Rosemary Burne offers reflections and perspectives on the changing nature of gender politics in architecture.
The other week I was having a coffee catch-up with an old colleague, and she happened to mention that only 4% of women in architecture are over 60 years of age. This is a remarkable statistic. I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I am proud that I have made 20+ years in practice and in all likelihood will eventually be counted in that statistic, but, on the other hand, I am perplexed. I recall that when I used to teach in the Department of Architecture at RMIT during the 90s some 50% of the student cohort were women. Thinking further back, when I was a student of architecture, we were taught that architects generally didn’t start doing their best work until they hit their 50s, with architects Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright frequently cited as noteworthy examples. The Italian female architect famous for her museums and art galleries, Gae Aulenti, didn’t rate a mention though. When I started studying architecture at the Canberra College of Advanced Education there were three women in our class of around 30 students. However, at the end of the first tier of the course we all transferred – me to complete my studies at RMIT in Melbourne, while the other two women went off to Sydney to complete theirs.
Those numbers and circumstances set me thinking about the ways in which gender politics in architecture have been transitioning over the last 20+ years. I am no gender warrior – that’s not to say I haven’t been in the past (yes, I have had moments of wanting to join SCUM – otherwise known as the Society for Cutting Up Men). My own view and experience is that one’s successes or how one fares in life is a cocktail of many, many things, luck being one. But it may also include any or all of the following: age, class, gender, race, personality and even looks. In her final address to the nation, Australia’s first female prime minister Julia Gillard noted that ‘gender doesn’t explain everything, nor does it explain nothing’.
And so too gender politics would have undoubtedly played a part in my career, but more fascinating to me is the significance of gender within our wider cultural discourses and how this has impacted in other ways on the practice of architecture.
Culture shifts and transformation
Architecture has traditionally been described as ‘the most useful of the arts’ (Marcus Pollio Vitruvius) or, more recently, ‘the mother of the arts’ (Frank Lloyd Wright). These are apt descriptions that persist within the range of our definitions of architecture today – but curiously these are gendered descriptions. Mothers are the source of all nourishment and protection and they have strong connotations of the homey, comfortable, functional and familiar – of belonging to the domestic.
When I began as an architecture student we were still riding on the master narrative of modernism. Modernism had been delivered under a heroic social agenda off the back of an industrial post-war economy. Under modernism, God figured heavily and building typologies and programs favoured the monumental, ceremonial, corporate, institutional and, of course, the machine – with buildings commonly conceived as efficient and functional machines driven by plant, capital and labour or manpower. But at the outset of my education, the narrative of modernism was beginning to be interrupted – first, by passive environmental pursuits and then, more radically, by postmodernism. Over the past 20+ years, however, change has gained momentum and we have seen a massive cultural shift as a result of the digital or technological revolution. As the developed and developing world shifts from an industrial economy to a new knowledge economy, the way we operate, our language and our way of seeing is rapidly being transformed.
Over the course of my career the world has moved from a 2D binary view to a multi-dimensional and diverse view of the world. We have moved from fixed and static spaces to continuous and connected spaces. Our visual vocabulary has expanded and is much more inclusive. For example, we no longer have just place and space; we also have experience. Our workplaces, our institutions (think airports, hospitals, university campuses, banks, courthouses or offices) now provide a multitude of domesticated, welcoming and friendly comfort zones. We have flexible and boundless spaces and we speak of connectivity and community. Collaboration and consultation is the order of the day, along with openness and transparency. Environmental concerns are firmly back on the agenda and issues of sustainability are now being extended to incorporate the concept of healthy buildings that are embedded within the wider urban context of healthy communities. And, of course, we no longer operate within a local market, but are part of a dynamic global economy.
The traditional 2D binary logic is a logic of opposites: male/female, black/white, inside/outside, science/art, mind/body, etc, etc. In a world with a multi-dimensional view there is much more equality and less differentiation – less privileging of the traditionally dominant paradigms. As the master narratives of mainstream modernism as we knew them collapse, we find that as architects we now design places, spaces and experiences that move seamlessly across the flexing boundaries between passive/active, inside/outside, work/leisure, public/private, virtual/real, formal/informal, traditional/contemporary, etc. The land of the domestic and the suburban is fully captured. Thankfully we are now much more sophisticated in our interpretation of the domestic so we design diverse experiences where people can simply zone in or zone out, in comfort.
The cold, hard facts
From a gender perspective, the visual language of architecture is profoundly more inclusive and expansive. However, when it comes to the day-to-day reality for practising women architects, change in the workplace has been, by comparison, glacial. The principle of meritocracy has generally failed us, because unfortunately unconscious bias lives on. However, the male Champions of Change initiative and the work of the Parlour and NAWIC teams are speeding up our long-awaited change. We are now on course, careering into the future.
God is still in the details, where females earn 20% less than their male counterparts, they retire with 50% less superannuation, and they are significantly under-represented in the upper levels of the profession. This is concerning but I am happy that architecture will persist unchallenged as the most useful of the arts and as the mother of all art, allowing all that heartfelt energy, wisdom and optimism to fully function for the greater good.
Should we look in the mirror or should we look out a window? With 20+ years behind me, I prefer to look out a window.
Rosemary Burne has been a continuously practicing and registered architect in the state of Victoria for over 20 years. Over the course of her career she has developed extensive expertise in research, quality design and design excellence, project leadership and consultation and is highly competent across a range of building scales and building types within many sectors including health, education, justice and residential. Rosemary ensures that she establishes strong and productive relationships with clients, project managers, consultants and builders, which influences better project outcomes. She particularly enjoys contributing to the public realm of architecture working on large and highly complex projects as well as being involved with the education of younger architects.