Opinion

Building Parity: On Women Architects

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LOS ANGELES – The new documentary Coast Modern, about modern homes on the West Coast, debuted in Los Angeles last week at the Hammer Museum in conjunction with their small gem of an architecture exhibit A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living. Having watched the film’s preview, showing breathtaking modern homes in coastal forests, cities, and beaches from Los Angeles to Vancouver, I was expecting a light, cinematic version of Dwell magazine by-the-sea. And while it was visually rapturous, it also offered depth and historical context, as well as some unexpected humor (like a section on baroque 1980s McMansions, and a riff on the archetypal joyless hipsters so often portrayed in the aforementioned Dwell).

An especially striking aspect of the film, though, was its inclusion of women architects and critics. Throughout, women were filmed offering their thoughts about the history and place of Modernism on the western edge of the continent, or their architectural philosophies. There were men too of course, like architect Ray Kappe and writer and artist Douglas Coupland, but in a documentary about architecture, it was notable how many of the “talking heads” belonged to ladies.

(For a call out — à la Le Tigre — we heard from Allison Arieff, Barbara Bestor, Catherine Johnson, Michelle Kaufmann, Gloria Koenig, Barbara Lamprecht, Judith Shiene, Kim Smith, and Adele Weder.)

This is significant and timely in light of the slew of architecture-related programming in LA this season, and the sparse number of women on view. (See Alissa Walker’s recent post “Where are the Women?” in the LA Weekly.) But it’s an issue getting well-deserved nationwide attention, inspired to no small degree by the recent petition circulating to belatedly award Denise Scott Brown the 1991 Pritzker Prize that went solely to her male partner. Architectural Record magazine is also devoting several features this month to the topic of “Women in Architecture Now.” In Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s article “Crashing the Boys Club,” she notes that 40% of architecture school graduates today are women. Yet, most panels, exhibits, and documentaries on architecture include far, far fewer than that.

Much of the current programming in LA looks back at the city’s architectural history, and that explains part of the absence; in the late 1960s, as Goldhagen reports, 94% of architecture students were men. Nonetheless, she nails it when pointing out that having fewer women in design “creates a built environment in which men’s experiences are disproportionately concretized in built form. That’s not good for anybody.” (And needless to say, she means straight white men’s experiences.) With only 17% of women currently in leadership roles in architectural firms, it’s clear that not only the working conditions, but the outdated stories we tell about architecture aren’t good for anybody, and must evolve.

Coast Modern screened on June 4 at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles).

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