Black Women in Architecture

Kathryn Prigmore

In 1991, at a time when there were fewer than 50 licensed African American women architects, an energetic group of women in Baltimore, Maryland, organized Black Women in Architecture (BWA).  Membership was open to any woman who had graduated from an architectural program or worked in the AEC industry. The group quickly formulated an organization under the leadership of Sharon Graeber, AIA; Alice Burley, Assoc, AIA; Pamela Fountain; Sharon Richmond, ASLA; and Cherie-Cooper Harris.

Many of the women had ties to Howard University, Morgan, the University of the District of Columbia, or Hampton University, making it easy for BWA to connect with the majority of the African American women in the AEC professions who worked in the Washington-Baltimore Metropolitan area.  

BWA was also loosely aligned with the New York Association of Black Women Architects and Design Professionals. Eventually women architects from as far away as Chicago participated in BWA activities.  

BWA’s original mission was “to enrich and improve the architectural and design communities at large by the promotion and worldwide recognition of its membership”. Its goals were:

  • to develop a means of meeting and networking with women of African American descent who are presently engaged in the practice of architecture and/or a related field (interior design, landscape architecture, construction administration, planning, engineering, and support areas.)”

  • to develop methods that will educate and increase public recognition of African Americans in the built environment professions

  • to gain an understanding of the dilemmas—culturally, socially, and politically—facing black women in these professions.

BWA mounted an exhibit of African American women’s work in Baltimore in 1992. The organization also held a quarterly brunch. For a brief period, the organization also published a newsletter. BWA discussed plans for an annual symposium, but this idea never came to fruition.

The program held on March 12, 1994, at the DC Design Center was its last official event. It included sessions on starting a business, CADD literacy, marketing, and ADSA compliance.

NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

Ken Lustbader

The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project is a cultural heritage initiative and educational resource documenting historic sites connected to the LGBT community in New York City. Historic preservationists Andrew Dolkart, Ken Lustbader, and Jay Shockley founded the project with initial support from the National Park Service Underrepresented Communities Program. The project builds off of the nation’s first map for LGBT historic sites in New York City, which they helped create in 1994 while part of the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects + Designers (OLGAD).

The project’s mission to make an invisible history visible includes publishing historical narratives on its website, researching and nominating LGBT sites to the National Register of Historic Places, curating walking tours, presenting lectures, engaging the community through events, and developing education opportunities.

The project website features a map with over 150 diverse places from the 17th century to 2000 that are important to LGBT history and illustrate the community’s influence on New York City and American culture. Last year, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project worked with the National Parks Conservation Association to develop the LGBT History Tour, Greenwich Village NYC. This printed tour and map is being distributed at the Stonewall National Monument, which memorializes the Stonewall Uprising of June 1969, considered a key turning point in the LGBT rights movement in the United States. More recently, in partnership with the New York State Historic Preservation Office, the project completed the Historic Context Statement for LGBT History in New York City, which will be used as a guide to help future advocacy and evaluation of LGBT place-based history.

The project disseminates its content through social media channels, community presentations, and walking tours in order to show the public that LGBT history is American history. This has helped influence new research projects and raise awareness about pre-Stonewall LGBT place-based heritage. It also fosters a sense of pride among LGBT youth. The project is part of a new group of independent projects throughout the country and internationally that are looking more closely at LGBT place-based heritage.

ALICE Through the Glass Ceiling

Sally Levine

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The success of CARY’s More than the Sum of our Body Parts clearly demonstrated to me the power of exhibits to spark conversations about important social and professional issues. I was certain that this would not be my only effort to confront issues affecting women in architecture.  

In 1994, I was invited by New Langton Arts, a San Francisco art gallery, to continue my installation work addressing the status of women in architecture and professional women in general. The result was Architecture Lets In Chicks, Except…(ALICE) Through the Glass Ceiling. With this new multimedia show, I wanted to expand my investigations to recognize the progress women had made while acknowledging that women continued (and continue) to face many challenges in the workplace.

ALICE knew that the very metaphor of the glass ceiling indicated that women had made gains. After all, if women had not gotten their collective "foot in the door," they would not be able to see the ceiling at all. But like a ceiling of glass, women’s progress has been fragile, and it was (and is) imperative that these gains not be taken for granted. In Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen notes that “it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” Entering the exhibit through strips of mirrored mylar, this ALICE’s wonderland was a series of seven playful, interactive, three-dimensional installations showing that women still needed to run at least twice as fast.

The vignettes confronted the ways statistics can be interpreted, the differences between media portrayals of women architects and the real work of women architects, the ambiguity of affirmative action programs, the ways that women are made to be invisible, and the challenges of climbing the corporate ladder.

In Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, I asked a number of questions about women’s status within the profession. Keeping the meter of the Wicked Stepmother’s question, text like “How many women architects in all?” and “Who’s the best paid of them all?” was inscribed on the outside of hinged panels. Upon opening the panels, which were connected to a mirror adhered “on the wall,” the viewer saw two answers—one indicating that progress had been made (written legibly) and the other showing the limits of that progress (written to be read in the mirror). The answers to the first questions above were: “There are 23,662 women architects in the US” (right reading) and “Women architects comprise 15 percent of the profession” (mirror image). The second pair read, “Male architects earn $1.00” and “Female architects earn $0.75.”

Rose Colored Glasses juxtaposed the rosy media versions of women architects and the reality of their actual architectural work. I drafted buildings by nine pioneering women architects—Ruth Adams, Han Schroeder, Alberta Pfieffer, Minerva Parker Nickels, Julia Morgan, Eileen Grey, Marion Mahoney Griffen, Eva Kuhleft-Ekelund, and Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter—and framed these 24 x 36 inch drawings in rose-colored plaster frames. These were contrasted with nine miniature images of women portraying architects—in films, on television, in magazine fashion spreads, and in print ads—clipped to thin cable strung from ceiling to floor. The next layer was composed of nine viewing devices held on stands made of steel plate, coil, and reinforcing rod. Various magnifying glasses, binoculars, monoculars, and telescopes, all covered with rose-colored gels, were connected to the stands. They were focused directly on the media images, placed in the gallery relative to their magnifying capabilities. Whether a woman showing architectural prints to a client whose string of pearls had broken or Elise Keaton (mom and architect) in Family Ties, none of the images came close to the accomplishments of the actual women. As the viewer looked beyond the media mystique, the real work became most prominent.

