Organization of Women Architects and Design Professionals

Jean Nilsson, Wendy Bertrand & Mui Ho


In sync with the energy and ideals of the women’s movement, women architects in the San Francisco Bay Area formed the Organization of Women Architects and Design Professionals (OWA) in 1973. Based on a participatory model addressing our founding philosophy, we sought to have women's full contributions in the workplace recognized. We see our professional and personal life as one. The organization has been successful and lasting due to the horizontal and rotating administrative and leadership structure. 

From the beginning we took action to challenge norms of how architecture is practiced, who participates, and who benefits with monthly meetings featuring speakers and discussion, small interest group gatherings, surveys, mock licensing exams, and monthly newsletters. Over time we held exhibitions, conferences, and symposia, and our activities addressed changes in technology, architectural practice, and members’ lifestyles. Marking our thirtieth anniversary in 2003, we launched our website,, where we continue to publish members’ projects, resources, forums, current newsletters, and activities.

Being a small professional organization, OWA provides a place for members to work together, to build professional friendships, to share experiences, to test ideas, and to learn from each other. Just as importantly, we want to remain relevant and flexible for innovation and change as we move into the future.

The organization is very aware of the value of its unique tradition. Keeping old traditions and introducing changes over the decades has been driven by the members’ participation and interests and keep the organization vital. In 2018 OWA is celebrating its forty-fifth anniversary and reflecting on its history.

Women's Development Corporation

A. Ipek Türeli


Second-wave feminism led to an increasing awareness that US housing was largely built for a nuclear family with a working father and homemaker mother, despite this family structure’s declining prevalence. Feminist design practice began to focus on housing alternatives for the changing family, specifically examining issues of the suburban house. Architects Katrin Adam, Joan Forrester Sprague, and Susan Aitcheson founded the Women’s Development Corporation (WDC) together with Alma Green in 1979 as a response to a major shift in housing policy that allocated governmental spending from direct housing supply to dispersal programs that ranged from community development programs to vouchers.

The WDC’s housing projects in Providence, Rhode Island, featured plan layouts developed based on information gathered through community design workshops with local women in need of better housing. The workshops, which went on for over a year, gave these  low-income women a sense of participation in the design process. Furthermore, earlier projects focused on adaptive reuse of abandoned historic properties and downtown revitalization. Because the units were dispersed, these projects managed to avoid the stigma of living in public housing projects, a quality much appreciated by future residents. The WDC eventually focused its efforts more on real estate management, development, and fundraising.

Once federal grants became harder to obtain, the WDC diversified its target groups to include elderly, disabled, and other marginal groups to tap into other types of local, city, and state funds. Since historic housing stock is not always available, the group also engaged in building new housing that resembles low-income housing.

The architects in the WDC were aware of their relational power in choosing to work with women of different racial and class backgrounds and experiences, but they wanted to build alliances that would challenge the norms of the “male-dominated” built environment and empower both the user groups and themselves as architects. 

A. Ipek Türeli is Canada research chair and assistant professor of architecture at McGill University. She has worked on urban visual culture with geographic focus on the eastern Mediterranean, and more recently on social engagement in the profession, ranging from the longer history of humanitarian architecture, such as that of religious missionaries, to efforts by contemporary designers to contribute to social movements.

The 1974 Women In Architecture Symposium

Lindsay Nencheck

The 1974 Women in Architecture Symposium at Washington University in St. Louis captured the transformation of the male-dominated design community in the United States at a time when women were integrating the tenets of the women’s liberation movement into their professional lives. Organized by fourteen female undergraduate and graduate students and implemented with the help of their male peers and the school’s faculty, the three-day event explored the realities faced by women in the architectural field.

The conference featured a body of work undervalued by the nation’s architecture schools and publicized the words of designers underrepresented in educational and professional circles.  Gertrude Kerbis, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) who worked for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in Chicago before opening her own firm in 1962, gave the keynote address. Regi Goldberg, an architect from New York and founder of the Alliance of Women in Architecture (AWA), presented a talk titled “Symbolism in Architecture: A Feminist Approach to Design.” Goldberg, along with AWA cofounders Marjorie Hoog and Phyllis Birkby, also led a workshop on the group’s history and their ongoing project to create an archive of women’s work in architecture. The panel, “Role Problems Facing Professional Women,” with sociologists Whitney Gordon, Kay Standley, Bradley Soule, and professor Leslie Kanes Weisman of Detroit University’s School of Architecture, placed the design field within a larger context. Architect and head of the AIA’s Task Force on Women in Architecture Judith Edelman served as the moderator. Other presenters and panelist included Lois Langhorst, a professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Natalie De Blois, associate partner at SOM; and Ida C. Scott, a St. Louis architect. Audio recordings capture intense audience engagement during lectures, discussion panels, and workshops.

At the symposium, female students created a forum for public dialogue that directly addressed their role within the academy and the field. The event garnered the attention of local media and national publications. This experience was replicated nationally, spreading between disparate cities and institutions throughout the 1970s.

Lindsay Nencheck is an architect with Gresham, Smith and Partners. She received a Master of Architecture from Washington University in St. Louis in 2010. She lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Women's School of Planning and Architecture

Elizabeth Cahn

Women’s School of Planning and Architecture, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, 1975

Women’s School of Planning and Architecture, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, 1975

The Women’s School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA) was a feminist educational project. The founders, seven women planners and architects, resolved to merge feminist values of the early 1970s with the essential role of design in creating physical and social environments. WSPA was a new space for feminist action with a vision of spatial and environmental design that was a departure from the design professions as they existed previously.

“Women in Architecture: A Symposium” at Washington University St. Louis, held in March 1974, inspired the idea for WSPA. The founders hoped to provide an ongoing space in which women could develop their ideas of feminist design education and extend these experiences to other women across the country.

The central task these women set for themselves—creating an alternative form of design and planning education—was part of their broader critique of the values underlying the design fields and disciplines. They worked to transform ways of being that are characteristic of the professions—detachment, intellectualism, hierarchy, and disconnection from those ultimately most impacted by design decisions—as well as redefine what is considered knowledge in these fields and intervene in the system determining who creates that knowledge. They hoped to build a new national organization that would affect not only the people in the professions, but the professions themselves.

WSPA was more than an educational project. It was a critique of the gendered construction of space and a way for those involved to enrich their personal experiences and critique the ways that the built environment itself repressed women. They fully intended to create a safe space for women to imagine not only new designed forms but also whole new worlds in which women’s needs would be primary.

WSPA held four summer sessions (Maine, 1975; California, 1976; Rhode Island, 1978; and Colorado, 1979) and a weekend conference (Washington DC, 1981).


Women in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Planning

Andrea J. Merrett

As part of the women’s movement in architecture in the early 1970s, women began to form professional organizations. One of the first was Women in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Planning, organized by Dolores Hayden in Boston, MA. Hayden, then a graduate student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), invited local women in the environmental design professions to a meeting at her home on November 11, 1971. The group met almost weekly for the next month1 and then organized an open meeting at the Boston Architectural Center on March 4, 1972.2 By then the group had adopted its name. More than one hundred women attended, and Francine Achbar, a writer from a local paper, wrote about the meeting the following day.Achbar reported that “[the women’s] grievances were familiar. Many were the same complaints that have been raised by women in a variety of male-dominated professions in the past few years since the advent of the women’s liberation movement.”3

The organizers identified several areas that needed particular attention: the need for part-time work, legal action against discriminatory employers, professional education for women, and consciousness-raising groups. During its brief existence, WALAP tended to operate as an umbrella organization without a formal structure, providing contact among female practitioners in the Boston area and support for smaller, project-focused initiatives.

