What would people say to readers of Good Weekend, should a journalist give them a call? Parlour’s open call resulted in many wonderful, nuanced, wide-ranging responses, and some alarming ones too. These are still coming in, and we will continue to add to the excellent collection below. Thanks to everyone who has contributed so far.
There is a wealth of fascinating and thoughtful comment – scroll down to read, or click on the names below to start exploring. The submitted responses are interspersed with comment made on Parlour instagram by others. Thanks to every one who contributed.
- Shannon Battisson – on Marion Mahony Griffin and the image of the architect
- Bernadette Hardy – on designing on stolen land and building everlasting connections
- Samantha Donnelly – on teaching about women in architecture
- Catriona Quinn – on nuanced understandings of modernism
- Michaela Sheahan – on having your cake and eating it too
- Alix Smith – on collaborative practice and First Nations practitioners
- Natalie Ward – on the view from abroad
- Sophie Solomon – on government, cities and architects
- Ilana Razbash – on procurement and competitions
- Michael Lewarne – on valuing everyday architecture
- Fiona Dunin – on the value of working internationally and the benefits of social media
- Bridget Nathan – on the many and varied women of Australian architecture
- Kimberley Hui – on women not seen and invitations never offered
- Helen Lochhead – on Denise Scott Brown and Groundhog Day for women in architecture
- Anonymous – on professional cultures of abuse
On Saturday 27 August, Good Weekend magazine published a long feature on architecture – 3,665 words by a writer clearly interested in Australian architecture. This was a big deal for a profession that rarely attracts mainstream media coverage outside of the real estate or property pages.
But then people started to read and to count… Within hours, Parlour’s social media was aflame. As Tania Davidge pointed out on Instagram, only four women were mentioned and only two quoted, while Helen Lochhead observed on twitter, “The article perpetuates the male hero architect whether here or abroad”.
The following week, Justine Clark used Parlour’s own instagram account to share reactions and explore the issues. It was a very lively week, with a great deal of interaction – the level of fury was, in itself, compelling. A fairly ordinary article had inadvertently lifted the lid on a vast amount of simmering discontent. The most popular post was a set of screenshots from Denise Scott Brown’s famous essay, Room at the Top: Sexism and the Star System. Published in 1989, based on a talk given in 1975, this is an excellent essay. But it is both fascinating and dispiriting that almost half a century later so many feel such an immediate connection. As Christa Elizabeth Beckmann commented on Instagram, ”This was written at the time when I was born and still; there is always that one male chauvinist client that directs all the questions and compliments only to the males in the room even though I am the one that keeps giving him the answers. 🙄 Add skin colour and an accent to being a woman and you’ll be in for a ride.”
The absence of women was infuriating – and all the more frustrating given the advocacy that has occurred in recent years within the media itself to ensure a more diverse range of voices – but the article was awash with other cliches too. (Read on to find out more!)
We also want to acknowledge those who were quoted in the article. We are aware that a number of people interviewed tried to get more women involved and recommended women to speak to. We know how weird it can be talking to journalists and that, as an interviewee, you can only check your own quotes, not the framing and the context. And some of the quoted commentary is much more sophisticated than the article that contained it. We trust that those who followed the response understand that the irritation, the disbelief and the fury is a reaction to the Groundhog-Day-ness of it all. It is about the article, not the individuals quoted therein.
The question was, how to respond productively? We asked the Parlour community what they wanted the general public to know about architecture, about the complicated connections between local and international practice, and the history of this. What about how our buildings and spaces are procured and the impact this has on the quality delivered and the life of the community within these spaces? What would people say to readers of Good Weekend, should a journalist give them a call?
A feature-length article about designing on and for Country – a revolution brewing in architecture – would have been rad. And given so many women are leading here, a more balanced gender representation would have been a no brainer.
— Sara Brocklesby
I’d love to see an article about all the ways that women architects are spearheading impactful change, for example Fiona Gray at Renew & Alexia Lidas at Passivehouse. Feel free to nominate others here. Hell, I might even pitch and write the article myself!