Ambiguity was the central theme of Shining Armor. Even though the whole notion of knights in shining armor is antithetical to professional ambition, it doesn’t necessarily make the concept of such a knight unattractive. Similarly, I had ambiguous feelings about affirmative action. The program offered opportunities to women but often limited these opportunities to consulting with larger, male-owned firms. As the piece evolved, I became interested in times when women wore their own shining armor, and I presented information about affirmative action within a historical context of women taking on their own battles. This large triangular sculpture corner was a patchwork of copper, bronze, steel, aluminum, wire mesh, and perforated metals. It stitched together a history of affirmative action alongside examples of women’s movements, from a twelfth-century harem revolt in Persia to a seventeenth-century riot by women bread bakers in Paris to marches in Washington, D.C.

I wanted to express my concern for the ways women have been made to feel invisible in the workplace, whether they are being denied credit for an idea or being left out of a meeting. This led to Smoke and Mirrors, Now you see her, now you don't, and Pick-a-Card, Any Card. In the former installation, slides were projected through gray “clouds of smoke” covering a platform that supported a projector and tape player. A mirror was placed in front of the projector lens to transmit the images horizontally onto another platform suspended from above, appearing to float. The projections were presented in pairs, allowing the viewer to “see her” before she became invisible. For example, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were shown as professional partners, but then Robert Venturi was shown alone as the recipient of the Pritzker Prize. These slides were accompanied by an audio tape with a magician’s voice revealing tricks used to make women disappear.

Adjacent to Smoke and Mirrors, long white-gloved hands were perched on pedestals clad with red satin. One hand cradled blank Red Queen playing cards, inviting gallery visitors to share their experiences with “sleights of hand.” The other glove held the ever-growing hand of cards, where visitors could pick a card to discover other tricks that had been performed on women visitors who had been made to disappear.  

In The Glass Slipper, I replaced the metaphor of the glass ceiling, pointing out the treachery and fragility of advancement made by women while wearing shoes made of glass. Couples’ dance steps were painted on the gallery’s floor, leading to a pyramidal ladder reaching from the floor to the ceiling. As a few glass slippers ascended the ladder backwards, more fell behind into a pile of broken glass and mirror. Throughout the gallery, women’s dance steps were the reverse of the forward movements of the men’s, suggesting, as it has been said of Ginger Rogers in respect to Fred Astaire, that “she did everything that he did, only backwards and in high heels.”

I have always thought that Crystal Ball was ahead of its time. I wanted to create a means for communication beyond the gallery walls. Small “crystal” beads were strung on silver string, along with a message charm that read, “What do you see in our future? Email ______” and then my email address. Purely conceptual in nature, this piece provided souvenir bracelets, placed in a crystal bowl for all to take. Today I would ask for tweets at #alicethroughtheglassceiling. No one sent an email, but the feedback I did receive assured me that this gallery show struck a nerve for both women and men.

The Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects + Designers

A.L. Hu

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In 1991, the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects + Designers (OLGAD) was formed in New York City, originally as a networking collective for job-seeking, political activism, employment harassment support, queer design discourse, and recognition of design contributions from LGBT architects and designers. The national organization’s mission was to reclaim lost history by identifying and recognizing lesbian and gay architects throughout history, identify spaces and places that have significance in the history of lesbian and gay movements, and analyze and define “queer design.” To commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City, OLGAD organized Design Pride ’94, the first International Lesbian and Gay Design Conference, in partnership with Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA) and the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation. The exhibit, Design Legacies: A Tribute to Architects and Designers Who Have Died of AIDS, celebrated the talent and contributions of people who lost their lives at the height of their careers.

One of OLGAD’s most well-known public advocacy efforts was A Guide to Lesbian & Gay New York Historical Landmarks, a foldout map of historic lesbian and gay sites in Greenwich Village, Midtown, and Harlem published in 1994. The map broadened the public’s knowledge of LGBTQ place-based history beyond Stonewall. Former OLGAD members Andrew Dolkart and Jay Shockley, along with historian David Carter, through the auspices of Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, wrote the nomination of Stonewall, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000. It was the first and only LGBT-associated site recognized by the federal government for over ten years. Those two listings helped pave the way for the 2016 designation of the Stonewall National Monument by President Obama.

Evolving out of the OLGAD map, preservation committee members Andrew Dolkart, Ken Lustbader, and Jay Shockley officially launched the New York City LGBT Historic Sites Project in August 2015. The project includes a selection of sites from the 1994 map on its interactive website, which covers the five boroughs of New York City with over 140 locations associated with LGBT history. The project is an important resource for the long-unknown history of queer spaces in New York City.

The Directory of African American Architects

Brad Grant & Dennis Mann


The Directory of African American Architects identifies and highlights licensed African American architects who practice in both the private and public sectors, who teach in higher education, who work in associated disciplines, and who have left the field of architecture but maintain their license.

We began the first edition of the Directory in November 1991 to account for and identify all of the African Americans who were professionally licensed as architects. At that time, we suspected that the estimated numbers we came across in various publications were not accurate. The first directory established a baseline with which we could begin to plot the demographic changes among African American architects over time. We also used the data collected from the first edition to facilitate our research profiling the roles that African American architects play in education and in practice, including those who are owners of firms, those who are partners in firms, those who are employees in both the public and private sectors, and those who are educators. The second edition of the directory (1996) continued our efforts to provide an up-to-date and accurate listing of licensed African American architects.