One of WALAP’s first projects was to support ongoing efforts to improve women’s status in the local schools of architecture, namely MIT’s Department of Architecture and Harvard’s GSD. Both schools were under internal and external pressure to increase the number of women students and faculty and to create hospitable environments for them. In 1971, the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) studied sex discrimination at both universities after the Women's Equity Action League and National Organization of Women jointly filed a complaint under Executive Orders 11246 and 11375.4 An architecture student at MIT, Tova M. Solo, sent a complaint to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination about her experiences at MIT the following March. She felt the complaint had been overlooked in the HEW study.5 WALAP discussed these actions and the schools’ responses at their early meetings. MIT appears to have been more receptive to changing its policies and making efforts to recruit women. The head of the department, Professor Donlyn Lyndon, immediately asked a committee to investigate Solo’s complaint, and the department set a quota aiming for the next incoming class to be 33 percent women. At a meeting of the Education Council soon after Solo’s complaint, faculty members openly spoke about the need to address the departmental culture. Although they expressed that “raising the level of consciousness of these problems would be difficult,” they were willing to try.6

Harvard appears to have been less receptive to change. In a letter to the dean of the GSD, Maurice D. Kilbridge, Harvard president Derek C. Bok expressed the need to eliminate biases while resisting affirmative action targets he expected HEW to request.7 Kilbridge established the Committee on the Status of Women in late 1971. Around the same time, the GSD sent out a questionnaire to female graduates of the school. WALAP members, a couple of whom were on the GSD committee, were critical of both these efforts. Some of the more outspoken members of the committee, including WALAP member Megan Lawrence, felt Kilbridge’s intention was to create an “ineffectual committee” that could be blamed for the lack of progress in the school while demonstrating that the school was trying to make progress.8

WALAP members followed the proceedings of the Harvard committee through Lawrence and Bicci Pettit, another committee member and a founding member of WALAP. In a letter to Kilbridge in early 1972, WALAP members voiced their objections to the alumnae survey. Their reasons were: the implication “that the school has the option of continuing its present policies regarding the admissions and hiring of women”; that the questionnaire was only sent to women, therefore not providing a basis of comparison; that it focused on “women’s past role” rather than recognizing the changes to women’s roles; and the assumption made “that women must continue to adapt to the design and planning professions as they now exist.” The signatories felt that the professions needed to change for the benefit of women as well as “the fields as a whole.”9 As well as the letter to Kilbridge, WALAP members sent an open letter to the entire GSD in June of 1972. They wrote that women within the school were too few in number to have any power and were trying to apply outside pressure. They demanded that the school recruit more women students and faculty and give those women more positions on committees, including admissions and hiring.10

Another WALAP project was to address the problem of work schedules. The Board of Registration of Architects in Massachusetts did not recognize part-time work. A WALAP subcommittee wrote to the board in April 1972 objecting to the thirty-five hours a week required for work to count as full time.11 The subcommittee identified two groups with barriers to full-time work: mothers trying to balance careers with childcare and recent graduates unable to find full-time jobs in the economic climate of the time. WALAP requested that the Board remove the restrictions on part-time work.

The organization quickly expanded its interest from part-time schedules to questioning “the standard work schedule.” The result was “The Case for Flexible Work Schedules,” published in Architectural Forum.12 In it, the authors argued that for women to succeed in architecture, offices needed to change the culture that equated commitment with long work hours. Women were still the primary caregivers to children, and the authors thought that women needed flexibility to stay in the profession. They also believed that flexible schedules would help both female and male employees in reaching a better balance between their work and personal lives. Further, they argued that the projects would benefit from architects having more time for outside pursuits and thus a broader perspective. WALAP had disbanded by 1975, but it left an impact with the projects it took on in the education sphere and in combatting women architecture professionals’ isolation in the industry.

1 Meeting notes of women in environmental design group, November 11, 18, December 2, 9, 1971, held at Dolores Hayden’s home in Cambridge, MA, Ellen Perry Berkeley personal papers.

2 WALAP open meeting March 4, 1972, flyer, Berkeley personal papers.

Although there is no record of who attended the meetings in 1971, Ann Bernstein, Nancy Cynamon, Doris Cole, Zibby (Elizabeth) Ericson, Joan Goody, Shelly Hampden-Turner, Sally Harkness, Dolores Hayden, Margo Jones, Lisa Jorgenson, Olga Kahn, Isabel King, Megan Lawrence, Mary Gene Myer, Anne O’Rihilly, Bici Pettit, Vera Pratt, and Claudia Skylar were all listed as the organizers of the March 4th meeting.

3 Francine Achbar, “Women’s Group to Deal a ‘WALAP’ for Professional Equality,” Sunday Herald Traveler, Section 2, 24 (copy in Berkeley personal papers).

4 The WEAL/NOW complaint was aimed generally at universities for their discriminatory hiring policies, particularly the dearth of female faculty members. WALAP, “An Open Letter to Members of the Harvard Graduate School of Design,” June 15, 1972, copy in Berkeley personal papers.

5 Tova M. Solo, letter to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, March 20, 1972, copy in Berkeley personal papers.

6 MIT Department of Architecture Education Council minutes, April 25, 1972, Berkeley personal papers.

7 Derek C. Bok, letter to Maurice D. Kilbridge, December 27, 1971, copy in Berkeley personal papers.

8 Megan Lawrence, letter to Ellen Perry Berkeley, no date (c. May 1972), Berkeley personal papers.

9 WALAP, letter to Maurice D. Kilbridge, February 4, 1972, copy in Berkeley personal papers.

10 WALAP, “An Open Letter.”

11 Shelley Hampden-Turner, J. Lisa Jorgenson, and Jane Weinzapfel, on behalf of WALAP, letter to the Board of Registration of Architects, April 24, 1972, photocopy in Berkeley’s personal papers.

12 WALAP, “The Case for Flexible Work Schedules,” Architectural Forum 137 no. 2 (1972): 53, 66-67.

The New Alchemy Institute

Meredith Gaglio

The New Alchemy Institute was an environmentalist organization, established in 1970 by Nancy Jack Todd, John Todd, and William McLarney to develop prototypical ecological technologies that would promote self-sufficiency and sustainability. John Todd and McLarney were marine biologists alarmed at the ecological and social impact of contemporary pollution on the ecosystems they researched. Their Institute, with outlets in Cape Cod, Prince Edward Island, and Costa Rica, pursued what John Todd referred to as both “new alchemy” and the less mystical “biotechnology,” creating research centers as sites for scientifically-supported experimentation into economically and environmentally sustainable systems that could be broadly implemented.

For John Todd, alchemy was a fitting analogy for the work he and his partners undertook. The New Alchemists believed that a restoration of environmental well-being required comprehensive, fundamental changes in the current societal structure, and their small-scale experiments in alternative energy production, organic agriculture, aquaculture, and self-sufficient building were alchemical phases in an ultimate global transmutation. Such an approach reversed the technocratic program of mainstream society, which favored provisional, low-cost substitutions and ever-changing technological “fixes” in response to ecological difficulties. The New Alchemy Institute (NAI) replaced such unsustainable practices with small-scale, simple, and nonviolent “appropriate” technologies (AT) espoused by British economist E. F. Schumacher in his seminal book, Small is Beautiful (1972).

The New Alchemy Institute East (NAE), the Alchemists’ twelve-acre farm in Woods Hole, MA, quickly became the experimental epicenter of the organization, the site upon which the researchers would execute their first bioshelter designs, develop self-sustaining aquaculture systems, and test biodynamic, holistic agricultural theories. From New Alchemy East, the contingent would also publish articles, newsletters, and the Journal of the New Alchemists; apply for countless grants; and host AT icons, journalists, and curious passersby.