— Rachael Bernstone
The images we share matter. The stories we choose to celebrate shape the narrative we live and the dreams we aspire to. And we can do so much better than we are doing right now.
Having grown up in Canberra, it was impossible to escape the story of Walter Burley Griffin and his award-winning entry to design our fair city. Studying architecture, I was taught how special it was to have our nation’s capital designed by an architect who came from afar, one who had worked under the phenomenon that was Frank Lloyd Wright. The image we chose to celebrate, as both a country and a profession, is of the star who came to our little country and gave us something special. But there is something very, very wrong with that picture. Having recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marion Mahony Griffin, Walter’s partner in both life and architecture, I discovered for the first time, the real star of our story.
Marion Mahony Griffin was an absolute powerhouse of architecture. Amongst the first women to complete the architectural degree, and only the second to achieve registration in the US, Griffin was also the first ever employee of Frank Lloyd Wright. She got her then-friend Walter his job at the firm and was the incredible artist behind not only the winning drawings for the design of Canberra, but a vast number of Wright’s commissions as well. The story goes that Walter only entered the competition that would go on to define his career when Marion goaded him into it at a dinner party with friends. And it was her illustrations, her depictions of a country she had never seen, that so captured the hearts of the judges and won them the design of Australia’s new capital city.
So, as we look at the questions of starchitects, and their true value to the profession, let us also look at why we choose to immortalise the ones we do, and relegate others to the sidelines. I put it to you that all our stories would be so much richer and worth celebrating if we actually celebrated the whole story and the great many characters that went in to make it what it is – be it the story of the international import who won a competition, or the incredible array of locals who gave the design a depth and understanding possible only through the intimate knowledge of place. We need to acknowledge the whole team that brought an idea into being, versus the one that best fits the image we have been taught to see.
The truth is, architecture is only the wonder that it is when brought together by a myriad of people who bring different skills, strengths and understanding to the process. Not just the one we choose to make star.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been saddened when reading about ‘starchitects’, both local and international, designing on stolen land without Indigenous participation while, in the same breath, preaching authenticity. For me this article was no different, just more of the same ‘I’m better than you’ approach that has got us into all kinds of trouble. Tyson Yukoporta refers to this as “the Emu” in Sand Talk, a book I hope every starchitect reads before picking up another Good Weekend.
The article states that, “This sense of place – an appreciation of Indigenous history and the custodial and cultural issues it raises – has now become an elemental part of competition briefs.”
“It’s harder for the international firms to establish that connection to Country,” says Craig Allchin. “The local firms understand that better, and the more sophisticated international practices appreciate that. So local architects are shaping designs more.”
While I agree with Craig’s perspective, I challenge him and all settler architects to turn their lens around and view this through the eyes and heart of a qualified Dharug spatial designer, living on stolen land watching architects argue about who can do it better.
To put this into context, Dharug Nura (Country) spans from the fresh water of Blue Mountains to the salt water of the Coast, from the Hawkesbury in the North to Appin down South. It’s a place now known as the Sydney Basin. I *am* Country, Country speaks through me. The flora, fauna, waterways, sky, wind, sun, moon are my kin, my family, and yet her voice is not an active participant in this editorial, but rather she is spoken about as a commodity, something we sense that can shape design better by a settler rather than an offshore starchitect. We need to deeply listen, but not to humans, to Dharug Nura. Build a relationship with Nura, beyond the human experience.
Here lies my point. Country guides every major invention, from glass to the golden ratio. Water is an active participant in any building, yet the relationship an architect has with water, and the impact this building will have on Country up and down stream, remains disconnected. The responsibility and knowing doesn’t sit with the hydrologist. Country is as far as one can sense; the building and its tenants have the capacity to be custodians of Place but it requires the architect to step off their tier, to build a relationship with all that Country is, beyond the human, and plan for seven generations ahead – as our ancestors always did. This is designing for a ‘sense of place’ with Indigenous history, beyond the human because our Dreaming is still happening and our Dreaming is forever.