By now both Whitney M. Young's admonition to architects attending the American Institute of Architects' National Convention in 1968 in Portland, Oregon, and the Kerner Commission's June 1968 report on urban unrest have become important historical documents. Robert Traynham Coles, FAIA, a noted practicing architect and a past Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, cited both of these documents in a Progressive Architecture editorial entitled "An Endangered Species" (July, 1989). Based on his observations over a period between 1968 and 1989, Coles bemoaned the dismal growth in the number of African American architects. Coles quoted Young, who said that architects had shared in the responsibility for creating "the white noose around the central city," where much of the urban unrest of the late 1960s occurred. Coles also cited the Kerner Report, which concluded that the nation was rapidly developing into two societies, one black and one white, separate and unequal. These factors, as well as the dismantling of federally supported housing programs, the reduction of federal support for the maintenance and development of physical infrastructures, and the attack on affirmative action policies, along with other discriminatory practices, inhibited the success of African American architectural practices.

Major reductions in grants, scholarships, and guaranteed loans for underrepresented students led Coles to conclude that the African American architect was an "endangered species." Coles noted that "the number of black architects had grown from about 1000 to about 2000, remaining at about two percent of the total (of all architects)," notwithstanding the fact that African Americans represent more than 12 percent of the population. Coles' data was taken from statistics collected by the Department of Labor, which counted everyone in the field of architecture without distinguishing licensed architects from interns, technicians, or even designer/builders. Coles found it difficult to substantiate that there were two thousand architects in current practice based on his own observations and experiences with African American architects between 1969 and 1989.

The architectural press continued to report weak African American representation in the profession. This is true not only for practice but also for architectural education. The National Architectural Accrediting Board reports that for the 1993–94 academic year, 6.3 percent of students in accredited B. Arch and M. Arch programs were African American. In that same year, only 3.6 percent of the graduates from both of those programs were African American. African American women are even less represented in practice. We listed only eighty-four women in the 1996 directory. No recent statistics tell us how many graduates remain in the profession as interns or continue on to licensure.

Recent studies of the role of gender and race in the architectural profession and in architectural education suggest that weak demographic presence has a negative effect on African American architects and other underrepresented architects in the field (see Kathryn Anthony’s Shattering the Glass Ceiling). Conventional architectural history reflects this bias. Historians have been slow to incorporate African American contributions to American architecture into their work or into architecture curricula. Most students of architecture have never heard of Benjamin Banneker, who assisted Pierre Charles L'Enfant in the planning of Washington, DC; or Julian Abele, who designed the Widener Library at Harvard University; or Robert Taylor, the first African American to earn an architecture degree and who worked with Booker T. Washington on the design of Tuskegee Institute.

The African American architectural tradition continues today. African American architects are actively involved in all levels of professional practice, from the design of high style interiors to that of large international airports and major museums. African American architects are also senior partners in majority-owned firms, deans in prestigious architecture schools, and administrators in governmental agencies.

After the publication of our second hardbound directory, we realized how quickly information can become outdated in print. We decided to create a website that could be updated instantaneously as we received new information. We also felt that a website would put our research into the public sector and make it available not only to other architects but to aspiring architects searching for African American role models.

Since we began our research in 1990, the number of licensed African American architects has more than quadrupled, and the number of licensed African American women has grown from 48 to 440. We believe that the website alone has helped to publicize who African American architects are and where they practice. The site provides live links to those firms that have websites and publishes research papers, books, job postings, and current announcements. More recently, we have added a listing of licensed landscape architects.

As of September 2018, there are 2,239 licensed African American Architects in the database. We confirm that all licensees are in fact licensed by consulting the state board of architecture registration website for their home state. In addition, the number of licensed women has greatly increased. When we began there were only 48 licensed women. Today there are currently 440. They now make up nearly 20 percent of the total. This year three of the four new FAIA inductees were African American women.

Over the past twenty-seven years we’ve been fortunate to widen our contact network as well as discover that our website shows up first in Google searches for “African American Architects.” When we’ve asked someone who contacts us about being added to the Directory how they discovered the site, their response is often that they didn’t know it existed and they found it after searching for African American or black architects online. Today more and more young interns follow the site—and often ask to be added as soon as they learn they’ve passed the Architect Registration Examination. The site is often a good resource for potential clients, suppliers, and young students looking to talk to an architect in their area.

Accessible Design

Karen Braitmayer

Karen Braitmayer in practice, photograph courtesy of Karen Braitmayer, date unknown.

Karen Braitmayer in practice, photograph courtesy of Karen Braitmayer, date unknown.

Specialization and Service

When I moved to Seattle after my first job, I thought I just wanted to be an architect—an average architect. Then a very kind architect told me, “there are a lot of good architects—focus on the unique perspective you can bring to the profession. That might be disability.”

I didn’t see the value in that, but as I started working at a large firm, I was going to my friends’ work desks and thinking, “Oh, that design is not a good idea.” I began to realize that if I was going to make those comments, I needed to know what I was talking about. I started taking some classes, and I discovered I really loved to help people make their projects more accessible.

I had the opportunity to start a firm twenty years ago, and I decided that one of our services would be accessibility support. When my partner retired from the firm, we stopped doing traditional architectural services altogether and decided to only do accessibility consulting.

My involvement with the code development process in Washington state, along with my participation as a member of the US Access Board, helps me understand the intent behind the codes and standards. I think of myself as a cultural ambassador; I help architects understand not only the letter of the law but why it’s beneficial for somebody who uses a mobility device or doesn’t have full vision or hearing. Having eighteen inches clear on the pull side of a door, for instance. Why eighteen inches? Why not twenty or fourteen? Explaining about how a wheelchair user approaches at an angle and needs enough room for their footrest outside of the door swing gives designers the knowledge that allows them to use their design skills to make good decisions.

People ask to see pictures of my accessibility work all the time, but my work is meant to go unseen. Most of my input is in tweaking a design and supporting the architect’s original vision. About sixty-five percent of our work is multifamily housing, and that is because that project type has complex accessibility regulations with a lot of overlapping language. In the last year, we’ve been asked to work on more projects where we look at existing buildings and remove barriers to review compliance. Really, what we’re trying to do is make good design decisions and support a full range of humans who want to use and feel welcome in our buildings. If you don’t understand how people interact with the building, it’s hard to get the design right.

