Chicks In Architecture Refuse to Yield to Atavistic Thinking in Design and Society

Sarah Rafson

In 1992, a collective of Chicago architects and designers founded Chicks in Architecture Refuse to Yield To Atavistic Thinking in Design and Society (CARYATIDS, or CARY). Although CARY’s 1993 exhibition, More Than the Sum of Our Body Parts (MTSOBP), has been largely forgotten, the group leveled critiques that resonate with recent activism and used exhibition strategies that are still provocative today.

A review of CARY’s exhibition in Architecture magazine described how MTSOBP “shatters male myths,” “symbolizes limits,” and “exposes the inequities of pay, position, and power” in architecture practice. A video from the Randolph Street Gallery opening shows a stylish event with artists, architects, and designers enjoying cocktails as a rotating cast of men and women smile and pose through the cutout face of a caryatid. The Randolph Street Gallery was known for showing pioneering performance art, not architecture. While no buildings were on display, the exhibition sent a strong message about what it means to be a woman in architecture and how the profession ought to respond.

CARY was a collective of over seventy architects and designers, both men and women, but three women were at the center of it all. Carol Crandall, Sally Levine, and Kay Janis were all involved in the Chicago Women in Architecture (CWA)—Crandall was just ending her term as CWA president—when they decided to organize a more radical spinoff group in 1992. The following year, Chicago would host a joint convention between the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the International Union of Architects (UIA), the largest gathering of architects ever. What’s more, the AIA’s first female president, Susan Maxman, hosted the historic moment.

CARY needed to reach the upper echelons of the AIA in order to push policies affecting women to the center of the national agenda, and they felt a counterexhibition was one way to do it. Gender inequities that seemed to disappear during the “boom” years of the late 1980s reappeared as layoffs disproportionately left women out of work during the recession of the early ’90s. In light of this, CARY sent Maxman a copy of the MTSOBP catalogue with a formal letter that spelled out their demands:

“Dear Ms. Maxman,

. . . The following issues have been ignored by the AIA:

  • The Wage Gap

  • The Glass Ceiling

  • Family Leave Policies

  • Gender Bias in Treatment on the Job

  • Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

  • Family/Workplace Issues

  • Attrition Rates

We challenge the AIA to formulate specific programs and policies to address these issues.”

Had Maxman visited the exhibition, she would have seen a gallery dotted with large sculptures, each addressing a different aspect of architecture practice. Some addressed problems in workplace policy and ways the AIA could intervene. Just Relax, This May Cause Some Discomfort, for example, was a gynecological gurney covered by a paper printed with the Family Medical Leave Act, which President Clinton signed earlier that year. CARY pointed out that this legislation is ineffective for the 90 percent of architecture firms with twenty employees or fewer—a statistic that is still true today.

Tea and Sympathy displayed the “loosely veiled excuses” women received in the workplace. CARY painted a series of teacups with an excuse (“We didn’t reschedule the meeting just for you”) and decoded the underlying reason on the tea tag (“Because you’re a mom”). This piece expressed the feeling of disposability the women felt, with shattered ceramic and mannequin limbs piled in a heap on the floor below the teacups.

Water Cooler Wisdom: If Only These Jugheads Could Talk was more interactive. CARY’s male members recorded the derogatory comments their female counterparts had received in their workplaces—boardrooms, classrooms, and construction sites. Their voices animated a scene of wire figures with water cooler heads and dim light bulbs shining within. Visitors contributed their own experiences on a bulletin board reading “Employee Notices.”

The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Reader all covered MTSOBP, as did other publications as far-flung as Korea. Even if few of the thousands of convention visitors ventured to see the exhibition just a couple miles away, they were likely aware of it. The group disbanded shortly after the exhibition, although each of the three founders continued their advocacy in different ways. Sally Levine staged a similar exhibition, ALICE (Architecture Lets in Chicks Except) Through the Glass Ceiling in San Francisco in 1995.

CARY crystallized in the early ’90s during the resurgence of women’s rights advocacy in the US known as feminism’s “third-wave,” which came several years after the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated in 1982 and the lively “second-wave” feminism of the women’s movement ended. In 1993, CARY’s tone surely reminded visitors of the Guerrilla Girls who were challenging the art world’s gender biases through posters, postcards, billboards, and protests filled with puns and revelatory statistics. MTSOBP’s expressive sculpture, however, recalled an earlier era of feminist art, like Judy Chicago’s vignette-filled Womanhouse in Los Angeles in 1972.

Despite many recent exhibitions touting the impact and work of women architects, few take on larger political questions as directly as CARY did in MTSOBP. In 2010, Woodbury University hosted 13.3% “an exasperated reply to those who say: ‘there are no women making architecture.’” The show borrowed Lucy Lippard’s strategy of accepting open submissions through the mail in standard manila envelopes. In 2014, the Storefront for Art & Architecture’s Letters to the Mayor exhibition was another cleverly crafted feminist critique, displaying letters by fifty international architects—who happened to be women—addressed “to the political leaders of more than 20 cities around the world.”

As CARY stated in the exhibition with some irony, “The choice of homemaker and home maker is no longer mutually exclusive.” The number of women architects in the US has risen slightly, from 15 percent in 1993 to 24 percent in 2016, and the AIA has inaugurated three women as presidents since Maxman’s term. As Despina Stratigakos reports, women still drop out of the profession in disproportionate numbers, although advocacy organizations like ArchiteXX, the Beverly Willis Foundation, and others throughout the country, hope to change that.  

Since 1993, the AIA has done formidable work addressing equity in architecture through its Equity by Design initiative, although recent events signal the ongoing rift between the organization and its membership. Two decades after CARY, the Architecture Lobby staged its own protest to the 2014 AIA National Convention in Chicago, reading a list of demands outside the convention hall on behalf of architecture’s “precarious workers.” This year, the Architecture Lobby takes their advocacy for fair labor practices one step further, launching JustDesign.Us, an accreditation program to recognize compliant firms. The #NotMyAIA hashtag that began trending since the AIA sent a complacent letter to then President-elect Donald Trump is just another indication that although much has changed in the architectural profession, CARY’s complaints reverberate more than ever.  

Note: a version of this article appeared in the Chicago Architecture Biennial Blog.

Sarah Rafson is Ann Kalla Visiting Professor at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture. She is an architectural editor, curator, and researcher and the founder of Point Line Projects, an editorial and curatorial agency for architecture and design. Rafson won the Buell Center Oral History Prize for her master’s thesis from Columbia University. She is a board member of ArchiteXX and editor of sub_teXXt, their online journal. She was a curatorial assistant for Bernard Tschumi’s 2014 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, editorial assistant at the Museum of Modern Art, and editor of two recent books, Parc de La Villette (Artifice, 2014) and Builders, Housewives, and the Construction of Modern Athens (Artifice, 2017).