Dharug Country tells me she is lonely and, from what I can feel, so are people. How can architecture, this incredible tool, become a conduit for healing, for a Dharug vernacular to be born, led by Dharug Nura as the guide, the lead hero guiding the starchitect!
Perhaps if we are brave enough to come together and braid two ways of being we won’t be competing in design competitions and writing articles that jar the senses with an ‘I’m better than you’, but rather we will be designing for belonging, where not only humans are important but non-humans (flora, fauna etc) and more-than-human (water, sun, moon, wind etc) are considered equally in the sense of place and design process, so that no-one is left behind.
A starchitect who wants to build an everlasting connection with Dharug waterways of Western Sydney, which are in dire straits, to see the eel fare and reach her Dreaming, knowing that these waterways will service the building that will change the landscape forever and be branded as their creation, the one who made a difference and saw the eel return to its belonging. That’s the kind of starchitect that would make ancestors proud. That’s the kind of starchitect my father would want me to partner with, and one worth writing home about!
A few years ago, I gave a lecture on Eileen Gray’s house, called E-1027, in an undergraduate architecture course. The lecture focused on the intersection of gender and design, and celebrated Gray’s ability to work across the disciplines of architecture, building, and interiors and furniture design with an almost hedonistic approach to perfection. She was not distracted by critics’ opinions, nor was she deterred from working in an almost exclusively male environment. I felt it was important to show students an alternative to the cavalry of dead-white-and-usually-European blokes that were rolled out every semester as examples of design luminaries in design and history subjects. I hoped the lecture might incite questions about gender in architecture, or at least arguments about who decides what constitutes a legend.
I talked about Le Corbusier’s obsession with E-1027 and showed that irrevocable image of him standing butt-naked, paintbrush poised, in front of one of the murals he had contributed to the project. Many students left the auditorium at this point, and I noted the front row of academics were busy with their own chatter, oblivious to the lecture content and the students’ exodus. I will never know whether it was nudity, boredom, or defiance that derailed the lecture. It taught me a valuable lesson in marking territory and interfering with canons, but also making clear to students the issues with not speaking up and making change.
Almost 15 years after the Architecture + Feminism Roundtable held at RMIT, we are still asking about the place of women in architecture in media and practice. But my lectures continue to focus on examples of architecture, interiors and landscapes produced by women, and Australians. Examples of local talents are not hard to find – there is diverse talent out there if you look carefully.
Our future practitioners deserve to be exposed to gender-inclusive projects and other ways of being in the world. Hopefully some will find their way into journalism, to write more equitable accounts of people who design places we live in. May their words be louder and more accurate than the tired old accounts of jobs by the boys. It’s time.
I think it’s always useful to remind editors/writers, etc that in large part, their responsibility is to a next generation. If they publish articles without role models they are contributing to the serious issue ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ for our would-be future architects. If they complain that they can’t ‘find’ any non-white, non-male identifying people to interview, they are simply compounding the problem. It’s not difficult – they just plan ahead and try harder.
— Sarah Lappin, instagram
The reductive public narrative of Harry Seidler as heroic introducer of modernism to a parochial, peripheral, postwar Australia is as tedious as it is outdated. The field, and Seidler himself, deserves a more nuanced context. Good Weekend readers might like to know that numerous interactions by Australian architects with modernism in the 1920s and 30s, and the arrival of a diversity of pre-war immigrant designers, meant there were already many changes in building and design. When Rose Seidler house was acquired by the Historic Houses Trust (now Sydney Living Museums) in the late 1980s, it was viewed within the Trust as a springboard to telling a multiplicity of histories about postwar houses, but evidently it has been a struggle for alternative narratives of 20th century design to break through.
What I’d really like readers to chew over is the way modernism in the built environment seems always to be couched through architecture and individual architects, especially the male stars of the International Style. Platonic permanence fetish is not the only lens by which to understand the modern. The jury is in on the early presence of modernism outside high art and architecture. Evidence tells us this was mediated through women’s bodies, women’s spaces, women’s lives – the so-called feminine fields of fashion, design, craft and interior decoration. All were fundamental to the growing concept of modern life in Australia.