In my tenure on the Access Board, there have been several other licensed architects, including Michael Graves, prior to his passing. There are other people who provide accessibility consulting services but have different backgrounds; there are people who represent disability organizations; there are many, many others.

Experiences in education and early career

Except for too-high desks, I never really dealt with any challenges from being a wheelchair user in architectural school at the University of Houston. The first day of studio, a bunch of my classmates looked at me and looked at the desk, which was at stool height, and decided that wasn’t going to work. They went out and bought a bunch of two-by-fours and built me a lower desk. I had very supportive classmates.

The next big hurdle was trying to get a job. The difficulty with trying to get employment when you’re a wheelchair user, especially in the ’80s, before the Americans with Disabilities Act, is that people did not expect that a wheelchair user could even do the job. They imagine an architect must to be able to climb a ladder and wield the hammer on a job site, and that was certainly not a good fit for me. If I went in for an interview and the interviewer’s jaw hit the floor, I would say thanks and leave and try again at another firm. At that time, you had to look for the right open-minded employer; now the laws are different. I think it would be easier to show your skills first, rather than deal with misconceptions up front. I have both felt marginalized and have benefited from my unique perspective. I didn't have the same job opportunities as my peers, but I turned my worldview into a service I could provide for other architects.

Pressing Issues in Design

Equal and substantial access to our environment by people with disabilities is a pressing issue in design—then and now. To young people with disabilities, I say: be an architect. Become a accessibility consultant. Architecture is one of the few careers where you can influence the built environment for the better and shape what you understand about people’s needs. If you see a gap in what is being provided, you have a chance to fill that with your ideas and solutions. You have the the opportunity to impact your community.

I am increasingly aware of the lack of inclusion and equal access in education, the workforce, and access to technology and housing. Up until November of last year, I would have said we were moving forward in all sorts of areas, though there’s certainly more work to do. There’s a lot of focus on accessibility for technology, communication technology, and how the rapid advancement of technology is continuing to support and engage people with disabilities. Since the administration changed, all bets are off. We don’t know what is going to happen. Now we might be in a pause period—where we’re trying to just maintain the rights that we have. And in architecture, people with disabilities are in a minority that is often overlooked when people talk about diversifying the profession.

Karen L. Braitmayer, FAIA, is the founder of her own accessible design consulting company in Seattle, Washington. In her position as an accessibility expert, she advises architectural firms, developers, and government agencies at the local and state level on how to implement and improve building code and accessibility for all users. Karen also served as chair of the federal Access Board, where she is currently a public member.

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

Sarah Rafson

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

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

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

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

“Dear Ms. Maxman,

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

  • The Wage Gap

  • The Glass Ceiling

  • Family Leave Policies

  • Gender Bias in Treatment on the Job

  • Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

  • Family/Workplace Issues

  • Attrition Rates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Architecture: The Story of Practice

Julia deVito

Architecture: The Story of Practice , Dana Cuff (MIT Press, 1992).

Architecture: The Story of Practice, Dana Cuff (MIT Press, 1992).

In Architecture: The Story of Practice, architecture scholar, theorist, and activist Dana Cuff offers an in-depth analysis of the culture of architectural practice as a “social construction” by dissecting the untold contradictions between what it means to be and to become an architectural practitioner, offering suggestions on how to mend the gaps, and concluding that the design process is based on “collective action” and is fundamentally “a social process,” a result of negotiation.

Published in 1992 after ten years of research, the book draws on previous sociological and historical studies of professionalism and design practice. It owes much of its inspiration to Cuff’s colleague and mentor, sociologist Robert Gutman, whose book, Architectural Practice: A Critical View (1988) examined the challenges facing architects in a moment of change for the profession. Cuff inserts herself in this string of research while acknowledging a lack of literature at the time that described “the everyday architectural practice.” For six months, she employed sociology’s ethnographic method, paired with participant observation, to directly immerse herself in the life of three architecture firms, selected for their diverse range of office size and project types. Utilizing subsequent interviews of a total of seventy architects and developers, roundtable discussions, and informal interactions with practitioners, Cuff put together a comprehensive view of the history, development, and actuality of architectural practice by focusing especially on the divide between beliefs about the profession and the reality of practice. She identified this divide as the underlying origin of the ambiguity in defining the role of architects. The objective of her analysis and of her suggested areas for change is to create a better understanding of the architectural profession, which could “guide us toward making better environments” and “reinforce the profession’s role in unifying and standardizing its practices, an important source of professional strength.”

Cuff’s interest in this study stemmed from her own observations, as a student transitioning from university to working in the field of architecture, that the image of architects as portrayed in academia and popular culture as designing in isolation did not correspond to the actuality of the profession or “consider the range of activities, nor the people involved.” Throughout the book, she particularly focuses on opposing dualities and analyzes them in various contexts, such as understanding design issues (“Design Problems in Practice”), exposing them among the path from layperson to student to architect (“The Making of an Architect”), within the design-as-negotiation process (“The Architect’s Milieu”), and in the search for the meaning of excellence in architecture through the analysis of three variably complex projects as case studies (“Excellent Practice: The Origins of Good Building”). Within such dualities—the individual versus the collective, design and art versus business and management, decision-making versus sense-making, and specialists versus generalists—Cuff shows how architects tend to neglect one side over the other, thus perpetuating the ambiguity in their relationship with the profession, fostering the aura of mystery surrounding their work, and distancing them both from clients and the public. Cuff suggests acting within the field of professional organizations, the professional press, and in architectural education to shift the attention from the individual hand of the architect to the role of the profession in the design process as a collective sphere of action.

Cuff’s interest in “the scholarship around architecture that leads to . . . all sorts of agency” has been at the center of her academic career. Her observations on architecture’s role shifted from within the office environment to the outside urban context, focusing on where and how architects’ actions could be effective in the public realm. This culminated in the creation, in 2006, of CityLab, an experimental research and design center within the University of California, Los Angeles, which collaboratively links the university with the profession, the public, and city government.