A sixteen-acre Costa Rica-based center, the New Alchemy Institute South America (NAISA), situated in the coastal Limón province, was established by McLarney and fellow Alchemist, Susan Ervin, in 1975. During its first two years, NAISA experienced more setbacks than victories as its staff adjusted to the new physical and social ecologies of the region. However, by 1977 they had resolved such issues: together they had erected a house, successfully cultivated traditional produce, and established fruitful relationships with their neighbors. The Costa Rican center prospered and still exists today, as the Asociación ANAI.

Concurrent with its pioneering research in Costa Rica, the NAI embarked upon an alternate alchemical endeavor on Prince Edward Island, Canada. In 1974, the Canadian Ministry of Urban Affairs invited the Institute to submit a proposal for a biotechnological demonstration project to be built the following year as part of the country’s Urban Demonstration United Nations Human Settlement Program. A departure from the sprawling campuses of the Cape Cod and Costa Rica farms, the Prince Edward Island outpost was a single, fully integrated unit: a self-sufficient “world in miniature” that wove together renewable energy systems, polycultural facilities, and residential space.1 Similar to Noah’s Ark, the “PEI Ark” internalized organic structures as a response to a potentially devastating ecological threat, but conversely, the NAI’s proposal offered a symbiotic alternative to global collapse. If reproduced throughout the northern hemisphere in place of inefficient suburban housing, the New Alchemists theorized, this domestic bioshelter could check further environmental decline and even reverse some of the social, economic, and ecological crises facing Western nations. The demonstration model served as a beacon for a wiser future, yet its complexity and high cost rendered it an inappropriate solution for most of the population. Thus, the PEI Ark, which was closed and sold by the Canadian government in 1981, remained the only of its kind and the last residential bioshelter attempted by the Institute.

Following the frenetic productivity of the early to mid-1970s—during which the NAI successfully founded three distinct compounds, created multiple bioshelters, and developed aquacultural facilities and biodynamic outdoor gardens—the organization began to prioritize the maintenance and evaluation of completed and ongoing ventures over new construction in 1977. From a scientific perspective, the Institute had a methodological imperative to collect and analyze data related to these various projects, and so it adapted its work toward the tacit mandate. After almost nine years of relentless effort, such concrete validation relieved, to a certain degree, the formative urgency of New Alchemy; having met its initial objectives, the collaborative devoted itself to monitoring its impressive portfolio of built work.

From late 1976 onward, many members of NAI East redirected their energy to those less appraisable sorts of appropriate technologies such as public education and environmental activism. Educating the public on the benefits of clean, safe solar and wind energy systems was crucial to effect national or even global change, and inspiring antinuclear sentiment would prove equally significant. In the following years the Alchemists trained in community organization and established summer school education programs for elementary school-aged children, among many other efforts.

In the early 1980s, John Todd departed as the executive director of the Institute, and McLarney began to spend an increasing amount of time at NAISA, disconnected from New Alchemy East. Without the founding biologists, the Woods Hole cohort began to focus almost entirely on educational outreach. By concentrating solely on education, the Eastern New Alchemists abandoned many of the foundational principles of the Institute: the objectives of biotechnology disappeared from their work; the communal-libertarian philosophy essential to the NAI’s early success became irrelevant; the mystical component of the alchemical project was discarded; and scientific experimentation ceased for the most part. Untethered from these bedrocks and from its sister projects in Costa Rica and Prince Edward Island, the Eastern outpost was the NAI in name only.

Over the course of two decades, the NAI’s seminal microcosmic adventure transformed into a more conservative project. The remaining Alchemists dissolved the Institute in 1991, creating a new nonprofit organization, The Green Center, on the Cape Cod site. This new foundation maintained New Alchemy’s original mission statement—to “restore the land, protect the seas, and inform the Earth’s stewards”—but reframed its role in meeting those objectives, emphasizing the informational component of the slogan as the primary method by which the Center might accomplish environmental restoration and protection.

1 J. Todd, “A World in Miniature,” The Journal of the New Alchemists 3 (1976): 54.

Blue Marble / Blue Urbanism: SCR Jamaica Bay Resiliency Plan

Catherine Seavitt


The rapid emergence of the environmental movement of the 1970s was facilitated by the extensive dissemination of the Blue Marble. This image of the whole earth as seen from space, captured by the Apollo 17 spacecraft on December 7, 1972, allowed us to perceive our planet as a complete and total entity. Stuart Brandt’s Whole Earth Catalog reproduced several images of the globe from space on its covers, beginning with the first color photo of the Earth taken in 1967 by the ATS-3 satellite on its first edition. The catalog’s pages were packed with the countercultural tools and resources of the environmentalist hippie DIY ethic and aesthetic. With the recent emergence of the Anthropocene and its parallel theorization, this whole-earth imagery has returned again—with an emphasis on the impact that humans have had on the globe, transforming even its geological strata through our extractive petrochemical practices and carbon emissions. My recent design research for Structures of Coastal Resilience (SCR) similarly attempts to visualize water in the urban environment as an interconnected system while developing innovative and novel tools for our whole earth, supporting the resiliency and health of both social and environmental systems.

The Blue Marble also showed that the vast majority of the earth’s surface is water—the blue was pervasive across its spherical surface. This visual identification of the ocean and its importance to humans, particularly at the shorelines where the ecologies of land and water intermingled, was evoked decades earlier through the visceral work of three female scientists who helped launch the then-nascent environmental movement: Rachel Carson, Marie Tharp, and Sylvia Earle. Marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson wrote her earliest published work, the prescient “Undersea,” in 1935 for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. It was later published in the September 1937 issue of the Atlantic Monthly (now known as The Atlantic). Likely influenced by Thomas Beebe’s 1934 notes taken during his famed half-mile bathysphere descents into the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda, Carson’s short essay on the beauty of unseen life below the surface of the ocean both captured the imagination and elevated the importance of oceanic ecologies. Her later books, particularly The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955), celebrated the teeming life at the estuarine shoreline, including the intertidal bays that served as the habitat of the adaptive and resilient marsh grass, Spartina alterniflora. Marie Tharp, geologist and oceanographic cartographer, worked from 1952 through 1977 at Columbia University’s Lamont Geological Laboratory, creating a scientific contour map of the ocean’s floor. The map revealed the presence of the mid-Atlantic ridge, proving the then-controversial theory of continental drift. Like the Blue Marble revealing the whole earth, Tharp’s oceanographic map revealed the unseen at the bottom of the ocean. The marine biologist Sylvia Earle continued to explore the deep ocean—in the early 1970s she led the first all-female research team of aquanauts at the submersible Tektite II underwater laboratory located offshore the U.S. Virgin Islands. These three earth scientists created a groundswell for future work and research—indeed, they invited others to jump into the water.

My Jamaica Bay research group at the City College of New York, one of four academic teams participating in the SCR initiative, further investigated the fluid coastal margins where water meets the land. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in partnership with the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as part of a post-Hurricane Sandy investigation of the social, environmental, and infrastructural vulnerabilities revealed by the 2012 superstorm, we attempted to reconsider the “structures” of flood protection and resiliency as inclusive of natural and nature-based systems. One of the aspects of our research has been the connection of environmental restoration, storm risk reduction, and ecological health—including that of human and nonhuman species in the urban environment. We posit that the resilient success of Jamaica Bay’s future is dependent upon improving its ecological health and in supporting robust and novel techniques of marsh grass restoration at its fast-disappearing back bay wetland islands and coastal margins. An improved exchange of water and sediment from ocean to bay will lead to both enhanced water quality and a more robust wetland ecosystem, providing multiple benefits including improved species biodiversity, wave attenuation, wind fetch reduction, coastal erosion protection, and carbon capture. Our City College design team—Kjirsten Alexander, Danae Alessi, Eli Sands, and I—has been fortunate to collaborate with yet another cadre of female scientists investigating the function and importance of wetlands—Lisa Baron, biologist and USACE New York District project manager of the Jamaica Bay marsh island restoration projects; Ellen Hartig and Marit Larson, ecologists at New York City Parks’ Wetlands and Riparian Restoration Unit; Patti Rafferty, coastal ecologist at the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area; and Jane McKee Smith and Mary Cialone, research hydraulic engineers at the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory of the USACE Engineer Research and Development Center.

