center, which is considered her first major commission and her groundbreaking masterpiece. Anne designed the interior of one of the building’s main galleries. And earlier in the 20th century, there were many female associates in Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio. He was one of the few men of his time to hire women in his design studio.
There are two important women I would like to highlight for you. One is Norma Merrick Sklarek, who was born in Harlem in 1926 and educated at Barnard and Columbia. She worked for Gruen Associates and designed major buildings, including the United States Embassy in Tokyo and the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. She is African-American and was totally unknown to me. Another important designer is Natalie Griffin de Blois, who was a senior designer at SOM. She was behind the scenes, designing those great New York landmarks we know as “SOM” or “Gordon Bunshaft,” but we never associated with this incredibly talented woman.
MCP: How many years did she practice?
JCH: Natalie was born in 1921, in Patterson, New Jersey. She attended Western College for Women in 1940, then earned her bachelor’s degree in architecture from Columbia. She practiced at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill from 1944 to 1974. Then she moved west. But she was the lead designer, along with Bunshaft, Lever House, Union Carbide, Pepsi World Headquarters, all of those landmark SOM projects. I hadn’t realized what a major contribution she had made. And also, going back to a figure like Lily Reich, how many people really understand that she was co-designer with Mies of the Barcelona pavilion as well as her famous chairs? So while she is not unknown, I don’t know if the full record of her accomplishments has been fully appreciated.
MCP: What’s great about the book – and one of the great things about these kinds of books – is that putting these women on a continuum, in context with each other, almost implies that it’s a continuous effort, this unearthing. It looks like it might be an ongoing project.
JCH: Absolutely. At one point when I was compiling the list, I shared it with Lauren Kogod, an architect and friend who has been involved with New York’s Storefront for Architecture. And of course she said, “Well, what about that woman? Or what about her? I really hope this becomes an ongoing project.
MCP: One of the interesting things about the book is that it not only gives credit to previously unrecognized designers, but also pierces some architectural myths. The old perception was that architecture was practiced by white men, almost exclusively, led by a single genius, rather than teams of people, men and women. I think the perception has changed. People largely think that it is not only incorrect, but ill-advised to claim that this is how architects worked.
JCH: It’s true. Many of these women’s stories have been buried under the weight of dominant, more prominent male peers. Natalie du Blois is a good example. And yet, since the end of the 19th century, there have been women in design offices. Often they were at the drawing board, but there were very few architects, male or female, who didn’t have a coterie of designers working with them.
MCP: Who is your ideal reader for this book?
JCH: The first readers will be architects, but I think a great story about women who changed a major profession like architecture gives this book great market potential. So it’s the generally interested NPR listeners who are just curious about the underappreciated role of women in architecture. Women who changed architecture, what, really?
MCP: Although it certainly wouldn’t be a bad result if it ended up in high school libraries so that 16-year-old girls could read it and be like, “Oh, that’s a possibility.
JCH: Absolutely. In fact, the reason the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation is co-publishing the book is because its mission is to support young women in architectural careers.