Cuff wrote the book following a period when architects’ identities had been shaken by economic and political changes along with the crisis of the paradigms of the modernist movement. It was also a time in which the use of computer-aided design was still developing and the structure of practices and of the architectural profession was changing.

Today, at a moment when there are no defined architectural movements—when the idolization of “starchitects” seems to be waning in favor of more collaborative approaches to architecture practice and when BIM technology and the growth of design-build and integrated project delivery methods are reshaping the way architects interact with clients and consultants, the contradictions unveiled by Cuff still ring true. Furthermore, global tensions brought on by climate change, the increase of urbanization, and the outcome of the 2016 presidential election have inspired some American architects to move outside of their practices and into activism and advocacy. All the while the main institutional body of the architectural profession, the American Institute of Architects, is criticized by some for its inability to recognize that the profession is in crisis and to truly represent the interests of all registered architects. The Architecture Lobby and Who Builds Your Architecture? are two examples of organizations that advocate for guiding the debate toward issues that matter to all architects, particularly ones concerning fair working conditions for architects and construction site workers.

Even almost thirty years after the original publication of Cuff’s work, few studies have peered into the everyday life of architecture practice. Notably, researcher Albena Yaneva observed the daily activities of the Dutch firm OMA and recounted her findings in her publication, Made by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design (2009). Though the conclusion Cuff draws—that architecture is a collective process, a result more of talk than of actual drawing—read today may sound obvious, books such as Architecture: The Story of Practice can inspire and remind architects to define their roles as professionals for the benefit of their own practices and of the society in which they continually seek to become active members.


American Institute of Architects. The Architect's Handbook of Professional Practice. 2014.

Cramer, Ned. "What Won't You Build?" Architect Magazine (April 2017)

Cuff, Dana “Athena Lecture,” Lecture at KTH Centre for the Future of Places, September 2017 (available on Vimeo)

Cuff, Dana “Act Like and Architect!” Lecture at Taubman College, October 2017 (available on Vimeo)

Cuff, Dana, and Roger Sherman. “Introduction.” In Fast-forward Urbanism: Rethinking Architecture's Engagement With the City. Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

Cuff, Dana. "Before and Beyond Outside in: An Introduction to Robert Gutman’s Writings." In Gutman, Robert, Dana Cuff, and Bryan Bell. Architecture from the outside in: Selected essays by Robert Gutman. Princeton Architectural Press, 2010, 13-27

Deamer, Peggy, Dunn, Keefer, and Shvartzberg Carrió, Manuel. “A Response to AIA Values.” The Avery Review. Issue 23 (April 2017)

Dovey, Kim. “Architecture: The Story of Practice by Dana Cuff; Behind the Postmodern Façade: Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America by Magali Sarfatti Larson.” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research. Vol. 13, no. 3 ( Autumn 1996): 261-264

Kaminer, Tahl. Architecture, Crisis and Resuscitation: The Reproduction of Post-Fordism in Late-Twentieth-Century Architecture. Routledge, 2011, 3-7

Larson, Magali Sarfatti. Behind the Postmodern Facade: Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America. University of California Press, 1995.

Mayo, James M. "Architecture: The Story of Practice." Journal of Architectural Education. Vol. 46, no. 1 (September 1992): 61-62

McGuigan, Cathleen. "Common Ground in Unsettling Times." ARCHITECTURAL RECORD 204.12 (2016): 13-13.

McNeill, Donald. The Global Architect: Firms, Fame and Urban Form. Routledge, 2009.

Medina, Samuel. “Meet the Architecture Lobby Working to Change the Way the Professions is Structured.” Metropolis Magazine (December 2013)

Minkjan, Mark. “Is the Architectural Profession Still Relevant?” Failed Architecture (September 2013)

Roy, Ananya. “The Infrastructure of Assent: Professions in the Age of Trumpism.” The Avery Review. Issue 21 (January 2017)

Saenz, Michael. “Architecture: The Story of Practice.” American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 96, no. 6 (May 1992): 1780-1781

Saunders, William S., and Peter G. Rowe, eds. Reflections on Architectural Practices in the Nineties. Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.

Stevens, Garry. The Favored Circle: The social Foundations of Architectural Distinction. MIT Press, 2002.

Tijerino, Roger. "The Architecture Profession: Can It Be Strengthened?" Journal of Architectural and Planning Research (2009): 258-268.

Yaneva, Albena. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design. 010 Publishers, 2009.


Xx Voto

ANY 4, Architecture and the Feminine: Mop-Up Work , January/February 1994.

ANY 4, Architecture and the Feminine: Mop-Up Work, January/February 1994.


March 20th 2018

“Dear ANY #4,

Forgive me for not writing sooner. It has been decades now, and I’d like to place you into context, but as you may know, we architects still tend to stay very late at work these days, and it’s a challenge to find a quiet conference room to write. So here I am after today’s site visit to a mis-poured stair on level 62, canopy redesign meeting, and a number of rather hasty submittal returns. I’ve had my Pad Thai delivered to my desk (please excuse the honesty of young architect’s domestic sphere here) and am ready to “historically describe” your contributions. I expect you are not too surprised by my delay since, as you made evident, and I am here to report, there has been so much work done but still far more that must come.”

In the early 1990s, a deluge of texts examined and tested the relationships that gender and sexuality had to architecture. The movement built on adopted conceptual schemas from postmodernist and post-structuralist French theorists of the 1970s. Helene Cixous explored the relationship between sexuality and language, Luce Irigaray made the inherent masculine philosophies in our language visible, and Julia Kristeva used physchoanaltics to explore the individual and the body.

