Broadening the Discourse

Martina Dolejsova

 Pages from the catalogue of  Broadening the Discourse , an exhibition and conference, Santa Monica, CA, 1992. "Organization of Women Architects and Design Professionals Records, 1965-2005," Ms1988-080, Special Collections, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.

Pages from the catalogue of Broadening the Discourse, an exhibition and conference, Santa Monica, CA, 1992. "Organization of Women Architects and Design Professionals Records, 1965-2005," Ms1988-080, Special Collections, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.

Broadening the Discourse, an exhibition on women designers in California, opened its doors on January 24, 1992, to the onlookers and pedestrians of Santa Monica, CA. This exhibition was part of an annual statewide conference of the same name for women in design hosted by the California Women in Environmental Design (CWED) and cosponsored by the Association for Women in Architecture (AWA) and the UCLA Extension School for Environmental and Interior Design. The main symposium of the conference, titled Women in Environmental Design: Reconsidering Feminist Issues, included the panelists Susana Torre, Jacqueline Leavitt, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and moderator Ann Bergren. They addressed the relationship between feminist visions of architecture, space and the gaze of the profession.

At this conference, Torre reflected on the progress of women in architecture, from her early work in 1972 to her observations in 1992, and made her claim to the continued necessity of the category of “women” in the profession and the frustration regarding this as not an identity of acceptance but a distinction of “otherness” and trouble in the profession.1 This distinction is one that has informed women’s practice, class identities, and social positions. Broadening the Discourse demonstrated the changing discourse in feminism and practice found in the 1990’s as it began to question how to define roles of gender, its relationship with space and how feminist theory inserts itself into architecture. The AWA/CWED exhibition looked at the terms of vision in feminist theories, in which there is “visibility” vs. “invisibility” and the “visions” of work informed by a “gaze.”

AWA President Lian Hurst Mann explained the conceptual premise behind the exhibition and its title as one meant “to actively broaden—as in stretch, disturb, displace, wrench, re-envision—the point of view (the ‘gaze’) of the discourse that dominates.”2 Architectural historian Beatriz Colomina stated in Sexuality and Space that “architecture must be thought of as a system of representation in the same way that we think of drawings, photographs, models, film, or television, not only because architecture is made available to us through these media but because the built object is itself a system of representation.”3

The exhibition catalog stated it was “Broadening the Gaze” by attempting to acknowledge these systems and challenge or refuse them. This gaze is a constructed view of the modalities that feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey established as the male gaze, maintaining and controlling women and their sexuality as subjective objects.4 The woman is thus an object to be looked at for pleasure and controlled according to this gaze which associatively translates to objects that are associated with femininity and sexuality. This gaze informs social and power structures, and architectural structures become the visions of production and fetishization of these social models. The vision, claimed Mark Wigley in his essay, “Untitled: The Housing of Gender,” is the political and “often the most privileged.”5 Vision is representation, and what visualizations are enacted and seen reflect the gaze that is upon them. How gender varies, and how one refuses to be the category subjected by the gaze, is also demonstrative of what visions of representation are privileged.

The exhibition was an open submission to all women architects in California (as opposed to only women within CWED’s membership). An all-female jury selected projects, sustaining the CWED’s historic premise of creating visibility and validation within a female gaze.6 The jury intended to challenge the relationship between how people believed women designed and what was being designed (commissions), as well as how feminist ideologies were considered in design.

This focus on visibility has also been part of the writing of women’s architectural history7 and the women entering into institutions and achieving positions of authority—be it within universities, publications, or other organizations. Visibility is also deduced through institutions, such as the American Institute of Architects, which performed surveys that showed percentages of women in the profession.

At the same time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, visible bodies within institutions were directing and challenging gendered assumptions. In 1990, Adele Santos became the first women dean in an architecture school at the New School of Architecture at UC San Diego. CWED symposium panelist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville was named the head of the graphics department at Yale in 1990, and Susana Torre became the chair of the environmental design department at Parsons in New York in 1991. Participants of Women in Environmental Design: Reconsidering Feminist Issues reviewed existing feminist theories. These discussions surrounding representations in architecture that facilitated new perspectives into how women’s work has been viewed and categorized regarding representation, space, sexuality, and gender.

The exhibition and the conference discourse attempted to confuse and neutralize the gaze, so as to interpret new meanings. These events posed a different construction and idea of gender—terms that took hold at the level of subjectivity and representation, in the micropolitical practices of daily life and daily resistances that afford agency, and in the cultural productions of women and feminists that inscribe that movement in and out of ideology.

1 Kevin McMahon, “Observations from the Gender-Free Zone: Broadening the Discourse 5th Annual Conference (co-sponsored by the AWA),” LA Architect Magazine (March 1992), 14.

2 Broadening the Discourse catalog, “Broadening the Gaze: Feminist Strategies for Exhibiting Women’s Work. Lian Hurst Mann Talks with Darlene Crosby,” 7.

3 Beatriz Colomina, Sexuality and Space (New York, NY, Princeton Architectural Press, 1992).

4 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Visual and Other Pleasures (New York: Palgrave Macmillion, 2nd ed 2009).

5 Mark Wigley, “Untitled: The Housing of Gender,” in Sexuality and Space, ed Beatriz Colomina (New York, NY, Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), 362.

6 Despina Stratigakos discusses in her book A Women’s Berlin how the Women’s Club validated their work for exhibitions. “The use of male judges, which became standard practice at both the London and Berlin clubs, sent the message that women artists had received the most stringent seal of approval – that of their male colleagues.” Despina Stratigakos, A Women’s Berlin: Building the Modern City (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 27. Torre states that by the 1970s “the work is judged by the women themselves and by others on its own merits: through this evaluation women raise their own demands about the quality of their work and finally validate their image as professionals for themselves.” Susana Torre, “Women in Architecture and the New Feminism,” in Women In American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, ed. Susana Torre. (New York: Billboard Publications, 1977). The performance of validation slowly changed as women were judging and qualifying their work, yet the questions in the 1990s of quality were still in the culture languages of how women’s work was viewed.

7 Examples of such histories are Gwendolyn Wright’s “On the Fringe of the Profession: Women in American Architecture,” in The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, edited by Spiro Kostof, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 280-308; and Dolores Hayden’s The Grand Domestic Revolution: a History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1981).

Martina Dolejsova (MSc critical, curatorial, and conceptual practices of architecture, Columbia University) is the communications coordinator at Studio Libeskind in New York City. She has contributed articles to the Architect’s Newspaper, Archinect, PIN-UP, and Artillery magazine and curated the pop-up series, A Picture is Worth 500 Words.