Blog: a professional autobiography


Even though we know there is still so much that needs to change in architecture (both academy and the profession) for women to achieve equality of pay and opportunity and parity in hiring, I had thought that some events, like not receiving tenure at a university for being a feminist as it happened to me in 1988, were truly a thing of the past. Now I am not so sure; recent events have made me think for the first time that it makes sense to tell the story of two different but related aspects of this episode in my life. The first concerns the actual denial, which was staged by the university administration to appear as if the referee letters had been negative when the opposite was true. This was eventually revealed when I was able to obtain redacted copies of the letters through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The second concerns the reactions of colleagues, particularly those women whose own promotion and tenure I had helped to achieve.

I was put up for tenure in the field of architectural design at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning in the summer of 1988 with the backing of its tenured faculty, a supportive dossier of letters and extensive national and international publications of my work. I was very much in the upswing of my career, with constant invitations to present my work at professional associations and architectural schools worldwide. I had recently been selected in preference to Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry and Bob Stern to design a fire station in Columbus IN, a showplace of a town with an impressive roster of architects hired to design public buildings. The reviews of the finished building had been positive, even as critics chose to ignore the typological innovation I introduced in the building to make it possible to hire and retain women firefighters. Olivier Boissiére, critic of Le Monde, had called it a “building admirably designed.”

I had never hidden my feminism, then as now a belief in equality of opportunity for all people regardless of gender, race and ethnic affiliations, and my support for all of my students was well established. I took it as an acknowledgement of my personhood beyond gender stereotypes that a male colleague referred to me as not acting “like a woman, but not like a man either.” My design studio problems included projects such as housing for two-paycheck families; a National Museum of Quilts; a factory in Lawrence MA (the city of the Bread and Roses 1912 strike); and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls NY. These projects opened the door for discussions about innovation in architectural design through the redefinition of program and relevant feminist ideas. Above all, my actions challenged, albeit in a quiet way, the gate-keeping culture that allowed the access of women (and non-white men) to any and all rewards in academy and the profession only on a one at a time basis. I was a token woman, and as such I was supposed to keep the door closed instead of helping others crash the gate.

Against all evidence at Columbia and other Ivy League schools of architecture where appointments and prizes were routinely given to the (male) friends of the (male) faculty in preference to women with better qualifications, I wanted – naively – to believe in fairness and meritocracy in the evaluation of my work and accomplishments. That is why it came as a shock and a surprise to learn that I had been denied tenure. As a private university, Columbia’s tenure process was shrouded in secrecy, the members of the Ad-Hoc tenure evaluation committee and all witnesses sworn to strict confidentiality. Nonetheless, what I learned about what had happened from colleagues in the committee displeased with the outcome encouraged me to challenge the decision. Especially as it involved a professor with a misogynist reputation from a department I had specifically asked to be excluded from my Ad-Hoc tenure committee because of conflicts of interest. How he got into the committee can only be attributed to the intervention of the brand new dean. He was a friend of a major gatekeeper in the New York architectural scene that considered my work to expand opportunities for women dangerous because it was successful. I had also requested that at least one woman should be part of the committee, but none was included.

I placed my complaint with the University’s Faculty Affairs Committee, in charge of investigating grievances, believing that the referee letters I had obtained would speak for themselves. I considered a lawsuit when it became obvious that the administration would stonewall all attempts from the committee to get the documents it needed or to authorize the use of the original letters to evaluate my complaint. But this idea did not prosper as I lacked the tens of thousands of dollars that it would have taken to pursue it. In 1996, eight years after my first request for an investigation, I received a letter from the chair of the Faculty Affairs committee “closing the investigation without making any formal recommendations to the Provost”, as it had been prevented from “reviewing documents and interviewing witnesses necessary for the investigation.”

Fire Station Five had been the first important commission for a public building I had received. It would have launched a brighter, more secure phase of my career in design. But it became the last great opportunity once news of my tenure denial became known. And it took a decade for a woman to be tenured in architectural design at Columbia.

(To be continued in Part 2 of this post)

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“What is architecture?” the Dean of the School of Architecture at Princeton University asked me with a gentle demeanor and a smile. In the early seventies I was friendly with a little group of Princeton School of Architecture graduates, one of whom thought the school should hire me to teach design and had taken the trouble to arrange for an interview with the Dean, although I was very uncertain about being part of such a small and elitist enclave that did not welcome women.

“What is architecture?” was a zinger of a question that only much later I understood was meant to find out my stylistic preferences. Was I a Modern (the dean’s preference)? Or was I a follower of Robert Venturi, as many young architects were then? When I recovered I took the piece of chalk that was resting on the blackboard’s ledge and wrote these words as vertical columns: site/context; program; structure/construction; environmental technologies; esthetics. Then, with a swift gesture of my hand, I crossed the columns with a horizontal line. That, I said, is architecture – the spatial synthesis and the making sense of all those factors.

I had been reading Marina Waisman’s brilliant theoretical book, La estructura histórica del entorno (The Historical Structure of the Built Environment ) published in 1971, where she proposes an analytical framework for architecture using categories like those I had written on the blackboard. From this perspective, architecture is not a homogeneous process ruled by stylistic considerations, because new developments are likely to occur in some aspects of a design while others remain static. Moreover, she argued that only those buildings where significant changes had occurred in two or more aspects were acknowledged as historical landmarks – such as the Crystal Palace, which embodied an unprecedented program and also developed greenhouse technology to a much higher level. This analytical framework focused analysis on the architectural object or project, rather than the architect’s professed intention, and considered esthetics as of no greater or lesser importance than structure or program. I was also interested in Jan Mukařovský’s work on functions in architecture, and very much against the idea that architecture should only be viewed through the – in my view, narrowly limited – lens of style. Waisman’s and Mukařovský’s ideas for analyzing architecture suggested to me that it was possible to see architectural design as a transversal activity that did away with the dichotomy between form and function that continued to contaminate architectural discourses.

To my relief, the Dean did not call me back and I sometimes wondered whether he had even attempted to understand what I had meant with my diagram. I myself recognized it as the beginning of an idea that merited expansion. So I used transversality for the development of a design methodology that I suspected would let me circumvent the stylistic traps of Post-Modernism while allowing me to retain the ability to consider each project on its own merits and circumstances. Like one of my favorite artists, Gerhard Richter, I continue to believe that “style is violent, and I am not violent.”

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