Gender studies formalized in the 1970s, emerging from women’s studies and feminism to give space in the academy for writing and thinking on the subject and set the stage for a pluralistic feminisms to emerge.1 Early texts ranged from liberal to radical, from a focus on equal representation in the discipline—as in the 1976 “Architecture and Urban Planning” by Dolores Hayden and Gwendolyn Wright—to demands to topple the patriarchy—as in Shulamith Firestone’s 1970 book The Dialectics of Sex. Interdisciplinary applications of these new feminist ideas questioned grand narratives and forged new paths of inquiry. Although not yet architectural, an early example of this future thinking is the 1984 “A Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Haraway, a posthumanist metaphor that reconceived of the decorporealized self through the emergence of a newly connected digital realm. Architecture beyond built work emphasized the contribution that architectural thought can contribute to culture at large.

New emphasis on works of architecture included writing and language in the early ’90s (particularly academics the northeast architecture schools), which put philosophy from Derrida, Deleuze, and Guattari into dialogue in search of meaning between space and semiotics. Projects like Sexuality and Space by Beatriz Colomina deployed feminist interpretive techniques to reread the masters, introduced a new intersection with feminist thought, and laid to foundations for collectives including Assemblage and ANY Magazine to continue the inquiry.

ANY #4’s “Architecture and the Feminine: Mop-up Work” amplified the many voices within architecture, philosophy, classics and gender studies and edified post-structuralist, postmodern, and deconstructivist feminist thought in the architecture academy. The issue contained a correspondence between contributor and editor, included a set of critical essays, displayed exemplars of work in architecture and the feminine, and documented a resulting symposium dialogue “In Any Event” at DIA on November 20, 1993. As a platform for displaying substantive work being done on the issue, guest editor Jennifer Bloomer described the issues as more of a “bag that conforms to the contents” of what is within it than a proscriptive collection. This loose conceptual framework resists categorization in favor for each piece’s subjectivity individually.2 Jennifer Bloomer explored the metaphors and metonymy at play in gender and architecture. With language as a loose scheme, her intent to overcome the simplifications, gut associations, and continual metaphorizing within the field goes directly to the overarching action items presented within the magazine and the conference. In a presentation, she described the issue’s intent to give a platform to the wide range of paradigms of working within architecture and the feminine.

Perched courageously in the front of the issue, the series of letters between editor, guest editor, and contributor reveal a dialogue on the discipline’s discomfort with the topic. This correspondence offered readers a generous look at the messy business of championing a topic historically ignored, but it also embraces the difficulties (and elusion) of articulating a grand narrative regarding the conceptual curation being done. As noted by Cynthia Davidson in her Letter to the Reader:

“Why is the idea of the feminine problematic for architecture? What is it about a discussion of the feminine in architecture that for many women still feels like a ghettoization of a cultural issue? Where does the feminine find its site?”

What can ultimately be gleaned from a brief encounter with a journal from 1994 on architecture and the feminine? The project requires a rigor of inquiry and critique akin to that given to the radius of the nosing of the stair, which will keep those in the future from tripping. One must study the difference between painted aluminum and plate bronze as well as the substantive differences in chora by Grosz and by Eisenman. For a practitioner such as myself, it is a reminder to specify all of the above in my practice daily, and to continue to educate myself in all available work. It is a reminder to study the work of Claire Robinson, Michelle Kaufmann, Durham Crout, and Liquid, Inc.; to read and discuss George Hersey, Diana Argest, Elizabeth Grosz, Ann Bergren, and Jennifer Bloomer. The details and complexities of each work are best explored in their original production. To reiterate the action items set forth by Ann Bergren, ANY #4: “Mop-up Work” is a reminder to practitioners of the polyvalence of feminisms at work.

“Anyone who wants to begin this discovery—a discovery as difficult as resisting the force of reality as we have known it—should return to Sheila’s and Frano’s bridges and to your [Jennifer Bloomer] Tabbles of Bower, studying every detail for insight into the principles of an architecture not ‘beyond’ or ‘outside’ the feminine but rather ‘beside’ it, the para-feminine architecture that all three of you have already built.”3

1 For a more comprehensive survey of shifts in the discourse around feminism and architecture, see Jane Rendell, “Tendencies and Trajectories: Feminist Approaches in Architecture,”in The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory, edited by C. Greig Crysler, Stephen Cairns & Hilde Heynen (Sage, 2012), 85-97..

2 Sherry Ahrentzen speaks to the implications of the conceptual clarity of collections at the time, see Sherry Ahrentzen, “The Space between the Studs: Feminism and Architecture” Signs, Vol. 29 No. 1 (Autumn 2003): 179-206.

3 Ann Bergren, “Dear Jennifer” ANY #4 - Architecture and the Feminine: Mop-Up Work (January/February 1994).

Xx Voto is a licensed architect with a demonstrated history of work in all phases of NYC large-scale mixed-use design and construction. She holds a B.Arch from Cornell University.

Broadening the Discourse

Martina Dolejsova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queer Theory

Olivier Vallerand

Poster of  Queer Space  exhibition, 1994, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York. Courtesy Storefront for Art and Architecture.

Poster of Queer Space exhibition, 1994, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York. Courtesy Storefront for Art and Architecture.

The emergence of queer theory and its challenges to normative understandings of sexual and gender categories has changed a wide number of disciplines, but its impact on architecture has been quite limited compared to other fields, such as art, art history, geography, or planning. Most queer scholarship in architecture appeared in the mid-1990s. It emerged from two different streams: feminist histories and critiques of the built environment and a larger interest in theory across architecture, including post-structuralist French theory, an important source in the development of queer theory. Building on these diverging sources, queer scholarship in architecture approached different themes with varying objectives.