Long the dumping ground of New York City—the destination of waste, dead horses, contaminated dredged materials, and even poor and marginalized populations in its myriad lowland public housing developments—Jamaica Bay and the Rockaway Peninsula offer an opportunity to recast this urban embayment as a functioning ecological foreground to the city. Today, the vast scale and large urban population of the bay may be embraced as an asset for exploring the development of nature-based features as viable coastal storm risk reduction techniques as well as engaging a new generation of environmental stewards. Our proposal consists of strategic design recommendations for the narrow Rockaway Peninsula, the central marsh islands, and back-bay communities. Though ostensibly environmental in nature, these recommendations for improving the health of the bay have social and political implications as well. A more robust and resilient bay will empower the 2.8 million residents living within the Jamaica Bay watershed, transforming a vulnerable population into a force for environmental equity and improved public health.

The SCR Jamaica Bay resiliency plan includes three strategies developed through field research and modeling, both physical and digital. The first strategy addresses water quality and the reduction of back-bay flooding via a series of overwash plains, tidal inlets, and flushing tunnels at the Rockaway Peninsula and Floyd Bennett Field. The second strategy develops enhanced verges at Robert Moses’ Belt Parkway, elevating coastal edges at vulnerable back-bay communities and managing flood risk with a layered system of marsh terraces, berms, and sunken attenuation forests. The third strategy develops novel techniques of bay nourishment and marsh island restoration by maximizing the efficacy of minimal quantities of dredged material. By harnessing the natural forces of tide and current and constructing elevated linear terraces for sediment trapping at the marsh perimeter with our novel technique of the atoll terrace/island motor, the marsh islands can migrate upward with rising sea levels. A resilient marsh ecosystem provides coastal storm risk management services to adjacent communities through wind and wave attenuation, delivering maximum immediate benefits for both vulnerable communities and the disappearing salt marsh islands. Here, risk reduction is not equated with flood control achieved through expensive beach nourishment, high seawalls, and surge barriers. Rather, the proposal opens the bay to natural systems through managed intertidal flooding and improved sediment delivery—a new aqueous and oceanic blue urbanism. By merging the “whole earth” approach to the interconnected bay-to-ocean aquatics of the urban watershed with new and novel restoration techniques inspired by the tools and resources of the Whole Earth Catalog, our Jamaica Bay proposal for SCR seeks to support both social resiliency and environmental equity in the urban realm.

Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, AIA is an associate professor of landscape architecture at the City College of New York. Her research explores adaptation to climate change in urban environments and the novel transformation of landscape restoration practices. She is also interested in the intersection of political power, environmental activism, and public health, particularly as seen through the design of public space and policy.


Meredith Gaglio

Ecotopia,  RAIN.

Ecotopia, RAIN.

We wish to share with people information that is: workable . . . novel . . . successful . . . practical . . . perceptive . . . loving/humorous . . . integral . . . cosmic . . . down-to-earth . . . fitting . . . appropriate . . . sane . . . infertilating . . . hopeful . . . encouraging . . . non-redundant (don’t reinvent the wheel) . . . way over there there’s someone else doing what you’re doing . . . we try to find seeds . . . RAIN helps things grow . . . interests that dovetail . . . information rather than opinions . . .

RAIN: A Monthly Bulletin Board 2, no. 1 (October 1975)



When the “Rainmakers,” led by Steve Johnson, Lee Johnson, Tom Bender, and Lane de Moll, described their editorial vision for RAIN magazine in 1975, they conveyed a midcentury shift in the Appropriate Technology (AT) movement as it grew from a disconnected array of grassroots organizations toward a more cohesive, nationally recognized solution to the United States’ energy crisis. Their statement also represented a transformation in the journal itself. Initially sponsored by ECO-NET, a federally funded Portland, Oregon-based environmental education network, RAIN originated as a free “monthly bulletin board” for AT practitioners of the Pacific Northwest, with an emphasis on its Portland home. But, as the above quote shows, the publication quickly changed course, engaging with and establishing links between the groups “over there”—that is, across the United States—and their Oregonian compatriots. For its readership, RAIN provided a dynamic, often prescient, and remarkably expansive characterization of the AT movement

In the summer of 1974, Steve Johnson, a freelance writer recently employed by ECO-NET, established RAIN magazine, aided by his colleagues Anita Helle, Mary Wells, and Lee Johnson. The first issue of RAIN, wryly named for Oregon’s frequent precipitation, was a practical resource for local AT enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest region.1 Compared to future iterations of the journal, which incorporated philosophical essays, political commentary, and in-depth discussions of topics ranging from the economic value of trash or the basics of composting toilets to the United Nations Conference on Discrimination Against the Indigenous Populations of the Americas or the history of androgyny, the earliest editions of RAIN were extended informational pamphlets. Despite the elementary nature of the periodical, “reader response was immediate and dramatic,” exposing the dearth of communication networks available to appropriate technologists. Practitioners of AT “were hungry for news of each other’s projects and for leads to often-obscure books and magazines being published in their areas of interest,” and Johnson, via RAIN, began to develop a structure for mitigating their demands.2

Upon the initial success of ECO-NET’s twenty-four-page “monthly bulletin board,” Johnson, Johnson, Helle, and Wells began to extend the scope of their journal. In the fifth edition from February 1975, the staff demonstrated an urge for conceptual growth. At this time, they introduced pullout instructional supplements entitled “Roughdrafts,” meant to be a monthly “series of RAIN-sheltered print tools designed to shape more positive and practical alternatives.” Although short-lived, these new features clarified the Rainmakers’ mission and, along with a secondary commitment to expanding the magazine’s coverage beyond the Pacific Northwest, prefigured RAIN’s forthcoming transformation into the preeminent “print tool” of the AT movement.3

By the spring of 1975, the RAIN foursome also began to pursue an institutional change, seeking independence from the government-supported ECO-NET program. A newly established connection with Tom Bender and Lane de Moll, who hailed from Oregon’s progressive State Office of Energy Research and Planning, proved serendipitous. Bender, an architect, and de Moll, a community organizer, were also in search of opportunities to expand the reach of their community resource operation, “Full Circle.” They consolidated their organizations under the title “Rain Umbrella, Incorporated” and purchased a Victorian home in Portland as a live-work headquarters, aptly called “Rainhouse.”

De Moll and Bender’s first collaboration with RAIN came in April of 1975, but they did not become part of the editorial staff until October of that year. Their presence was clear from the beginning, as the magazine’s “catalog-type entries grew more polished and feature articles became more prominent.”4 Notably, RAIN’s subtitle changed from “A Monthly Bulletin Board” to “Journal of Appropriate Technology” after only four issues, demonstrating its transition from a locally oriented magazine to one with national aspirations. Between 1975 and 1980, despite multiple editorial transitions, RAIN maintained its signature content, tone, and structure, and it grew in popularity, if not subscribers, nationwide.

As mainstream support of appropriate technology increased, Bender, de Moll, Johnson, and Johnson, all of whom had only recently departed from government positions, did not eschew the institutional sphere, despite the AT movement’s aversion to bureaucracy; instead, members of RAIN took on advisory roles in government projects and kept their readership apprised of the positive and negative aspects of corporate and governmental AT policies. RAIN’s simultaneously critical and receptive approach was one key to its success, and its editors strove to provide a comprehensive, intricately constructed periodical that would convey the multifaceted nature of appropriate technology. Their journalistic aim was not to present an objective view of AT, per se, but rather to introduce the complexities and contradictions of the movement.