My PhD findings showed that repetitive narratives crafted around dominant figures do not enrich our histories or encourage complex understandings of the past; they deprive us of all the colour, nuance and variety that is there to be found, if we only look.
I’d like to put forward the argument that it is historical frameworks themselves that are in need of an overhaul, rather than just replacing one heroic figure for another. We need to reassess and revalue living spaces as collaborative locales created by multiple contributors, including designers, decorators, retailers, clients, home owners and home makers, disrupting the tired story of the individual author and opening a far richer historical view.
Thanks for the opportunity to put my two cents worth in – I was so bamboozled by the article, but didn’t feel compelled to contribute until you made it so easy!
Apart from all the obvious misgivings of gender representation, starchitect terminology and a distinct Sydney/NSW emphasis, I found the Good Weekend article profoundly compromised in complaining about international architects coming here with their wares whilst praising the Australian practices who have delivered work overseas. Cake and eat it?
On the positive side, the article “‘It’s a terrible syndrome’: What’s with our love of international ‘starchitects’?” (The Age, 27/8/22) is a very rare example of accessible discourse about the current state of the industry. Sadly, however, it simplifies and misunderstands many truths about working as an architect in Australia today.
The first, most obvious and most heartbreaking exclusion is the mention of any female architects, either local or international. As a female architect it’s painful to even have to point this out, so to explain any further why this is problematic is too exhausting.
The article is critical of the “starchitect model” which, to be fair, is a model that has a long history of success and appropriate application, but it fails to explain the nature of the alternative.
Collaborative practices constitute a huge portion of the architectural industry in Australia (the practice where I work, being one of these). To ignore this is to ignore that most architectural teams, especially on public projects, are driven by a diverse range of people, representing a huge range of lived experiences.
Australian cities (just like all great cities) are both global and local. While the balance of the article references many internationally designed (or led) buildings, in reality there is a much more appropriate proportion of both local and global authorship in our cities. The article also fails to credit the local collaborators who work with the international designers. To become extreme and territorial in the development of our cities only excludes our right to be global citizens, an uncomfortable notion if we also wish to purport that Australian architecture has any value in an international context.
At Hassell, as a global practice that was born in Australia, we’re constantly grappling with this notion. In Australia we’re often seen as the “local practice” and are asked to partner with a global practice. Or, we’re seen as “global” and are asked to team with “hyper local” smaller practices (which begs the question, are we meant to assume designers in small practices have only ever worked where they were born or first practiced and can never grow beyond this?). In an international context, the dynamic can shift again. In China, for example, we are seen as the “international practice” in any design team. Having worked under the alias of all of these identities, I believe all have value in enriching the design process, but I must also contemplate that all of this categorisation wildly underestimates the complexity and nuance of the experience each individual designer on a team may bring to a project, regardless of their birthplace or home address.
Perhaps most importantly, any discussion about an appropriate balance of “global” and “local” becomes truly irrelevant when we acknowledge that in fact all of our cities are built on stolen land, including a shockingly large proportion of current projects that are carried out without sufficient involvement, co-design or even consultation with relevant First Nations groups and bodies.
To make a reference in the article to “an Indigenous style”, then go on in the same paragraph to only mention non-Indigenous Australian practitioners from the last four decades is, to say the least, extremely disappointing. This does not even begin to adequately respect or represent the diversity of the oldest living culture in the world, or the brilliance and tenacity of the First Nations architects and design consultants in Australia currently practicing and tirelessly advocating for a richer and truer built environment for us all to enjoy.
I would like to add my initial thoughts from reading this article as an Australian architect practicing outside Australia.
The practice of employing a ‘foreign’ architect as the principal designer assisted by a local architect is increasingly common across the world. This is not so much a reflection of the strength of the local architecture profession in a particular country, it is more often the case that a particular developer or international company has a preferred architect that they have engaged on previous projects in various countries.
