“The acrobat is no puppet,
he devotes his life to activities,
in which, in perpetual danger of death,
he performs extraordinary movements of infinite difficulty,
with disciplined exactitude and precision…
free to break his neck and bones be crushed.
Nobody asks him to do this.
Nobody owes him any thanks.
He lives in the extraordinary world
of the acrobats.
Result: most certainly!
He does things which others cannot.”
As dictated by Le Corbusier to Balkrishna Doshi (a+u)
I found this poem in a thin book about Le Corbusier that I had borrowed the first month of my architectural studies in Argentina. Our first year design professor was a follower of Le Corbusier so I felt I had to understand his architecture. But I was more impressed by the poem than by the buildings in the book, poorly represented in small, blurry black and white illustrations. The poem, far from being scary in its intimation of crushed bones, opened a world of possibilities to a teenager who saw herself as a rebel, not beholden to gender or other conventions. Of these possibilities, not specifically identified with architecture in the poem, the one that appealed the most was being able to do things that others cannot. One of my favorite poets at that time (and still today) was the Spaniard Antonio Machado, whose poem “Cantares” I recited over and over like a mantra: “Traveler, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; traveler, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Traveler, there is no road– Only wakes upon the sea.” Both poems converged on the powerful idea of a life that followed no previous pattern, one that would have to be designed ab novo. Although half the students in my class were women, I realized that there was no advantage in associating myself with them, and that I could earn more respect for my work from my male classmates, in part because I could do “things they could not”, such as coming up with unexpected original observations about the site or program of a project that were the result of a complex analytical process. All during my education and beyond there were no role models for women in architecture, or any buildings designed by women recorded in the history of architecture we studied. My female classmates and I were orphans in the storm, easy to disengage from the chosen path, as it happened to most of them who left the profession when they became mothers, or who became the behind-the-scene managers of a husband’s practice. This was in the late 1960s, but I am aware that the problem persists today barring escape options facilitated by personal wealth.
Five decades after discovering Le Corbusier’s poem I ask myself what was I able to do “which others cannot”. An incomplete list: making visible the invisibility of women architects in American architecture; opening the path for other women to be considered for highly coveted commissions in Columbus, IN; introducing the study of nature and landscape into an architectural curriculum years before “landscape urbanism” became a curriculum feature in most schools of architecture; introducing the concept of “function” not as “utility” but as “purpose” during the 1980s in my teaching at Columbia University; achieving parity in the hiring of faculty at Parsons in the 1980s — the backlash decade — and just for one semester, even an all-woman faculty roster at Columbia’s undergraduate program when I was Program Director; creating new typologies for fire stations and housing. I believe that, given different circumstances, I could have done more. But, as the boxer Joe Louis famously said, “I did the best I could with what I had.”
reply? please send me an e-mail