An important number of these works focused on the issue of visibility, be it in contemporary representations or in architectural history. Aaron Betsky, in one of the most well-known books on the topic, presented a history of spaces designed or used by queer people—mostly gay white men—that he connected with his personal experience of clubs.1 A similar impulse to make gay and lesbian people visible—a reclaiming of history that is also present in other disciplines—sustained, for example, Alice Friedman’s discussion of Philip Johnson’s Glass House or Katarina Bonnevier and Justine Rault’s analysis of Eileen Gray’s E.1027.2 While most of these projects focused on domestic spaces, Maxine Wolfe’s article on lesbian bars, “Invisible Women in Invisible Places,” made clear that the issue of visibility also applied to spaces considered public. Other thinkers looked at how queer people were represented in the profession or in architecture magazines—in one instance, Henry Urbach showed how magazines such as Architectural Digest at once reveal and conceal queer couples by insisting on showing two separate bedrooms in their photographic features, among other strategies.3 Discussions of both historical and contemporary examples, however, often fell into the trap of focusing on privileged gay white males at the expense of more marginalized people (women, transgender people, and people of color being among them) or of trying to identify a “queer design aesthetic,” to use Jonathan Boorstein’s terms.4

The focus on visibility of much queer scholarship in architecture aligns itself more with earlier gay and lesbian studies than with the political challenge to categories that underlines queer theory, even if making marginalized people visible is itself a political endeavor. Some architects have, however, built on this political aspect. By the mid-1990s, feminist thinkers had already begun to challenge the gendered assumptions that supported the design and experience of the built environment by focusing on women’s place in it, both as designers and as users. Queer theory pushed for a further rethinking of the ways sexuality and gender intersect with space by questioning the role that architecture plays in the construction of male identity, as exemplified by the essays in the collection Stud: Architectures of Masculinity, edited by Joel Sanders. The political potential of queer space theory has also developed from the shifting focus of architectural history and theory through a discussion of minor architecture, as in John Paul Ricco’s analysis of sex spaces inspired by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of minor literature,5 or more broadly through an analysis of cruising spaces, bathhouses, and sexualized bars and clubs.6 Others have built from the performative aspect of queer theory to suggest that queer space is, in Christopher Reed’s words, “imminent, [. . .] in the process of, literally, taking place, of claiming territory.”7 Similarly, Henry Urbach discussed the ante-closet—the space created by the opening of a closet door—as an ephemeral space where “private and social realms interpenetrate” and as a space where the line between what one hides and what one shows breaks down.8 Bridging between disciplines, including architecture, the edited collection Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance explored the interactions between queer identity, activism, and public spaces, underlining the relationship between physical spaces and the political potential of social visibility.9

In addition to more traditional essays, scholarship on queer space also materialized in exhibitions such as Queer Space, held at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York in 1994. Organized around the question, “What exactly is queer space?” the projects exemplified many of the approaches discussed here—highlighting the complexity of a concept like queer space but also the importance of thinking about space as layered in a way that acknowledges the diverging political and social implications that different people will experience.

Most of the queer scholarship in architecture has focused on gay men and, more marginally, lesbian women. Only recently have trans people become subjects of discussion, as in Joel Sanders and Susan Stryker’s “Stalled.” Issues surrounding trans people have been much more present in planning discussions, such as in the work of Petra Doan,10 but they seem to have triggered a renewed interest in architectural discussions after a period of limited visibility in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Sanders has discussed this shift in his own thinking in a recent article published in a special 2017 issue of Log, one of the few architecture journals to devote special issues to the relation of gender, sexuality, and the built environment.11 This interest also aligns with a similar renewed interest in feminist issues. Like earlier scholarship, these new projects present a broad range of interpretations of what queer space can mean, highlighting its potential for rethinking both the practice and study of architecture. The projects return to a socially informed practice of architecture that had been erased in the early years of the twenty-first century by an overwhelming stream of digital experimentations and formal or projective approaches to design. Hopefully, this renewed interest will be sustained as the complex challenges posed by queer theory to architectural practice—particularly the translation of discursive practices into design and construction—call for a sophisticated understanding of the connection between gender, sexuality, and the built environment—something that can only appear with time and careful experimentation.

1 Aaron Betsky, Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire (New York: William Morrow, 1997).

2 Alice T. Friedman, "People Who Live in Glass Houses: Edith Farnsworth, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, and Philip Johnson," in Women and the Making of the Modern House : A Social and Architectural History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998); Katarina Bonnevier, "A Queer Analysis of Eileen Gray's E.1027," in Negotiating Domesticity: Spatial Productions of Gender in Modern Architecture, ed. Hilde Heynen and Gulsum Baydar (London & New York: Routledge, 2005); Jasmine Rault, Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity: Staying In (Farnham, Surrey & Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011).

3 Henry Urbach, "Peeking at Gay Interiors," Design book review: DBR 25 (1992).

4 Jonathan Boorstein, "Queer Space," in Building Bridges: Diversity Connections: American Institute of Architects National Diversity Conference Proceedings (Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects, 1995).

5 John Paul Ricco, "Coming Together: Jack-Off Rooms as Minor Architecture," A/R/C, architecture, research, criticism 1, no. 5 (1994).

6 Henry Urbach, "Spatial Rubbing: The Zone," Sites, no. 25 (1993); Betsky; Ira Tattelman, "The Meaning at the Wall: Tracing the Gay Bathhouse," in Queers in Space: Communities | Public Places | Sites of Resistance, ed. Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter (Seattle: Bay Press, 1997); "Speaking to the Gay Bathhouse: Communicating in Sexually Charged Spaces," in Public Sex/Gay Space, ed. William Leap (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); "Presenting a Queer (Bath)House," in Queer Frontiers: Millennial Geographies, Genders, and Generations, ed. the Queer Frontiers Editorial Collective, et al. (Madison, WI: The University of Winsconsin Press, 2000); Henry Urbach, "Dark Lights, Contagious Space," in Intersections: Architectural Histories and Critical Theories, ed. Jane Rendell and Ian Borden (London and New York: Routledge, 2000).

7 Christopher Reed, "Imminent Domain: Queer Space in the Built Environment," Art Journal 55, no. 4 (1996): 64.

8 Henry Urbach, "Closets, Clothes, Disclosure," Assemblage, no. 30 (1996): 70.

9 Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter, eds. Queers in Space: Communities | Public Places | Sites of Resistance (Seattle: Bay Press, 1997).