When it comes to developing a project in Australia, the key to the success of the project often rests on the synergy between the principal design architect and the local architect who helps them navigate the various local planning and construction codes, and provides the locally based staff to deliver the project documentation and site supervision.
This is a reality of the current international design, development and construction market. It is true that there are many world class architects and architecture practices in Australia and we should celebrate those who have found success in delivering outstanding projects both within and outside Australia.
There is nothing stopping Australian architects from themselves becoming the principal designer on projects overseas, and in fact many of them have found this informs and enriches the projects they design for the Australian market.
There is, of course, the issue of designing on and for Country. However, this could be addressed by ensuring all major projects require the involvement of an Indigenous design agency.
Rather than being protectionist about our local architecture talent, we could instead view it as an export product that raises awareness about the innovation and creativity that we all know the Australian architecture community has in abundance.
This article is beyond cringeworthy. It is sensational journalism that fails to recognise the achievements of so many Australian architects, and distracts from the very real challenges facing our cities and the profession.
What needs to be brought to the attention of the general public is the fact that in New South Wales we have a Minister for Planning who has openly said that architects should not be involved in the planning of the city. To me, this is beyond outrageous.
The way our city grows and evolves is so much more than the individual building, and far more important.
It is bizarre to say we, as a nation, are obsessed with Starchitects. I would suggest, instead, that we are a nation with little awareness of architects at all. By reiterating the clichés, this type of journalism is a distraction that does not help further our cause, and that of our cities, at all.
It’s good that it raises so many questions while making the blood boil.
The Good Weekend article was not easy reading, and the deep troubling feeling it provoked did not pass with each re-read. So much written out. So much unsaid. So much that the public deserves to know about the work, passion, bravery and innovation of talented Australian architects. They will write to you too, I’m sure of that. We cannot keep silent in such moments.
My rebuttal is considered through the lens of procurement. To truly understand the issues affecting Australian architects we must look at the watershed – the very beginning of the process. The matters touched on in the article, particularly relating to Government projects and poorly run competitions, are an example of some of this nation’s worst practices and procurement decisions. The Government, across all the scales, is the largest client in the country and yet they rarely follow their own guidelines and best practice recommendations – such as Government as Smart Client, a comprehensive and plain language guideline for better procurement practice published by the Office of the Victorian Government Architect.
It was particularly concerning to read the hyper-focus on competitions as the only suggested vehicle for producing noteworthy architecture. This is misleading to the public, as both everyday building users and consumers of architectural services. Ironically, the author applied the same starstruck fixation to the competition model that they were attempting to debunk. It is, of course, a tempting trap that continues to be offered as a means of creating major or noteworthy public buildings. However, the public deserves to know at what cost. Competitions are often exclusionary, involving highly selective criteria that greatly reduce the diversity in participants, and thereby, the final (un)built outcome. Young practices, small firms, students and women are most commonly locked out. Historically, many major competitions have been unpaid or even carry expensive entry fees – a gamble that only large firms staffed with a plethora of young interns and graduates are able to take. Further to utterly undervaluing design services and architectural thinking, unpaid competitions have for decades fuelled the fires of toxic and abusive studio cultures. Long unpaid overtime, all-nighters and the high pressure exploitation of poorly remunerated architectural workers are relied upon – all to get the submission ready for the entry deadline. This is a terrible business model through which very few people win. Everyone pays a price for procurement decisions, but especially those who spend three to four years of their life trying to bring a building into existence.
The focus of competitions and high-profile developer-driven skyscrapers further alienates the public from architectural services. Everybody deserves a safe, comfortable, beautiful home. A healthy and productive workplace. A well-presented small business shop front. I would have loved to instead read about the hundreds of my colleagues producing small meaningful projects with humble budgets for everyday ordinary people. Or architects who offer consulting services in a GP-style model for when clients don’t need a whole new building – just some advice and a few hours of their time. Sure, if you want to talk about the big and shiny stuff, let’s discuss the innovation and huge project delivery that has occurred through unique Australian style Alliancing. Or how about the advancements made in fabrication and materials technology through research in our world-leading architecture schools and research units; augmented reality bricklaying and component assembly, robotics and 3D printing?
