Andrea J. Merrett
In April of 1972, several participants in the Boston-based professional group Women Architects, Landscape Architects, and Planners (WALAP) met to discuss starting a feminist practice. They were interested in answering the question, “How would an office of women professionals differ from the traditional (men’s) office?”1 They agreed that the practice would be a nonprofit enterprise that would “seek commissions for work with some social significance”—for example daycares and housing. Among their goals were: “[to] establish credibility for women, ... [to] provide a model for a new kind of office, ... [and to] research and support research on women’s activities in the profession.”2 Six women, Emilie Turano, Joan Sprague, Gwen Noyes Rono, Youngbin Yim, Magda Brosio, and Lois Golden Stern, went on to launch the Open Design Office (ODO).3 They also established a nonprofit organization, the Women’s Design Center, to focus on research and public education on women and the build environment.4
Although they did not officially define the procedures for the ODO until the end of the first year, the members agreed on three principles. The first was that all profits would remain within the firm. The members of the ODO believed the structure of most offices was a corporate model in which profit motivated senior partners to exploit employees. In contrast, the ODO sought to treat all its members equally and fairly. After they paid themselves, the members agreed to use any profits earned to subsidize research or community projects. The second principle was that working hours would be completely flexible.5 As long as members met deadlines and kept each other informed of their schedules, they could determine their own schedules. The ODO would hold regular meetings to discuss projects and management issues. The third principle was the elimination of an office hierarchy. All members of the office were to reach management decisions together by consensus. Each member was expected to take full responsibility for her projects, and the office would only accept projects on which everyone agreed.
In rejecting a hierarchical structure, the founders of the ODO were responding to an office culture that glorified the myth of the individual creator over the reality that most projects require a team of people. Many offices also excluded women from advancement. In their emphasis on equality, the founders of ODO embraced one of the tenets of radical feminists who rejected hierarchies and what they thought of as “male” leadership qualities such as assertion, domination, and independence. Women’s liberation groups tried to operate without any leaders, giving every member equal say in decision-making through a consensus process. Sprague described this method of working as “affiliative” and compared it to women preparing a meal together: “No one defines who is in charge.”6
Whatever the aspirations of the office, a de facto hierarchy did develop.7 Sprague was the most experienced member. She had graduated from Cornell in 1953 and practiced for almost twenty years, including a decade as partner in a firm with her then-husband, Chester Sprague. She was also the only registered architect in the office and brought in most of the work.8 For some members, the office did not live up to the promise of equality.9 Others soon realized that they prefered the security of working as employees. After the first year, four of the six members left the firm and were replaced by new members. For the two women who stayed with the office the longest, Magda Brosio and Marie Kennedy, Sprague’s leadership role was not a problem. She invited Brosio to join the office while Brosio was still a student at the Turin Politecnico in Italy.10 She had been in the US briefly to marry and returned to the ODO after completing her degree. For her, the office offered an empowering environment despite her youth and inexperience.11 Kennedy graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1969 and had worked at Urban Planning Aid for two years before joining the ODO in 1973. The office appealed to her because Urban Planning Aid had also been experimenting with a nonhierarchical structure in which all responsibilities, including janitorial work, were shared, and pay was based on need rather than experience.12 Although the ODO did not go that far in its policies, it promised a supportive environment.
For the first few years, the practice thrived—and even turned a profit.13 The busiest years were 1974 and 1975, when the office had commissions for several large projects as well as some smaller projects and consultation jobs. The type of client and the way that the ODO worked with them was very important to the office members. In fact, the ODO turned down at least one project because the client wanted to give them free reign, which would not provide the architect-client interaction the firm sought to cultivate. ODO aspired to work for underserved populations, especially women and children, and it wanted its clients to be full participants in the design process.
One of the most important projects for the ODO was the Roxbury neighborhood rehabilitation. In the late ’60s, Harvard purchased about thirty properties in the largely African American area southwest of downtown Boston, all of which it planned to demolish to expand its hospital. With help from some Harvard students on strike at the time, the affected tenants organized a tenants’ rights association.14 After contentious negotiations, Harvard agreed to renovate the properties and hired the ODO. The budget did not allow for a full historic restoration, and rapid inflation curtailed the budget even further, forcing the designers to be creative.15 However, the ODO saw the opportunity to not only provide design solutions, but also to redesign the process. Tenants worked with the ODO from the beginning, and they had a say in the compromises necessary to meet the project constraints. The ODO selected aluminum siding for its economy and availability in many colors. The tenants then chose the colors for siding, trim, accent, and roofing. At the tenants’ request, most of the porches that ODO planned to remove were preserved. The most innovative aspect of the project was the construction documentation. In order to economize on time, the ODO used photographs instead of working drawings to communicate with the contractor. The photographs were also easier for the tenants to read, enabling them to understand exactly what was happening to their homes.
By 1976, the economic downturn threatened the livelihood of the office. The members agreed to give up their rented space and work from home.16 Because of the ODO’s office structure, the practice had amassed no profit surplus to see it through a recession. Several members left to seek employment elsewhere. The office officially closed by 1978; however it’s legacy continued through the work of Sprague, who went on to co-found the Women’s Development Corporation in 1979, and the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development in 1981.
1 Open Design Office, “Open Design Office ... A Working Alternative,” Joan Forrester Sprague Papers, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA.
3 Eleanor Roberts, “Six women partners provide ... A new dimension in architecture,” Sunday Herald Traveler, Section 5, December 3, 1972: 11. After the first year, Rono and Yim left the office and Olga Kahn, Lucille Roseman, Kathryn Allott, Mary Murtagh, and Marie Kennedy joined.
4 Roberts, 11.
5 WALAP, “The Case for Flexible Work Schedules,” Architectural Forum 137 no. 2 (1972): 53, 66-67.
6 Joan Forrester Sprague, “Between Commune and Corporation,” unpublished paper, February 1976, Sprague Papers. Sprague wrote the paper as part of her M.Ed.
7 Joan Rothschild and Gerri Traina noted this in a study they did on women’s enterprises, which included the ODO. Joan Rothschild and Gerri Traina, “Women’s Self-Managed Enterprises, A Pilot Study,” July 1976, unpublished study, Sprague Papers.
8 Olga Kahn, phone conversation with author, October 19, 2017.
9 Olga Kahn, who was with the office in 1974, was disappointed that it did not operate as a true collective.
10 Magda Brosio, phone conversation with author, October 9, 2017.
11 Magda Brosio, email to author, October 21, 2017.
12 Marie Kennedy, interview with author, February 24, 2013.
13 Rothschild and Traina.
15 Joan Sprague, “A New Kind of Historic Preservation” Neighborhood Rehabilitation for the Roxbury Tenants of Harvard,” unpublished draft, September 1976, Sprague Papers.
16 William Ronco, “Reshaping the Office,” c.1976, Sprague Papers.
Andrea J. Merrett is a PhD candidate in architecture at Columbia University writing her dissertation on the history of feminism in American architecture. Her research has received support through a Buell Center Oral History Prize, a Schlesinger Library Oral History Grant, and the Milka Bliznakov Prize from the International Archive of Women in Architecture. Recently she has coedited an issue on women and architecture for the journal de-arq: Journal of Architecture (2017), Universidad de Los Andes, and presented her dissertation research nationally and internationally in New York, Stockholm, and London.