Writing Wikipedia entries lead Tania Davidge to consider the concept  ‘notability’, how it is constructed and what it means for women in architecture.

Wikipedia writing party in Melbourne, hosted by Sibling. Photograph Virginia Mannering.

Wikipedia writing party in Melbourne, hosted by Sibling. Photograph Virginia Mannering.

For International Women’s day, spurred on by Architexx’s Women. Wikipedia. Design. initiative, groups of committed women and men, in cities around the world, wrote women who have made significant contributions to architecture into Wikipedia. Women are notoriously underrepresented on Wikipedia and, quite frankly, looking at the long (and still incomplete) lists on Architexx and Parlour, undeservedly so.

Yet the task to write women designers into Wikipedia proved more difficult than expected. For some contributors, this was because they felt the weight of doing justice to important female figures who are ignored in traditional accounts of architectural history; for others, it was because they see many ‘notable’ women in our profession constantly overlooked by the broader canon of architecture.

It is not simple to enshrine someone on Wikipedia, which, for many reasons, is a good thing. However the concept of ‘notability’ – a key inclusion criterion for Wikipedia – is a problematic one, which deserves further unpacking. According to Wikipedia, “the person who is the topic of a biographical article should be ‘worthy of notice…'”

The Wikipedia Notability guideline for people, goes on to state encouragingly, that “‘Notable’ in the sense of being ‘famous’ or ‘popular’ – although not irrelevant – is secondary.” For Creative Professionals, such as architects, Wikipedia elaborates, advising that people are likely to be notable if:

  1. The person is regarded as an important figure or is widely cited by peers or successors.
  2. The person is known for originating a significant new concept, theory or technique.
  3. The person has created, or played a major role in co-creating, a significant or well-known work, or collective body of work. In addition, such work must have been the subject of an independent book or feature-length film, or of multiple independent periodical articles or reviews.
  4. The person’s work (or works) either (a) has become a significant monument, (b) has been a substantial part of a significant exhibition, (c) has won significant critical attention, or (d) is represented within the permanent collections of several notable galleries or museums.

These criteria are based on the already ingrained professional structures of notability in architecture. Simply put, as an architect you are deemed successful if you have a coherent, significant body of work, win awards, are the subject of independent books, films, articles and reviews, have your work exhibited and/or collected, or design buildings that will become ‘significant monuments.’

So what are women waiting for? If Wikipedia’s criteria are based on existing professional criteria – “The person is regarded as an important figure or is widely cited by peers or successors” – what is the problem? The criteria for notability are all criteria we understand as creative professionals. Perhaps women simply need to make more of an effort to address the criteria? Perhaps women in architecture need to pay more attention to marketing; they need to make sure that their work is perfectly styled and photographed beautifully, that it is reviewed by the right people for the right magazines?

Women need to nominate themselves; they need to speak publicly and enter awards because, the reality is that, the people who win the awards are the people who enter the awards. Women need to put themselves forward so that the volunteer editors who would write them into Wikipedia can build a case for their ‘notability’.

It all sounds straightforward and perhaps  women do need to pay more attention to these things. However, the reality is that the requirements for ‘notability’ are skewed before we even reach Wikipedia. Notability within the profession is constructed by the structures that make it difficult to include women in the first place.

So what does it actually take to be notable in architecture? First and foremost, you probably need to be old. A quick perusal of the Wikipedia entries for Australian architects shows that most are dead (or well into their sixth decade) and, it goes without saying, male. Architecture takes time and therefore, building a body of work also takes time. The majority of architects hit their straps in their 40s and if you are a woman who has taken time out to have children building a coherent body of work becomes more difficult. The emphasis on a coherent body of work also assumes that everyone wants to run their own practice. Our profession is built on a mythology that gives preference to the individual (st)architect and many significant women (and men) remain hidden or at least obscured by this mythology.

What of women embedded in the practices of high profile architects? Although they might be highly valued and respected members of architectural teams, their ability to be defined as architects beyond the practice they work for is difficult within the existing criteria for notability.

We need to question why is it so difficult in architecture to be notable without running your own practice. Our profession values the ‘designer’ above all others. In the stories that architecture tells to a wider audience little space is made for communicating the complexity of the profession and the many people it takes to create a truly notable building. Often the value we place on a project team is a small footnote at the end of a longer article. But, the reality is that, in addition to designers, architecture needs thinkers, technicians, detailers, communicators, coordinators and people who simply get the job done. Very few architectural projects have no additional input.

Architecture needs to increase the opportunities women have for being visible within the profession. But what form visibility takes also needs to be questioned. Architecture trades in the image – most typically the spectacular or iconic image. We need to remember that the images we make are not the most important aspects of the work we do as architects.

There are many ways to be a notable architect. We just need to broaden the criteria for notability. Women. Wikipedia. Design. begins to broaden the criteria by acknowledging women’s contributions to architecture.

Acknowledging women’s broader roles within the profession shifts architecture’s emphasis on individual notability to an understanding that to create truly notable works it takes many notable people. Notability comes in many shapes and sizes. We need to play within and without the notability structures of architecture. We need to make space for women in architecture but we also need to remember that making space for women in architecture is not always about valuing the notable in its traditional sense but also re-evaluating the definition of notability within the profession itself.