During the late 1970s, as federal and state AT programs were enacted, many appropriate technologists, including RAIN’s editorial staff, found them to be, for the most part, misguided and insufficient. As a result, the AT movement began to change. Throughout the journal’s publication, the Rainmakers frequently described RAIN as being in a state of transition due to its shifting staff, financial support, or organizational ties, but, at this moment, the shift became ideological as well, reflecting the evolution of AT and its practitioners. RAIN’s content became more overtly political, and the editors urged readers to reignite the radical, political spirit of their countercultural beginnings to push for institutional change

This upheaval in content echoed that of the movement more generally and so continued RAIN’s commitment to supplying readers with the most up-to-date information on AT in a straightforward, honest way. Yet the original editors struggled to align their own priorities with their established roles as Rainmakers. In early 1979, Lee Johnson surrendered his post; Bender and de Moll, meanwhile, lingered through October of that year. By the close of 1980, RAIN could boast an entirely new collective of AT practitioners. Carlotta Collette, formerly of the Minnesota Center for Local Self-Reliance, John Ferrell, a solar activist, and Mark Roseland, a social ecology professor at Wesleyan University, with the assistance of former Rainmakers during the early months, oversaw a smooth transition within the journal. Much as Bender and de Moll predicted, this next team introduced fresh content to RAIN, befitting the magazine’s second decade.

However, overwhelmed by attempting to sustain the weakening movement in defiance of Reagan-era policies, the editors gradually diminished the geographical scope of the journal, increasingly focusing, as it had upon its foundation, on the Pacific Northwest and Portland specifically. Upon Steve Johnson’s return as an editor in late 1980, RAIN was beginning to return to its starting point. During his tenure, the editorial staff reduced the magazine’s annual number of issues and even eliminated “Journal of Appropriate Technology” from its title. RAIN officially continued into the 1990s, revealing the ways in which certain aspects of AT practice, such as community organization, persisted through the 1980s, while others, such as small-scale solar or wind energy programs, faded from view.

1 John Ferrell, “The Magazine from Ecotopia: A Look Back at the First RAIN Decade,” RAIN Magazine 10, no. 1 (October/November 1983): 5

2 Ibid., 6.

3 Steve Johnson, “Introduction to Brainstorming,” RAIN 1, no. 5 (February 1975): 10.

4 Ferrell, “The Magazine from Ecotopia,” 7.

Ellen Perry Berkeley

Andrea J. Merrett

In 1972, architectural journalist Ellen Perry Berkeley identified a nascent feminist movement in architecture. Her article, “Women in Architecture,” was published in the September issue of Architectural Forum, where she was a senior editor. Relying on anecdotal evidence and the few statistics available, Berkeley described a profession that resisted the entry of women and was not supportive of those who fought their way into the field. She argued that this was endemic across schools, practices, and the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Berkeley’s article was not the first on women and architecture in that period. The subject of women in architecture had already received some attention in the press.1 Architectural Forum published an article in 1969 with the same title as Berkeley’s.2 The author, Beatrice Dinerman, was a research associate in the School of Public Administration at the University of Southern California. Her approach to the subject was occupational sex-typing: stereotypes about the requirements of the profession and women’s characteristics kept women from entering traditionally male fields like architecture and were used against the few who succeeded in gaining admission. In her work on women in architecture and law, she countered some of the myths around the professions and demonstrated the barriers and discrimination women faced. She put forward a number of concrete suggestions as to how to encourage more women but stated that these were only effective if the profession was willing to remove barriers to success, including interpersonal discrimination, the practice of channeling women into limited subfields, the problem of the double standard—that women had to work harder to received the same recognition as male colleagues—and the belief that a successful woman posed “a threat to the very masculinity and ego strength of her male colleagues.”3

Compared to Berkeley’s, Dinerman’s article—published only three years earlier—received very little attention. What changed in those three years? Between 1968 and 1970, feminists gained mainstream attention with a series protests and theatrical stunts, culminating in the Women’s March for Equality on August 26th, 1970 (fifty years after the passage of the Nineteenth amendment).4 By 1972, women in architecture were enthusiastic about fighting for changes and were already starting to organize in a way that they had not in 1969. While writing her article, Berkeley was able to draw on a network of women architects. She was a member of the the Alliance of Women in Architecture (AWA) in New York (in fact, she was one of the founding members), and she was connected to women in Boston who had formed Women Architects, Landscape Architects and Planning (WALAP). Not only was she able to report that these groups were helping women overcome their isolation to work together against discrimination, but she was able to go further in her analysis of the problems than Dinerman had. At the time of writing, there was no extensive research on the status of women in the profession. Berkeley reached out to practitioners, students, educators, and the AIA for information. Although much of her evidence was anecdotal, she convincingly grouped individual accounts of discrimination to show the extent of it while also providing stories that women facing similar situations could identify with. Berkeley ended the article on an optimistic note: women were angry but engaged; they “want[ed] ‘in’ to this world.” Not only did she leave the reader with a clear picture of the problems, she provided the means to do something about it, with contact information for the various individuals and organizations already active.

The feedback Berkeley received was immediate, and the article helped to inspire women in other parts of the country to organize. In a letter to Dolores Hayden, dated October 29, 1972, Berkeley wrote, “As a result of the Forum article, there seems to be a great deal more contact in general. Our NY group has a number of letters from around the country, and WALAP may have the same.”5 Hayden wrote back, “The Forum article was a really fine piece of work—I cheered as I read.”6 Doris Cole wrote to Berkeley that she thought the article “was most interesting and informative.” For Wendy Bertrand, a founding member of OWA, the article was a “landmark,”7 and Inge Horton—who wrote a history of the OWA—credited the examples of women’s organization, presented by Berkeley, as inspiration for creating their own group.

1 For example: Rita Reif, “Fighting the System in the Male-Dominated Field of Architecture,” The New York Times, April 11, 1971, 60.

2 Beatrice Dinerman, “Women in Architecture,” Architectural Forum 131 (December 1969): 50–51.

3 Dinerman, “Women in Architecture,” 51.

4 Laura Tanenbaum and Mark Engler, “Feminist Organizing After the Women’s March: Lessons from the Second Wave,” Dissent Maganize, January 25, 2017,

5 Ellen Perry Berkeley, Letter to Dolores Hayden, October 29, 1972, Ellen Perry Berkeley personal files (now donated to Smith College). Regi Weile also reported that the AWA received more than 100 letters in response to the article, AWA Steering Committee, Agenda January 10, 1973, Berkeley personal papers.

6 Dolores Hayden, note to Ellen Perry Berkeley, November 2, 1972, Berkeley personal files.

7 Wendy Bertrand, Enamored with Place (San Francisco: eyeonplace, 2012), 158. She expressed this again when I interviewed her. Wendy Bertrand, interview with author, February 13, 2013.

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.

The Alliance of Women in Architecture

Andrea J. Merrett

In early 1971, New York architect Regi Goldberg (later Weile) initiated the Women’s Architectural Review Movement (WARM) with an invitation to women architects to participate in an exhibition. Goldberg’s main goal was not simply to increase the number of women in the profession; she implied that basic human respect was necessary to nurture the talent of young practitioners, who could not thrive through “sheer determination and chance” alone.