Despite a continuous stream of challenges in an increasingly complex and risk-loaded procurement environment, Australian architects are doing excellent work. Clear the path forward towards a better, more inclusive, equitable and sustainable built environment by tackling the real cause of our industry’s dilemmas – poor procurement practice. The rest will follow.
When we give our attention away to what amounts to little more than concerns of celebrity or image, giving our attention to studies of trophy houses or confected archi-spectacles, we diminish what architects do. We diminish what it takes to realise architecture. We diminish the challenge, the care and thoughtful effort that goes into the work.
We diminish the role architecture plays in our lives.
I’m reminded of writer Ann Beattie’s observation, “People forget years and remember moments.”
Most will recall a memory of their first time glimpsing a glowing Sydney Opera House. We’d also recall a time of being drenched, searching for a gallery entry as hail dints off Rubenesque zinc fabulations. And even more so the delight of sitting in a window seat, holiday novel in hand, sun to our back and our tea sitting beside us on a thoughtfully placed shelf.
There’s a humility to the best architecture. It arrives in moments spent, not images sold.
Sure, it’s less sexy to talk about, and almost impossible to capture in our age of Insta-fame. But novelists do this all the time. Turning the extraordinary ordinary into an experience of the mind. This is the best architecture and architects do this every day too. Yes, it’s the starchitects and the preening buildings that get the attention, but the important work, the work that really matters from architects, is humbly in the service of people, place and planet.
“People forget years and remember moments.”
It’s an extraordinary skill to take oft competing concerns of councils, codes, construction and clients, weaving them together into a humble whole. Realising something with moments of absolute delight in architecture, living in more than memory.
Might we, for a moment, forget the constellations and give our focus instead to what we take delight from in our every day? When we do so, recall that this gift of delight might have been given us with intention and with care. Designed that way. With humility.
There are so many different things to consider. I welcome international architects working here and partnering with local firms. Australian firms can offer local insights while the international firms can provide a new perspective to local conditions. It enriches our environment. If everyone is open to collaboration it can produce some rich and unique outcomes. But it depends on the firms involved. It can fail if the international firm simply wants to impose their architectural style or brand onto the Australian environment without consideration of local climate, culture and history; then the result can be quite shallow.
But what about exporting Australian firms? Our architecture is highly regarded and many firms are working overseas producing exceptional architecture. We need to acknowledge this and realise the possibilities to export our intellectual property on both small and large scales. Personally, in our practice we are working both ways. Since COVID and with our social media presence we are attracting collaborations throughout Asia, the US and Europe, working on a range of submissions large and small. I have spent many a lockdown night learning new languages to work with our partners! It’s just a matter of confidence and belief that your design ability matches any of the international firms, and we are producing some incredible projects that we would never be considered for in Australia due to preconceived ideas as to who we are and what we do. In this sense, working internationally has opened up doors for us that we would never have thought possible here.
Over the last 20 years the perception and appreciation of the starchitects has shifted with the onset of social media. Previously most exposure to architects was limited to print articles, so magazine and book publishers shaped what architecture we were exposed to. Many lesser-known firms were not able to showcase their work and ethos to a large audience. Now, there are endless possibilities for architects to gain exposure to a larger audience, both locally and internationally. There are strong parallels with the music industry, with the arrival of online platforms allowing young unknowns to gain exposure in ways never previously possible, due to the limited vision of record labels and radio stations. This is a good development, even if some of the starchitects (not naming names) thinks this is the death of quality architecture. I love discovering new firms producing beautiful work in countries I never expected without all the ego and hot air of the starchitects!
I know how hard it is to make public comment but the reality is that many of the men mentioned in this article were not even quoted – they were just mentioned as part of the canon. There are so many Australian women architects that could have been brought into the article.