10 Petra L. Doan, ed. Planning and Lgbtq Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces (New York & London: Routledge, 2015); "Beyond Queer Space: Planning for Diverse and Dispersed Lgbtq Populations," in Planning and Lgbtq Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces, ed. Petra L. Doan (New York & London: Routledge, 2015).

11 See for example Log issue 41 (with a section titled “Working Queer”) or The Funambulist issue 13 (on “Queers, Feminists & Interiors”).

Liquid Incorporated

Gabrielle Printz

Liquid Incorporated,  Headroom , Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 1995. Courtesy of Amy Landesberg and Lisa Quatrale.

Liquid Incorporated, Headroom, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 1995. Courtesy of Amy Landesberg and Lisa Quatrale.

Liquid Incorporated was a practice established in 1991 by architecture’s illegitimate daughters, Amy Landesberg and Lisa Quatrale—two women pursuing the liquefaction of a paternal profession they could never simply inherit. They were not legally incorporated (a joke or a dream or a precedent applied unscrupulously), but the corporate moniker came to define a collaborative entity that resisted the modern impulse to regenerate disciplinary concerns into a set of business protocols. Rather, in their corporate body, they attempted to dissolve the structural limits of architecture and its practice.

This wet and wild undoing of architectural subjectivity also extended to the disputed content of their domain: they embraced “merely mere” forms of architectural action through the expansion of ornament and in “minor” interior interventions. Exhibitions became an important vehicle for their work, and in the context of the gallery, their body-minded architectural gestures urged new intimacies between subjects and objects of design. The women of Liquid Inc embraced architecture in all its material possibility, privileging matter over concept while suffering no loss of the latter. It was the slippery stuff of architecture—plumbing and plaster and drapery—that attracted them. Inside wet walls and in newly conceived intimate spaces, they confronted the gendered dis-position of materials coded as feminine, inessential, unsightly, or excessive. Embracing Lilly Reich and Bruce Goff at the expense of Mies and Loos, they proceeded to indulge dissolution against canonization.

Landesberg and Quatrale formed Liquid Inc in the prescriptive disciplinary space of Yale, where they partnered as graduate students; they had both lost their mothers and grew closer around Amy’s young daughter. To the discomfort of some faculty and their peers, they banded together to elucidate a more fluid space of operation. Their (il)legitimate entity was formalized in their collaborative final project at Yale: see angel touch, a close examination of the cornice of angels on Louis Sullivan’s Bayard Building, as documented in the now twenty-year-old Architecture and Feminism anthology. Literally scanning Sullivan’s once-molten terracotta, a myopic view of thickened ornamental space, they found something they desired, “a superstitious space” in the company of angels.

After graduation, Landesberg and Quatrale went on to identify other opportunities for intervention in the marginal spaces of practice and in architecture’s marginal elements: cornices, door thresholds, modesty screens, weeping sections, expanding joints, collars for columns, desks for makeup and making up architecture, and other “incident[s] of furnishing in the unstable space.” These excesses, so called in their 1996 exhibition, were the superfluous matter arranged to loosely structure promiscuous relations between space, surface, and body. In Marilyn Kiang’s Atlanta gallery (“you know who she is”) and the private space of her office-cum-boudoir, excessive architectures take on subjective qualities, lives, ambitions, and ulterior motives of their own. Plexiglass is allowed to sink under its own gravity, and thresholds are outfitted with rubber gaskets and peacock feathers to catch passing bodies in an embrace. Their “modesty screen” reveals the body in its drawn and built states; it seems to sense, rather than simply show, what’s concealed. These exhibited designs anticipated other kinds of spatial occupations and perhaps also the unexpected content of one’s psyche, newly attuned to fluid spaces and fluid movements through them—a kind of derive in close quarters, over linoleum eskimo-kissed with eyelashes, toward a door that holds you like a keepsake.

But these were gestures with precise vocabularies. The deliberate use of text laminated into drawings and repeated in unison at lectures qualified the work and also their roles in producing it. Landesberg narrates a house—Adam’s Eye—to her daughter, and her reflections are incorporated into the narrative of the project as it’s published in ANY (No. 4, 1994). Drawings are text, annotations are structural. The scanned image performs as drawing, where section cuts open into photographs and technical details “present themselves as image,” as if of their own accord. They drew exclusively with ink on mylar, liquid on a surface that is translucent, but also reflective; it returns a gaze. Seeing these details “too close,” myopically, subverted a vision of architecture as necessarily whole, as in the humanistic tradition, and those details are recognized at points of vulnerability and instability.

In instances of building, which largely occured in the context of the gallery, they were also deliberate in their denial of structural efficiencies. Rather than performing the virtue of support, architectural objects are themselves held in a subjective embrace: there, a column is relieved of its duties and is instead held up by “a tight squeeze.” The same structural figure appears on mylar as a column of text, lived out through its own second-hand narrative. In the drawing, speculations about the columns’ gender question its classical applications: “they are usually girls, that is when ordered, well this one is pretty disorderly.”

Liquid Inc’s promiscuous architecture doesn’t reproduce feminine metaphors but instead exploits weaknesses in a discipline and profession so reliant on its preferences for masculine performance.

Their labor of dissolution did not arrive at the point of conversion where critical work yields to the compromising positions taken to forge a sustainable architectural enterprise. That is to say, their “unfirm” did not survive in Atlanta, where they worked and taught. Excluded from the arena of profit-making architecture even as they reproduced its corporate guise, Landesberg and Quatrale practiced a kind of poetry against what they saw as a violent hegemony enacted in diffuse ways throughout the making of architecture.

What kind of practice are we? Illegitimate daughters illegitimately claiming paternity. Promiscuous daughters with multiple fathers. Seeking fathers—an inevitable course in the process of architectural re-generation. Such a paternalistic discipline. Should we kill them like our modernist fathers do? Or try to fill their shoes like our classical fathers do? How do daughters claim an inheritance? Where for god’s sake are our mothers?

But in moments of solubility, at the edges of the discipline, where ornament stretches into space, where the wetness is made to spill into dry zones, a liquid practice found expression.