WARM itself never took off; however, Goldberg’s persistence led to the founding of the Alliance of Women in Architecture (AWA) in 1972. By the fall of 1971, Marjorie Hoog had joined Ulrich Franzen’s office, where Goldberg worked. From the responses Goldberg received to her first letter, she selected eight other women: Hoog; Ellen Perry Berkeley an architectural journalist; Judith Edelman, a practicing architect and the first woman elected to New York City’s American Institute of Architects (AIA) Executive Committee; Mimi Lobell; architect Phyllis Birkby, an architectural designer and educator; Sharon Grau and Susanne Strohbach, who both worked for Marcel Breuer; and Patricia Luciana, executive director of the Architectural League of New York. They held an open meeting in May 1972 at the League. According to Goldberg, the excitement of the first meeting was palpable:

No one was speaking. It was very quiet in the room. I asked each of them to turn to the right or left and introduce themselves to the Architect sitting next to them. We could not quiet the room for about 20 minutes. It was amazing . . . my heart swelled and I knew we had broken a barrier . . . because we hadn’t been allowed to talk to each other freely, it had always been discouraged.

After the isolation of being the only woman, or one of only a handful, in school and in offices, the forum of an all-women meeting came as a huge relief. The leadership planned a second meeting just three weeks later, on May 24th.

In the early days of the AWA, the enthusiastic members quickly organized numerous activities, including creating a newsletter, sending representatives to the Union Internationale des Femmes Architectes’s 1972 conference in Budapest, and organizing discussions and talks. By June 1972, a steering committee (soon renamed the coordination committee) started meeting, and the first newsletter went out. The discrimination workshop launched the salary survey in August. The first major event the coordinating committee organized was a series of discussions and talks in December of 1972, which included a talk by Kay Standley and Bradley Soule on their studies of women in the professions. The discrimination workshop met frequently in the first year, and added a licensing workshop early in 1973, to support women taking their registration exams. The AWA also created an employment workshop that gathered job postings (published regularly in the newsletters) and helped members find employment. The AWA members were concerned with how the group could serve a wider population. An exhibition committee started meeting in March 1973, and the discrimination workshop worked with New York State Association of Architects to extend the salary survey and present their findings at the annual convention.

Setting itself apart from the AIA and other established professional associations, the AWA strove for a nonhierarchical structure. At the beginning, there were no titled positions within the steering committee, and the role of chair rotated. Even when the organization introduced titles in 1978, the committee did not change how it functioned. By the publication of the second newsletter, a set of goals had been more clearly defined:

To foster a public interest in and promote educational work in the architectural profession . . .

To advance the welfare of the architectural profession and to promote in all lawful ways the welfare of the members of the profession . . .

To provide a forum for all members to discuss problems of all kinds related to their participation in the architectural profession.

The goals suggested an aspiration to transform the profession, but the main focus of the AWA was on personal and professional development. Although most of the women involved with running the AWA were of the women’s liberation generation, the professional focus of the group aligned it more closely with the older generation of feminists that had started the National Organization for Women and thought the primary goal of feminism was to integrate women into existing public roles. Within the AWA, this more conservative approach ultimately won.

By 1975, the AWA was well established, with between 200 and 300 members. The general meetings were used for presenting AWA projects and discussions from specific workshops to the larger membership; for members to present their work; and for panels, discussions, and talks. Late in 1974, the organization received a New York State Council on the Arts grant, which they used to produce a program aimed at high schools students, titled “Opportunities in Architecture.” In 1977, after generally ignoring national politics and the larger feminist movement, the organization got involved in supporting the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. By the end of the 1980s, the enthusiasm behind the AWA had waned. Although they celebrated the twentieth anniversary in 1992, there is no record of the organization continuing beyond then.

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.

Women in American Architecture

Susana Torre

Installation view of  Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective , Brooklyn Museum, 1977. Photo: Norman McGrath. Courtesy of Susana Torre.

Installation view of Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, Brooklyn Museum, 1977. Photo: Norman McGrath. Courtesy of Susana Torre.

Women in American Architecture: Changing Practice and Discourse

What was the significance of the exhibition and book Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective when they were being put together in the early and mid 1970s?1 We can look at this question through two lenses: First, the project's influence on professional practice and the discourse, and second, the relevance of the ideas it presented.

Regarding professional practice, our main objective was to shake up the status quo that ensured the subordinate roles of women, thus initiating a change in the harsh conditions of women’s practice. We thought this could be best achieved by examining the history of the many invisible professional women working in the design disciplines from interior design to architecture and urban planning, albeit mostly in supportive roles.

But we had another aim beyond rescuing the work of women architects from oblivion; we also wanted to show the opposing ideas of women designers and theoreticians. Some had been complicit in shaping the spatial distribution of homes and neighborhoods that continued women's domestic drudgery and social isolation, while others had presented and were continuing to present influential alternative designs to liberate them from those patterns.2 For this, we wanted to reintroduce housing and neighborhood design3 into the discourse of the discipline in the United States, which was at the time entangled in a pseudodispute4 between the so-called Whites, architects working on versions of Neo-modern design, and the Grays, followers and colleagues of Robert Venturi, interested in reintroducing history and context in design.

The widespread attention the exhibition received in the national media and professional journals was critical in achieving these objectives. The New York Times published three articles, including a review by architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable. Ms. Magazine, Newsweek, Art Forum, and other newspapers and art publications also provided prominent coverage. There was a special issue of Progressive Architecture—then a leading professional journal—exclusively devoted to the exhibition and book, earning the attention of gatekeepers in the professions. The initial exposure was further amplified as the show toured cities—traveling across the United States and the Netherlands for a full decade of after its opening. In each new setting, the exhibition changed with the addition of work by women architects in that city or region. Moreover, the exhibition panels could be printed as blueprints on demand, allowing schools of architecture to mount them inexpensively and to save the un-mounted panels afterward in their libraries as an oversized publication. In the first showing, at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, our targeted audience was the general public—we even included a portable playground by artist Sheila Berkley so mothers could bring their children, while in other cities the organizers generally aimed at more professional and academic audiences.

The book published alongside the exhibition was meant as a freestanding project, not as a catalog. Seeing that no single scholar could write the ongoing history of women in architecture, I commissioned essays that would explore historic and contemporary issues, which I organized both by theme and time. The brief essays at the end of sections on specific individuals were included not because those women were exceptional, but rather as examples of the questions raised in the chapters. The collective result—a choral work on the history of the conditions of practice, the historical alternatives to those conditions, and contemporary conditions—emphasized the wide range of forms that women were exploring outside conventional professional practices. These included experiments with soft materials, collaborative design, a feminist critique of historical monuments, and theoretical investigations of matrix-like spaces.

Forty years later, the book continues to be a reference for scholarly work on women in architecture.5 However, the expected changes were slowed by the political and economic contexts, not only in architecture but also in all social and cultural matters. The late 1970s and early 1980s were the beginning of the political era of conservative Ronald Reagan and anti-feminist Margaret Thatcher, both bent on cutting social welfare programs, privatizing industries, and reducing trade union power. Many college women believed, with Thatcher as prime minister, that women’s rights had already been won, and the limitations suffered by the women shown in our exhibition were no longer relevant to them and their careers. Some accepted the role of “token” woman, granted access to the opportunities and privileges enjoyed by men as individual exceptions, as long as they adopted the institutional values that continued to obstruct women’s professional development. Schools of architecture began to feature a few women in their lecture series, and professional associations like the American Institute of Architects included women, primarily in those positions and tasks that required a great deal of unpaid effort. Also, interview lists for prestigious architectural commissions used women as “window dressing” to show inclusion. But women almost never got the jobs after spending enormous amounts of effort and money to make themselves competitive, leading to bitter frustration and withdrawal from such experiences.

Along with other publications in the late 1970s, the book and exhibition helped spur a movement toward the identification of women in architecture6 and their inclusion in historical surveys that continues to this day. This inclusion, however, has mostly been the type historians deride as “add women and stir,” little more than amplified tokenism that fails to challenge the continuing gender bias. And feminist ideas about interiors, buildings, and cities have been simply co-opted into the architectural discourses of the past decades without explicit acknowledgement of their origins.