So what if the women who were contacted decided they didn’t want to comment. It’s not like their hard work and their buildings don’t speak for themselves! (Really, I am still very angry…ffs)
— Tania Davidge, instagram
Many elements of this article perpetuate the idea that architecture is created by a man with short hair wearing a shirt – including the cover art. Scrolling through, the only image I see of a woman is in an advert for a clothing brand – ironically she doesn’t look too happy. Imagery aside, I believe the issue raised is greater than requesting that one of these men should have been a woman. The article is so filled with references to architecture attributed to men, that it would have needed to be quite a different piece of writing to accurately represent the industry and women’s current and past contributions. Through my experiences as an architect and in running The Doyenne Interviews, a podcast that features conversations with creative women, I am developing the viewpoint that no one should be included as an ‘add on’ to a conversation. This is something I seek to cultivate through inviting people with a variety of experience levels, backgrounds and personality types; women who are different to one another. I believe in doing so. It makes for a better show, because architecture relates very much to the world around us and to the variety of experiences we have as people. Several outstanding independent media platforms such as Parlour, Madame Architect, The BCW, Design Voice Podcast and Gazella are sharing stories of women in design and construction. It’s not that women are contributing every now and then to architecture. We are very much part of the process. Therefore, it seems simple to me that mainstream media should follow suit.
How shall I put it? As a fresh graduate – a woman as well – I sometimes struggle to resonate with the ‘starchitects’ featured in the media. As much as I appreciate the celebration of everyone’s achievements, it is disheartening to see the lack of women being acknowledged, let alone thinking about how women writing about women are also lacking in the mainstream media.
Often, whenever women are mentioned, they are tied to something maternal – to being a mother, or a wife. Somehow, we are still strongly tied to domesticated terminologies, our identities pigeon-holed. As much as I understand that these roles can be accomplishments in themselves, it would be nice if they were introduced as such. After all, we too want to be recognised for the work we’ve done professionally. We have been at the forefront of many changes, yet these are often squashed, if not posed as another’s idea. We still have a long way to go.
There is also one thing I’d like to stress. As a woman of Asian descent, living in Australia for many years now, I am still searching the pages of mainstream media in the hope that women who share similar cultures will appear. It’s nice to hear their voices coming from other hidden places that we have created for ourselves, but I am still waiting, with much patience, for someone to write about us. Or to extend a hand to us when we put ourselves out there. It’s the sad irony, given that the mainstream media should reflect our current community, which is rather multicultural, that we are still witnessing the dated representation of Caucasian men, while the rest of us are left waiting on the margins. Even if we offer ourselves, the invitation has yet to be received.
In 2013, I was at a breakfast gathering of Women in Design at Harvard University, with the eminent architect, planner and writer Denise Scott Brown as the guest speaker. She was surrounded by the best and the brightest young women graduate students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Scott Brown described her remarkable achievements and the professional hurdles she had faced, most notably being sidelined by the Pritzker Prize jury when her professional and life partner Robert Venturi was awarded the prize in 1999, without her. As she spoke, many younger women expressed their challenges to achieve equality and recognition and I felt I was experiencing a Groundhog Day moment. What had changed in 50 years? Why were we still talking about this?
For 30 years now, women have graduated in approximately equal numbers from architecture schools, but there is huge attrition. While there has been progress, women are still being overlooked and facing unacceptable barriers to equal professional opportunities and recognition.
Awareness and education, including informed media coverage, are crucial to meaningful policy shifts, behavioural change, and to consciousness-raising more broadly. Work in recent years by Parlour and others – including the Engaging Women in the Built Environment public program established at UNSW – shows that the paradigm can shift when we mobilise and work collectively.
To face today’s challenges, architectural practice needs to include and acknowledge all talent and their contributions. In the long run, this will make for more resilient organisations and a better, more inclusive built environment that reflects the complexity of all the actors who shape it, not just the frontman.
In a bittersweet postscript to Denise Scott Brown, the 2020 Pritzker Prize was awarded for the first time to an architectural partnership, in which not one but both partners were women: Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects. Denise Scott Brown is still waiting…
The only newspaper article I want to see in The Age is about the urgent need for investigation from an independent review commission into extreme violence and professional incompetency that actively enables violence and abuse in architecture.