It is also important to recall how the exhibition's contents and installation design constituted a critique of exhibition practices at the time. The sponsoring organization, The Architectural League of New York, had assumed that it would include only a handful of "exceptional" women—those whose work would be acceptable to the dominant “one-at-a-time” access system. But the complex thematic/chronological structure of an exhibition that included urban design proposals of communistic societies and kitchen-less houses of the cooperative housekeeping movement, along with the built work of professional architects, obliged the sponsor to accept ideas well beyond the comfort zone of most of its board members. The installation at The Brooklyn Museum also challenged architectural shows' exhibition standards. Instead of wall-mounted large photographs—sometimes in backlit boxes—and carefully crafted models—with brief labels identifying the architect and building’s name, date, and location—our exhibition consisted of 30 x 40 inch blueprint panels and a single conceptual model. The panels—inexpensive reproductions our bare-bones budget could afford—were mounted as the tops of drafting tables low enough for children to read, though the amount of text was more demanding than usual. Rejecting the “exceptional woman” approach, all work was treated non-hierarchically, though with extra panels for more prolific architects, such as Julia Morgan. The “drafting room” installation allowed viewers to follow a meandering path of their own selection rather than a prescribed linear order.

The male board members of The Architectural League and other prominent New York architectural figures were not alone in their criticism of the structure of the exhibition and book. Members of our own Archive of Women in Architecture group also questioned them, having envisioned a show limited to professional architects on the “exceptional woman” model. Though they also wanted to use the exhibition as a tool for improving the work conditions of women in the professions and enlarging opportunities and recognition for them, they wanted to achieve these without challenging the professions’ values and structure, including men’s power in the assignment of unequal salaries and subordinate supporting roles. Indeed, the preferred model for exhibitions and publications in the following years continued to be that of the patriarchal institutions and professions, with activist alternatives seeking structural change receiving scant attention. The publications on women in architecture that appeared in print or online every six years or so, including biographical profiles with no in-depth discussion of the work, distinguished themselves from one another only by the different names of the women featured each time. Women-only awards created more recently to validate women’s work and professional trajectories in architecture simply reproduce the procedures and structure of similar awards controlled by men, in some cases including well-known male practitioners in their juries as the ultimate corroboration of value. These awards do offer validation in developing careers and obtaining commissions, demonstrating that the professional reputation of women is no longer exclusively dependent on men. Still, the award categories tend to emulate a structure of power that is male and hierarchical, unprepared to reward the ethics and aesthetics of collaboration that characterize feminist design. New structures of practice and reward categories for excellence and exemplary work are needed to design and construct buildings and environments responsive to the needs and desires of people in all their diversity and to achieve recognition of the collective, choral voice that creates all works of architecture and urban design.

1 This essay is a response to that question, asked by the curators of Now What?! Advocacy, Activism & Alliances in American Architecture Since 1968, forty years after the opening of Women in American Architecture. A Historic and Contemporary Perspective.

2 The advocates that promoted the design of cooperative apartment buildings in New York without kitchens in the individual dwellings at the turn of the 20th century proposed one such alternative. Food preparation following the latest nutritional standards would be prepared in commercial kitchens such as the “Rumford Kitchen,” built by Ellen Swallow Richards as a demonstration at the Chicago World Exhibition of 1893. See Dolores Hayden’s A Grand Domestic Revolution, for more alternatives.

3 Martin Pawley trenchantly analyzed this situation in his 1971 book Architecture Versus Housing.

4 The passage of time has proved that this dispute had been a means for publicizing the work of architects in both groups, orchestrated by Peter Eisenman, one of the Whites, and Robert A.M. Stern on behalf of the Grays.

5 Fortunately, there will be soon a book on the history of women in architecture, authored by Andrea J. Merrett.

6 Wikipedia Edit-a-thon events organized by New York-based ArchiteXX, where volunteers help write female designers, architects, and planners into Wikipedia and the “Un Dia, Una Arquitecta” website, also staffed by volunteer scholars, are two major initiatives.

National Organization of Minority Architects

Pascale Sablan


A History of NOMA

African American architects listened intently to what Whitney M. Young, Jr., the prominent civil rights leader and keynote speaker, had to say. He reminded those present that as a profession, architecture had not distinguished itself by its social and civic contributions to the civil rights movement. The black architects in attendance that day had come from different parts of the country and did not know each other very well, but were all struck by the speaker’s words and recognized that the situation of the black architect had to be improved.  

Three years later, in 1971, the black architects in attendance at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Convention in Detroit decided to organize to change the status quo. A local African American architect invited them to his office, where they had a chance to meet each other informally and discuss the desperate need for an organization dedicated to the development and advancement of black architects. The thirty or so present at that meeting included some black architecture students who were anxious to meet the visiting black architects. These professionals recognized the desperate need for an organization dedicated to the development and advancement of African American architects.

Prior to this time, there had been two other professional organizations that supported black architects: the National Technical Organization, established in 1926, and the Council for the Advancement of the Negro in Architecture, which ran from 1951–57. But new times required new methods.  

Present at the Detroit meeting were William Brown, Leroy Campbell, Wendell Campbell, John S. Chase, James C. Dodd, Kenneth B. Groggs, Nelson Harris, Jeh Johnson, E.H. McDowell, Robert J. Nash, Harold Williams, Robert Wilson, and Robert Coles.

A cruise to the Bahamas a few months later brought together twelve of the founders and their wives together for the group’s second meeting. Starting then, the wives would play a crucial role in running the organization through their support of their husbands’ assignments.

A few weeks later, a third meeting convened in Chicago. It was there that the membership voted to accept the organization’s constitution as drawn up by Harold Williams and Jeh Johnson. These African American architects wanted black design professionals to work together to fight discriminatory policies that limited or barred minority architects from participating in design and construction programs.

At early meetings, the members discussed topics like how to lobby Washington representatives to get black architects included in new legislation concerning work on federal projects, how to get AIA recognition for those most prominent among them (i.e. Paul Williams and Howard Mackey), and how to create their own design awards.  

That was the beginning of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), an increasingly influential voice promoting the quality and excellence of minority design professionals. There are NOMA Chapters in all parts of the country, increasing recognition on colleges and university campuses and providing greater access to government policy makers.

The first NOMA president was Wendell Campbell, followed by several of the other founders. Some who were not president, such as Robert Coles, who started the organization’s newsletter, served as vice president or in other offices. Over time, some of the NOMA founders and officers also served in AIA positions.

In 1996, Cheryl McAfee of Atlanta, Georgia, became the first female president, followed by Roberta Washington, from New York, in 1997. From 2013–14, NOMA ran under the leadership of its third female president, Kathy Dixon.

NOMA today champions diversity within the design professions by promoting the excellence, community engagement, and professional development of its members. It thrives only when voluntary members contribute their time and resources to furthering the organization’s mission—to build a strong national organization, strong chapters, and strong members to minimize the effect of racism in the profession. Strength in NOMA is built through unity in the cause that created the organization.

Through its publications and conferences, NOMA demonstrates that minority professionals have the talent and capabilities to perform in design and construction with any other group. By building strong chapters of design professionals whose sensibilities and interests include promotion of urban communities, NOMA is able to respond to the concerns that affect marginalized communities and people. Local chapters give members a base in which to become involved in politics, to visit schools and reach out to children, to conduct community and civic forums, and to responsibly practice in our professional capacities.

Pascale Sablan, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP, is a Senior Associate at S9 ARCHITECTURE, the 2017–18 historian for the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), and the NOMA Northeast Now What!? Exhibition Planning Grant 18 Regional Vice President for 2018–19. Pascale is past president of the New York Chapter of NOMA, serves the AIA National Planning Committee for the 2018 Design Justice Summit, and is a member of the AIA’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Pascale was selected as a 2018 AIA Young Architects Award Recipient and was featured in the CTBUH Research Paper: “Ratios - Voices of Women in the Tall Building World.” She was recently named Building Design + Construction 40 Under 40 and was featured on the cover of the September issue of their magazine. She has lectured at universities and colleges all over the US. In 2017 she curated the Say It Loud: Distinguished Black Designers of NYCOBA | NOMA exhibition at the Center for Architecture in New York City. She is the 315th African American female architect in the United States to attain her architectural license. As of 2017, there are only 400 women who hold this distinction.

Open Design Office

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.

2 Ibid.

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.

Noel Phyllis Birkby

Stephanie Schroeder

“It appears that if you were a man, you should be studying architecture.”

With that dismissal, in 1948 Noel Phyllis Birkby’s suburban New Jersey high school career counselors crushed her aspirations. Based on their rigid notions of gender, they shunted her desire to build, guiding her into the more “feminine” study of art despite her aptitude for and interest in architectural and environmental design. Birkby’s career in architecture was almost derailed even before it began. When Birkby returned to New York City in the early 1950s after spending one year at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina, she had a serendipitous encounter with a female architect who inspired her to pursue the profession.

She enrolled in Cooper Union’s architecture program in 1959, and for the next five years studied architecture at night while working in administrative positions in the offices of the architects Henry L. Horowitz and Seth Hiller. She earned her certificate in architecture in 1963 and completed a Masters in Architecture in 1966 at Yale, where she was one of only six women in a class of 200. At that time, there were about 1,500 registered female architects and roughly 35,000 male practitioners in the United States. Although Birkby’s entry into the world of architecture was delayed, she quickly made a name for herself as a visionary.

Birkby worked as a senior designer at Davis Brody and Associates from 1966 until 1972, when she opened her own practice. While at Davis Brody, she designed the Waterside Plaza that sits along the Hudson River in Manhattan and the Long Island University Library Learning Center in downtown Brooklyn. She described the latter as “designed more as a fabric than as a building.”

Waterside Plaza, New York, 1974, Davis Brody & Associates

Waterside Plaza, New York, 1974, Davis Brody & Associates

Long Island University Library Learning Center, Brooklyn, 1975, Davis Brody & Associates.

Long Island University Library Learning Center, Brooklyn, 1975, Davis Brody & Associates.

The metaphor of weaving and knitting appears repeatedly in Birkby’s writings. It is not a coincidence that knitting and weaving are considered “women’s work” and therefore seen as ornamental or extraneous to architectural design. Women’s ideas for and concerns about the built environment are often considered irrelevant or unimportant by many architects, regardless of their gender. Once admitted to the field, Birkby continued to resist conforming to architecture’s masculine norms.

Birkby conceived of a gendered analysis of the built environment during the height of the women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s. She moved in circles with prominent feminists of the time. Along with Kate Millett, Barbara Love, Sydney Abbott, and other high-profile feminist activists, she took part in CR One, the earliest consciousness-raising group in New York City, which helped women more fully understand the systemic oppression and everyday sexism they encountered

Redefining and expanding environmental parameters was of the utmost concern to Birkby. Her research, teachings, and writings investigate the origin of design itself. What environments would women create, and how would women organize those environments if they had carte blanche to do so?

Design for and by women would be Birkby’s lifelong pursuit. “This ongoing project evolved from my participation in the design of a women’s commune in New England. Questions of appropriate forms, spaces and symbols were raised and we asked each other if women have unique sensibilities that they bring to the process of designing their own environments,” Birkby wrote in her notes for an article on the topic of women and the built environment. She indicated that this question had also recently been raised among design professionals in terms of “Do women design differently than men?” She concluded that whether or not they do, architectural education conditioned women to confine themselves to “male-defined processes in a male-dominated atmosphere and are apt to become male-identified in their approach to design problems.”

Photograph from a workshop at the Women’s School of Architecture + Planning, where Birkby integrated the fantasy workshops into the school’s curriculum. Work from an Environmental Fantasy Workshop. From the Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Special Collections.

Photograph from a workshop at the Women’s School of Architecture + Planning, where Birkby integrated the fantasy workshops into the school’s curriculum. Work from an Environmental Fantasy Workshop. From the Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Special Collections.

Participants in Birkby’s environmental fantasy workshops in the mid-1970s were asked to imagine their ideal living environments by abandoning all constraints and preconceptions. The workshops consisted of sharing and recording women’s fantasies, in drawn form, about how they wanted to live, eat, sleep, work, make love, make friends, spend time alone, learn, walk, garden, relax, think, and be. Birkby held her program of environmental fantasy workshops with women of diverse backgrounds. Deb Edel, a cofounder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, remembers attending an environmental fantasy workshop spanning several days in Birbky’s home sometime in the late ’70s: “About five or six women were in attendance and we discussed how we wanted to use (and reuse) the space in which we were currently living.” According to Edel, “Birkby tried to get across why we don’t have to hold space in traditional ways or in ways designed by men for us.”

An original outline of the Women’s Environmental Fantasies curriculum indicates those who would be participating were “older women, housewives, female kids, nuns, career women, lesbians, straights, writers, painters, doctors, secretaries, factory workers, mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmas.” The next section of the syllabus asks why these women’s ideas and opinions were important. The answer was, in short, “Because no one ever asked us.”

In another outline for the Women’s Environmental Fantasies workshop, Birkby indicates fantasy was also used as a consciousness-raising technique to address architectural education. “Not only is fantasy the beginning of creativity, but fantasy expression has been found useful by psychologists in helping people get in touch with their own experience, a problem we find relevant to the education of women architects,” she wrote. Her investigation into women’s environmental fantasies found a “striking aspect of many projections for the desire for expansive spaces very often combined with options for total privacy. The free choice of isolation is something many women have been denied.” Birkby used tools ranging from speculative renderings drawn by women to broad discussions of alternatives to traditional uses for and organization of space to interrogate the traditional foundational aspects of architecture.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Birkby also cobbled together a modest income through design commissions and teaching at a number of colleges and universities. Yet as the boom years of the 1980s turned into the conservative ’90s, Birkby, outspoken and unorthodox, wasn’t getting much work. She picked up one-off jobs through word of mouth within the lesbian-feminist community.

Work from an Environmental Fantasy Workshop. From the Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Special Collections.

Work from an Environmental Fantasy Workshop. From the Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Special Collections.

In 1992 Birkby began spending more time at her summer home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The heady days of meaningful work and feminist activism had long passed. The AIDS crisis gripped the nation, and the continuing inaction of the US government around this epidemic engendered righteous anger and spawned massive protests within the LGBT community. Architecture and design were on the back burner as much lesbian activism, at least in NYC, focused on activity related to the devastation of the gay male population resulting from HIV.

Birkby died from breast cancer at sixty-one in 1994 in hospice at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. During her final months she was surrounded by her chosen family of friends and comrades. The late Sydney Abbott was the only person present when Birkby passed.

In 1997, the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College celebrated Birkby’s work in the exhibition Amazonian Activity: The Life and Work of Noel Phyllis Birkby, 1932-94. Attendees included Kate Millett, Sydney Abbott, and other lesbian-feminist activists who wanted to honor this radical American architect and activist who moved the profession forward by challenging its assumptions and rattling its underpinnings.

Sources: Material for this article was found in the Noel Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA; The Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn, NY; and Bertoli, Alberto and Phyllis Birkby. January 01, 1980. “Alberto Bertoli And Phyllis Birkby.” In SCI-Arc Media Archive. Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Stephanie Schroeder is a New York City-based writer and activist with special interest in feminism(s), mental health, LGBTQ issues, design, creativity, and alternative economies. She is coeditor of HEADCASE: LGBTQ Writers & Artists on Mental Health and Wellness, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.